Flies and empathy

The flies began to land on our bicycles and bodies as soon as we passed this stained outcrop in Karamoja, Uganda

Tsetse flies became more interesting when I turned my research into real-life experience (1,300 words). 

At first the only silver lining of cycling through tsetse fly territory in Uganda was achieving presence. The effects of audiobook mindfulness courses paled in comparison. My universe shrunk to the space between my pinky finger and its sudden sharp pinch, and my ass like a staging area for more opponents preparing. There was nothing beyond the present moment, keeping my bicycle straight while swatting, trying to accelerate over the crest of the gravel rise. At this moment, Evan kicked my back panniers, both to disperse the flies and to help me accelerate down the hill to out cycle them. Neither goal was achieved.

It was a presence that felt like insanity. My aversions disappeared. Diving into the bushes seemed like a great idea, snakes and spiders and thorns forgotten. Others have donned rain gear in tropical weather. Anything to keep the flies at bay, because DEET seems to do little.

It is an insanity, but a temporary one for the traveller. The humming crowds of tsetse that lurk in corners of rumbling safari vehicles become anecdotes to be dispatched when a friend suggests your safari must have been sooo luxurious. And cycling through tsetse territory becomes an exciting blog post, another one of Africa’s many blights conquered.

More can be made of these experiences if they are kept in mind.

Before the trauma, I had read widely about tsetse because I was writing an article about them. This isn’t the norm, most travellers have no need to go beyond what their guidebook says about the flies. Let me tell you, extensive research isn’t required. A single bite is enough to develop greater empathy and understanding towards the landscapes and residents affected by tsetse flies.


Sprinters, tsetse flies can fly 11-24 km/h for very short distances and they don’t even need to. They simply hitch on your panniers and wait. When you are too tired or the road prevents you from moving quickly, they launch themselves forward onto your face, trunk and extremities. Attempts to land a terminating smack are like trying to burst unshelled sunflower seeds with an outstretched palm like a spatula.

When I speak of empathy, there’s little for the flies. It’s empathy for people’s responses, which I used to judge as complacent.

How do people manage to get bitten if the bites are so painful?’ I wondered. ‘Smack them dead, as soon as you feel them land or certainly the second you’re bitten, so there’s less chance of the parasites infecting you!’ Tsetse flies are more than nuisances. Some transmit trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness). Recently most casualties have been in the DRC, but epidemics have struck different places in Sub-Saharan Africa over the last century.

A woman with no hands free to swat tsetse flies, in northern Uganda

Alana Sheik talks about taking your oral rehydration salts — that we expect people at risk to conform with long lists of preventative health measures, without imagining what perfect compliance looks like for them. Condoms every single time with a resistant partner, gallons of gross sugar-salt water to treat dehydration, never getting bitten by things that may kill you. There is not a single preventative health measure that I follow consistently in risky areas, despite being moderately educated about them and financially able to purchase the necessary stuff to protect myself.

Did we use the mosquito nets this night? NO! Too hot. Regret later, but it wasn’t the last time.

And what to do, swat constantly like a maniac when it isn’t even effective? When residents are faced with tsetse infestation, I can expect little from them beyond the morose resignation that I felt after only a few minutes playing pin cushion. So kudos to those who brave bites while they pursue other methods of reducing the flies. Clearing brush and forest is better than swatting.

Just as I had misunderstood how people get bitten so often, the ugly landscapes that result from reducing tsetse fly territory were also easy to judge before I had the context.


Nearly a year has passed since I visited northern Uganda and tried to flee its tsetse, so let me use our recent visit to Zambia’s Great East Road to illustrate deforestation.

Maybe it was just because I was reading The Road, but the landscape felt freshly apocalyptic, corpses of trees still smouldering. You could smell it and you could see its more obvious purpose, the sacks of homemade charcoal piled along the roadside for sale.

Deforestation reduces wildlife habitat, reduces CO2 uptake, makes slopes more vulnerable to landslides and erodes economic opportunities for future generations. With these consequences in mind, it’s easy to deride all types of deforestation.

Clearing brush and in some cases forest to combat tsetse preys on their vulnerabilities. The flies and I share a love of shade! They rest to digest meals, to avoid the heat of the day and their predators, to wait for warm bodies to hone in on. Clearing vegetation by roadsides and river crossing, areas with high human and animal traffic, has long been used to manage tsetse infestations and discourage their return.

Learning this helped me to see these charred landscapes a bit differently, to wonder if the devastation may represent a community making a difficult decision, perhaps between less flies and more grazing for their livestock.

Tsetse are hard to get a good look at, skittish and sneaky unless it’s cold out. The slash and burn is one way to see their presence, if only by proxy. You also see their effects in what isn’t visible, what never was.


Where are the Mayan pyramids or the Angkor Wats of Sub-Saharan Africa? Evan recently said there’s simply no equivalent. ’Not quite,’ I ventured, ’there’s Great Zimbabwe…which is kind of similar, I think?’

What prevented ancient civilizations on the sub-continent from putting down as many brick-and-mortar roots (if you will) as in South America and East Asia? We speculate on this gargantuan topic, armchair historians on saddles instead of couches: ‘Corruption! Colonization! Tribalism! Slave Trade! Resource Curse! Human Nature! Tropical Diseases!’

About that last one, tropical diseases: Two days in tsetse territory was more than enough for us. In the following months we changed our plans to avoid other infested areas, and it’s not like we had any cows to protect from the disease. Our experiences make it easier to fathom their historical significance.

Large tracts of usable land, infested with tsetse, were historically avoided to protect human and animal lives. Physician and economist Marcella Aslan recently tried to quantify the effects of this avoidance. This Quartz article summarizes her findings, that the flies might have been a key factor in the underdevelopment of Sub-Saharan Africa prior to colonization.

Trying in vain to out cycle tsetse flies

Just bashing these tsetse flies every which way! Like all of nature their effects are nuanced. One of my favourite passages from Seeing Like A State is both obvious and revelatory:

‘The vocabulary used to organize nature typically betrays the overriding interests of its human users…Highly valued animals become “game” or “livestock,” while those animals that compete with or prey upon them become “predators” or “varmints.’

Even within this value system, tsetse flies aren’t entirely deserving of disdain for they have brought us value as well! They’ve kept certain wild areas wild. This blog post frames the tsetse as sentinels of Botswana’s famous Okavango Delta, preventing it from being used for livestock grazing.

I’m no glutton for punishment—we are definitely continuing our strategy of avoidance, and this means we fall short of real affinity with the millions at risk of disease and irritation. I couldn’t squeeze the flies to death as I’d wished, but I was able to coax some value out of moments I hated.



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