Into and Out of Africa

Uganda, Kenya and the Congo

Nairobi Nights

I had spent the last seven hours issuing threatening glares to the rambunctious SpongeBob SquarePants kid “seated” behind me who had Riverdanced on the back of my seat from Toronto to Amsterdam. Luckily I was able to turn my fixation to the burning sky of electric orange and grapefruit-flesh pink as the plane chased an eternal sunset. Crossing time zones at 800km/hour allows for such remarkable displays, creating skyscapes suitable for inspirational posters. The clouds looked like they could be walked upon, billowy white like my great-grandmother’s hair in the morning, and then, to the west–ribbed like sand from ebbing ocean waters.

My fidgety seatmate was like a Jack Russell, minus her tongue up my nostrils and exploring my ear canals. She was deaf in one ear, and because I am a fantastic mumbler, she quickly gave up on communication with me and read all the information tucked in the seat pocket in front of her, including the barf bag and how to exit the plane in case of emergency. Is that even an option?

The KLM flight attendants were as lovely and manicured as Bob Barker’s Price is Right wing-women. They passed out smoked almonds with pearly smiles, and I shot a pearly smile back. Thank god for European airlines and their pooh-pooh reaction to the peanut allergies that have created frantic high-alerts in North American elementary schools and airlines (who serve garlicky Bits & Bites as a shoddy substitute). Now, even packages of peanuts come with disclaimers: “This product may contain nuts.” And everything that doesn’t have an iota of a relationship with peanuts, like popsicles and tampons, also come with a disclaimer, “This product may have come in contact with tree nuts or dairy.”

When the plane touched down at Schipol in Amsterdam at 6 a.m., anticipation, the fuel of dreams, longing, cravings and travel, percolated under my skin that was beginning to feel like ever-tightening sausage casing. My whole body had become a whoopee cushion of puffiness. The blood that should have been inching towards my feet was leaking into my eyes, making them as pink as an albino rat’s.

My head had felt like a shook-up snow globe since I left Abbotsford on June 22nd, and now, finding myself on the Leidesplein in Amsterdam, walking through extended whiffs of skunky pot, calm was returning. I didn’t even care that I spent most of my day completely lost. I had 12 hours before my flight to Kenya, and I didn’t stop walking for 10 of them. I tried slimy smoked eel and cod at a herring shack near the Singel canal, had a sleeve of Palm and a “tosti” (poor excuse for a grilled cheese) along another houseboat-studded canal and poked around some supermarkets in between (discovering Paprika Lays potato chips, cans of already mixed gin and tonic and brie wheels as big as the tires on my Suzuki). I wrote reassuring postcards to indicate my aliveness to potentially fretting family members and Wanda, walked through the Red Light District with a non-averted gaze and took a cruise along the ambient canals in a four-language guided tour. At this point my head was snapping back uncontrollably in a narcoleptic-type sleep. The girl beside me must have thought I had Tourette’s, without the swearing part.

I returned to Schipol airport confident that I had avoided a deep vein thrombosis with all my walking. I was unscathed and proud of myself for not getting smucked by a bike or a moped. They both seemed to be coming at me from all directions the entire day as I navigated the cobblestoned streets with names a minimum of 26 letters long, all ending with “splein,” “strecht” or “straat.”

I boarded the plane again, taking my coveted window seat with leg room adequate for a chihuahua and watched dreamy Amsterdam go poof under the cloud cover. Drifting through another eight-plus hours of flying time, I arrived ruffled and cramped in Nairobi, where everyone deplaned in a non-orderly fashion. Like the crush of excited children wanting to whack a birthday piñata. It was like the mobs you read about where six people die from getting trampled. I not-so-kindly told the guy behind me that standing closer to me didn’t make the “line” go any faster. It was one of the survival lines I frequently used in Uganda.

I had completely forgotten about the miniature personal space bubble that Africans manage to maintain. My brother Dax and Wanda would have already thrown punches. Instead of inching forward in line, I purposely leaned back into the guy leaning on me—ha! Reverse psychology, but I bet he didn’t even notice, or care. I was sleepwalking to the Lubumbashi gate when I learned that my Kenya Airways hop-over to the Congo had left an hour and a half early–proving that the concept of “African time” can still be predictably unpredictable.

The 20-hour flight delay I had in Toronto barely registered now as I had to digest the news of the hitch that came with missing the connecting flight. Unfortunately, because the Congo isn’t exactly a tourist mecca, outgoing flights don’t run at the same Westjet-greyhound-pace to sun-soaked destinations like Hawaii and Puerto Vallarta. I was told by a hot and bothered gate agent that the next outgoing flight was in two days, on Saturday morning. I could have flown to Addis or Johannesburg, but that would only take me further from my destination, to pace in a different airport.

Tired, without energy to battle and bitch, I made arrangements for Saturday with the backpack on my back slowly compressing my last remaining discs. I had intentions of crying, but was too dehydrated. I accepted my fate gracefully while the angry woman at the wicket beside me vocalized what I more accurately felt. She yelled so loud for so long that I had a ringing in my ears like one gets after a rock concert. I asked Hot and Bothered where I could find a phone and was told that there weren’t any. Baggage lockers? Nope, none of those either due to security reasons. Internet? Two dollars a minute—oh, and that guy, who sells magazines at Gate 9, he will let you use his cell phone for $4 a minute. Phone sex operators don’t even charge that much!

I phoned Chantal in the Congo, who was anticipating my arrival that morning. I emailed everyone else to vent and moan and illustrate my new surroundings. Missionaries and dusty travelers, barefoot and curled up in balls along the hallways, the ripe scent of armpits, like wasabi striking my brain. There was a mosque and a meditation centre being used as surreptitious napping quarters, stores selling giraffe carvings and beef samosas being sold for close to the same price as a carving and a one minute phone call. By now, my bags had already become a part of me, and delirious from lack of sleep I skulked to the Transit Lounge where I was told I could sleep for four hours for $25US.

This is where I found Betty– who herded me into her tourism office of faded safari posters from the 70s. She force-fed me the idea of staying at Central Park Hotel downtown. Her first quote was $170US a night, and we’re not talking Royal York glamour and rose petals floating on the bathwater. The dated pictures she pressed into my hands showcased a bed as big as a tennis court (which turned out to be true), wi-fi in the rooms (not so true), a FREE gym (not true) and a bright bathroom that would allow me to take a shit and shower at the same time due to the proximity of both.

Betty insisted that I would be bored anywhere else and pushed the Central Park digs on me. And she would only accept cash and quickly escorted me to an ATM where she calculated how many Kenyan shillings I would need. I trusted her, but entering 25,000ksh into the ATM key pad made me quiver a little. It was the equivalent of $350US she told me more than once. When I asked about cheaper options she assured me that I would be robbed. “See your laptop—GONE!” She snapped her fingers for emphasis. “Everything you own, if you stay somewhere that I do not recommend, will be gone. Then you will say, Betty, why you not tell me about this and I will say, I did, Jules Trotsky. I did.” I corrected Betty on my non-Russian last name and she asked if I was racist. Then she asked where I was really from, and when I said Canada, she had already guessed it. “You have all this hair on your face that I could shave. It is for the cold in Canada I guess.” Betty was obviously a charm school grad. She then went on a rant about developed countries like Canada bringing the swine flu to Africa. “But, I will live longer than you, probably. My skin makes me resistant—you go pink and get rashes like the other white people, not so resistant. Like Michael Jackson, he tried to go white, and now—look—dead.”

Betty did overextend her customer service by coming with me to the hotel with the hired driver, to tuck me in properly. I was pleasantly surprised with the interior and after a tepid shower under a showerhead that emitted water like a fireworks display, I ordered a room service: a buttery omelette, sausages sweet with nutmeg, milky tea and then collapsed in bed for five hours. Desperate for a workout when I regained consciousness, I went to the gym (the #1 reason why I picked Central Park over the other hotels where I would be robbed) and spun on a bike for an hour listening to Kenny Rogers, Africa`s hero. I had also forgotten about Kenny, Dolly and dear Celine Dion being blared in all the bars and buses.

Feeling brave and dismissing the tragic massages I had in Uganda with the woman who had me lie on a bed covered with a red checkered tablecloth while she made my hair into a bird`s nest with oil, I booked an hour with Priscah. “She is the brown one, not the dark one,” I was informed at reception. “Selena is the dark one.” It was euphoric and all-encompassing massage, meaning, if I were a Thanksgiving turkey, I was basted everywhere. There are no borders or polite draping with African treatments. In fact, I didn’t even blink when Priscah climbed on the table to straddle me and massage my ass while Kenny sang “The Gambler,” again.

Content after a kaleidoscope day of emotions, I made my way to the hotel bar for a warm Tusker and a curious chicken curry that came with a baseball-sized serving of ugali (maize flour with water). Before returning to my room I asked a staff member about a local wildlife orphanage called Sheldrick`s that I was interested in visiting. He gave me sketchy details, but I thanked him profusely anyway. “Maybe you would like to show your appreciation with a payment, madam. I will accept US dollars for my help.”

Ahhh, yes. Everything has its price in this world. I remind myself that I am in Africa and that what I spent on my flight is more than a nurse’s annual salary in Nairobi. And so the adventure continues. The only worrying part is that due to the unexpected delays over the last few days I have almost finished my first book (Attachment by Isabel Fonseca) which leaves me with two books—Growing Pains (Emily Carr`s autobiography) and Love in the Time of Cholera (which I assume will slow me down a little). Worst case scenario? I’ll write a book if I run out of words to read.

Until the next dispatch, hopefully from the Congo…

I remain, Jules Trotsky.

To read all the naked details of my Ugandan massage experience:

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Sliding Doors

My back feels like it has been tenderized by the ever-hostile Chef Ramsey. A week on top of an inflatable (deflatable?) air mattress simulated the experience of sleeping on a very large water wing with a pinhole. The couch accommodations at my brother’s proved that cushions will inevitably divide in the middle creating an inescapable quicksand vortex at some point in the dark of night.

But I have been sleeping without moving, until the sun pours through the windows around eight in the morning, gently roasting me underneath the duvet when I awake, my skin ready to catch on fire. My mind is exhausted from pacing. I was supposed to fly to Amsterdam yesterday, with an overnight at the Amstel Riverview Bed & Coffee before a connecting flight to Nairobi. A few weeks ago I scoured the Lonely Planet bed and breakfast listings online until I found such a gem, clicking on 109 pictures of toilets placed conveniently inches from the sinks and snapshots of the curiously frightening  floral and brass decor of over a hundred B&B’s until my pupils turned square.  But with a 20-hour flight delay, I will now arrive at 8:30 am and fly to Kenya the same day. The dreamy Amstel canal view, pancake breakfast and extensive clog shopping will have to be saved for another stay.

In a week of transient life and underwear recycling, it is a minor setback. Travelling tests not only physical flexibility, but emotional bends and stretches too.  I have visited the important branches of my family tree, seen my VIPs and returned to all my favourite Toronto haunts. There were greasy lamb burgers, cold pints on steamy patios, hot curries, sugary indulgences at Pusateri’s and many glasses of champagne.

 Hellos and goodbyes have collided, leaving my intestines in a tight French braid.

I’ve been running around sleepy Cabbagetown and along the soupy Don River thinking of how the terrain beneath my feet will change in just two days. I will leave the concrete familiarity of Toronto for the dusty roads of Lubumbashi, Congo. Here I dodge dogs in Riverdale, wearing snappy little Burberry jackets and strollers as wide as Hummers with kids sucking on Starbucks frappacinnos.  In two days there will be goats and chickens running at breakneck speeds beside me, the slow whir of curious Congolese on bikes behind me and monkeys eyeballing me from the mango trees.

I run and try not to think of the Comoros Airbus crash that snapped short the lives of 153 people. I think of the 9/11 stories of those who survived, or didn’t because of some last-minute decision to sleep-in that day, or grab a muffin on the way to work. All our decisions, non-decisions and unexpected delays change the course of our lives on a daily basis.I have always loved the movie Sliding Doors for that very concept. The 1998 film shows the unfolding life of Helen (Gwenyth Paltrow) when she catches the train, and in a parallel story—what happens when she doesn’t.

Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven played on a similar idea, but instead of time altering the path of our lives, the story suggested how certain people change our life forever. Eddie, a lonely war vet, lived what he felt was an uninspired life, fixing rides at a seaside amusement park.  When he dies on his 83rd birthday in an attempt to save a young girl’s life, he awakes in the afterlife where he meets five people who were affected, forever, by his decisions, actions, words and love.

The book naturally forces you to evaluate your life and wonder, who are my five people? And in a Sliding Doors frame of mind—what would have happened if that flight did fly out of Toronto as scheduled? Was the conversation I had at the airport with the Swedish businessman for a greater purpose? Why did we becoming engaged in conversation? Why not the guy in line behind me that was flying to Saudi?

 When I board the plane this afternoon it will be with a furry head of mixed emotions. Faces of those I love will be like a whirling dervish spinning before me. I’ll think of my dogs, of course, and all that is secure and familiar disappearing beneath me as the plane climbs in elevation.  But the pull of adventure is magnetic to me, and as easy as it would be to stay, it would be harder for me not to go.

Africa has embraced me like a lover, and her grip has followed me across the oceans. I hope you’ll follow me, vicariously, to yet another landscape, the Congo.

Come walk with me through my sliding door…

And if you haven’t heard why there’s all this talk about Africa:

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

An Unexpected Life

When a local game ranger brought a malnourished and sickly chimpanzee to Shelia Siddle in Zambia in 1983, she never anticipated that one day her cattle ranch would become the largest chimp sanctuary in the world.

With only a copy of Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man to refer to, Shelia and her husband Dave committed to the daunting task of nursing “Pal” back to health, following parenting instincts more than anything else.  After Pal came Liza Do Little, Girly, Junior and Charley, each with their own troubling story of abuse. When Shelia’s book In My Family Tree—A Life With Chimpanzees was published in 2002, her Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage had welcomed over 85 injured and abused chimps, dozens of monkeys, baboons, African grey parrots, bushbucks and a hippo named Billy.

For Shelia, who was ready to embrace a golden retirement on the Kafue River, Pal and those who followed forever changed the path of her life. Shelia had moved to Africa in 1947 with her wanderlust-driven parents and became a race-car driver, contrary to what her generation accepted as a traditional female role. She had five children and a cattle ranch, and never dreamed that her life would be dedicated to chimps.

Mac at Ngamba Island, Uganda

Chimps arrived at Chimfunshi addicted to cigarettes and beer from young lives spent as circus performers in local bars. Some chimpanzees didn’t recognize their own kind after being raised in human households. Others struggled for dominance, or sometimes just acceptance amongst the motley crew. Wide-eyed in their new territory, some of the youngsters had to watch the older chimps for lessons on how to build nests. The Siddles had built large enclosures so the chimps could sleep in the cages at night, or, in the open acreage in trees as they would in the wild.

Rita preferred the company of humans, and their shoes. She would remove the laces of every guest’s shoes, then carefully attempt to relace them, missing a few eyes, but would attempt to tie them up again. An artistic soul, Rita also used American scientist Mark Wright’s notepad and pen to draw. When other chimps were around though, they would annoy Rita by stealing her artwork. Eventually, Mark would wait until the other chimps were napping before he passed Rita the notepad. She would sometimes sit and draw for half an hour or more.

Pal was more concerned with Shelia’s complexion than doodling. Chimps love to groom one another, but Pal became consumed with the hairs on Shelia’s face. He would use his lips and teeth to pull out offending hairs and even squeeze pimples between his fingers!

The antics of Sandy had me laughing out loud. His natural reaction was to throw anything he could get his hands on at whoever might be in range. Oranges became perfect weapons, and Shelia finally realized she was perpetuating his behavior by returning the thrown objects back to him. When she held on to the thrown orange longer than usual, Sandy became sharply aware of the consequences. Shelia eventually returned the orange which Sandy immediately ate—quickly throwing the wadded-up orange peel at Shelia as she walked away.

Sunday at Ngamba Island

When the Siddles began offering sugarcane to the chimps to eat, Sandy found a dual purpose. He took great pleasure in thwacking unsuspecting chimps in the back of the head with the sugarcane stalks, creating instant chaos.

“It wasn’t long before mealtimes became a regular battlefield with Sandy around, as bits of fruits and vegetables filled the skies like V-2 rockets. Sandy eventually became a connoisseur of throwable food, preferring more solid bits like apple cores or apricot pits, or fruits that had peels that he could was into a tight ball. He clearly eschewed leafy foods like lettuce and cabbage though. The few times Sandy threw those, the leaves just fluttered harmlessly to the ground, and he trudged away disgusted.”

Sandy eventually found a partner in crime, Tara. The sanctuary was open to the public, and Sandy and Tara were known to pounce on visitors from their hiding spots on low branches. Other times they would pull back saplings like catapults and release them in perfect time to slap an unsuspecting visitor. Sandy also liked to race ahead and then quietly double back from which point he would dive on to the shoulders and heads of somebody. Many guests returned from the bush walks with bruises and torn clothing, but always full of smiles and stories.

Sandy was also dramatic—nearly convincing Shelia that he was near death one day.  He had refused his morning milk and was incredibly mopey. He appeared too weak to stand and “spent the entire day on the verge of death.” The following morning Sandy showed Shelia the source of his moping– his tooth had fallen out and he showed her by pulling back his lips with his fingers.

Rita was known for her nursing sense. When she couldn’t remove a splinter from Tara’s foot, she thrust Tara’s foot through the bars of the cage to show Shelia. When Donna had a thorn in her foot, Rita was first on the scene, placing her hand on Donna for reassurance as she prodded the tender area.

In 1990, Jane Goodall contacted the Siddles, asking if they could take another chimp. Milla had been a barroom attraction at an Arusha hotel in Tanzania. They arrived in a single-engine plane with a UK vet. Jane and the vet rode in the back of the truck on a pile of sugarcane , wrapping blankets around Milla’s cage to keep her warm. Milla “went one better: She pulled the blankets through the bars and wrapped herself in them.”

Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary

Milla was discovered in a meat market in Cameroon when she was a very tiny baby, tethered alongside the body of her dead mother, and was bought by a very generous British couple, who brought Milla to Kenya and looked after her as their own child until she was about five years old. When the Brit couple had to leave the country, they left Milla with caretakers in Arusha, where she was introduced to the bar lifestyle, smoking and drinking.

Shelia’s description of Millla’s adjustment to Chimfunshi is tremendously emotional—she eventually  integrates, retaining her curious habits of walking upright on two legs, and carrying her blanket with her everywhere. Milla found several uses for her blanket—once flicking it through the bars of the cage to hit a dog who had his nose in the chimps’ food. She would also flick peacocks or geese if they were out of reach. Once she filled her blanket with six sweet potatoes, two guavas and an orange. She neatly folded the corners up and made the blanket into a small parcel so she could pick up her meal and find a quiet place to eat away from the other chimps.

When Billy the hippo arrived, Shelia could no longer be surprised at the evolution of her life and purpose.  Local hunters had killed the mother, and at 10 days old, survival in the wild would have been impossible. The crowd that had gathered has inflicted several wounds and severe gashes on the baby with sharp sticks. With little guidance on how to care for a hippo, Shelia and Dave bravely attempted to help her thrive. In three months she weighed 330 pounds and followed Shelia around like a dog, wagging her stubby tail. Most of the older chimps were terrified of Billy, but she grew incredibly fond of The Infants—Trixie, Diana, Doc, Zsabu and Violet. Billy adopted the chimps as her own and nap beside them or  would be found “gazing happily at them through the wire mesh.” The chimps would slap her hide playfully, pull her ears, and jump down from the trees onto her back.

Billy also became attached to the dogs at the sanctuary. She would mimic their behavior and grab automobile tires like chew toys, flinging it around as the dogs did with their smaller toys. Her closest companion was Gretchen, a Rottweiler who she slept with at night. When Gretchen died in her sleep Billy was inconsolable. She kept nudging Shelia, begging her to do something to revive her friend, Gretchen. For two days Billy refused to eat or take milk and “kept a silent vigil near the kennel.” In her lonesome state, Billy broke into Shelia and Dave’s house three times looking for comfort.

Then there was Ole, a tiny barred owl who had fallen from his nest. For two months he’d swoop tentatively around the livingroom of Shelia’s house, test-driving his new found wings. Ole soon learned how to dive bomb their dinner plates as well, grabbing fried eggs and currant bread to eat from the safety of his curtain rod perch. Eager that he return to the wild, Shelia left all the house windows open, and Ole took short flights to neighbouring trees, always returning to the safety of the house. His longest sojourn was three nights, and then the days between his visits stretched even further with only rare appearances around their house.

Billy eventually discovered his wild instincts too, and when Shelia finally successfully coaxed him into the Kafue River she was like a porpoise. Shelia lured her further into the water while she sat in a boat (nervous of crocodiles, otherwise she would have been in the river herself). Billy soon established a pattern of roaming, joining other hippos in the Kafue, feeding and courting with them as she should.

Not all of the animals that arrived at Chimfunshi survived, and the stories of abuse are tragic. More often though, hope is renewed in chimps like Leben and Choco who arrived from the Tel Aviv Zoo. When they first arrived they were both sullen and unresponsive and “clung to each other like magnets. Only when a visitor from Israel spoke to them in Hebrew several months later did they spring to life and begin hugging one another and laughing out loud. It turned out that they spoke Hebrew, not English.”

In 1995, Sheila and Dave bought a neighbouring farm , a 13,000 acre property. The thick jungle, fruit groves and open grassland would allow the chimps to establish territory, and roam as they would in the wild. It would be the largest area ever set aside for captive primates. “It wasn’t freedom—we knew that—but in a world where chimpanzees are hunted for meat and forests are decimated daily, it was probably as close to freedom as any of our chimps might ever get.”

When it came time to release the chimps into the acreage, Sheila was only able to focus on one chimp, Pal.  Nobody thought Pal would survive, and his scars and droopy lip reminded her of how he arrived 18 years before, desperate, with his face split open and broken teeth.

“My heart was in my throat as I placed a hand on the sliding metal door and peered into Pal’s cage. I leaned in close. “I promised you this,” I whispered. “Now off you go.”

Before Pal rushed off with the others, Tobar and Spencer, he turned to look back at Shelia. He was “staring straight into my eyes. And maybe it was my imagination, but for just that magical second, I believe he was thanking me.”

In My Family Tree is a remarkable book that reminds us of how moments that seem accidental can change the course of our lives. Thank you to the Shelia and Dave Siddle for their unswerving determination to provide a safe haven for orphaned and abused chimps (and even a darling hippo) to frolic and thrive.

David Siddle died  in June 2006, at age 78. “We shall miss David terribly, of course, perhaps no one more than I,” said Sheila Siddle. “But we must keep working for the chimps. We must make sure they are well cared for. That’s what David would have wanted.”

More about Chimfunshi:

Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary:

Where I’ll be in July (J.A.C.K., Congo):

And, for more info about the woman who introduced the world to the plight of the chimpanzees:

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Running Halfway

I didn’t eat pasta last night as every good runner should. We had a beer can chicken on the barbie, Beringer white zinfandel and double chocolate biscotti. I had intended on doing things properly this year, like the pasta thing, logging more than 5km a day in training and being sure to hydrate myself all week in preparation for the half-marathon. I’m a camel at the best of times, walking around in a mostly-dehydrated state. Eight glasses of water a day could very well put me over the edge. Ironically, I had signed up for the Abbotsford Run For Water.

Before last year’s half-marathon I had a jalapeno sausage with sauerkraut and two beers. In 1999, I ran a 20:57 5km race in Toronto after drinking at least eight pints (alternative carb-loading, just not in the traditional tortellini-form) the previous night and was given a bronze medal for it. Ten years later I don’t think I could pull off such a strong performance (of drinking eight pints and/or running a 5k that fast).

I’ve run halfway eight or nine times. My debut was at the “Boston to Brantford” half marathon in Ontario where my then girlfriend and I did it on a whim. We showed up in our best sweatpants and running shoes that we had recently cut grass in. I watched in horror as experienced runners in flashy wind suits and matching spandex with team logos threaded their Asics and New Balance shoes with new shoelaces before the start. The sinewy men rubbed their nipples with Vaseline and a few took off in the opposite direction to run/sprint a 3kmwarm-up. Two snotty spandex-clad women looked Kate and I up and down and asked what our splits and PB’s were. I had no idea what they were talking about and confessed that I had only run 5km races before–fun runs at that. Kate said she had her cast removed just a month ago after a fibula fracture. The women laughed like hyenas and warned us that we probably wouldn’t make it and swished off to stretch and pose like peacocks.

Imagine our delight when we ran like gazelles past the beet red-faced spandex girls who were clearly sucking wind at the fifth kilometer. Even better was the moment when I could gloat that we finished in a respectable first-time finish of 1:58. But I had to wait until they pulled their sorry asses across the finish line at 2:20. So much for their impressive splits and PB’s—the magic was in shabby sweatpants and old shoelaces!

I ran the next half-marathon without Kate (who opted for the 10 km route instead), and figured I’d probably be coming in around the two-hour mark again. My cheerleader dad never missed a Brantford race, and loved the opportunity to holler from the sidelines. When I sailed down Brant avenue at 1:37, I called out to my father who was leisurely walking along the sidewalk towards the finish with a Tim Horton’s tea and muffin.

“Flo!” (Dad’s nickname)

He was startled to see me so early. As I kept pace, he joined me, as he always did, his tea slopping out of the lid and burning his hand, bran muffin shaking noisily up and down in the paper bag. Winded and covered in milky tea, he insisted that I kick it to the end, he couldn’t keep up with his breakfast in hand, and I did. I could hear his voice to the finish, urging me to “Pour it on!”

During those Brantford marathon years I had two other dedicated roadie fans—my dad’s sister Buffer(another nickname, short story is I couldn’t pronounce Cathy as a kid, it came out Buffer), and my grandmother. My Aunt Buffer drove the pace car, a baby blue Celebrity Classic, with Nan hanging out the passenger window pumping her fist. The two of them followed me along the entire 21km route, waving and honking like I was a celebrity. Indeed I felt like it.

My grandmother enjoyed verbally attacking my fellow competitors and between vicious expletives she dabbed her eyes with Kleenex. She was always so proud, and her voice would wobble with emotion by the end, “C’mon, Horse!” (*Horse–another nickname, intended to be flattering).

This year, running up the heart-attack-inducing Huntingdon hill (which seems to sit at a precarious 90 degree angle), I thought of Nan and felt an instant heaviness in my heart and stride. She died in November, but I’m sure she found someone in Heaven today to drive her around the 21km with me, cheering as she always had. Today I had Wanda as my pace car and designated paparazzi, and it was like Nan was with me all the same.

When my quads turned to liquid cement at the 10km mark, I started channeling Ray Zahab who ran 6,920km in 111 days (November 2006-February 2007) across the Sahara desert. Zahab and his teammates, Kevin Lin (from Taipei, Taiwan) and Charlie Engle (US), battled injury, dysentery, testosterone, blisters as big as pancakes, severe dehydration, blinding sandstorms and an unforgiving African sun.

On Friday night Wanda and I went to see the documentary Running The Sahara, narrated and produced by Matt Damon. The film chronicles the dynamic journey Zahab and his teammates made from Senegal on the west coast of Africa, to the Red Sea in Egypt. Zahab, who attended the Abbotsford screening engaged the audience in a conversation as captivating as a fireworks display. He talked about the intensity, intimacy and mental endurance of running with two guys across a desert. And how many running shoes does one need for a Sahara desert crossing? Twenty-four. And 10 litres of Gatorade a day. Remarkably, Ray Zahab only discovered running in 2004. After visiting Africa he became empowered to focus his future adventures and ultra-running challenges to support the water crisis.

As the founder of Impossible2Possible, Zahab has committed to inspiring young minds into social and environmental action. Linking world-class adventures to classrooms around the world, he has created a forum of possibility and change.

After trotting across the Sahara in 2007, Zahab became the first person to trek to the South Pole on foot, a measly 1,130 km. On January 7th, 2009, Ray clocked in (with two Canadian teammates) at 33 days, 23 hours and 55 minutes. Blogging en route, his adventure garnered the global attention of thousands of school children who had the opportunity to interact via the Internet and SAT phones with Zahab.

Before that he knocked off the 77 km West Coast Trail in 16 hours, a feat which takes the above-average hiker seven days of stubborn slogging. Surely I could run 21 km across Abbotsford when the Sahara team was checking off the equivalent of two full marathons in a day.

I talked myself out of a Gatorade-induced stitch in my side, and focused on Pink’s lyrics blaring on my  iPod when chills began to rush through my body and I felt on the verge of a heat stroke. I begged my hamstring not to curl up and for my multi-grain bagel to stay in my stomach. I reminded myself of greater, more hellish accomplishments of others. Hell, Kevin Lin crossed the Atacama Desert in Chile (241 km) in 7 days. He had already run across the Gobi in 2003, and in 2006 took bronze in a 250km super marathon crossing of the South Pole.

And here I was fretting about completing a half-marathon on a bright, sunny day with all-you-can-eat Panago pizza at the finish, and a team of massage therapists ready to rub me? Where was the challenge? At 18 km, I reassured myself that I could always be hooked up to an i.v. at the finish if need be. There were ambulances if I collapsed. As Ray Zahab so eloquently said, “running is 90% mental. And another 10% mental.” I could sit down all day long after I crossed the finish line.

Terry Fox Memorial at Mile 0, Victoria, BC

As I ran, 100% mentally, and felt potentially disastrous twinges in my left hamstring, metatarsal bones jamming in my right foot, and a dodgy lumbar spine wanting to give out, my thoughts moved from the sands of the Sahara to Terry Fox. In 1980, Terry Fox ran 42 km a day from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Thunder Bay, Ontario with a prosthetic leg. After 5, 373km, his Marathon of Hope came to a physical end as Fox’s bone cancer had metastasized to his lungs. He died on June 28th, 1981 at age 22. His legacy is far-reaching, extending from Mount Terry Fox in the Selwyn range of the Rockies near Valemont, BC, to Mount Terry Fox Provincial Park, CCGS Terry Fox (a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker), eponymous streets, highways, libraries and schools. Named “Canadian of the Decade for the ‘80s,” Fox is responsible for the fiery spirit behind the world’s largest one day fundraiser for cancer research, the Terry Fox Run. A celebration of his courage and ferocious determination, the run is held in September each year in support of his vision, to find a cure for cancer.

And this is when the run took an unexpected turn. As the sun cooked my body, and I imagined the road’s surface being a suitable temperature for frying eggs, I thought of water. I could drink clean water at the next re-fuel station, as much as I wanted. I could stick my head under the tap when I got home and drink until my esophagus overflowed. In Africa, 80% of the population doesn’t have this basic luxury, and this was the whole point being slammed home by participating in the Abbotsford Run For Water. It wasn’t about me winning a race (dream big, right?) or beating a personal best (oh, I was about 11 minutes off that mark!). It wasn’t about running at all. The run was designed as a platform to build awareness for a critical situation that haunts anyone who has been to Africa. There are children who have to walk the distance I ran today to gather ‘drinking’ water from questionable, murky sources.

Today, 100% of the funds raised from the Run For Water (over $81,000 donated this year) will support the construction of wells in Choro, Ethiopia in conjunction with the HOPE International Development Agency.

Even though I was running along blueberry fields with snow-capped Mt. Baker and the Coast mountain range in view, I was in Africa. I was back in Entebbe, Uganda on the brick-red dirt roads. And suddenly my muscles found renewed purpose, remembering the basic and monumental cause I was supporting. Clean water for Africa.

Categories: Flicks and Muzak, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Why All the Talk About Africa?

It was past midnight last May when I was waiting for an epiphany. I had been dreaming of hummingbirds biting me, which I learned later was a sign of restlessness. I had no idea at that time that such restlessness would see me flying to Africa in September.

The semester at Douglas College had just drawn to a close, and I was wondering what I could do to marry my interests of creative writing and my passion for animals. A colleague had landed a cool copywriter gig at the Telus World of Science in Vancouver. That’s when I realized that there were broader possibilities out there—and I Googled the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI).

I scrolled through the job postings and randomly applied for a position designing an environmental studies-based curriculum, despite being totally unqualified. I thought of Peter Mansbridge and his early days, working as a clerk at an airport in Manitoba. The airport announcer had called in sick, and with no short notice replacement available, the supervisor asked Mansbridge to announce a delayed flight. A local radio station manager was in the wings, heard his voice and recruited Mansbridge on the spot. He was shuffled to CBC radio’s northern service shortly thereafter. This is how things happen.

Chimp at Ngamba Island Sanctuary, Entebbe, Uganda

With an urge to do something bigger and stretch my mind into a downward dog of its own, I sent off the application with my beefed-up resume and then looked for Uganda on the globe. At that point, I had no idea where in Africa it sat. The curriculum designer position was for six months, beginning in July. When April and May rolled by, I assumed that the position had been filled.

During the last week of June I received an email from JGI Uganda. A posting that my skill set would be better suited for had become available. Would I be interested in editing a book on the tribes and totems of Uganda? As soon as possible?

It’s no secret that I find great difficulty in decision-making. Choosing between the coconut curry stew and the lemongrass chicken at New Saigon is agonizing. Do I want a skim latte or a mochacinno? A Sidekick or a VW Golf? How was I supposed to make a snap decision like going to Africa, as soon as possible? Sending off an application in May was cerrtainly spontaneous, but my nature is to brood, fret, think, re-think and create pro and con lists as thick as a phone book. God, really? Me? Uganda? I hadn’t told anyone about applying for the job…

And then I was there (after much see-sawing), from September 2008, to January 2009. The Tribes and Totems of Uganda project was a fascinating project, and the pile of 500 submissions from local elementary students soon narrowed into a comprehensive collection. The learning curve was exactly what my restless self needed. When I roared through that assignment and found myself with two months left in my volunteer stint, Debby Cox, then director of JGI, asked if I could draw primates. I guessed yes, I probably could. My days were soon consumed by designing a colouring book on the primates of Uganda. When an employee of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation came to visit, I was suddenly drawing the primates of Rwanda to be used in a colouring book format for them.

I was in my element, drawing bushbabies and monkeys all day. What could be more fulfilling? Well, I will find out this July.

On safari in Queen Elizabeth Park (Uganda) at Christmas, I met Chantal Jacques, co-director of J.A.C.K. (Jeunes Animaux Confisques au Katanga—Young Animals Confiscated in Katanga), a refuge centre for orphaned chimps confiscated by the Ministry of the Environment in the Congo. Chantal was interested in hearing more about my work with JGI and we exchanged emails as our tour groups were heading in different directions. What I didn’t expect a few months later was her email asking if I might like to visit the Congo in July and volunteer for a month.

This decision came quicker, yes. Yes!

Mac, at Ngamba Island

The opportunity to volunteer at J.A.C.K. will allow direct contact with the chimps, unlike my JGI experience. Chantal has pre-warned me of early mornings, preparing milk for the chimps. The house where I will be staying has no water (yet), electricity is dodgy, and Internet connections are patchy at best. And there is no postal service. Did I really want to come?

I was already knee-deep in my Congo research. Reading the refuge blog pulled me in even further. I have learned that the refuge has nearly insurmountable barriers to conquer. The Swahili word for wildlife,“nyama,” is the same term used for “meat.” Great apes and primates continue to be killed as a food source in the lucrative bushmeat trade, and as ancestral custom. One Congolese tribe believes that crushing and cooking the bones of an ape will allow the child who drinks the powder the strength of the chimpanzee that was killed. Infant chimps are smuggled by members of the Congo Army, high ranking Congolese and by request for expatriates wanting a darling little pet. Ten chimpanzees usually die for every baby taken as the family struggles and fights to defend the infant from poachers.

Franck and Roxanne Chantereau, co-directors of J.A.C.K. estimate that chimp trafficking in the last 10 years in the Congo has resulted in the death of over 4,000 chimpanzees. Still, chimps are found being sold for small change on roadsides in Lubumbashi. J.A.C.K., a self-funded NGO was started in April 2006 in response. The refuge, located in the Lubumbashi Zoo, was created to provide a safe space for orphaned chimps to live, as they wouldn’t have the ability to survive in the wild.

Education is key focus of the the refuge, and their accessibility (no admission fee) helps expose locals to the consequence of poaching, eating bushmeat and smuggling. There are plans to build a visitor’s centre with informative displays showing the correlation between local lifestyle and the impact on the future of chimpanzees in the Congo, where 40% of the remaining African population lives.

Even though my parents and partner aren’t exactly doing cartwheels about me travelling to the Congo, they see the lure. Of course they worry that I will pull a Meryl Streep and become an Out of Africa story, deciding to stay, buying myself a nice coffee plantation to live on. But that was Karen Blixen’s story, and I have my own to write!

* To immediately transport yourself to Africa, check  the “Into and Out of Africa” category on my site. Here, in chronological order, you can travel with me all over again beginning with From Your African Correspondent, Jules Torti (September 20, 2008) to Stories From Across the Water (January 23, 2009), which was posted shortly after my return to Canada.

For more information on J.A.C.K.:

J.A.C.K. Blog:

Jane Goodall Institute Africa programs:

Categories: Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Land of A Thousand Hills

img_1249“Here’s a book written by a friend of Dian Fossey’s,” my sister said, adding to the stack of books under my arm at a bookstore just outside of Lake Louise. “I didn’t think she had any friends.”

Six months into her initial research on the northern slopes of Karisimbi, Congolese soldiers raided Dian Fossey’s camp and forced her down the mountain at gunpoint. On July 20, 1967, Rosamond Halsey Carr received a letter from Fossey via an American Ambassador requesting permission for her to continue her gorilla studies on the Rwandan side of Karisimbi. Carr owned a flower plantation at the base of the mountain in Mugongo, Rwanda. Days later Fossey arrived with her equipment and supplies and pitched a tent.

Land of a Thousand Hills is the intrepid story of Rosamond Carr’s life (a NY fashion illustrator), and it begins on July 9, 1949 when she sails out of Brooklyn Harbour on a cargo ship bound for Matadi, the Atlantic seaport of the Belgian Congo with her explorer husband, Kenneth.

Leaving with four new cotton dresses, a pith helmet, a lifetime supply of cold cream and their Irish terrier, Shelia, they could never anticipate what was about to unfold before them.

Exposed  to “enough adventure to last several lifetimes,” Rosamond was certain that they would “both discover the happiness and passion” that had eluded the couple for so long, in the land that Kenneth loved so much.

Arriving in the Kivu, Kenneth and Rosamond rented a stone cottage with a rental agreement that stipulated they retain the existing staff of 14 servants: four water carriers for nonpotable water, two for drinking water, four woodcutters, two houseboys, a cook and his assistant. Kenneth tried to obtain permission from Belgian authorities to prospect for minerals, and as a desperate measure, accepted the offer of an Italian pyrethrum (daisy-like flower that contains a powerful insecticide) planter, Gino, to manage a plantation in the Congo.

It appeared that we had a perfect life. We should have been very happy, but instead Kenneth and I were drifting further and further apart.” Their marriage quickly dissolved in the heavy rains that fell. Living 40 miles from the nearest town proved to be extremely isolating. Elephants trampled acres of the plantation in one night, and Banyaruanda “volunteers” worked when the spirit moved them. When Gino said he was taking a seven-month holiday in Europe and needed a plantation manager in Mugongo, Rosamond eagerly applied for the job. Kenneth was furious.

So began Rosamond’s bold stance in a country that she had already become emotionally rooted in. In the foothills of the Virunga Mountains, Carr writes vividly of leopard encounters, raising a dik dik (small antelope), bankruptcy, loneliness, draught and the murder of her friend, Dian Fossey. Her prose isn’t littered with adjectives when she describes the landscape of Rwanda and the Congo. The story of her life is profound enough that her emotions become more important than minute details. Readers are easily transported to the Buniole plantation, smiling at Carr’s stubborness, passion and bravery.

Rosamond Carr witnessed the political upheaval and tribal tension over the years, irritated with the constant friction on such a tranquil land. On April 6, 1994, when the plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot out of the sky as it descended from Kigali, killing President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi, five cabinet ministers and a crew of three, her cook Mikingo predicted Rwanda’s darkest hour. He told Carr, “This is the end of the world, Madame.” And it nearly was.

The day after the President’s assassination, Belgian soldiers ordered Carr to leave immediately, giving her five minutes to pack. She considered taking her dogs, but decided against it as she believed she was only being evacuated as far as Gisenyi for a couple of days. On April 11th, all foreign nationals were forcibly evacuated to Goma. Devastated, Carr left her beloved Rwanda. She numbly flew back to America, and remained paralyzed in front of the television, watching the coverage of the genocide. One missionary is reported to have said, “There are no devils left in hell—they are all in Rwanda.”

Extremist Hutu militia groups formed death squads and took to the streets. Power supplies were cut, drinking water became scarce and phone lines were down as the ethnic hatred by the Hutus towards the Tutsis exploded. The world turned a blind eye at the “systematic slaughter of all ethnic Tutsi,”culminated in the United Nations pulling out 270 “observers,” leaving the fate of Rwanda to those left on the ground. Sanctuaries like churches, schools, convents and orphanages where tens of thousands of Tutsi hid become hunting grounds. “Mutilated bodies clogged the Akagera River all the way to Lake Victoria.”

Two million Rwandans left their homes for refugee camps. “Cholera hit the camps like a medieval plague, people lay dying at a staggering rate. Eight thousand bodies were counted in two days.” In a few weeks, as many as 30,000 died from cholera and typhoid. The three-month reign of terror left a quarter of a million children lost or orphaned. The estimated death toll climbed to 800,000.

On August 10, 1994, at age 82, Carr found herself flying “back to the most dangerous place on earth.” A crazy idea of converting her old pyrethrum flower drying house into an orpahange occupied her mind, and she would make it happen.

Returning to her home in Rwanda, Carr hadn’t fully anticipated the “greatest heartbreak I have ever known.” Everything had been stolen, even the kerosene refridgerator. The water pipes had been ripped from the walls, the toilet was overflowing with a vile stench, even the plumbing fixtures had been stolen. Her moment of grief turned to elation as she heard the barks of Freddie and Tiffany, the dogs she had left behind when evacuated. Kim, her 14-year-old Siamese welcomed her back too, with a scolding meow. “Discovering my pets alive and in desperate need of love and care was my salvation. That was perhaps the defining moment, when my thoughts turned from leaving in defeat, to believing that I had a reason to stay.”


In December of 1994, Carr opened the Imbabazi Orphanage where she sheltered 120 children. She died September 29, 2006, at age 94 in Gisenyi, Rwanda. She was buried at the Mugongo flower farm, in the shadow of the Virunga Volcanoes. The orphanage remains as a legacy to the triumph and compassion of an extraordinary woman who embraced an eviscerated Africa, selfessly devoting the last 12 years of her life to the children of Rwanda.

For information on A Mother’s Love & A Lifetime in Rwanda, a documentary production by Standfast Productions, Ltd., visit:

 Rosamond Carr’s Memorial Service:

Land of A Thousand Hills– My Life in Rwanda

by Rosamond Hall Carr with Ann Howard Halsey

Plume, Penguin Books, NY (1999)

248 pages

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From Your Africa Correspondent, Jules Torti

September 20, 2008

Where do I begin when everything is so radically different from the landcape I have come from? There are familiar aspects, like dogs underfoot. Here at the Jane Goodall office there are five: Levi, the white rhodesian ridgeback, Tinker (black lab who brings sticks smaller than cigarettes for you to throw to him), Scrappy (the true African dog with ears perked up in a manner that resembles a bird coming in for landing, and Buster and Beevis (two pups in guard dog training). There are also two cats, Pops and Juwa, who are probably wondering what the hell they did in their last life to deserve the company of five dogs.
The office (where I also live–enjoying a one minute commute down the stairs to work) overlooks Lake Victoria, which is the cichlid capital of the world, if you are a fish hobbyist like my bro. I’m wondering how I can bring back some cichlids for him with the 100ml liquid restriction with the airlines.
My housemates are Carol (from Boston, but without a Boston accent as she is of Ann Arbor, Michigan blood), Mary-Lou (from Australia, all 6’4 of her), and Aura, who reminds me of Katherine Hepburn–or is it Audrey? She is known as Mother Superior, and is currently on Ngamba Island working at the chimp sanctuary.
Life on the equator means the first break of sunlight is around 6:20 am, and by 7:15 there is a blackness in the sky that Toronto will never see! There are a few solar powered street lamps, but these seem to be a mile apart.

There are mango, avocado and coffee trees–and a thousand birds. Each morning I wake to the sound of a rooster programmed to cockle-doodle-doo at 4:30. Carol tells me the family buys the bird on Sunday, fattens it up all week, then eats it on Friday. So, the weekends are quieter, due to the rooster being roasted. The birds start a ruckus shortly after the rooster, and I am eager to match the bird songs with the bodies. One of the bird’s calls sounds like the “plook, plook” of a leaky faucet.

The hornbills zoom in and sound like kites taking a sharp cut in the wind, fish eagles (like the bald eagle) take the wingspan prize as they soar with wingtips reaching 10 feet, on the wind currents. The blue turacos are the most spectacular but I have a certain fondness for Uganda’s most loathed bird: themarabu stork. They look lheroin addicts with haggard bodies and jerky movements. They are so awkward, they are like the Bambi of the bird world adjusting to their wings and ability to fly. Their heads are bald, and they need a good bath, probably because they spend most of their life poking through the dumpsters.
The vervet monkeys are a comical bunch–and a few days ago, I was nearly robbed by a pack of them in a parking lot. For my birthday, I thought it only proper that I find some sort of African cake but, I haven’t been able to locate the Entebbe Costco yet (haha). So, for 400 shillings(30 cents?) I found my cake. I also bought some buns (from a shop that sold Ugandan sherry, cooking oil, lollipops, yarn, soap and that’s about it). As I cut through the Imperial Beach hotel lot I spied a great picture of monkeys sitting on the arms of a wheelbarrow. I pulled out my camera, zoomed in and felt a tug on my bun bag. I turned around to see a vervet monkey with his mightly little hands tugging at my bag.

Then, I was swarmed–it was the monkey bun mafia!! I pulled and pulled, and the monkey was actually hanging, suspended, from my bun bag!! The others edged closer, trying to intimidate me, but I stood my ground. It was my birthday cake, dammit!! Finally, he let go, but the monkeys stayed close on my heels, still plotting how to get my goods. Eventually they dropped off and clamboured up into the trees, Barrel of Monkeys style.
So, the cake. It tasted like bread. And the buns? Tasted like cake. I had made a sandwich and it was like fresh tomato and cheese on a donut. And, with no presvatives in this country, it crumbled apart like a taco. Carol informed me later that there are two varieties of bun: salt buns and sweet buns. I would have to check the ingredients.
My first market experience was a complete sensory massage. Every Tuesday, vendors congregate to sell everything from rat traps to knock-off watches, to pineapples and eggplants. There are heaps and heaps of second-hand clothes, apparently shipped from North America as Value Village rejects. There are winter parkas for sale, skinned goats, and rolexes. By rolex, I mean the ultimate Ugandan street food (although there are knock-off Rolex watches too). It’s a greasy cabbage and tomato omelette rolled up in a chapati for, about 75 cents. Carol insisted that we have a rolex, and street chicken. This was the ultimate test for my Dukoral, the travellers anti-diarrhea medication. I thought for sure I’d be shitting my pants in the night, tangled up in my mosquito net trying to get to the toilet. We sat at a table below the street level, just as night was falling. Kerosene torches lit the length of the street as crowds pushed along. Wild cats circled under the table as a young boy provided water for us to wash our hands. I wondered later where the water came from, but thougt, eating street chicken was the worst evil.
The market just hums. Many of the vendors sell the same produce (mostly onions, tomatoes, peppers, bananas, peas, limes, ginger), so there are great attempts to make their blanket area the most visually appealing. Tomatoes are stacked 4-5 high and the best eggplants are fanned out in front with open sacs showcasing tiny minnow-sized dried fish. I asked for four tomatoes, but was given 8–Carol told me that this is normal. “They always give you 3-4 rottten ones to get rid of them.”
The grocery ‘stores’ sell peanut butter, sardines, Cadbury chocolate, unrefrigerated eggs and bottled Coca-Cola. There are cassava and matoke (cooking banana) chips and even a local icecream.
On the streets there is constant motion. As they drive UK style (opposite side of the road), my morning runs have been a test of dodging bikes carrying six foot lengths of aluminum, sacs of pineapples, matatus (SUV taxi) honking horns, and boda-bodas (moped taxis) zooming by with 3 people on them. Women sit sidesaddle, sometimes there is a smiley kid in front, and everything gets transported this way. Yesterday a boda boda driver had a suitcase in the front, a rolled up duvet and a live chicken in his hand. A version of the African motorhome?
Poverty is very close at hand. The road I lived on has two 3-star hotels, a golf course, the zoo, and an AIDS clinic. However, turn off this road in any direction and there are mud huts, women sweeping dirt from the dirt in front of their homes. Fires of rubbish are burning, skinny dogs run along the ditches, and chickens run truly free range.
The roads are red, like burnt sienna of Crayola crayons. In the morning, the roads are dotted with kids immaculately dressed in school uniforms (bright purple, yellow and green, pink & red–they certainly make fine use of the colour wheel). With so many people all at once, it seems as though a concert or movie has just ended. Where did everyone come from, and where are they going? The kids yell out to me: “Mizungo! Mizungo!” I am a celebrity for my skin colour alone here. The men holler out, “America!” I like to think it’s because I look like Miss America. But, it is again my skin, white=America.

During the week I am actively working on my project: to compile and edit stories and artwork about the tribes and totems of Uganda. The Jane Goodall Institute runs a program for kids called Roots & Shoots, and this book development is part of that. There were over 500 submissions from 40 local schools to sift through. The stories are dramatic, and some of the drawings quite comical. The lion seems to garner the most intriguing interpretations.
Ruth, our housekeeper provides lunches during the week that are wonderful, but leave me in a starch coma. The diet here is very soft–bananas, rice, matoke (mashed banana), eggplant, millet loaf–Wanda, my saviour is sending All-Bran bars in hope that I can have a bowel movement at least once a month.


There is a calm here, of suspended time. Technology is ever-present (many Ugandans have cell phones pressed to their ears, and Big Brother Africa 3 has a huge following), but I have found pleasure in reading more and eating breakfast with nothing more than the scenery to read (part of me does miss the Vancouver Sun folded out though!). With early dark nights, it is easy to follow the pattern of the sun. Plus, I have yet to find the switch that turns the early morning birds off.
That’s my first week in Africa…the condensed version. It is difficult to communicate the vibrant colours and peculiar sounds and warmth of the equator, because it is so very different from the landscapes of my life so far. Aside from missing my gal and dog incredibly, the richness of this experience illuminates the reason why we live: to pursue our dreams and stretch our minds a little farther, into uncomfortable and new places. And, to share those dynamic experiences with those we love and find comfort in.

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Budongo or Bust

September 29, 2008
I immediately thought, what a silly way to die. Really.
The sun was high in the sky, the market already a zoo of chickens on the run, the smell of blood, women peeling cooking bananas and fish in piles, hanging and sticking out of buckets balanced on top of brave girls heads. I think the string of drying fish will make a perfect photo with the sun just so, and I ask the vendor permission with a Cheshire cat smile. She smiles back, even bigger, but doesn’t nod in either direction. I ask again, and she pulls off a silvery fish, the length of my finger and extends her arm towards me.
I accept the fish, but, I kinda wanted a picture of a hundred of them hung together on a string. Then I realize, oh, this is the great White Woman test. Like the African sorority club–if I eat the fish, I’m in. I accept the challenge and ask her if I am to eat the fish, as is. She laughs and chatters to her friend who laughs even harder. Oh, the mockery, I’ll show them, I’ll swallow it whole. Again, I ask if I should just put it in my mouth, or if you know, the tail fin is sacred, and I should everything but that part. I eye the fish, in particular it’s tiny eye staring back at me. I go for it, and shove it in my mouth, but it’s way to big, it’s hitting my tonsils. I pull it back out, somewhat rudely, the women smirking now, and try again, I will bite it in half and show them my carnivorous ways. The fish is like biting into a leather belt, tearing it in half is impossible. Suddenly, with the tail fin hanging out between my lips, I feel the sharp needles like porcupine quills jabbing into my tongue in 10 different places. Holy shit, they’ve given the naieve White Women a poisonous fish. I pull the stupid fish out in a very un-lady-like manner, scales scraping off on my molars and feel the barbs embedded in my tongue. I pull them out painfully as a man tells me that, “madam, you must boil first.” So, now my death has been guaranteed. I feel my tongue swelling, more psychologically than physically, but I imagine myself passing out in the middle of the marketplace. I imagine them (sadly) checking my pockets before my pulse. The women who set me up are beside themselves with laughter, and I move on, totally not a sorority sister. I quickly buy a bitter lemon soda, thinking the lemon acids will counteract any poisonous fish leeching into my tongue. I think of the Friends episode where Chandler urninated on someone’s leg because they had been stung by a jellyfish. I briefly contemplate whether I should try the same tactic and pee in my soda bottle and rinse. I trusted the bitter lemon, and bought some hard crouton like ‘”energy source” (wheat flour, butter, sugar–really, croutons, everyone eats them like Pringles). They are rock hard and I imagine that I will lose all my dental work and not have to worry about my tongue anymore. The croutons are so hard I feel like I’m eating my own teeth. I leave the market, slightly disgruntled, but kind of laughing at my trusting ways.
I head towards another market and stop to take a picture of a soccer field for my soccer savvy sister, Kiley. There is a gangly Marabu stork picking around inside the dumpster, and the field is more flowerpot-red dirt than grass. No one is playing, but kids do make clever soccer balls out of banana fiber. The ball would probably give me a hundred microfractures, but these kids play barefoot. I have even seen badminton games played with flip-flops as racquets. I zip my camera away in my backpack and am nearly run over by a police vehicle. He barks at me, “Madam, what are you doing? You cannot take photographs.” I apologize but am stumped (I know you can’t take pictures of the police or airport or government buildings–but empty soccer fields and a stork in the dumpster?? The police officer, with his antique rifle in hand yells, “I must confiscate your camera.” He reaches for my bag with his non-gun hand and I tell him that I’ll simply delete the photo, which I do. Again, he yells, spit flying, “I must confiscate your camera! Give it to me.” With the fish-taste in my mouth of my recent sour market, near-death experience, I decide I am not going to be some push-over. Besides, Canada makes more realistic looking water pistols. I refuse and back away. Its back and forth and I say, “sorry, I don’t understand you,” and walk at lightning speed away from the crime scene. I pray that I won’t be shot from behind by his toy gun and enter a hardware store closeby. When you are the only white person (seemingly) on the streets of Entebbe, it’s hard to be a criminal! I don’t really relax until I return home, as I imagine the corrupt police finding me on a side road and putting me in a potato sac. I don’t see the cops again, but I’m sure my face is memorable to them. As if–hand over my camera for taking a picture of a soccer field? My initial fear (i.e. heart pounding so hard in my skull that I couldn’t hear for most of the day) turned to mild anger. I wondered how many tourists had been ripped off that way. What an easy way to get a new camera! The police haven’t seen the end of my paparazzi ways!
On the weekend, Carol, Mary Lou and I went to Budongo. The trip is four hours, white-knuckled and hair-raising. Even my eyebrow hairs were raised. Aside from the usual zoo of foot traffic, goats, meandering long horned cattle, the chicken who crossed the road (at the very last minute), there are charcoal trucks stacked with bags of charcoal seemingly 30-feet high. There are horns, bleating goats, fires burning, and people at our truck window selling shoes, light bulbs, kindling and kid’s clothing. The insect repellant I have sprayed to keep the tsetse flies at bay has worked only as an adhesive for the red grime that will take 3 days to sneeze out, and 7 Q-tips to remove. I am sweating, stuck like Saran Wrap to the leather seat, and feel like I have wet myself. Indeed, if I had any incontinence issues I would have–the ‘”road” (think one-vehicle country laneway) is a series of meteorite craters. We hit bottom several times and narrowly miss several baboons and a warthog family slick with mud from the wallowing hole.
We reach Masindi and stop at the hotel to let our rattled bones stop vibrating for a bit. Lou and I chug Guinness, Carol–our all American hero has a cheeseburger, fries and a Coca-Cola. I choose the goat stew and am mocked for choosing Ugandan food when burgers and steak are on the menu. But, I would choose goat anywhere. There’s no fighting with these two who cease every opportunity for western food. We even had pizza the night before we left, so I felt quite in touch with my Canadian tastebuds.
At the Budongo Forest Reserve we unpack our bags in the cabins that were just built in March. They could be in Banff, or some other mountain-lodge town. Baboons bark at our arrival, and the groundhog hyrax screams at another for invading its territory. Hornbills in the canopy carry on creating a sound like pigs being murdered. Then, there is calm. Frogs that sound like icecubes tinkling in a glass chatter back and forth among the crickets who seem to have mini-sound systems attached to their legs.
We have hot showers, so hot they almost burn–and the water is like a torrential rainfall. The red dirt puddles at my feet as I shampoo the day’s drive out of my hair. The scenery has exhausted me,l it’s difficult to take in so much wonderful. The only un-wonderful part was the tsetse flies that (sorry mom) make you say fuck a lot .They land on the whites of your eyes if possible, up your nostirls and in your ear drum. Ugh. And, when they bite they take a divot out of you bigger than the one I make at the golf course!
In the morning I go chimp-trekking and have my authentic Jane Goodall moment. After an hour with Sauda and Sipi (being followed by a nuisance baboon who keeps alarming the chimps of our arrival), we spot a male. I train my binoculars on him, and we enjoy eye contact as he eats tiny berries like a movie-goer eating popcorn. Then, feeling invaded, he climbs higher, turns his back, and all my binoculars pick up are his giant testicles. Still, I am thrilled.
In the afternoon Carol and I bang along the road to Murchison Falls National Park. The water is angry and frothing–this is the Nile at its best! In true African style, there are no safety barricades a la Niagara Falls, so, you could just walk to the edge and step in if you wanted to be sent roaring through the chasm. The falls are deafening, and the wet spray on my skin reminds me that this is what life is all about.
The tsetse flies continue to snack on me and Carol develops lipstick kiss-size welts. The danger of these flies is sleeping sickness, which I’ve had for most of my life anyway, so I’m not certain if the symptoms would be obvious.
On Sunday we return to the Nile for a gentle boat ride upcurrent, towards the powerful falls. The river’s edge is active with Nile crocs, jaws opened wide (showcasing some lovely pearlies), and hippos that at first appear like wet, smooth stones. The stones suddenly snort and buoy up, then submerge again. They have no sweat glands, which explains their affection for being underwater. If they are exposed to the sun, their bodies secrete a sticky red fluid that makes them look like they’re bleeding.
We also spot waterbuffalo, waterbuck and Ugandan kobs (antelope) that would take Lasik eye surgery for me to distinguish. There are watersnakes, chocolate-backed kingfishers, gorgeous red-throated bee-eaters and the reserved Goliath heron (the largest heron in the world). It is a birder’s orgasm.
The trip up the Nile is only 15 dollars US, which, can you even go to a Silvercity movie for that price anymore? This interactive Nile movie was three hours long, and totally suspenseful.
I am now back to ‘work’, we left Lou behind at Budongo as that is where she is stationed. I spent today reading children’s books on chimpanzees as research for my next project here: creating a colouring book on the great apes of Uganda.
If I could offer you the sagest advice? Come to Africa. See this world for yourself. But, until then, I will tell you all about it through my eyes, fingertips and tastebuds. But, no more dried fish. Or crouton-like things.
Thanks for reading,
Love, Jules America
or, as the African children would sign their names,
I remain, Jules Torti
Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Marriage Proposals, Muslims and Massage

October 5, 2008

“My heart would feel too guilty in not speaking to you, and telling you that I could see it in your eyes that we were meant to be together—not just physically, but spiritually too.” Apparently Martin could detect my love for him through my sunglasses and from across the road! Wow, what cosmic super powers. I told him I had a big, beefy husband and he skulked away, heartbroken, still adamant in convincing me that we were destined. He loved me the instant he saw me, and he wanted to share our lives together, even after only one minute of conversation.

If you ever feel lonely, or want to make an average 50 new friends a day, visit Africa. Solitude is a rare thing for me—even when I retire to bed and pull the mosquito netting closed, I have one or both cats eager to join me, pushing their way blindly through the netting, or a sleeping dog at my feet (and another with his head on my pillow more frequently). When I walk the dogs, I am followed by a pack of children trying to provoke the dogs into barking. Men ask me to simply give them one. Others stare, like I am a six-eyed alien walking unicorns on leashes. Dogs are feared here, and the women tell me quite sternly, “I fear it,” and cross the road with a frown. Levi, the Rhodesian Ridgeback generates the most attention with his height and white fur. The two of us together are quite an attraction.
I am asked for my email address, even without any prior conversation—the locals will say, “What country?”I say Canada, they grin, and demand either, “give me a thousand (which is less than a dollar), “give me something” (usually the kids make this kind of general request)—and it could be for the bottle of water that I’m drinking, or whatever I happen to be eating. “Give it to me, I am hungry.” Others try an approach that begins with friendly conversation and ends in a request for whatever they may need or want: a lollipop, a pair of running shoes, my dog. I am famous for the colour of my skin and what that represents. The expense of my flight to Uganda alone is more money than most Ugandans will ever see in a lifetime. But, I can’t draw comparisons or parallels. Just as I can’t imagine living in the trenches of WW2 (or Afghanistan for that matter), I don’t think my life in Canada is understandable or fathomable. Simple things like drinking water out of a tap, every kid having a bike (if not five by the time they are 12), having school textbooks that are yours (to draw big penises and boobs in) and not shared with nine of your classmates, two gas-sucking SUVs per family, school buses and stores that sell only cupcakes. In Entebbe your family might be lucky enough to have one bike with flat tires that you share (and ride on the rims), you might actually get paper to write on in class and a pencil of your own, and, the water is available from a well just a five kilometer walk down the road. The last time I heard of any North American fetching their own water was when Jack and Jill went up the hill.

There is extreme beauty and cause for celebration here though, and this past week was the end of Ramadan and the Muslim 30 day fast. Ede, a national holiday for Uganda, is a frenzy of drumming, dancing and singing. And what are they singing? Madonna, Celine Dion and Rhianna tunes (‘’Umbrella-ella-ella’’) as they blast from the sound systems at the beach. The Ede festival is declared when the new moon is first seen (and the following day is the holiday—which makes it similar to an unpredictable snow day from school). There is even a website with contact numbers to call if you spot the moon, and they ask moon-spotters to alert their friends. I decided to follow the hordes to Imperial Beach and watched as Muslim women swam in their traditional dress, and about 60 Kenyans played football in their tighty-whitey underwear.

The Kenyans were eager to talk to me about the US economic crisis, and to discuss politics. This is certainly not my Jeopardy category. ‘’Alex, I’ll take politics for 15 dollars, please.” The Kenyans are students from Kampala University, and they are so Kenyan-proud. “Obama, his father is from Kenya, our homeland! Obama, he went to Harvard, like I will.” Mohammed, Mohammed and Fasel convinced me that they were the future leaders of their country. I was meeting the future Minister of the Environment, Minister of Finance, and well, Fasel was to be president in 2020. They rhymed off every medal Kenya won at the Olympics and their world ranking. I could only think of Simon Whitfield. Fasel asked me to take their photos, as proof that I had met the future leaders. I did, happily, because taking pictures here is like persuading someone into sitting in a dentist’s chair for a root canal. At the market I asked a woman who was working at an antique Singer sewing machine stitching a hem if I could take her photo. She said only if I gave her the negative. I tried to explain the mechanics of the digital camera and she turned away and said, ‘’I don’t think you will take it.” Meaning= no, and an unspoken, F-off Canadian paparazzi. I went and looked around her store and asked her about the honey (dark as Coca-Cola) which she had poured into old Smirnoff bottles. There was no known expiry date, ‘’unless the honey was adulterated.”
Shopping for groceries is always a unique challenge and a fine example of Lost in Translation. I bought Gnut (ground nut) sauce (which is peanut and sesame/simsim seed butter). It is a product of Happy Mothers and contains no addictives. Thank god! However, the wheat bran cereal I bought from the Indian grocer with nails almost long and twirly enough to enter in the Guinness Book of World Records, contains 3% ash. Ash of what? I am nervous to ask. If my cereal tastes like goat, I will be nervous. Wheat bran now with no addictives, just goat ash!
The saga continues… I ask Alex, a local who works at the Botanical Gardens to tell me what kind of coffee I should buy. He hesitates. I ask again, “like, which coffee is the best?” He says, “Nescafe, madam.” Nescafe!! He walks with me around the gardens, pointing out jackfruit, mangosteen trees and a cannonball tree (imagine just that—a tree with suspended cannonballs). We walk through the virgin forest that Tarzan was supposedly filmed in back in the 50s. He plucks a pink flower from the cannonball tree, “Madam, can you hear the smell?”This is my new favourite line. I can hear the smell of everything in Africa.
The week comes to a close with the most dreadful massage I’ve ever had. After a sun-dappled day on Anderita beach watching women gut tilapia fish enjoying a warm Tusker beer, I decide to ask at the Anderita hotel about massage services. I am told to sit, and soon Eva appears, ‘’I am ready to massage you.’’ I was just going to ask about prices, but it is only 20,000 (18 bucks), so I splurge. I feel dread immediately as she opens the door to a hotel room with a Queen bed (with a red checkered tablecloth thrown on top of it). “You get naked, lay down, I come back.” I do, already regretting what I might have volunteered myself for. She begins the first of her five most awful techniques. She tries cracking my back by pushing me into the foam mattress, more successfully suffocating me. Then, she focuses her attention on trying (in vain) to make each of my toes crack at least three times. She moves on with no grace, and attacks me with lobster-like pinches. Then, she pounds me six times as I wince, her Rocky Balboa punches landing on my nerves and spine. I keep hoping for the best. As I turn over she rubs my breasts (which I expected), but I didn’t expect her end move: a full neck strangulation. She does this three times and I gag, and she laughs, “too hard on throat?’’
She cracks all my fingers, and tries to break both my wrists before squirting a generous handful of baby oil into her hand. And, horrors of horrors, she puts it in my hair! Suddenly she is trying to create a bird’s nest with my hair, rubbing it in big knots like a shitty older brother would do to a younger sister. She does this for 10 minutes while leaning on my shoulder so hard that I think it might dislocate. Eva is now sitting in the middle of the bed, breathing like Darth Vader, her toes touching mine, and her weight is causing me to roll into the middle of the bed. “Finished,’’ she announces, and I have never been happier in my life. I slide into the shower, so oily I could fry eggs on my body in the hot sun, and shower. The miniature bar of hotel soap doesn’t even cut the oil. And I start itching. I am reacting to the oil and want to sheer my skin off with a machete!! As I have my allergic reaction and too-much-oil gross-out, Eva is cackling away, sitting on the bed with her shoes kicked off. She is watching Big Brother 3 while I shower. I can’t believe it. When I exit the shower, with hair looking like I combed it with a pork chop, she says, ‘’was it 5 star?’’ I had told her in the beginning that I had had a massage at the Imperial Hotel (5 star), so she was nervous, she confided. I did ask before she started where she did her training, and she said Kampala (where my other massage therapist had gone). This time I asked Eva specifically, “what school did you go to?” She beams, “Tina’s Beauty Salon.’’ I hand her the $20,000 and leave her to watch Big Brother on the tablecloth-covered bed. She asks me to tell my friends all about her and the massage, and I tell her not to worry, I will.
Just another boring week in Africa. Ho-hum.

Categories: Into and Out of Africa | Leave a comment

Chumps and Chimps

October 13, 2008

So, it goes like this…
I decided to take the cheap (but hair-raising) matatu taxi into the capital city, Kampala (only a $1.50 for a near-death experience). The matatus are licensed to carry 14 passengers, but in no time we have 19. All I can smell is armpit, and there is Hooray for Jesus music blasting from the vehicle’s already blown-out speakers.
If we crash, I’m not going anywhere because I am so wedged between people and bags of eggplant, a generator and a greasy car engine-looking thing. I can’t even take a deep breath because there are elbows deep in my ribs on either side. The guy beside me has fallen asleep and apparently feels quite comfortable with his head resting on my shoulder.
The matatu driver honks at every person he sees along the way, even when there are no seats left in the taxi. He honks and abruptly pulls over in a cough-inducing cloud of dust for people walking in the opposite direction on the OTHER SIDE of the road. I want to punch him after only three minutes. It’s a never-ending scavenger hunt for passengers as people get on and off every few minutes. One thing is for sure: after world peace and an end to third world hunger, my only hope is that Ugandan drivers learn to drive with their steering wheels instead of their horns.
We finally arrive in Kampala, and my blood feels like it’s carbonated. I need a bath in Javex bleach for the unbleachables. The pants I have worn specifically because of a high security zippered pocket (for my passport), cling to me like Saran Wrap. I am sweating like I’ve been trapped in a phone booth overnight with six Sumo wrestlers and a mamba snake.
I jump on a boda boda(motorcycle taxi) to go to the Immigration building to have my three month visa renewed (the snotty airport official would only stamp it for one month when I arrived, despite the Ugandan High Commission in Ottawa already issuing it for three months). The boda driver weaves through the lanes of diesel-belching traffic, and I am quick to assume that he has a depth perception issue. I have my elbows so tightly tucked in behind me as I clench the back bar of the bike, I don’t know if they will ever un-tuck! There are no helmets for passengers, let alone for the drivers themselves. I see one driver wearing only the inner foam lining of a helmet. As I think about the fragility of my skull I try to ignore the giant wheels of the charcoal delivery truck towering above me, I notice that I am squeezing my driver’s ass so hard with my knees that he probably won’t have a bowel movement for a week. I am so focused on trying to keep myself small and to avoid the mirrors and bumpers of passing vehicles. It’s nothing but screaming brakes and incessant horns. Three times I wince, thinking, shit, this is it, we’re getting smacked. But, I arrive at Immigration (to meet a fate of a different kind) in one jittery piece, streaked with red dirt from brushing up against so many vehicles as we wormed through traffic.
I enter the Immigration courtyard and see at least 100 people fanning themselves under a tent canopy. I immediately decide that if I have to wait in this line, I’ll just fly back to Canada instead. I ask where I should go to have my visa renewed and a cranky security official with a gun slung over his shoulder like a backpack grunts and points. I wait for an hour where he indicated and when I reach the window with my passport in hand, I am told to wait in another line twice as long. Women are standing so close to me that their breasts are pushing into my back. A guy in the next line is so close I can feel his breath on my neck. Finally, I turn to him and say, “‘standing closer to me doesn’t make the line go faster.” He edges back, but soon creeps forward again, and the papers in his hand are pushing into my spine–so I lean backwards and hear his papers crumple. It’s just a fucking herd of people, butting in and pushing. A Dutch woman politely asks me which line is for work permits, and the guy with the papers behind me steps boldly ahead of me when I turn my head to answer her. I assertively tell him, “hey buddy, it’s called a line-up” (and I instantly think of my ex-girlfriend Kelly, and her famous line that she used daily in downtown Toronto: “It’s called excuse me!” There are no excuse-me’s in Uganda, and especially not at Immigration.
Finally, I am at the window (again), feeling faint and damp in my hot pants. I tell the already sneering official that I simply need my visa stamped. She asks for my return air ticket. What?? I didn’t bring it of course, because, I already had the stupid visa, I just needed the stamp. She tells me that I’ll have to come back with my plane ticket. “Maybe on Monday?” I say “no way” and lie that I have traveled all the way from Masindi (4 hours away). We are back and forth in a verbal judo, and I am actually raising my voice (which I generally only do once a year in extreme cases). I had already sent a copy of my return ticket to the High Commission in Canada–and I had to show it at Entebbe airport. She did not need to see it. She tells me to come back after lunch (it’s now 12:10). I ask when lunch is over—“2pm.” Imagine!! She takes my passport, makes me fill out a form and instructs me to write a letter stating my case. She refuses to talk to me anymore.
I am spitting daggers by now, but walk to find somewhere for lunch. My appetite is for eating Immigration Officials head, but I settle for some chicken tikka masala and buttery naan bread in the sun. I am still mildly stewing, wondering my fate with immigration and a little angry with Africa as a whole. When I pay my bill, I realize that I have been grossly overcharged. I mention this to the server and he apologizes with a shrug and tells me that the menu is old, prices have gone up. I don’t have any fight left in me for overpriced naan bread, I need to save my fire for Immigration.
I walk back and there are lineups beginning to form already (which I’ve already explained doesn’t really mean anything). The window opens at 2:10, and it’s a new guy–asking for my receipt. “A receipt?” I was never given a receipt! I tell him my weepy story and he says I‘ll have to wait for the woman I dealt with to come back from lunch which will be, “whenever she decides to come back.”
It starts raining, so everyone is pushing to get under the awning. Twenty minutes later a woman running with a yellow plastic bag knotted over her hair tells me “ít’s coming,” –but this could be more rain, the apocalypse, or?? I wait another 15 minutes back in line, water splashing down from the roof spout, leaving me wet up to my knees. My woman returns from her lunch at a casual 2:45. She writes me a hasty receipt to go to Room 2. I go to Room 2 and am appalled by the non-filing system—there are a thousand sheets of paper stacked in a hundred piles on bookshelves that threaten to buckle and fall over. There are boxes and trays of passports. I want to cry, this is where passports come to die.
I hand in my receipt to the surly guy at the desk drinking coffee as black as oil and he hands me my passport immediately. I open it up and the visa looks the same–all that for nothing?? He shakes his head and flips the page, and I see the god-damned stamp allowing me to stay for 30 more days. Good grief, I can’t wait to do it all over again in a month.
The thrill of my week (Immigration did not register high on my thrill meter) was going to visit the Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary. It was the 10th anniversary, and my association with the Jane Goodall Institute allowed me to sneak on the invite-only red carpet list. A violent thunderstorm lit up the sky just before the boat was to leave the dock to take us 23km south to the Koome Islands. Lake Victoria was frothing with white caps, and the boat was delayed for an hour and a half. Carol and I found seats on the 30-foot “traditional canoe” with not-so-traditional Yamaha motors (travel time: 90 minutes). The boat was soon full of people and giant speakers that were balanced in the center. My mother would have climbed out of the boat at that point. Staff from the sanctuary passed out lifejackets (or, what were intended to be lifejackets—they looked more like nylon vests with shoulder pad flotation devices in them). I was told that I didn’t need one, “you’ll be fine,” and the last jacket was handed to a local. How would I be fine? Carol told me later that the majority of Africans can’t swim, so, even if I could only pull off a dog-paddle, “I’d be fine.” The equator invisibly splits the world here somewhere in the deep waters of Lake Victoria, making it an even 9,640 km to the North or the South pole. So, it would be a very special dog paddle indeed.


There are 44 rescued chimps at the Ngamba sanctuary. They have either been found trapped in wire snares or mantraps (made out of spring-loaded car parts sometimes weighing 12 kg that the chimps will drag around, usually dying from a slow death because they are unable to feed). Some are victims of the pet trade, or, orphaned when their mothers have been illegally poached. The chimps sheltered at Ngamba would never survive in the wild—chimp communities have strong blood, and they don’t allow new faces in without huge dominance fights which often end in death. Often, for chimps that have been injured in snare traps, they can no longer properly find food for themselves or climb to safety as they once could. At Ngamba, the chimps call 98 acres of natural habitat home. The electric fence that separates them from the viewing area is operated by solar-power (much like myself).
The chimps are fed daily by caregivers, which is what we arrive just in time to see. Bananas, carrots and jackfruit are thrown from the platform, and soon the word is out. The jackfruit is the most prized, although, Sunday, is quite partial to carrots. He soon has so many collected in his arms that he walks on his hind legs to a quiet spot to peel them with his nails. The chimps are fed at 11am and 2:30 (more bananas, avocado, tomatoes). At night they are given posho (a porridge made from maize flour). They sleep in an enclosure with suspended hammocks that mimic the nests that they would build high in the trees.

Sunday, peeling carrots

Watching the Ngamba chimps so closely while they feed is quite entertaining. Tombu hogs most of the jackfruit and bristles when the younger chimps enter his personal bubble. Others sit and simply hold up their hand if they want more bananas. Like, “here, toss me one.” However, one of the chimps becomes agitated with the whole scene and Stanley warns that he is going to throw stones. The chimp struts away, much like a macho guy flexing in front of the mirrors at the gym. His hair is on end, and Stanley points out the stones clenched in his hand. Sure enough, the chimp turns back around and charges, flinging the stones up at the platform as we scurry. He slaps the ground hard with his hand and cools down. In the wild, this is common behaviour. Chimps “display” by making themselves sound bigger than they are. They hammer on ironwood trees because of the great echoing drumming sound, they throw things (Jane Goodall tells stories of having empty kerosene cans pitched at her), they snap branches, and basically have a tantrum. We share 98.7 % of the same DNA with a chimp and it becomes obvious that they share our sadness, anger, agitation and joy too. They are affectionate with each other, holding hands, kissing, consoling even, but, they are also wild animals prone to natural instincts.
Visiting the Island’s vet clinic, I learn of the importance of vaccinations, not for my protection, but for the welfare of the chimps. If an employee or tourist comes down with the flu, they are evacuated from the island immediately. Because our DNA is so similar, chimps are susceptible to many of the same diseases that we are: the common cold, flu, and even polio. In Gombe, Tanzania where Goodall did most of her chimp observations, there was a polio outbreak in the 80s that devastated the chimp population. Chimps sadly lost use of their arms, their legs—some learned to somersault to get to places. They could no longer climb trees, and Goodall’s description of the outbreak actually had me sobbing as I read In the Shadow Of Man. Several chimps died from the outbreak that was believed to be passed on from humans. (Pfizer drugs actually donated polio vaccines that were slipped into bananas and eggs to help prevent the rest of the chimp community from falling ill.)

Lily Ajarova, the Executive Director of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust said, “the fact that there is a chimp sanctuary is proof of human failure.” Chimps face endangerment from many fronts: human encroachment, the bushmeat trade (seen more in the Congo than Uganda–yes, people actually eat chimps!), chimps being presented to foreign dignitaries as gifts and the mass burning of forests for charcoal (the primary fuel source in many villages and cities).
The hope is that one day sanctuaries like Ngamba Island no longer have to exist. That one day, chimps will find a safe haven in the forest where they belong.

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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