From the field by Ian Gilby – Post #5

A good day…in hindsight.

Literally the day after I uploaded my high-and-mighty advice about how to survive following chimpanzees at Gombe, I was humbled by the forest.

The previous evening, the b-record team lost their target in Linda valley, after being swarmed by bees. I’m quite glad I wasn’t there, because this can be absolutely terrifying. The bees come in for the attack so aggressively that they sometimes bounce off of their target before stinging them. The sting can lead to painful swelling, and often other injuries as the victim panics and flees.

So, the research team didn’t know exactly where the group had nested, but Gabo felt that they were forging pretty steadily North, probably into Rutanga valley. We left camp at 5:15, trudged for 30 minutes up the beach, then turned East, climbing the ridge just North of Rutanga. Our hope was that we could zero in on the group as they made their morning calls. Gabo’s instincts proved to be right on, for at 6:30, we heard calls very close to where we had stopped to listen.

When we got to the group in the dawn half-light, there was already action. Dark shapes rushed through the machaka, accompanied by panthoots, screams and wraa-barks. At best could only guess at the major players, based on the composition of the group the day before. The excitement centered around Nasa, a female who transferred into the Kasekela study community in 2000. She hasn’t yet had a baby, as far as we know, and on this day, she was fully swollen, and the males were competing for a chance to mate with her. Freud, Titan and Apollo were there, along with a few young males, including Sampson, Fudge and Tarzan. It’s most likely that the screams came from Nasa at the hands of Titan, who is 16 years old, full of Testosterone, and BIG. As the alpha male, Ferdinand was absent, Titan was wreaking havoc.

But remember that there isn’t much food right now, so all the excitement was happening as we travelled, first North, then East, then back toward the South. Perhaps they had been thinking about an excursion into the territory of the Mitumba community, but felt that the numbers weren’t in their favor? I was trying to teach Gabo how to use the new GPS system, and for the first two or three hours of the day, we were never in the same place for more than 5 minutes at a time. We followed the group down the steep slope to Rutanga stream, where they checked on the mvumvu trees. It was on this descent that I forgot my advice. After being hung up in a tangle, and in a rush to keep up, I forgot to look before touching. A dreaded mwiba was stretched across our path, and just put my head down and tried to charge though. The thorns ripped my left ear, leaving blood trickling down my neck. I lost my nerve and started sliding all over the place. Not my best moment. But, at least I could count on an hour or two of rest while the chimps ate mvumvu, right? Wrong. There was no fruit, so we started up the other side of the valley, which is very thick and steep. Considering my current lack of fitness and my rattled confidence, I was lucky to keep up.

The group kept moving! By now, my arms were smeared with blood, dirt and sweat, and I was cursing myself for writing in my previous post that one ‘loves every minute’ following chimps. But then I heard the high-pitched squeaks and squeals of red colobus monkeys. Finally the group stopped and rested below the monkey troop, eyeing the canopy, apparently assessing their chances of making a kill. In my research, I’ve found that the decision to hunt is based on a number of factors, including the size of the chimpanzee group, the presence of particular hunters, visibility and the availability of colobus escape routes. I thought the chances were pretty good, and the males seemed interested in having a go. I positioned myself in a small clearing at the base of a large bare tree that bent upward toward a cluster of colobus. By luck, Titan jumped into this tree, and started to climb, with Sampson right behind him. I had the video camera out, and thought, “This is going to be an amazing shot!”. But, halfway up, Titan stopped and Sampson climbed down. There was a pair of fierce male colobus blocking their access to the more vulnerable youngsters. The chimp group had spread out by now, and screams from below drew Titan out of the tree and off through the machaka. In struggling to keep up with him, I heard the burst of colobus and chimp screams that signal a successful capture. When I reached Titan, he had hold of one end of an adult female monkey, while his father, Frodo, had hold of the other. Frodo who seems to have a 6th sense for meat, had materialized from nowhere. The monkey was literally torn in half (my apologies to the sensitive readers…) and a crowd of beggars followed Titan and Frodo. I followed Titan, who was fending off Apollo and Nasa, who grabbed at pieces of intestine that dragged behind. Not a pretty scene.

Eventually both Apollo and Nasa were rewarded for their efforts, but not without drama. Titan displayed over and over, scattering the beggars. At one point, Apollo re-directed his frustration at Flirt, dragging and stamping her as she screamed in fear. Eventually, as Titan became satiated, the scene became more peaceful, and soon everyone was resting, with the youngsters chewing on scraps of skin and fur. Mercifully, it stayed this way for an hour or two, but then we were on the march again. The group continued down into Linda valley, checking mgwiza trees and occasionally eating ngoyi pith. There wasn’t much to sustain them, so we kept on moving. And moving. The afternoon research shift had a hard time finding us as we zig-zagged across the valley. But, eventually we were able to hand the torch to them and walk slowly back to camp. I must say that with all my talk of the ‘good-old-days’ of full day follows, I was pretty relieved that I didn’t have 5 more hours of following ahead of me! After a soak in the lake, my body started to recover, and I felt ready to see what the next day had in store.

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From the Field Entry 4 – by Ian Gilby

Ten tips for following chimpanzees at Gombe.

#1. Wear grippy shoes.  I can’t stress this enough. The average slope in the park is 40%, so it’s very rare that the path (if you’re lucky enough to be on one, see tip #2) is level. If you’re not forging directly up, then you’re traversing, with the inside ankle convex and the outside concave. If you lose traction, you’ll find yourself spread-eagled on the slope, clutching at stems of grass (see tip #9), being subjected to good-humored jokes from sure-footed Tanzanians. There are lots of ways to lose traction – In the dry season, it’s the arid, dusty ground and dead leaves. In the wet season (I’m told) it’s termite clay, slick roots and mud. Most folks here swear by $5 Chinese soccer shoes that the research center buys in bulk from a lucky merchant in town. They have lots of soft rubber nubbins on the soles, and seem to have great traction, wet or dry. I’m one of the few who don’t use them, reportedly because my feet are too big and it’s hard to get my size. This is mostly true, but they also have zero cushioning below or above, no support whatsoever, and last about a month. (They do look cool, though). Instead, I rely on low-top, lightweight hiking shoes with Vibram soles. Even so, I suffered for three months in 2001 with an infected ingrown toenail that attracted flies. I’ve said it many times – this continent is tough on feet (and teeth, but that’s another blog).

#2. Embrace the vines. Chimps seem to move just as easily through machaka (vine tangles) as they do on paths. Mercifully, they do often follow paths, many of which began as animal trails that were subsequently widened for bipeds. But, several times a day you’ll find yourself thinking, ‘Seriously, they went in THERE?’. Suddenly your target chimp will slip into the undergrowth without a sound, and then you’re truly in their world. The vines are inevitable. You must embrace them. That is why the next few tips are dedicated to the machaka.

#3. When in doubt, go under. Chimpanzees are smaller than you think, and when you watch them, they duck under vines more often than not. You should do the same. Unfortunately our legs are much longer, so moving as a quadraped is awkward, so don’t be afraid to crawl on hands and knees, or even on your belly. (Remember the average slope of 40%, tip#1). This way, the vines slip (in theory) over your back rather than getting tangled around your ankles. They are amazingly strong and refuse to break if you try to force your way through (tips #5 and #9). Also, it helps to be small – with long legs you’re more likely to try striding over an obstacle, ending with your ankles in a hopeless tangle. I used to use my height as an excuse until I met Gabo, who is at least 6’ 6”, and moves through the forest as well as anyone. But always under. Use your hands to throw the vines over your shoulders, then wriggle through. It’s not unlike birth, really. Of course, there are times when it’s best to go over, but that comes with experience…

#4. Look before you touch. While you’re negotiating the vines, there are lots of hazards to watch for. As you’re slithering down a slope, it’s tempting to reach out and brace yourself against a tree. This is generally a good thing, but occasionally your target will be covered in strong, sharp spines that pierce your hands and hurt for days. Or, there are the thin green vines (mwiba) with barbs that attach themselves relentlessly to flesh and clothing. You can’t grab them to pull them off, but it hurts like crazy to push against them. Or snakes. Ok, maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but it has happened – a few years ago, one of the Tanzanian researchers, Juma Mazogo, grabbed at what he thought was a green vine. It was a green vine snake. Mazogo escaped with a swollen arm. I may simply be blissfully unaware of these snakes, or they’ve all fled by the time I get there. I have been impressed by pythons, mambas and boomslangs, though…What else should you watch for? Army ants, burrs, bees, and chimp poo.

#5. Be calm, don’t rush. Beating the vines (actually, you’ll never beat them) is most likely if you’re calm. Frustration will be the end of you. If you get frustrated, you fight. If you fight, you lose. Visualize your path, concentrate on slipping through (under, not over, tip #3). With fatigue comes anger and frustration, so when you start cursing random people from your childhood and inventing scenarios that end with you pummeling someone, it’s time for a day off. So, take it easy. But, somehow, don’t hesitate either. If you hesitate, thinking, ‘Do I really have to go in there?’, or ‘Isn’t there a path?’, you’ll lose your chimp. (Good luck with this one).

#6. Carry as little as possible. You’re going to spend a lot of time crawling (tips #2-5). Do NOT carry a backpack. I did this once, and found myself alone, upside down, bleeding and swearing in Nyasanga valley. Anything on your back will catch on whatever it can (which will not break, tip #9). If you must carry something, put in the pockets of a field vest or a hip pack. A hip pack works well because you can swing it around to the front as you’re crawling under vines (tip #3). If you wear a vest as well, then the strap from the hip pack doesn’t catch on things as much. No pith helmet necessary, though.

#7. Always carry a camera. I’m a photo buff, so I always like to have a camera with me. You’re in an amazing place surrounded by amazing beings, scenery, life. If you don’t have your camera with you, the chimps will undoubtedly visit the beach, lounge in dappled sunlight and practically pose for photos. Also, it’s great to have a video camera in case a rare event occurs – a patrol, a birth, a hunt, a new immigrant female, etc. After hearing that someone witnessed such an event, the first question we have is always, “Is there video?”. There’s really no excuse for not carrying a video camera (but see tip #6).

#8. Stay hydrated. I sweat a lot. It’s embarrassing, but there it is. I need water. In the old days of full-day follows, my strategy was to drink a liter of water before heading out in the morning, try not to throw up and carry half a liter with me (but see tip #6). Now, I’m less aggressive with my early morning hydration, but still carry water with me. I’ve noticed that now most of the field assistants carry water too, which makes me feel better. There’s no need to be a hero.

#9. If it looks like it will support your weight, it won’t. When clambering up slopes, you’ll use what you can to stay upright. If you’re in a tight spot and lunge for something, it will break, guaranteed. But don’t forget that if it looks flimsy, and you think you can force your way through it, you can’t (tip #3). Although, my life has been saved a few times by grass roots, so really, learning what will tie you up and what will give way comes with experience. Good luck with this one.

#10. Love every minute. This is the easy part.

 

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From the Field Entry 14 by Kara Schroepfer

29-Aug-11

Saying Goodbye

Yesterday, after waking up and getting ready, I headed down the street to Duke’s campus instead of up the hills of Gombe in search of chimps.  The contrasts were stark and though I have enjoyed stocking up on American food, hot showers taken not in the world’s most voluminous bath tub (Lake Tanganyika), but in a small stall where water pours over your head and the dirt you have just scrubbed off is quickly washed away and having reliable and quick access to internet, I already miss the chimps.

Yamaha begging from alpha male, Edgar. Photo by Ian Gilby.

I will now have to catch up on the daily drama of their lives vicariously through Ian and Deus.  But that said, they gave me a pretty awesome farewell.  I last followed them 9 days ago which gives you a sense of the epic journey that I had to undertake to get home.  Last Sunday we started off with no hints as to whereabouts of any adolescent females.  We chose to head into Mukenke valley since that is where several small groups had been hanging out.  We got lucky right away and ran into Golden and Glitter and the rapidly expanding G family.  With one last look at Golden’s baby, we were off to look for a more elusive target.  Five minutes later, we ran into the B record team straining their necks to identify several chimps high in an Mgwiza tree.  Amri made the first IDs and was happy to see Rumumba eating away in the next tree over.  Rumumba is a young immigrant chimp who came into Kasekela a year or two ago from Mitumba.  I initially had high hopes for Rumumba, but had later written her off as a nervous wreck.  Back in June, Nasibu and I had spent two fruitless mornings running after her through the highlands of Kakombe valley.  She made it clear that being followed by two humans was not acceptable and she did everything in her power to shake us.  It’s not hard for a chimp to shake a human and after only an hour she was off into the black hole that is the thickets.  So I was pleasantly surprised when, a month later, I decided to give her a second chance and was able to leisurely follow her as she hung out with the Fs.  This was followed shortly thereafter by a full day follow.  Finding her on my last day and keeping up showcased the progress that we both made during our three month stay.  For Rumumba, she overcame her skittishness and I overcame a total inability to climb through thickets and run up mountains.  A bit later she also provided us with a precious teaching moment.  Ferdinand (the alpha male) was keeping tabs on Rumumba and Tanga as they were eating near the beach.  Nasibu was lounging on a log that arched over the Mukenke stream, practicing data collection, a good 10 meters away from Ferdinand.  A nearby chimp group erupted into a series of pant hoots, arousing Ferdinand and Apollo.  Apollo gave a mini display and Ferdinand followed with a display of his own.  He ran down from a nearby tree with his hair erect in a classic display pose, thumped down the overhanging log and ran towards Nasibu.  It was all Nasibu could do to jump safely off the log and watch in amusement as Ferdinand assumed his rightful position on the log.  Previously Deus and I had been working with Amri and Nasibu to explain the concept of ‘displace’ as it relates to primate behavior.  And here, Ferdinand gave us a perfect amusing example of what a ‘displacement’ entails – A displacement occurs when an (usually dominant) individual approaches a second individual (often at an ideal feeding location), causing the second individual to leave and the first individual to assume his/her spot.  It’s often hard to understand Tanzanian humor but this was a situation we all got a good laugh out of.

Rudy, posing for the camera. Photo by Ian Gilby.

Later in the day, the chimps continued their final performance as we got a radio call from Mitumba saying Yamaha was back in the group.  It took me all of five minutes to decide to leave Rumumba and make the trek up to Mitumba.  With Ian accompanying us to say hello to the Mitumba folks we were quite the crowd.  The Mitumba chimps spent the day hamming it up, treating us to two separate hunting events.  In the first, Edgar, the alpha male, caught a small colobus monkey.  As with Eowyn in the first hunt I saw, Yamaha initially hung back and let the resident females mob Edgar.  After 15 minutes Yamaha tentatively climbed up to Edgar and sat quietly a meter or so away from him.  At a snail’s pace, she gradually inched closer and eventually began begging ever so politely.  I was impressed with her politeness since chimp begging is generally characterized by the beggar being so rude and annoying that the begee has to share just to make it stop.  It was evident here though that Yamaha’s polite choice wasn’t getting her much meat and only got two tiny pieces for all her effort.  After splurging on meat the chimps retired to a large Mvule tree for their second course.  More than an hour later Yamaha continued to eat even after the rest of the group moved on.  When we heard a commotion coming from the river valley, Ian looked over and told me it sounded like they were hunting again.  We hurried after Yamaha and sure enough, Kocha, one of the young males, had caught an adult blue monkey.  We were all late to the party and by the time we arrived, Kocha was at the top of the canopy with his prize and Yamaha was left to pick at the bits that had fallen to the ground in the scuffle.  It’s incredibly rare for chimps to catch or even try to catch a blue monkey so this was an exciting observation for all.  They spent the rest of the day lounging in the river valley, practically posing for pictures.  Though I knew we needed to walk back to Kasekela I lingered awhile and reluctantly said goodbye to the chimps.

I can only hope that my absence will spur them into action and sooner rather than later, I will hear the news that some of my females have made the leap into a new community.  Meanwhile, I will be busy here in Durham, entering pages and pages of data and trying to make sense of the lives of my females from June – August 2011.

The ‘Wasichana’ Team – Amri, Nasibu & Kara

A huge thanks to Amri and Nasibu for their tireless trekking through the forest in search of elusive females.  Also thanks to Anton Collins and Deus Mjungu for all their help in logistics and research design and for being amenable to relaxing with sundowners after long days in the forest.  Lastly thanks to everyone at Gombe for making my stay there wonderful and unforgettable.  And to Aaron Sandel, Christopher Walker and Katrina Schroepfer for help with this blog.  See you all next year!

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From the Field Entry 13 by Kara Schroepfer

20-Aug-11

UPDATE: Is she or isn’t she?

Golden and her new baby

Only a day after writing my post on pregnancy in young chimps I found myself in Kakombe valley searching for Golden.  It had been awhile since I’d last seen her and I needed to catch up on her activity.  Nasibu and I briefly split up to take two different paths through the valley when I came across Gremlin sprawled out in the path with Gizmo and Glitter’s newborn.  Minutes later, I heard movement near the river accompanied by chimp vocalizations.  I turned around to see Titan and Fudge (two young males) heading towards Gremlin.  In the rear of the group I spotted Golden limping along on only one arm.  Her right arm was clutched to her stomach in the tell tale walk of a new mother who is supporting a newborn.  My heart instantly fell with disappointment but also surged with excitement.  Golden came to rest on a tree branch and allowed me to get a good look at her newborn baby girl.  The baby was still wet so I initially surmised she had been born the day before.  Golden maintained her distance from her mom and when finally approaching to greet her, she kept her back to Gremlin and actively avoided her whenever she came close.  For the remainder of the day, Golden associated with Glitter but always kept an eye out for Gremlin’s whereabouts.  We have since revised our estimate of the birth since Golden did not groom her baby for many days afterward and it continued to look wet and new.  When I left Golden still had her baby and all were doing well.  As an optimist, I now look at Golden as my first graduate from pre-transfer/settlement female to settlement female.  Now I’ll be interested in her interactions with her mother and looking for changes in her ranging patterns, foraging and behavior.

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From the field by Ian Gilby – entry 3

B-Rekordi, B-Rekordi, unanisoma? Ova.

Someone once said to me, “Don’t we already know everything there is to know about chimpanzees?”. Um, no, we don’t. Let’s start with something simple – where are they????

Gombe is only 30 square kilometers, and with more than 100 chimps in the park, many people have the impression that we trip over them on the way to the bathroom. True, they often do come through camp to check on the fig and oil palm trees that grow here, and at times they form large groups of 30-40, and seem impossible to miss. But today was a different story, and highlights one of our main research questions – what explains chimpanzee grouping and ranging patterns?

Let me back up. Chimpanzees live in a fission-fusion social system. Each ‘community’ consists of (typically) 50 or so individuals who have (reasonably) friendly relationships. I say ‘reasonably’, because while there are always squabbles and fights within a community, the level of violence is nothing compared to the extremely hostile relationship between neighboring communities. Unlike many other group-living primates, like baboons, all members of a chimpanzee community are very rarely (if ever) all together. Instead, they form small subgroups of varying size and composition – sometimes 30, sometimes 1, very fluid, changing all the time. Why is this? Well, certainly food is a big part of the story, and right now there isn’t much of it. There are no large patches of fruit to support a large subgroup, so the Kasekela study community is scattered far and wide.

This makes chimpanzees difficult to find, let alone study. It’s especially difficult if one is looking for a specific individual, as is often the case. This morning, I went out early with the ‘B-record” team – a pair of Tanzanian researchers who try to follow a ‘target’ chimpanzee each day, collecting data on his/her behavior, companions, feeding, location, etc. There is a monthly quota, so as it is the end of the month, most individuals have been followed, with just a few remaining. We were searching for one of these holdouts.

We left camp at the rather civilized time of 7:00 – no need to get up super early because we didn’t have nesting data on any of the potential target chimps. We (Gabo, Sampson and I), trudged down the beach for over an hour, down to the Southern extreme of the Kasekela community range – Kalande valley. The beach is made up of bleached, wave-worn pebble-to-fist-sized stones. It’s surprisingly tiring to walk as they are constantly shifting under your weight. The lake was very calm this morning – barely a ripple, and the sun had not yet risen over the rift escarpment high above on the left-hand side. We saw a small watersnake, and surprised a bushbuck that had come down to the lakeshore to drink. It gave its characteristic BARK and rushed back into the forest. In Nyasanga valley, we plowed through brown and brittle elephant grass, at least 8 feet high, crossed the old foundations of the research camp that used to be located there, and scattered a troop of un-habituated baboons as we reached Nyasanga stream. Basically, our plan was to walk slowly up the stream, checking fruit trees and listening for signs of chimpanzees. We split up, remaining in radio contact with each other and other researchers elsewhere in the forest – “B-rekordi, B-rekordi, unanisoma? Ova.” (B-record, B-record do you read me? Over). There’s no point in rushing as it’s easy to miss chimp evidence. We saw recent chimp nests, and signs that someone had been eating insects that make galls in mvule leaves, probably yesterday. But no chimps. We climbed up and over a ridge and down into Kalande valley, but again no luck. We surprised a dozing bushpig, which thundered off into the undergrowth, and saw several troops of red colobus monkeys. But no chimps. We paused on hilltops to listen for calls, but nothing. We finally admitted defeat and headed home. Now, at 2:00, the beach was much hotter, and the waves had kicked up considerably. After a long drink of water and a swim, I headed to the office…

So, after all these years, we still don’t have all the answers. Even to the most simple questions – where do the chimps go????

 

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From the field by Ian Gilby – entry 2

8/22/11

The boat was scheduled to leave at 4, so in true Tanzanian fashion we left at five. Bara, the driver, and his assistant showed up around 4:15 with fuel, then Ashura with the food, a baboon researcher or two, and various stragglers hitching a ride. The boat is probably 25 feet long, wooden, with an outboard motor and bench-type seats along the rails. The smell of raw gas and fumes was pretty strong before we got going, and I suddenly remembered how these trips can be pretty nauseating. But, the waves weren’t too bad, and the boat wasn’t overladen with people or supplies, so this trip would be fine, and only about an hour and a half. The public passenger boats are a different story…

Suddenly we were on our way north, up the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. Kigoma port is in a large bay, and I could see the Liemba – the famous passenger ferry used in The African Queen – which still travels weekly up and down the lake. Lake Tanganyika is part of the Western branch of the East African rift valley, and is the second-deepest lake in the world – almost a mile to the bottom. The land rises steeply from the shore, another 2000 feet to the top of the rift escarpment. For the first 45 minutes or so, the hillsides are pretty barren, in all but the steepest parts, due to the growing human population in the area. Trees are used for fuel and farmers try to grow cassava and other crops wherever they can. When Jane Goodall first made this trip in 1960, this stretch of the lake shore was all forested.

Fishing villages line the shoreline, and were picturesque in the light of the sun sinking over the Congo. The red mud buildings cluster around beaches where the fishermen dry dagaa – a sardine-like cichlid that this area is famous for. All the fishing is done at night, far out in the middle of the lake. Bright lights are used to lure the fish (or the plankton they eat?) to the surface, where they are caught in large nets slung between two boats. At night the lake horizon is a long line of lights, bobbing in the waves. If you climb just a little bit, you can see that they are dotted all over the lake.

Each fishing village was a bustle of activity – mending nets, washing bodies and clothes, cooking, fishing by hand from small boats near the shore. The last village sits right on the southern edge of the park, built into the steep slopes. Then suddenly, the human landscape gives way to forest. It’s perhaps not as you would expect, especially right now during the dry season. At the southern end of the park it’s not the kind of thick forest you find in the valley bottoms with towering trees, choking vines and dense undergrowth. Instead, it’s a woodland habitat, with tall brown grass and short, twisted trees. As we continued north, however, it steadily began to become thicker and thicker, at least in the lowlands near the lake – the ridges and peaks are all woodland or grassland. I spent the whole journey twisted around, staring at the shore, remembering all the places I had been over the years. I saw baboons on the shore in Nyasanga valley, then a bushbuck in Kahama. Finally, we could see the anchored boats that signaled we were arriving at Kakombe valley, where the main research camp is. It was so familiar and I was so tired that everything I did just came automatically. The boat swung into the rocky beach stern first, and we jumped ashore. The waves were quite rough, as they often are at that time of day, so it was a bit of a struggle to get everything unloaded, but we managed without damaging the boat on the shore. Amazingly, there was a chimp in a palm tree right near where we landed – probably Freud – but I felt that I should help unload and carry everything up to the house. By the time we had finished he had moved on.

The visiting researcher house (a.k.a. Minnesota House – from when the project was based at the University of Minnesota) is a simple single-storey cement building with a metal roof and two separate sides, each with two bedrooms and a common room. The kitchens are in separate outhouses at the back. Again, it felt so familiar that everything I did was automatic. Ashura made a quick dinner, and I caught up with Kara, who started this blog, and will soon be returning to Duke. As soon as the sun went down, I happily went to bed and slept for 13 solid hours, waking to the sounds of baboons and waves.

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From the field entry 1 by Ian Gilby

8/17/11

Coming home

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…

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