By Foot to Gombe

by Geoffrey Clarfield (July 2012)

About a decade ago I drove a Landover into Kigoma town, with its pot holes, dust on the road, dukkas selling everything from imported South African granny smith apples to Kitenga cloth printed in the Congo and everything else that you might need to run a modern, or for that matter, traditional household at the end of the railway line from Dar. We handed my knapsack to Salim the boat driver and were introduced to various members of his family, all who seem to work for the Jane Goodall Institute at Gombe Streams National Park.

We then drove off into the opposite direction, up the road into the interior for we were not going to Gombe by boat. We were heading north towards the Burundian border where we would stop at one of the inland villages and then cut west across the hills through the villages around Gombe, by foot, until we reached the research station by the lake.

As we drove up the road we left a column of dust behind us, indicative of the massive soil erosion, which was everywhere to be seen, and which is partly a result of the massive population explosion that has overtaken the region during the last forty years.

A generation ago, the hilltops were covered in forest that went down to the lake. Now, as far as the eye can see, there is no longer uninterrupted miombo woodland, only evidence of slash and burn farming, dense clusters of palm oil trees and then clusters of houses in villages along the road.

It is as if, in this remote part of what is really Central Africa the deforestation of the ancient Mediterranean is once again taking place. Hilltops and valleys are being stripped of their natural forest and clustered plantations of domesticated palms can be found here and there among the fields of the villagers.

We finally entered Bubango where Hilali, one of Jane Goodall's most trusted field assistants and now head of all local field assistants, lives in a modest house beside a giant mango tree with his four wives and over thirty children, a living example of the competition between simian, forests and homo sapiens and which, in evolutionary terms, seems to have favored our species despite a residual sympathy for chimpanzees from that segment of humanity most removed from nature, middle class researchers and conservationists from the industrialized nations of the West.

Hilali  brought us in to his living room. The two of us were offered to sit in upright western style chairs while he sat sideways, lying on one elbow, in his knitted white Muslim cap and his Somali style wrap around sarong.

He and Anton exchanged the news in Swahili as he told us of the comings and goings of his many family members and of other researchers. His three wives came into the room holding a number of young children under the age of five, one or two who had just recovered from bouts of malaria, which is endemic in the region.

Although Hilali had a tin roof, a sign of wealth and advancement, there was no evidence that anyone in the house slept under a mosquito net. Nor was there any hint that he had any understanding of the germ theory of disease, so no matter how many admonitions he might have received from his friendly Western employers, it is unlikely that he would exchange belief in the invisible germ for the time honored, ancestrally sanctioned, invisible power of witchcraft and its ability to inflict disease.

At least in witchcraft, one can find the source of the disease and do something about the person who caused you to get sick in the first place, restoring the balance of life as it has been lived for centuries, if not for millennia.

As we sat talking a tray of bread was laid on the floor but first water was poured onto our hands from a plastic jug, Arabic style, and then we drank our coffee and ate our bread. The rhythm and deliberation of these activities was preindustrial, harking back to a time, perhaps from before the nineteenth century, before German and British colonialists brought their quick way of doing things to East Africa as sons of the industrial revolution.

We then drove to Bubango where we met Yayha Almasi. Yahya stood in front of his house wearing a blue “kanzu” robe, adorned by an old British waistcoat of a cut that went out of style before WWII. He had a red fez on his head and smiled at us with perfectly clean and healthy white teeth. He was another one of Jane's long-term researchers.

As he greeted me in Swahili he bowed slightly and touched his hand to his heart, giving me the old kind of salaam that was common across the shores of both sides of the Indian Ocean and which I had read about in the books about the Raj but had rarely witnessed, as the custom has died out in the middle east from where it came. Perhaps it still survives in the Yemen or in Oman.

Yet these men were not Swahili or Zanzibaris although they dress and spoke Swahili like them. They were Muha, the local Bantu tribe whose ancestors were converted to Islam by the slave traders and who retain a fair amount of their traditional African culture, exemplified by the fact that Yayha is well known as a traditional sorcerer and the local people are scared to death of him, despite his good humored attitude and winning style-perhaps this demeanor adds to his locally perceived power.

We left our driver on the main road that continues to the Burundian border and turned off by foot on a path through a village. Kernels of palm nuts lay strewn across cloth, drying in the sun. Within a few minutes we were walking along the banks of small streams that meandered through large plantations of palm oil trees.

Hilali and Anton, having known each other for years kept up continuous banter in Ki Swahili. Hilali pointed out where he and his family members farmed or had farmed in the past. Crossing a stone strewn sunken riverbed we saw an open aqueduct to bring water to a field, made up of banana leaves, piled in an overlapping line, an interesting form of local technology. On either side of us were large hillsides, partially denuded with various miombo trees surviving on the higher slopes.

As far as the eye could see the land had been robbed of forest, the land had been burned and farmed and here and there palm trees had been planted where miombo once had been. The land was curiously devoid of livestock and only here and there did we meet a few goats and one long horned Ugandan cow, his horns looked like an animal off a Pharaonic wall paining.

We continued for about an hour through these valleys and paused at a large mango tree where Hilali told us that many years ago chimpanzees had lodged there and once attacked a woman walking by with her baby.

Soon we started climbing and within minutes we were snaking our way up a steep ridge. When I realized that on either side of me there was a near sheer drop, that was blocked from view by thick man high grass I followed Hilali carefully up the six-inch wide footpath grasping long stalks of grass to steady myself. Anton, with dry Scottish wit turned to me and said, “welcome to the escalator.”

For about an hour we went on like this until the path widened and we began to see patches of forest on the slopes of the hillside just before the top. We stopped to take a look at the hills and valleys we had just come from. They seemed to go up and down with a severity that reminded me of pictures of the Himalayas, although they were just shades of green and brown. Here and there on the highest slopes you could see the square boundaries of someone's “shamba” (farm) at an angle that no Westerner would conceive of as normal, neither for farming, walking or hiking.

Looking at the hillside you could literally see how local population growth and a swidden farming pattern that first originated in the Neolithic, was now transforming the landscape from what was once forested hills and valleys filled with wildlife and primates and with a few islands of people carving out a life from the forest, to a near desert where the hand of man was everywhere upon the landscape, and nature had retreated to just above us at the highland border of Gombe national park.

Another hour of slow climbing brought us to the border of Gombe National Park and within a minute we were standing on the crest looking down into the riverine forest and across the great inland sea that is Lake Tanganyika where the sun was setting on the mountains of the Congo in this part of the Albertine Rift. I thought to myself that one hundred years ago a European explorer could have wandered the hills east of the lake not knowing that one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world, a lake more than ten million years old and over a kilometer deep; a lake filled with tropical fish, freshwater crocodile and jelly fish, lay just over the hillside.

Good public school boy that he is, Anton came over to me, shook my hand and said, “Welcome to Gombe!” Hilali added his two cents and spun a long yarn about a Muha who had been walking along the thin path of these heights once many years ago who slipped and fell on his spear killing himself in the process.

I turned to Anton and said,”I know that this does not sound right” as I looked down at the forest so famous for its chimpanzees and contemplated the sandy beaches and immense waters of Lake Tanganyika “but the only thing going through my mind right now is the song from the Wizard of Oz, If I was the King of the forest!”

We sat for a few minutes longer looking across the lake to Kivu in the Congo and with the near full moon on our right started down the steep path towards the forest. The drop on one side was more than 90% and given the fact that my legs were tired and stiff from the climb I was more than a little anxious at times, for I feared that a false move here or there could send me tumbling down the mountain side. I later found out that some years ago a foreign visitor, taking this path to Gombe, had fallen and did not live to tell the tale.

There was no grass on either side as the Park wardens had burned the ground to make sure that the park edges did not ignite in natural fires. So, after what seemed like ages we made it down the steep slopes into the forest and onto paths strewn with rock and gnarled tree roots. The last two hours were spent moving through forest paths by moonlight, never knowing whether that black patch in front of you is a dark bit of earth or a hole in the ground where you could slip and twist your ankle.

As we went through the forest we began to hear the water falls of Gombe, baboons calling in the night and the noise of the waves lapping on the sandy beaches of the Lake. Anton told me that by now chimps would have made their tree nests and most would be sleeping, adding thoughtfully, that they did a hell of a lot of farting throughout the night.

By nine in the evening we entered the research camp, we poured ourselves some whiskey and sat down. I explained to the various researchers and administrators who had been waiting for us that the reason we were delayed is that we were trying to enter the Guinness book of records for the longest walking time from Bubango to Gombe.

Most of the people there were what I called “Jane's people” and extraordinary network of researchers and conservationist who, having been inspired by Jane had spent decades of their life in Gombe studying the next generation of chimps and baboons while engaging themselves in the next generation of scientific controversy about the nature of the higher primates.

They are also faced with serious conservation and rural development problems, the nature of which are rarely shared with the Western audiences who devour the films of David Attenborough for the greatest threat to the world's biodiversity is underdevelopment, which is an ugly and saddening thing to watch and confront. Many would prefer to stay and do research in protected areas rather than negotiate with stubborn peasants trying to convince them that national parks are their and their children's long-term interest.

They told us that since they we had been passed by numerous peasants on the trail who had arrived hours before us they had had constant news of our slow progress and my pre geriatric pace. Nevertheless, I had taken this walk as my 49th birthday present to myself and they had not forgotten to bake me a cake.

One of the most interesting member's of Jane's people is an American filmmaker, Bill, who with his photographer partner Kristen, live in a tiny cabin on the shores of the lake in the middle of Gombe Park. Their cabin has a lower part where they can receive human (and I suppose) animal guests and a loft where they sleep and edit films digitally.

Bill has developed an archive of chimp footage that is unrivalled in the history of nature photography. He is a fit, good-natured former Peace Corp volunteer with a knack for nature videography and has spent most of the last ten years filming the chimps of Gombe. I felt like I had just dropped in on a digital version of Tarzan and Jane and spent much of the next day watching their footage and listening to them talking about chimps. During the previous year Bill had filmed unique events such as tree ant fishing in the Kasakela community, two sequences which illustrate the behavior of infants who have temporarily lost their mothers in the forest, a long rain dance display, a streambed display, and a long waterfall display by Wilkie then Frodo.

During the last year, he had recorded Apollo's increasing confidence recorded on many occasions. Through his numerous displays and confidence in conflict, Apollo has now managed to attain the status of second ranking male within the community.

One of the most interesting sequences that he had shot was one of Titan standing bipedally, repeatedly striking at Fanni with a long branch while Frodo sat within a few meters of Fanni as Titan tormented her.

Titan is a seven-year-old male. DNA testing has shown that Titan is Frodo's son. Like his father, Bill's footage shows that Titan has an air of aggression, which is exceptional for a youth his age. His frequency in utilization of weapons is exceptional. Bill told me that in one day, he had seen him use over 30 objects as projectiles or clubs to intimidate his adversaries.

On a darker note he told me that chimps and baboons continue to frequent the staff camps which subject them to the possibilities of disease transfer from humans. I pondered that evolution is still raw in tooth and claw here at Gombe.

For example I was told that the population of the Kasakela chimpanzee community was at an all time high, with 54 individuals. The two adjacent communities each have a total of < 25 members. This gives the Kasakelan's a tremendous advantage in competition for resources. They have increased their range well into the former ranges of the other two communities. There has been an influx of transfer females in the past years, which may well contribute to the diminishing numbers in the other communities.

One of the things that Bill has picked has to do with new feeding patterns and learning. As few as four years earlier, the chimpanzees rarely fed upon mango. Even by the end of the 1990's, there had been only a handful of observations. By 2001 however, the mango fruit was an important food source for the community. For over the course of several months (September-October) mango fruit was one of the most important foods for the chimps.

As Bill talked on about all and every aspect about chimpanzee life I wondered whether this kind of behavior was partly a result of the scientists having discontinued banana feeding to the chimps for fear of human infection further reducing their numbers.

I have seen many chimpanzee documentaries and they all tell a story. As Bill showed me his hours of footage I imagined a twelve hour exhibit, “A Day in the Life of Gombe” something that would attract audiences in sophisticated centers like New York and London and which would attract those diehards who, unable to make it to Gombe, could spend a few hours in a Museum contemplating a day of filming that spliced the highlights of a year into one day. Andy Warhol meets Jane Goodall.

The next day we took the boat trip back to Kigoma. It was a long wooden contraption, modeled on the Swahili dhows that the coastal slave traders had brought the Lake when they set up their slave trading station of Ujiji. We sailed by a beach within Gombe national park where Livingstone himself had made camp on his journeys around the lake.

The slave trade ended one hundred years ago, but the wars in the Congo continue and it is the animals who are now the final victims of these wars as soldiers penetrate the forest and eat the last chimpanzees of central Africa. The chimps of Gombe have been saved by the efforts of Jane and her people, but their numbers dwindle, poaching is a constant threat and within a generation, they may all disappear. I spent more than a year working near them in the hope that some will survive. Only time will tell.


Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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