Chimpanzees in the rain

The contrast between the sun-scorched Arabian peninsula — all grays, tans, and black — and lush central Uganda is stark. “It’s like another planet,” Steve murmured, looking out on our descent toward the riotous shades of green, fertile red earth, and red rooftops. One of the rainy seasons here in “the pearl of Africa” is March to June, and during that period, temperatures are mild. Although Entebbe is almost on the equator, its elevation is around 4000 feet. When we arrived Sunday afternoon it was in the mid-70s and the sun was shining through scattered clouds. So many birds were singing they made me think of noisy party-goers.

Steve and I rarely return to countries we’ve already visited. We’re curious about so many places we haven’t yet gotten to (India! Turkey! Mongolia!), it feels like there isn’t time to go back anywhere. Yet we’ve come back to Uganda because our mission here isn’t tourism but microfinance. When we were here four years ago, we visited a village in the southwestern part of the country to learn about a Ugandan project seeking to partner with Women’s Empowerment (WE), the San Diego organization started by friends of ours more than 13 years ago. We returned from that trip impressed with the Ugandan operation, a partnership resulted, and since then Steve and I have served as liaisons between the folks in San Diego and those in Uganda. WE has raised more than $100,000 for the Uganda organization, which lends that money to groups of women between the ages of 50 and 100 who are raising their orphaned grandchildren. Individual grannies in the groups borrow small amounts of money (typically $15 to $80) for four-month periods and use it to buy rabbits or pigs or other animals, craft materials, or items they can resell at a profit. Two representatives from San Diego visited two years ago to assess the microloan program up close, and now we’re here to follow up.

Because May 1 is a holiday in Uganda (as in many countries), we had Monday free. This suited us fine because we also wanted to visit the chimpanzee sanctuary on Ngambe Island, located in Lake Victoria, which adjoins Entebbe. I was vaguely aware of the sanctuary four years ago, but there was no time to squeeze in a visit. Since then, however, both Steve and I have read The Bonobo Handshake, a book about primate research set in part on the island. That amped up my desire to see the Ugandan refuge. Months ago, I contacted the sanctuary and made a reservation for us to hire a speedboat that would take us out for a day trip.

I awoke long before dawn on Monday to the rumbling of thunder. Uganda, like other parts of East Africa, has been suffering from a crippling drought, so it is happy news that in the last week, heavy rains have fallen. I have to confess, however, that when the pattering on our roof began early Monday, selfish thoughts assailed me. Soon the pattering turned into a downpour so violent it woke Steve. The pace of the thunder picked up, and I had to voice my concern: was it safe to venture out on a huge lake in a small boat during a thunderstorm?

[The Internet where I’m trying to post this in Kampala is horrible. I’ll have to write photo captions this way. The central compound of our guesthouse in Entebbe, which had looked like paradise Sunday in the late afternoon, was a swamp by Monday morning.]

At breakfast in the guesthouse dining room, I asked the assistant manager what he thought. Steady rain was still pounding down, but the thunder had abated, and he assured us the speedboat would certainly have some kind of canopy.

The guesthouse workers offered to give us a ride down to the boat dock, so we decided to assess the situation there. At first the facility seemed to be deserted, but then a guy appeared, a member of the boat crew, looking a little surprised to see us. (Although I’d reconfirmed our reservation a few days before our departure from San Diego, we hadn’t yet paid anything for the trip.) He said he’d have to go get some gasoline, but we should hang out under the overhangs, and we would depart soon enough.

[Our trusty vessel]

We strolled around, spotted the speedboat, and came upon another fellow who identified himself as one of the sanctuary cooks. He would be returning to the island after his block of time off. As we chatted with him, both the color of the sky and the intensity of the rain began to lighten, along with my spirits. I started to think the outing might not end in disaster after all.

And it didn’t. We shoved off just after 10 (instead of the scheduled 9 am departure). By then, it was only drizzling and the boat’s canopy protected us. I still might have risked hypothermia as the twin 115 Yamaha outboards revved up and we jounced and hydroplaned over the dark gray water. But the crew handed us heavy waterproof jackets and pants that kept us toasty and made me feel thrilled, rather than miserable, to be blasting in the direction of Tanzania at the start of a stormy day.

Our time on the island was pure fun from start to finish. The rain stopped, and we had to strip off the protective gear. Paul, the Ugandan chimp caretaker assigned to show us around, had been working on the island for 11 years; his knowledge of the sanctuary and its inhabitants was near-encyclopedic. The place is remarkable. Purchased 20 years ago by Jane Goodall and other chimpanzee fans, the island is a home for chimps who’ve been rescued from a variety of grim fates (poacher traps, war zones, pet traders). They get to hang out and play in about 95 of the island’s total 100 acres during the day, but at night they’re lured (by their evening feeding) into a giant cage-like structure where they sleep in hammocks.

[Part of the system of shoots that channel the chimps back to their sleeping quarters.]

[These two bad boys weren’t allowed to join the others in the jungle that day. Paul explained that one of them was angling to become the alpha male; the other was his “bodyguard.” They were causing too much trouble at the moment.]

[This two-year-old, nicknamed Survivor, was confined because he was still recovering from a broken leg — the second such injury he’d suffered from his violent and aggressive elders.]

They can’t just live independently in the forest because it’s only big enough to sustain 2 or 3 animals, whereas the community has grown over the years to include 49. During the day, electrified fences keep them from breaking into the 5 acres occupied by the caretaker quarters, small veterinary clinic, and other facilities for the humans. Since chimpanzees can’t swim, the lake water prevents most of them from making a watery escape, although Paul did tell us how one of the apes somehow managed to highjack a local fisherman’s boat — stocked with fish. That guy floated off for some time before the humans somehow recaptured the craft. Even more astounding was the story about the night a new worker forgot to padlock the animals’ sleeping quarters. The chimps noticed this in short order, broke out and began a wild rampage that had them marauding into the staff dining room. The humans all fled into the water to avoid being injured or killed. It only ended when a chimp named Megan got into the kitchen, found the stash of beer and wine, and alerted her fellows, who somehow got the bottles open and drank all the contents. Once drunk, they grew drowsy enough to enable their recapture.
Twice during the day we got a glimpse into why you’d want to keep a fence between you and the chimps at all times. They’re fed four times daily, and we got to watch the 11 am and 2:30 pm feedings. We positioned ourselves on an elevated platform.

As a worker approached with pails filled with fruit, resounding hoots issued form the forest, and soon the animals began appearing and positioning themselves along the fence.

We might have been 20 or 30 feet from the closest ones. That felt close, certainly close enough to feel their size and power, close enough to read their facial expressions.

Some raised an arm or clapped their hands or stamped their feet, demanding that oranges and carrots and avocado and chunks of jackfruit be lobbed in their direction. (They made me think of New Yorkers hailing cabs.) Savage fights with lots of howling and blood-curdling screams and teeth-baring and breakneck chases broke out several times during each feeding session. Then they ate all the food and disappeared into the jungle again.
They’re not as charming and lovable as the bonobo colony in our zoo in San Diego. But motoring home in the late afternoon over the glassy sun-dappled lake, I’ve never been happier that a little rain failed to stop us from enjoying the adventure.

[Our boat captain]

4 thoughts on “Chimpanzees in the rain

  1. Susan M Hocking May 3, 2017 / 4:46 am

    Fun reading..I’m enjoying your trip through your eyes and words!

  2. Wes Mudge May 3, 2017 / 1:35 pm

    Confirms my bias; can’t trust a Chimp– too much like humans. Bonobo are better.

  3. Leslie May 3, 2017 / 5:29 pm

    Sigh…this is wonderful!

  4. czatkin May 5, 2017 / 11:43 pm

    I’d assumed chimps in a sanctuary would be more civilized. I guess any conferment is a version of jail.

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