Before going into the details of my days spent sweating in the jungles of Sierra Leone in search of chimpanzees I wanted to reflect a little on my trip. Now, it’s true that this is no travel blog, but it was meant to not only teach people about science and conservation, but also to chronicle my journey from confused college freshman to fully fledged primatologist. I think that there is no better way for you, as readers, to understand the realities that come with being a primatologist, conservationist, scientist and woman than to give you an in depth look into what I faced every day in Sierra Leone.
Exhaustion. Since arriving in Belgium after my journey in Africa came to a close I have done little but eat ravenously and sleep. I am both physically and mentally exhausted from eating little but ground nut and rice and trekking through the bush for up to five hours a day. While finally having the opportunity to shower and use a real, flushing, toilet I find being around more than a few people at a time overwhelming. I try to describe to my friends the differences in the culture and attempt to tell stories about the games the village children would play, but explaining that it was an average sight to see the children dancing around and whipping each other with branches was quite normal gets me strange looks.
Sierra Leone was both a wonderful and terrible place. In one moment the people could be so helpful and inspire such pride in their defense of chimpanzees, like our guide and reformed hunter who said he could never harm a chimpanzee again because they were now his brothers. But in the next instance Ebrahim, something like the chief of Marokie village, brought us two African pied crow fledglings that had been shaken from their nest. He held them up by their wings shaking them at us shouting “Snappa snappa!” to which Brielle, a girl in our group shouted, “They’re going to snap their necks!” before we remembered ‘snappa’ was Temne for picture. They had brought the animal lovers some birds so we could take their picture. I immediately walked up to Ebrahim and asked him for the terrified bird. He laughed and shook his head no. I looked at the man next to him, who was not as socially important as Ebrahim, so I was less afraid of offending him.
“Give me the bird,” and I took it from his hands, forcing him to release the bird he was holding by the wings. Ebrahim’s crow looked like it had a broken neck. It died a few minutes later.
I walked off into a corner, clutching the bird to my chest as it grasped my fingers so tightly it’s claws pierced my skin. I allowed it, wanting it to choose the position it sat in my hands, trying to let it know that I wasn’t going to hurt it. Andrew, our professor, walked up to me and told me I was fighting a loosing battle and that they probably wanted to eat the bird, but that I should talk to Papani, our guide from the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone, to see if he could get the bird back to its nest.
While waiting for Papani to get off the phone some men from the village came to try to take the crow from me. When they asked for it and I refused in my best attempt at angry and intimidating they began to laugh. The men called for their friends so they could show them how the little ‘apoto’ (white person) defended the bird. This shaming went on for about 10 minutes. I stood my ground and waited for Papani, who, when he finally got off the phone, insisted Ebrahim take him and the bird on the back of the motorcycle back to the nest.
I watched them drive off, glared at the men who had been harassing me and stalked off to rejoin my group. I later found out that Papani was able to get the bird back in its nest and that it was immediately rejoined by its parents. I don’t know if it is reasonable to think it survived the stress of the situation, but I like to believe that I made some difference.
That was one of the most difficult things I faced in Sierra Leone. After being hot, sweaty and exhausted, then watching men shaking fledglings around by their wings for entertainment, I spent most of the night staring at the stars and contemplating my life choices that brought me to that situation. In the end, once I recovered from what had happened, it strengthened my resolve to impart to the children, the younger generation, that it is important not to touch wildlife. I tried to explain this to Ebrahim when he came to me later asking to be thanked for his extraordinary kindness since he saved “my bird.” I told him, “Momo, thank you, momo. It makes my heart happy to see the animals be free.” He patted me on the back while laughing, before walking away.
I open my story of Sierra Leone with this story, because I was so convinced that this would be such a magical experience, and in many ways it was. But these were the moments that stuck out, the times I was shocked or shamed or horrified. Because you can attempt to prepare yourself for the differences in the way life is in Sierra Leone, you can live without a shower or on stale bread and rice. Your mind can cope with those things, but when someone shakes a dying baby bird in your face and makes you thank them, that’s when you feel the culture shock. That’s when you feel like you may be fighting a loosing battle as a conservationist, but if you’re stubborn enough, it may just inspire you to work harder.