A Visit with Relatives
Natasha, Eddie, Kalema, Nagoti, Billi; because of Jane Goodall, every chimpanzee has a name. Here on Ngamba Island, their stories of rescue; from chained captivity, wildlife traffickers, bushmeat hunters, and wanton cruelty, are posted on placards along raised walkways.
Over 50 chimps call Ngamba home. Uganda’s Lake Victoria, which is known to flood, laps at its shores. Its 100 acres hold an information center, visitor facilities, and hospital. Volunteers arrive by boat from Entebbe, stay in comfy tent cabins, and help resident staff with chimp care. Visiting scientists add to the mix.
During my stay, I rose with the sun, to navigate among slivering five-foot monitor lizards and breakfasting shorebirds, to the operations area. With the chimps off to the forest, I joined the team, scouring the chimps’ sleeping cages with poop brooms and hoses, removing soiled straw. In the kitchen, we chopped and chopped today’s menu of fruits and veggies, filling feeding pails to the brim.
Twice daily the chimps emerge from the forest to play outfield, intercepting pineapple projectiles, cabbage wedges, and more, hurled over the electrified fence. They fight and chase, their physical power intimidates.
We row to Myende, a neighboring island, where fishing families displaced by the chimps long ago re-established village life. School’s out; children dart about with a homemade soccer ball. At night, lilting music travels from here across the lake; the chimps return from the forest for their soy porridge and fresh straw beds.
After some days of chopping and cleaning, I am rewarded with a forest walk with some (non-aggressive) chimps. Billi stretches her long arms towards my neck to be carried; she’s already too heavy. We traipse along the path; soon we’re supine on the leafy ground, forming a circle with other chimps. I stroke her head and fondle her ears; she runs her leathery black fingers through my hair, and into my pockets. Her silky fur smells clean and earthy; her amber eyes meet mine. But I’m out of peanuts, and lose her interest. Besides, she’s got trees to climb.