Scar-Butt the Baboon

 So no one tells you when you start field research the plethora of horrors that are awaiting to hamper, or completely usurp, your productivity. Below I will tell two of my favorite incidents that occurred this past summer while I was conducting my field research in Uganda. I hope this will give you, my awesome cyber-audience, a taste of the trials and tribulations that being a grad student is all about.

Incident 1: The elephants. When people think of elephants in their mind’s eye, it is usually as an intelligent, gentle, and altogether harmless creature. Well, they’re not. In the region I work, the elephants raid crops for food and are therefore attacked quite viciously by the villagers, whose entire lives depend on their land. The resulting relationship between humans and elephants has digressed to one of war: when one sees the other, all bets are off.

So when we (the researchers) run across fresh elephant dung in the forest, we turn around, and promptly go the other way. Still holding the “elephants are nice!” notion in my head, I was quite surprised by the look of fear that crossed the face of my field assistant every time he saw dung, or heard a rumble. So with some coaxing, he told me about one fateful day that he had mistakenly run into elephants. Needless to say: they charged, he ran for it.  Eventually the chase relented, but in his terror, he had strayed from the paths he knew and became lost in the jungle. He spent the entire night by himself, unable to find his way out. And, in his very words, he explained what would happen to someone if an elephant caught up to them: “they’ll trample you until you’re dead, then bury the body.” Well. Ok then.

As fate (or grad student luck) would have it, my turn to meet the elephants came. It started as a regular day in the jungle where my field assistant and I bantered back and forth about our vastly different lives in Canada and Uganda. We headed into my favorite area of the forest, where the soil is the reddest and the jungle is the wildest. In what seemed like a moment, my field assistant (Robert) had grabbed my arm and was pulling me backwards. There, in front of me, obscured by the massive trunks surrounding it, was an elephant eye, peering at us with undeniable fear and rage. It emitted a rumble that resonated within my very being. Robert whispered “back up, slowly”. The elephant emerged. “Ok. Now run for your life!” I dropped everything and ran. As fast as I could. Tripping over roots and scraping rocks and bushes. I was carried by pure adrenaline.

After what seemed like hours, the thundering footsteps behind me abated. We continued running. Then we hid. Nothing. We headed straight back to camp, I gave Robert the rest of the day off. The jungle had just kicked my butt.

Incident 2. Scar Butt the Baboon. In the area I work, baboons are like racoons. They make a lot of noise, scavenge for food, and generally cause trouble. When they travel in large groups, there’s usually not problems.  The problems begin with the solitary males, who become desperate when they don’t have territory or help foraging.

Scar Butt was one such male, recently ousted from his group, presumably by a younger, fitter male. One afternoon, I was sitting on my porch eating popcorn, one of the rare treats you can find while squatting in a jungle. Scar Butt emerged from the jungle to my left, and I looked upon him with curiousity, rather than fear. Until he charged. I had just enough time to drop the popcorn and slam the door of my house before he was nearly upon me. I braved a peek out my window. There, sitting on my porch, exactly where I had been, was Scar Butt. Eating my popcorn. Quite happy with himself. Now baboons, annoying as they can be, are truly intelligent. They recognize faces, and can even tell the difference between genders. So from then on, Scar But had me pegged as a coward. Each time I went outside, he charged, hoping I would drop another morsel of food. My labmate became concerned one day after protecting me while I showered, and decided to take matters into her own hands. When Scar Butt sauntered onto our property, she hurled an enormous stick at him. Which turned out to be sugar cane. Happily, Scar Butt accepted the unintended meal. Having being fed by my household twice in a matter of days, things became worse.  Scar Butt was never far from my house, I could see him peering through the forest at me when I came home, hoping I was holding something he could steal.

It came to the point where one day he barged through my unlocked door and hefted a vine of unripe bananas out the door. So ensued my five minute battle with a baboon, which equated to me throwing a pot as his head, him dodging, charging, dragging the bananas further, and so on. Eventually, he made it to the jungle. I had enough sense not to follow. I watched him eat the whole bunch of my bananas from the window of my house. Like the coward I never thought I would be.

Eventually, I had had enough. I fashioned the largest beating stick I could wield, and prepared to meet the bloody baboon. He didn’t come. Several weeks went by without incident. Then one day, I returned home from the market with an armload of edibles. Outside my door I got distracted by an incredile insect and turned my back on the food. After a moment, I heard a dragging sound behind me. The sound of Scar Butt lugging my entire grocery bag behind him. I shrieked, grabbed my beating stick, and clobbered him over the head. With cartoon-like dramatism, I saw his head retract into his neck. I doubt it hurt him very much, but he dropped the groceries, ran, then turned back to look at me before entering the jungle. Although I’m sure he stayed close, I never saw him again.

I feel like these experiences are very akin to graduate life in general; whether your jungles are real or metaphorical is irrelevant. Sometimes your butt is kicked, sometimes you kick it. Graduate school will teach you to lick your wounds, put your head down, and push until the jungle is yours.

One response to “Scar-Butt the Baboon”

  1. julian says:

    My clearest memory of baboons was one going through my window (in Kibale also, I was on field course with Colin :-)) and stealing my entire stash of chocolate – which even my roommates didn’t know existed. How the baboon knew I have no idea. I never quite forgave them for that.

    Amazing stories 😀 less cool when the elephant is coming down the road, but fieldwork leaves the best memories.

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