It’s all so familiar. Sure, there are some major changes, like the fact that I’m blogging directly from Gombe, but the essence is the same. The sound of Ashura, our cook, sweeping the dry leaves from the walkway behind the house, the squeal of a young baboon as it’s chased by a playmate, and of course the constant waves on the beach. Right now they’re crashing quite hard – must have been a storm in Congo overnight.
I lived at Gombe on and off between 1999 and 2002 as I did my PhD fieldwork on meat sharing, and I’m back for a month to catch up with old friends (human and chimp), check in on the on-going daily data collection, and experiment with some new data collection techniques. As the ‘manager’ of the long-term database of chimpanzee behavior, I help to catalogue, digitize and analyze over 50 years of detailed records collected at Gombe since Jane Goodall began the study in 1960. As a researcher, I use these data to study social relationships and cooperation among adult males.
My journey back to Gombe was remarkably smooth. Exhausting, but smooth. North Carolina to Washington DC to Addis Ababa to Dar es Salaam. We landed around mid-day, so the sun was hot and the smell of baked earth mixed with that of humanity in its purest form. Smoke, sweat, fumes, urine, dust, grilled food, goats, chickens. And the sounds. Cars honking, shouting, bleating, engines, crows, roosters, dala-dala drivers clinking coins, music. Constant, yet somehow relaxing. I took it all in as I took a taxi from the airport in Dar to my hotel. I was relieved that I made it through immigration with only a photocopy of my residence permit, and that taxi prices are now fixed. The last thing I wanted to do was to haggle in all-but-forgotten Swahili after 15 hours on a plane.
I imagine that a travel writer would have immediately looked for a quaint hole-in-the-wall eatery, chatted with the locals, and been invited to attend some sort of cultural event. I quickly grabbed a bite to eat at the hotel restaurant, bought a SIM card for my phone, turned on the TV in my room and went to bed at 6:00. Very romantic.
The next morning it was back to the airport for a 6:30 flight to Mwanza. I was proud that I managed to talk down my excess baggage charge, and felt the Swahili beginning to come back, slowly. The twin-propeller plane stopped briefly in Shinyanga, and I walked about on the dirt runway while passengers and baggage were shuffled. Then to Mwanza, where I had two hours to wait for my flight to Kigoma. I left my bags in the airline office, and walked across the small roundabout in front of the main airport building to the ‘Mwanza airport pub’, which was a low, bright red building with a covered porch at the front, filled with the plastic coca-cola tables and chairs that you find at all outdoor restaurants in Tanzania. The menu was pretty limited, and not written down, so I ended up with fish soup (a fish head in a bowl of soup with vegetables), a chapati and a Fanta Orange. Not exactly what I’m used to at 9:30am, but it was actually quite good. I had forgotten about small things like the way waitresses bring a jug and a basin to the table, and pour warm water over your hands before and after the meal. And the flies. And the way everyone and everything seems so alive.
The plane to Kigoma was an intimate 12-seater Cessna. We swung out over Lake Victoria, but being the dry season it was very hazy, so I couldn’t see far. Despite the warnings from the pilot, the flight wasn’t that bumpy, and before long we were descending. I wish we could have taken a detour close to Gombe, only a few kilometers up the shore of Lake Tanganyika. Instead, we bumped down at dusty Kigoma airport. My friend Kimata was there to meet me, and I reminded him that he was the first person I met in Kigoma – he had been sent to make sure I got safely off the train, back in 1999. We laughed about this as we drove down the newly-paved road into town.
We stopped only briefly in Kigoma, which has changed a lot. The main road is paved, everyone has a cell phone, and there is a 4- or 5-storey building being constructed next to the old taxi stand. Happily, Allies restaurant, and Baby Come And Call, which used to be where you went to make phone calls (but now is presumably an internet café), are still there. Kigoma has the same hot, dusty energy, and the eclectic mix of Tanzanians, UN aid workers, missionaries and a few tired-looking tourists. The guidebooks can’t really describe Kigoma; nor can I. At that point, all I wanted to do was stop traveling, so we drove to the JGI-TACARE building, where one of the Gombe boats was docked, and waited for Bara, the boat driver, and a few other passengers. One of them was Ashura, who had been warned of my arrival and was in town stocking up on food.
And then off to Gombe…