By Professor Sarah Cleaveland
Mugumu is a small town on the edge of the Serengeti National Park that has been home to our zonooses research for many years. The pace of change has been dramatic, from the early days when migrating wildebeest herds would occasionally be seen galloping through the centre of town, to the urbanising bustle of today’s district centre, with new businesses, buildings and half-laid foundations now reaching far out into the bush.
I vividly remember the swell of excitement on the last occasion I saw the wildebeest migration in Mugumu (while waiting by the bank to change some money!) – the whistles, shouts and ululations as people ran after the herd trying to run down some of the stragglers. A chance for cheap meat!
There was a similar sense of excitement when we arrived in Mugumu this week, with the election votes now cast and the town waiting expectantly for the constituency results. After a fiercely contested election, the opposition party had, for the first time, a chance of winning the seat.
We were in Mugumu for discussions with the team working on the ZELS trypanosomiasis project (Life on the Edge: tackling human African trypanosomiasis on the edge of wilderness areas, led by Professor Steve Torr of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine).
We are hoping to link up the field platforms set up for sampling tsetse flies (for trypanosomiasis) with the project of the PhD student (James Nyarobi), who is working on our disease drivers project and who will be trapping mosquitoes for Rift Valley fever (RVF) studies. While the traps are different, the sites where the trypanosomiasis project is working are also ideal for James to look at factors affecting mosquito distributions and RVF virus infection patterns in areas at the livestock-wildlife interface.
After the ZELS meeting, our post-doc Will de Glanville, James and I ended up stranded in the town centre while a broken exhaust was being inspected by local mechanics. The timing was not ideal – word was starting to spread that election results were soon to be announced and ripples of anticipation grew as crowds gathered.
But the mood was relaxed – a good-humoured sense of excitement coupled with intense interest in the outcome. Out of nowhere, we heard shots being fired. Not gunshots, but a deeper sound, as armed police fired teargas to disperse the swelling crowds. The firing continued for several minutes and police vans roared through the streets at high speed with alarms wailing.
In any other country, I imagine this police action could easily incite anger and rioting. Not in Mugumu. The mood never changed. There were no screams, no shouts. Calm good nature prevailed.
The mechanics continued to tinker with our exhaust, the usual gaggle of observers leaned nonchalantly on the car, and the garage proprietor smiled benignly as he urged us not be afraid, but also – somewhat embarrassed by the disruption – ‘Pole na boom boom!’ he said, meaning ‘sorry for the boom boom!’
I left Mugumu with a new sense of respect for Tanzania’s people – a remarkable, resilient and very kind people. Despite all the problems the country faces, its people are surely its greatest asset, and I hope that whichever party and whoever comes to power as president, they will work to provide the opportunities and progress that these people so richly deserve.
Oh, and since my previous blog, it has started raining. Only in the northwest and so far nothing very different to the normal ‘short rains’. But enough to tempt the wildebeest south from Kenya into the Serengeti and enough, we hope, for our team to start catching mosquitoes when they head to the villages again next week.