Gombe Abides

July 30, 2013

We charge forward in an uphill struggle against a thicket of vines. Titan is just beyond our view, but we can hear the rustle of leaves underfoot as he moves effortlessly through the fallen brush. We follow the sound as best we can, but it seems to grow fainter with each passing step. I have spent two days searching for Titan, so to lose him now after only two hours of data collection is not a defeat I am willing to endure. As the vines become more and more impenetrable, a patch so dense such that the sun is blotted out overhead, my clothing catches on a collection of thorns and I am pulled to a screeching halt. I yell out to Kassim and tell him to continue on without me. After a painstaking extraction from both shirt and skin, I break free of the thorns and force myself on hands and knees through another twenty feet of spiny undergrowth. When I finally emerge, Kassim is standing on a rocky outcrop above the waterfall that overlooks the whole of Nyasanga valley. I join him on the massive boulder and peer over the edge. Titan has gone straight down the side of the falls.

I look at Kassim and motion downward; if we don’t move now we will lose Titan. Kassim is my field assistant, loyal and smart. He knows the forest better than I ever will, and without his navigation I would be lost. He is always the first to race after a chimp, but today he looks at me with discontent and simply says “No”. Titan winds his way down the cliff and high atop Nyasanga Kassim and I begin to argue. In typical jock fashion, I become bullheaded when someone suggests that a physical feat is beyond my capabilities. Kassim is calm and clearly states that this particular area is unsafe; there is no footing and the vines, having no soil for their roots, lay loosely over the rock. Exasperated, I reluctantly accept his reasoning. Looking back, the better argument would have been to point out my soaking pants and feet. How can a person claim to be so deft, he might have said, yet so totally remedial when it comes to squatting in the forest such that she is consistently assaulted by a stream of her own urine? Bringing these facts to light may have given me pause to consider the obvious gaps in my wilderness skillset.

As we trudge back downhill, I lament the loss of Titan and silently resent Kassim for making us turn back. After fighting through the brush for several minutes, we approach a fallen tree that lies conveniently over the vines, presenting the perfect avenue for our downhill descent. Kassim turns back to me and says “Pole pole”. Slowly slowly. No sooner do I scoff does my unsteady footing send me sliding down the entire length of the tree. With nothing to grab onto to slow my fall, my back is ripped apart by the uneven bark and occasional branch until I come crashing into the back of Kassim’s legs. He reaches down and grabs my forearm, and with no help from me hoists my shaking body to its feet. As I stand up, I choke back tears—one for the gashes in my back, and several for my deservedly bruised ego. I say thank you to Kassim, and he says “Hamna shida, Jordan”. When we stop to rest, I give him my granola bar, a small penance for being such a stubborn mzungu.

Should I leave this trip with no data at all, I will be happy still. What I lose every day in the forest is infinitely more valuable than what I set out to gain. With every fall, every thorn, and every time I am wrong where Kassim is right, I lose a sense of the misplaced notion that this forest is mine to conquer. Strong will may be an advantage, but it is no match for an entire ecosystem set in motion years ago without man in mind at all. Whether my follows are colossal failures or glorious triumphs, Gombe moves on—slowly, slowly.

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