I didn't always want to push my fiancé off a balcony. Twelve months ago I would have jumped off a balcony for him. But a lot can change in a year.
We met in Uganda at the house of Debby Cox, the founder of a chimpanzee sanctuary called Ngamba Island. Debby and I had been friends for years. I first met her when I was twenty-two and fresh out of college. I was volunteering for Taronga Zoo in Sydney when I heard about the chimp island she had started for orphan chimpanzees whose parents were killed by the bushmeat trade.
Part of Debby's conservation program was counting the chimpanzees in Budongo Forest. The world's biggest population of chimpanzees was in Congo, but they were rapidly being butchered and eaten. The Ugandans had traditional taboos against eating apes, and they had the second-biggest population. But no one knew how many chimpanzees were left or where they were. My job was to lead a team of Ugandans on a census, for which I had zero qualifications. Debby hired me only because the real primatologist got malaria and pulled out at the last minute.
Those were interesting times. It was 1999 and eight gorilla tourists had been hacked to death with machetes in Bwindi National Park. Their bodies were found covered in deep slashes, their skulls smashed to pieces. The 150 rebels who surrounded their camp were part of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and used the mountains as a base.
Debby wrote three days before I was supposed to arrive and told me it was too dangerous and I should cancel my trip, but being young and stupid I told her I didn't care about rebels and I was coming anyway. In return, Debby threw me into the jungle like a football and hoped I would come out alive.
I envisioned myself slicing through the foliage with my hair swept into a glossy ponytail and stylish smudges of dirt underneath my cheekbones. I would walk among forest elephants in the glittering sunlight. I would adorn myself with pythons and gain a reputation among the rebel warlords as some kind of goddess. Perhaps I would even find my own personal Tarzan whom I could take home and show the wonders of civilization.
All I found in the jungle were bugs and a lack of personal space. The vegetation pressed in thick and close, and hacking your way through it wasn't as easy as Indiana Jones makes it look. We barely even saw chimpanzees, and when we did, they screamed their heads off and clearly wanted to rip our guts out.
After four months, I was ready to get out but I didn't want to go home. So I started helping Debby with the education programs around the office.
Then one afternoon, a pet pack was dropped on the doorstep and changed my life. Shivering in the back of the pet pack was Baluku, a two-year-old chimpanzee. Hunters had shot his mother and locked him in a coal shed for two months. When the Ugandan police confiscated him, he was as white as paper beneath his hair from lack of sunlight, and two slashes in his groin oozed pus where he had struggled against the rope that tethered him.
Debby took Baluku out of the pet pack and plastered him to my chest. And that is where he stayed for a month. Debby wasn't trying to give me the experience of a lifetime. Baluku needed someone to cling to and Debby needed a giant petri dish to inform her of the diseases he was carrying. If I got worms, it meant Baluku had worms. If I got giardia, Baluku had giardia.
But from the moment his tiny fingers latched onto my T-shirt, I was never the same. Before Baluku, I loved selfishly. I took my family for granted, my boyfriends were an extension of my vanity, and my friends were a fun way to pass the time. That wasn't enough for Baluku. He needed all of me. He didn't let go. I cooked, showered, slept, and went to the toilet with his frail arms wrapped around my neck. If I tried to give him to someone else even for a minute, he dug his fingers into my arms and didn't let go. If I did manage to pull him off, he would fall to the floor, hit his head on the ground, then finally wrap his arms around his knees and rock with a terrible blank look in his eyes.
Excerpted from Bonobo Handshakeby Vanessa Woods. Copyright © 2010 by Vanessa Woods. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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