Attack of the Killer Bush Pig

October 22nd, 2012

It took me a minute, maybe two, to figure out what was going on.  Sassandra, my target, had just dumped a lovely pile of poo and I was readying myself to claim it as soon as she descended the throne.  Beside me Hamimu stared off into the twist of vines and said, “Bush pig,” pointing.  I looked, but I didn’t really look, because I didn’t really care.  I’ve seen lots of bush pigs.  Mostly they are just flashes of hair and bulk that tunnel off through the machaka (a general word for all the vines and thorns and sticks and trees that make following baboons so darn difficult) and therefore not very exciting.  But this bush pig wasn’t running, which was a bit odd.  I couldn’t see it, but it was sort of huffing not far off and then the next thing I know, Hamimu is picking up rocks and throwing them at it.  My first thought was, “That is bad for data, Hamimu!  Stop throwing rocks!”  But I was also fixated on Sassandra’s poo and the two competing stimuli caused me to freeze somewhat stupidly and stare off toward the noise in front of us.  The next words out of Hamimu’s mouth were quick and terrifying.  I registered them each in turn.  The first was, “Babies.”  The pig has babies, I thought.  My mind turned this over for a moment or two, conjuring up useful data such as, “Never get between a mother bear and her cub.”  The seeds of alarm had been planted.  Hamimu’s next words were, “Grab the sample!”  I looked at my fanny pack, full of gloves and other useful scientific paraphernalia for collecting samples, and then at Hamimu, somehow unsure.  Not waiting for me to work things out, Hamimu tugged a latex glove out of his pocket and lunged for Sassandra’s poo, sweeping it up in his hand and forming a sort of poo baggie out of the glove.  His final word was, “Run!”  I looked around me.  There was nowhere to go.  To the front and left were bush pigs, to our backs a thick wall of machaka.  Hamimu started to climb a tree.  I watched him, a little addled, and then saw a piglet start running toward me and finally I realized what was happening.  Baboons were hunting bush pig babies.  And mama bush pig was none too thrilled about it.  Shit, I thought.  The only thing to climb near me was a sort of dead log that put me exactly one foot of the ground.  I yelled at the piglet to run somewhere else.  My heart was in my throat.  Next to my log was a tree that was about three inches thick, straight as a pole, and utterly devoid of limbs save one thin dead one.  “Climb higher!” urged Hamimu.  I couldn’t.  Not really.  Then mama showed up.  This encouraged me to try anyway.  I broke off the dead branch and lodged one of my feet on the remaining nub, and then used my arms to pull myself up a bit higher before thrusting my second foot flush against the tree as high as I could so I was sort of hanging there in a sort of flat-butted sitting position.  I looked at mama.  She looked at me.  I recalled that bush pigs can’t see very well (Just like T-rex in Jurassic Park! I thought, helpfully) and hoped if I hung completely still she wouldn’t see me. Her piglet snuffled around underneath her.  I recalled the sheer size of the teeth in the bush pig skull we found last month and took a deep breath.  Then a second piglet squealed by, pursued by males, a puncture wound in its side spilling intestines like silly string.  Mama and the other piglet moved off and soon they were out of sight again, though we could hear the terrible screams of one of the piglets being devoured alive. Hamimu and I swung our heads wildly, trying to figure out how to get away.   Baboons darted past us, nervously, stealthily, and I was surprised by the quietness of the whole venture.  All we could hear were the pigs.  We saw mama again and Hamimu said, “If mama moves farther away, we need to run for the ravine and then the path.”  At least, that’s what I think he said.  Mama huffed off a minute or two later, and we both scrambled down our trees and beat it hard through the machaka, me crawling on my knees and not noticing the thorns sticking into my arms and legs.  When we reached the path, we both smiled and laughed with relief and I radioed Jessica to tell her that we almost got gored by a crazy bush pig BUT we got the poop!


Harrison and her pig-filled pouch. Her daughter tried to get a taste but baboon mums are not great sharers.


The hair-raising part of the episode mostly ended there and then morphed into the baboons-fighting-over-the-dead-children-of-other-animals portion of the morning.  This section involved a lot of in-fighting and males threatening one another and throwing out rapid broken grunts (RBGs) while females furtively skirted the kill site.  My new target, Harrison, proved herself to be the ballsiest baboon next to one-eyed Salad (the female who broke into my house and continued to shovel bananas into her face as I beat her with a pillow).  Her current boyfriend, Achalle, had to make the tough decision between booty (in the pirate sense) and booty (in the biblical sense), and when he ditched Harrison for pork, Ubungo, her abusive previous boyfriend swooped in and took over.  But Harrison didn’t care.  She had a mission.  And that mission was to get her piece of that little piglet.  So, she bided her time and watched the boys bark and gnash at one another and when Achalle took off after a challenger she swept in, grabbed the carcass, and booked it.  Despite several challengers, male and female, Harrison, with the help of Ubungo, managed to maintain control over the piglet for an impressive amount of time.  Ubungo was not keen on sharing with his lady-love and routinely slapped her across the face like they were auditioning for a domestic violence movie for the Lifetime channel.  But Harrison mostly just took these slaps, ignoring some and screaming like a banshee at others, but she always kept her eye on the prize, shoveling bite after bite of tender young flesh into her cheek pouch until it was bulging like a goiter.   She eventually lost the carcass to Achalle, whom we left devouring what was left to devour while the heavens rumbled overhead.  All I can say is that I have developed a more healthy respect for bush pigs.  And the need for upper body strength.

Achalle and the remainders of his spoils

Achalle and the remainders of his spoils

Rainy Season Returns

October 18th, 2012

Rainy season has returned.  Even without the dark, cloud-smothered skies, even if we never felt a drop of rain, we would still know it is rainy season.  “Why?” you may ask.  Because rainy season has symptoms other than rain.  For example, the Congo, which disappeared sometime back in May has promptly reappeared, reminding us, yet again, that the lake is, in fact, just a lake.  Also, my swimsuit no longer dries overnight and creeping foliage has started to reclaim the paths for nature.  But the sunsets are amazing (perhaps a picture will be forthcoming).


October 12th, 2012

Jessica and I collect poop.  Before you become worried that our hobbies have become a bit untoward since setting up camp in the bush, let me assure you that it’s all for science.  See, poop, in addition to smelling bad, is full of all sorts of fun things that you’ve probably never thought about.  Some of those things are gross.  Others, however, tell us info about the baboons that it’s hard to get other ways.  Specifically, Jessica collects poop to look for reproductive hormones (estrogen, testosterone, etc.) and I collect it to find stress hormones and, hopefully, DNA so we can work out some paternities.  In practice, though, this all means that we run around the forest following baboons hither and thither, waiting for them to take a dump.  And baboons can be such a tease about this.


The most common phenomenon we see is the “turtle”.  This is a turtle:


A turtle pokes its head out and we think, “Oh, goody!  Poop!”  Only sometimes these turtles are teasers.  Sometimes they’re just checking the weather or something and they will cling to the walls of whence they came FOR HOURS.   Some turtles become “hangers”, most profoundly illustrated by Wokora the other day:


This fellow, despite being ten times more precarious than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, hung onto Wokora for a good twenty minutes.  Braving life and limb, I climbed up some precarious branches to position myself underneath her to catch the sucker when it fell, only to have her climb to an even more inaccessible spot (luckily, when the poo finally gave up the ghost, Hamimu, my intrepid young assistant, managed to secure a passable amount of it through sheer athleticism).


In addition to risking our necks for the sake of shit, we must also do battle with all manner of insects—and occasionally baboons—to claim our prize.  For many months it was just flies.  Then, recently, the dung beetles have started showing up in force.  First, they are problematic if you can’t get to the sample quick enough (i.e. the baboon drops it and then continues to sit over it like a mother hen tending her egg).  By the time the sample becomes available several of the beetles have already rolled pieces up in little balls and are wheeling them away.  But even if you get to the poo when it’s still warm, the beetles swing in like large hovercraft and mount the feces like some great Olympus and then proceed to cling to it like drowned sailors to a piece of plywood.  As soon as we pull one off—and trust me, this is not easy; they have leg muscles like Swarzenegger in his 20s—there are three more that have climbed aboard and suddenly getting a little swizzle stick of poo becomes a titanic battle of wills.

Industrious little dung beetles

The final interesting part about collecting poop is that it promotes a hyper-awareness to all things fecal.  Even off-duty, we find ourselves honing in on useless clumps of doo-doo, wondering at their origin, wishing to characterize and categorize them, secretly assessing their freshness.  And thus, everywhere I go, I see poop.  Baboon poop, chimp poo, wild pig poop.  I notice swarms of flies and dung beetles, telltale signs that a dump spot is near, and find myself craning my neck to see what all the fuss is about.  If any baboon poops, even one we don’t care about, Hamimu announces, “Sampo!” (Swahili for “sample”) and we all swing our heads to look, because maybe, just maybe, some tricky baboon that normally drags us through the thickets and thorns for hours is giving a freebie and we, above all else, want to be first in line.


October 10th, 2012

1) Often there comes a time of day when the teenage hooligans pop by to taunt me through the window.  Most of the show involves them seeing themselves reflected in the glass of the cabinet opposite the window and henceforth engaging in all manner of threat displays to those unknown baboons that are clearly inside my house.  But if I move at all, they eventually see me and start bouncing onto my window sill and bobbing their heads at me, because they are hot, hot shit.

2) I decided I needed to follow Hoza this morning.  From afar I saw a male and female dart through camp and thought, “Hey, that might be Hoza!”  Of course, when I reached them, though, the female of the pair was interred in a trash hole some 15 feet down and her beloved, Mapua, was gazing longingly down at her.  Jessica and I stood by for several minutes hoping the mystery lady would climb out.  She did not.  Luckily, Hamimu arrived and told me he’d seen Hoza running around with Mapua earlier that morning, and it was only a matter of time before she finally climbed out, smeared with something nasty, ready to receive her lover.

3) Threat yawns are very in season these days.  Even the babies are doing them.


The Wedding

October 8th, 2012

Well before the reception the groom, Nasibu, arrived in camp, peculiarly decked out like a Saudi sultan. He insisted we take a picture with his mother. My little friend, Shamila, joined.  I wasn’t informed about the strict no smiling policy.

They said the wedding reception would kick off around 7:30 PM.  Jessica and I thought we’d go for a few hours, maybe push our bedtime to a late 11:00 PM.  We got home at two this morning.  Anyone who’s been to Africa knows that things run on a different time frame, a sort of a park-strolling pace, regardless of any schedule.  And a Tanzanian wedding is no exception.


Before climbing on the boat (which was supposed to leave at 7 PM “on the dot”, I was told), Jessica, Anton, and I knocked

Shamila kept somberly “cheers”ing my bottle as she knocked back soda after soda. Note her power suit.

back a few Konyagi and lemons to prepare for the dry and potentially long Muslim wedding proceedings ahead.  Hearing the wedding boat buzzing by in the hazy dusk at 7:30, we tripped our way to the beach to flag it down, Jessica and me giggling and lightheaded from little food and a little more cheap African liquor.  The boat was filled with party guests from camp, all of us dressed in our best, and it putted up the coast to the northern research station, Mitumba, where there was a hall large enough to hold a reception.  Upon arriving we were ushered into a spacious room decked out in bright balloons and plastic chairs, music blaring so loudly that conversation was nearly impossible.  We were sat in a corner, alone, early (even though we were late).  At one point, Shamila, my tiny little camp friend arrived in what appeared to be a power suit and came and sat with us. She and the music remained throughout the night.


A Tanzanian wedding reception resembles the American variety the way veggie burgers resemble real burgers: the general shape is the same and some of the flavors are reminiscent, but, really, they are their own beasts.  For example, a Tanzanian reception has an MC.  Our MC was a man decked out in crisp black with a Barry White voice and a titch of Japanese gameshow host about him (every five minutes or so he would loudly announce “Wow!”).  I’ve seen him in camp before—he works for the National Parks—but loud music and colorful dresses put him in his element and he was cheesy and charming and altogether different in the blast of Bongo Flava music beating out from the speakers behind him (later in the evening I had to politely dance away from him when he brought out his old man, biting-the-lower-lip-while-swaying dance moves my way).  The MC got things going late (as expected) but eventually, once most of us were sat, we were treated to the arrival of the

The happy couple

wedding party.  Approximately, 6 chairs had been provided for the groom’s 12 relatives, so there was a lot of shuffling once they filed in as more chairs were crammed into the same amount of space (for some reason no one thought to count the wedding party).  They danced to their places though and soon it became apparent that no one in the wedding party—mother-in-laws, sisters, or the bride and groom themselves—was allowed to move anywhere without dancing (excruciatingly slowly, I might add, like the elderly shuffling down the halls of a hospital).  Once the families were seated, Nasibu and his new bride, Leyla, arrived shuffling side by side to a song that, in discos, elicits a sort of electric-slide line dance.  An interesting processional choice.  Leyla’s eyes were cast downward, her lips set in a firm line, and she looked that way the rest of the wedding because she wasn’t supposed to appear happy.  She was leaving her family that day and was required to show the proper amount of distress.  Nasibu, a chimp research assistant here I’ve known for the past couple years, looked equally miserable, though it was less clear why, and, as they walked, we immediately noticed that Nasibu’s new lady love was approximately 6 inches taller than him.  But despite their despondent faces, they held pinkies, gently, and Jessica and I couldn’t help but coo.


After everyone arrived, the MC introduced the families, each person standing up and waving while we clapped and ululated (standard wedding behavior).  Then it came time for speeches and, on behalf of Nasibu’s brother, one man stood up and made a lovely speech I mostly didn’t understand except for a short line, “Marriage is not a piece of paper.  It’s not a party.  It’s trust.”  I liked that.  After this man—who mostly does odd jobs around camp, but seems to be quite the orator—the grandmother of the bride stood up to make her speech.  But before she did, she grooved rather heavily to the music, the MC joining in, and I

Leyla dancing the cake to her new in-laws. Notice how everyone else is pretty blurry? She was dancing THAT slow.

instantly decided she was the best grandmother in the world.  Her speech completed, we then moved on to the cutting of the cake (they eat the cake before the meal, apparently).  This activity was supposed to happen around 9 PM, but Jessica’s watch informed us it was about 10:30.  The cake cutting also involved a lot of dancing to and from places, including a portion where the bride delivered a huge slice to her new in-laws and the groom delivered a similarly large piece to his, both of them shuffle-dancing the whole way, drawing out a 20-foot walk, roundtrip, into a 20-minute affair.  Finally, though, it was time to eat, and we were fed 5 different types of carbohydrate, two slices of cucumber, and two bites of meat.  Jessica and I ate voraciously and then waited for the next event: gift giving.



Around midnight Jessica and I were really starting to flag…

Gift giving was awesome.  In the U.S. we just pile all the gifts on a table and are done with it.  In Tanzania, everyone lines up in a huge conga line and shimmies up to the bride and groom, delivering the gifts while dancing and hugging them.  Pictures are snapped voraciously and people dance for a lot longer than it takes for the gifts to be surrendered.  After the giving of gifts the MC also announced other gifts that were given that couldn’t fit in the room, things like a “large milk goat!”  We all clapped politely.  And ululated.  Again.


According the schedule, the next thing was music.  Only this didn’t mean an open dance floor.  Not yet.  Apparently, this referred to the part of the wedding where some guy breaks out a puppet, which he flops around a little bit and then, laying his friend aside, snaps into some

Perplexing puppet dance.

crazy hip-jiving, knee-shaking Congolese dancing.  He was followed by other young men doing “shows”, some of which were extremely perplexing since they just seemed to be a group of young men we sort of knew hopping around to rap music.  This went on for some time, but eventually real dancing ensued, and Jessica and I were pulled to the dance floor.  Random people came up to dance next to us to have their picture taken since we were the only wazungu there.  We also had pictures taken with Nasibu and his new bride and it was one of the only times I saw Nasibu grin (somehow I think he was supposed to look grim in solidarity).  We were pouring sweat and bouncing around and everyone was smiling and it was euphoric.  Eventually, exhausted, Jessica and I stumbled out into the cool night air and caught the first boat back to camp, finding ourselves among the bride and groom and all the mothers with tiny babies.  They all laughed at us, but we didn’t care.  Under the blare of the music, the lake had become quite wild and we tipped and yawed our way home, a half moon seeping out from behind the trees that dotted the craggy coast, our eyes half-mast, our clothes soaked in sweat, tired and very, very happy.