Uganda – Part 1 – Kampala, Ngogo, Kasiisi

Authored By Brian

[Brian note in Dec 2020: these notes were taken on my iPad during our trip to Uganda in 2012. They were notes intended to be used to write a longer travelogue entry but it never happened. As such, they probably don't make a lot of sense to anyone other than me, but they serve as little reminders of this amazingly great adventure. This Part 1 was finished on August 7, 2012.]

My bag delayed
Arrived in the night, broke into the room where Sharal was asleep
Picked up Jennifer who also couldn’t find her bag plus Rahim
Different dynamic traveling in four-pack, fun to talk traveling with other people who have been many places, refreshes my thirst.
Ran into south African returning from Congo where he just had malaria
Ebola outbreak ongoing
Left Entebbe airport into Kampala, lots of traffic.
Choking taste of diesel fumes in the air compounded by tailgating heavy-duty trucks and buses in advance of making a pass into oncoming traffic

First impression is that country is not as poor as others I have visited, at least not along roadways. Even shanty towns pointed out by Joseph were brick buildings with roofs rather than corrugated metal lean-tos. Running water only to 60% of people.

Giant crane birds. As tall as small children. Freaky looking.

Very few white people, protective of us trying to eat street food.

Arrived after epic jungle track 4wd road into Kibale national park at Ngogo research site. Just when joseph wasn’t sure if we were going the right way, the first camp tent came into view followed by a small clearing with a few sheltered tents and a couple of wood buildings. John Matani was waiting for us, introduced us to everyone, and shared a cold Nile beer. Hard to believe but they have cell access and Internet here from their hilltop station.

Met Bethany and Aaron two research students. David watts is the other senior scientist. So much enthusiasm for primates and such deep knowledge. John and David consulted Disney on their recent Chimpanzee movie. This is one of the largest known chimp communities with now up to 190 members including 32 adult males.

Day 1 notes
No boots so wore some wellies. Much better than shoes in the wet but not a good fit followed by the longest 3km hike I’ve ever taken.

Headed out south and east, crossing the road we drove in on along a grid of foot paths. We headed towards a fig and cordia trees where the chimps were feeding yesterday and courting a female in heat. Like an explosion of hooting and screeching the trees came alive with shaking branches and movement on both the ground and in the air. Chimps were everywhere and my heart was racing as they were close and active.

Saw scar the movie star, miles the alpha male.
John is very funny with a dry sense of humor. Growing up in the Monterey area we have some California roots in common. He was incredibly generous in information and patience as we asked endless questions. His 18 years of research at Ngogo felt commanding.

We stalked the chimps, watched them piss and shit from the top of 50′ fig trees.

Got up and close with some calm males on the ground. Could see them looking at me looking at them thru the binoculars. They would strike poses and John referred to a few of them as photogenic where they seemed to pose for me.

Saw red tail monkeys, mangabeys, elephant dung. Seeing the expressions and the looks on chimps faces was very intriguing.

Life of the researcher is hard – we spent just a half-day out and my feet were killing me. John routinely spends a 12 hour day and walks 3x as much. He lamented at the end of the day that students today don’t want to actually observe the animals. They don’t seem to have the commitment that sustains them in between the exciting parts where real research happens.

Had a great meal with the “descendant of Jesus’ tutor and the deliverer of keys to the country of Spain” (Aaron), Bethany, Michelle brown, David and John. Aaron sang us a song about what makes primates unique set to the tune of Pinks “f*cking perfect”. LOL!

Lots of talk about Jane Goodall and Toshi who are seminal people in primatology and in the region. Fun to hear stories behind the stories of such prominent people in a niche. Kind of like the Real Housewives of Ngogo!

Day 2 – went central, looked at several big fig and acacia trees, not much luck in the morning but located a tree with a few juveniles and females lounging around. Visited the Mother Of All Trees on the way back, pipadiestrus or something like that, a monster tree with a base that was easily 12′ across

We watched a screener for “chimpanzee” by Disney on Johns’s laptop. In typical Hollywood fashion, the “true story” on screen was barely related to the actual filming but it was shot wonderfully by many of the same people who did Planet Earth. The little chimp Oscar died halfway thru filming so there are actually about 5 different infants who play him at various times and other chimps are routinely played by stunt doubles (or triples…). Also funny is that Freddy’s team of merry-go-lucky chimps who use stone tools are located in Tai, ivory coast (verify that) while Scar and his mob of angry thugs are from Ngogo where they don’t use stone tools. It must have been a grueling film schedule for the little guys as the two are separated by about 2000 miles. Scars’ real name is hairlip because of his cleft palate and we spent a lot of time with him as well as the alpha male of Ngogo, Miles.

When asking about other wildlife in the area like birds, elephants, etc, John had relatively little interest. It’s interesting to see his focused passion while we are looking at things with wider eyes.

Best trackers are former poachers like Big James who has worked here for 26 years.

Day 3 – I got up at 5:30 so I could be ready on time and not hold people up. We knew the chimps had moved far north off the trail grid and we would have a long hike so I opted for the pilotis to lighten up my feet and hopefully save my insoles. We set off up the road we drove in crossing Ngogo hill and then setting out straight into the bush off trail. it was thick with vegetation, far denser than anything we had traversed in the first two days but the push was worth it as we came across a large group of the males and they were eating a black and white colobus monkey they had caught. The carcass was hanging by a leg from the hand of the chimp who amid some excitement when we arrived climbed up a tree so he could eat as much of the meat as possible. The other chimps hooted a bit but didn’t give serious chase.

After the commotion had died down for a few, the chimps began moving further north towards enemy territory. We were really bushwacking trying to keep up with the chimps who move so easily thru the forest. Luckily the chimps would stop and pause occasionally, once raiding a fig tree for about 30 minutes, which allowed us to keep up after falling behind. I was trailing John and crashing thru the undergrowth, arms up knocking saplings aside like a downhill skier running the slalom. The chimps were semi scattered around us so it felt like walking with them instead of tracking them. There were many instances as we navigated up into some elephant grasses where John would almost step on Cash as we came thru some tall grass. The comfort level from these habituated chimps is remarkable… They don’t all like humans, especially not in larger numbers but they crossed the trail immediately in front of and behind us and not once did I feel unsafe. We paused, waited for them to finish their trajectory and then continued on so we were always about 10′ away. None of them seem to view humans as dangerous though (they haven’t figured out that they are 5 times stronger than us) so even when they become excited and are running around, so long as you stand your ground, they will navigate around you.

As we entered the grassland headed towards enemy territory, we saw something that very few people will ever see with their own eyes. the chimps, all males, lined up single file and became very quiet. Where in the valley prior they would occasionally pant hoot and crescendo with screaming, they were now moving silently and steadily. Minus their human counterparts, they were not making much noise. After some hands and knees crawling thru the brush, we entered a somewhat steep canyon and followed them thru a swampy section. Their behavior was still very quiet and they were stopping to sniff trees, downed logs and scat on the trail. They were patrolling for other chimps or hunting for monkeys and on the edge of their territory there was no way to tell.

After an hour of tracking, they came to a relatively flat space and stopped. We broke out some snacks to wait for them with 4 males surrounding us. Two were grooming each other and all of them were farting loudly every few minutes. John said that it wasn’t the loud ones you needed to watch out for! We sat with them for 30 minutes at which point they got up and turned around and started getting excited. It looked like we were about to see some monkey hunting. They alternated between quiet movement and loud hooting and screaming combined with running thru the forest and banging against the hollow-sounding trunks of fig trees to signal their presence. Somehow the 9 chimp group had split without our ability to follow and 5 of the chimps had continued on while our 4 backtracked and then diverted. Despite colobus monkeys alarming overhead, the smaller group was no longer on patrol or hunting and after another half hour of hanging with them under an acacia, we turned back to camp.

It was a pretty hike back out, with less jungle and more forest. Most importantly it was on an actual trail so by comparison felt quite easy. John turned back leaving us at the firebreak at which point we were able to make the short distance back to Ngogo.

Highlights: the chimp straddling between two trees looking our direction with a half-eaten monkey in one hand.

The single-file line of chimps moving stealthily stopping to sniff and inspect the area they were traversing

Crashing thru the thick forest, jumping logs, ducking downed trees, and losing my shoe once in the swamp.

Walking amongst these incredible animals and feeling confident.

The intimate experience of tracking chimpanzees with one of the most renowned primatologists in one of the largest known chimp communities in Africa: WIN!

Day 3 evening, had spaghetti and Big James’ special sauce which was delicious (after lentils, beans, potatoes, rice, green beans, etc). Sat around the porch and chatted it up late with everyone. David talked about the murder of Jane Fossey in Rwanda and how a newer book hypothesizes that she was murdered for trying to blackmail the brother in law of the president (and partial architect of the genocide) in exchange for a long term visa for providing information on smuggling in the park. David saw a document with his own eyes from her room after it was unlocked post-investigation on gold smuggling in the park. The theory is that the immigration guy took the news to the BIL who sent a hit squad to kill her. David doesn’t know if it is true but he thinks it is very plausible given the document.

Talked briefly about the genocide in Rwanda, that a government person asked David if he could tell the difference between Tutsi and Hutu people to which he replied that he could sometimes tell but there was no way to be sure about those things and the govt guy said, “we can tell.”. He said that almost everyone at Karasoke was “officially” Hutu but he was visibly bothered by the thought and we moved on.

Aaron sang two of his songs and played a stand up comedy routine.
John was clearly a bit drunk.

Day 5- Kasiisi project – king mizungo

We arrived at Kasiisi school yesterday after traveling from Ngogo where we said our goodbyes. We brought Michele brown into fort portal with us, had lunch, checked email, bought some snacks and an Orange Internet stick. $44 bought an HPUSA+ stick plus 1.5gb of data transfer. We returned to Kasiisi for dinner which was delicious and had these thick breaded and fried potatoes that I couldn’t stop eating plus beef stew, chapatti.

Today my plan was to work with Mathew Koojo to get the OLPC system back to 100%. I started with the original server which was reported as malfunctioning but appears to work after recovering the administrator password and then moved on to the wifi which is proving more elusive.

School is currently on break so the compound is missing the 1200 kids who are normally taking Primary classes in government-provided P1-P7 grades (roughly up to 13-16 years old). We are staying in a guest house at one corner of the land along with Frank from the UK, Conor and Rachel from Bates College in Maine. They are all volunteering for various periods with the school.

After an awesome lunch again with rice, chapatti but accompanied by fried noodles and a curried fish dish that I liked (yes, fish that I liked!), we were treated to another once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. The choir director brought about 30 of his students to sing and dance to welcome us. They sang various anthems, recited poems and danced their tails off. We have been many places where you can see entertainment like this as part of a tour but this was a different kind of performance for special guests of honor (because Sharal’s foundation is closely aligned with the husband of the project founder). The children from P5-P7 sang the Ugandan national anthem, the Toro kingdom national anthem and the Kasiisi primary school anthem plus several other songs about protecting the environment and more. Jennifer got choked up and I had a huge smile on my face as they performed for more than an hour in the sun for us. I was really looking at the boys and girls and their expressions, how they were into it and seeming to enjoy themselves. After we got to meet each of them and introduce ourselves. One of the girls who recited poems and introduced herself as Doreen asked, “do you remember my name?”

After many of the kids hung around for computer class where they used their OLPC to take a geoquiz on the countries of Africa and South America. I helped some of them learn to use the laptop better or guess at countries but I must admit that. My African geography is not as good as it should be. Embarrassingly I got a few wrong in South America as well. damn you Paraguay! Tomorrow I am going to speak to them for a few minutes and tell them about computers and how I make my living with them.

Then thins went from awesome to awesome-r. Jennifer and I are all about trying to find authentic experiences. As she described it at the end of the night, we watch Bourdain’s No Reservations and think, “man he is lucky to have all of these great local experiences”. Again because of Sharal. We were invited to Lydiathe headmistresses home for dinner. It’s about 3km from the school. It’s by far the nicest home we have seen in Uganda with a TV playing the London olympics, western-style shower and toilet, and a landscaped yard with tall brick wall. Her husband, John, is the chair of the board for the Kasiisi projectas well as a professor at the Mountains of the Moon University and they are very well to do by Ugandan standards especially for being out in a village.

It was about 60% local. And 40% mizungo and they had a huge dinner prepared in our honor culminating with two chocolate cakes. After we ate, we reseated ourselves in black-white-black order and went around the room introducing g ourselves. Several of the family work at kanyawara field station in various administrative positions while others are local business people or employed by the Kasiisi project. This was a No Reserations episode as we are deep in the Ugandan countryside breaking bread (more chapatti, yum!) with locals and sharing conversation about mutually important concerns like technology education, conservation and tourism here and abroad. I was particularly singled out as they think I have done great things with the computerso s I hope I can get them all working tomorrow.

John gave a speech saying how the computers were helping his students be a little less disadvantaged and that it could lead to great things like Dominic who was just accepted into Harvard. I left feeling excited and empowered to make a small but meaningful difference.

Small world that Ambrose’s brother Kato was there.

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