I landed in Uganda in the evening, the plane coming down over lake Vic. What a treat to see fishing boats and sunset over such a large lake; welcome to Uganda! I got out of the plane, found my massive bag (packing for 2 months with 3 different climates including field and conference is an art), and lugged it all outside; I bought the visa, changed my money at the desk as instructed and was ready to find my ride to the hotel. Which they promised. Over email; they had all the flight details. After about a half hour and much refusal on my part of other less savory offers, I agreed to take a taxi to the hotel. I really appreciated their response to my query about the emails we had exchanged - "we weren't sure you were real". At this point, I wasn't sure either, so I happily went up to my awesome room with four beds, mosquito nets (but no shower), a gecko to keep me company, and sure enough, the next morning, I met Tony Goldberg at breakfast. In all, about 7 of us were heading to Kibale from Entebbe, so we split a bus trip there...
I cruised around Kibale and the local area with the Kibale EcoHealth Project for the first few days. We hiked through forest fragments, learned how to smell colobus monkeys on the trail, how to navigate the small grid system within Kibale NP and did some sampling in plantations, fragments, streambeds, wells and villages. The EcoHealth Project is a whole system of looking at disease, wherein they (Tom and Tony) are sampling people, livestock, monkeys and the water that connects them. Since they are veterinary folks, and had vets with them, they had some very exciting equipment - lots of BL2 protective gear for looking at blood samples, and all kinds of drip bags and collection cups (yes, urinary) for looking at the water supply. Once I understood that crypto and giardia are pretty much what they were looking for in all the water we were dipping our hands into, and yes, people had managed to catch them in the past, I started paying a little more attention to my hand-to-mouth contact. After a lot of chat and hiking and more discussion about models and GIS work in the project, I realised that there are so many scales that are important in the project and that it is a huge undertaking. More than that, it is a great model system for looking into other locations with similar structure and set up... hmmmm.
The EcoHealth house at Kibale has the wonderful nickname of Mango Palace (due to mango flies, not luscious fruit). What is a mango fly? Well, if your clothes are wet and you hang them up outside, these lovely flies lay their eggs on them. You put on the clothes, the larvae burrow into your skin, you itch and swell and have wiggly things under your skin. Rather unpleasant. Lesson is: dry your clothes under a mosquito net and keep your sweaty junk indoors.
I had been eating all my meals with the folks at the Mango Palace - pretty much mooching off them entirely. The food up at Kibale is fantastic - there are some local cooks who are employed through the field site, and they make wonderful vegetarian food, with whatever you bring in from the nearest town. Since food comes in irregularly, due to trips out being a bit complicated, there's a lot of repetition, but there's nothing that some Top Up (hot sauce) won't fix. Mostly we ate beans and stewed matooke (ma-to-kay), which is a banana starchy thing like plantain, and is the "national dish" of Uganda. There was sometimes g-nut sauce (groundnut), and some squash, and other green vegetables when they were around. The best part was the chapatis. Big leathery chapatis, which are great with matooke and beans, or with some honey. Main course and dessert in one.
One of my favorite Uganda traditions that is common to other bantu language cultures is the use of mpacos - a sort of pet name. Whereas Swahili or Kiswahili is the official language of Uganda, local bantu languages persist. Near Kibale are a couple of tribes whose languages are in the region; I was mostly in contact with Rotoro, the language of the Toro or Mutoro (Mu is people). There are around 12 mpacos, and when you meet someone, you ask how they are, what their name is and what their mpaco is. I tried asking about mpacos, but got mixed answers on some obvious questions. I think there are some male and female specific ones, but not all of them are; some of them have meanings, but I couldn't get consistent results on that, either. I was given Akiki, which may imply something princessy or tall, but that might have been someone making fun of me. The Ugandans I have met are, to a person, happy, laughing, kind and communicative. So I spent a lot of time having half-english, half-rotoro and totally giddy nonsensical conversations while I was there.
After a few days, the Chapmans got to Kibale. For anyone unclear on this, Colin Chapman is my supervisor at McGill. He's my boss. Even though he hates any titular notions of responsibility, the fact is, he is my boss. His wife, Lauren is a phenomenal fish biologist, who works on aquatic systems and morphological changes in fish - at least, that's the parts I had the pleasure of finding out about. I am sure, like Colin, that she works on many many things.
I had a sort of switch of allegiances from the EcoHealth project over to the McGill folks at Chap House, and started going along with students collecting monkey data more intensively. It turns out that I am quite a totem for fecal sampling. Imagine, if you will, that you are walking through some really nice jungly forest, looking for groups of monkeys up in the trees. They are not totally happy to have you follow them, so they sometimes move away, but mostly, they're just looking for some good leaves to eat. So they settle down to some eating; and pooping. In order to study monkeys via their fecal samples, you want to collect freshly fallen samples, preferrably from identifiable individuals (as in, the large male or the small female with a baby). So, you stand under the tree until you hear crap raining down. Quite literally. Then you look for fresh pellets. It's often hard to know which tree is about to rain down crap, or whether a monkey will pee from great heights as you're standing there. Until now. Guaranteed, if I'm standing there, it'll happen. Is this a good thing? It certainly helped Stacey collect a few samples.
Aside from that hilarity, I got a chance to see both colobus species (black-and-white and red) for more than a few minutes (sitting there for hours while they sleep can inspire some crazy conversations), and to hear chimps roaring at 100 feet and see their nests; I also saw another 5 species of primates, a duiker, lots of butterflies and even a scared farming lady, who thought we were raiding baboons and came running out waving her arms yelling "Enkerebbe" (baboon).
While I was in Kibale, there was a chimp conference that celebrated chimp research in Kibale, but also gave me a good idea of the park itself, the history of research and how the various projects had come together. It was quite amazing, and I wished that I'd had a similar introduction to other study areas in the past. Part of the conference involved being entertained by a local school's singing group. I had somehow managed to be persuaded by a local man with a briefcase and a plastic recorder and an exquisite singing voice, to teach him the US national anthem. Irony is not wasted on me. It was a wonderful experience, because he didn't know notation per se, but knew do-re-mi notation. For someone who neither spoke English very well, nor had the background in western tonal structure that is jammed into our heads, he caught on really quickly. It was a little disconcerting to hear the bits that he didn't quite get - like some of the rhythms as the words get mashed into the tune, and the modulation that occurs. I also realised again how totally unsingable the star spangled is. The reproduction of our morning's lesson and transcription was proudly displayed through the voices of local school children. I hung my head in shame. I wish I had insisted on the Canadian anthem instead (McGill loyalties run strong). Fortunately, they know the British anthem because QE park is nearby and they've been having Liz celebrations galore.
Another delight a the conference was hearing about the Kasiisi project - the rural school has been doing teacher exchanges and penpal programs, among others, like feeding kids so they can go to class and providing boarding facilities. http://www.kasiisiproject.org/index.htm
One afternoon, I thought that a baboon had got onto the tin roof of the house I was in... it was shaking and shaking and crashing and crashing; then I realised it was an earthquake, so I stood in the doorway. It seriously lasted for over 3 minutes, just rocking and shaking. Even the monkeys kept quiet. Kibale is subject to the movement of the Albertine Rift, so earthquakes are quite common. After it calmed down again, the monkeys started calling out to each other, checking that the groups were still around. Everything else was still - it was quite creepy.
In addition to following monkey research, I also had a chance to play with the fish people. When a large sampling effort goes into effect, more hands are better. So I joined in with Lauren's project with her students, and we all loaded up the truck with wire basket fishtraps, boots, waterproofing, coolers for live fish to come back in, other containers for less live fish to come back in, and so on... and we set the traps in the river, wading into the edges. The local villagers were very curious as to what we were doing. We spent a while poring over trays of bottom muck, trying to see if there were invertebrates that the fish might be eating. My favorite moment was when we were ID-ing the fish coming out of the traps, and a student would inject them with formalin to preserve stomach contents (diet analysis), but some of the ciclids were allowed to be freed at the end. Lauren said "oh, you might like to see this one" and she gave the fish's mouth a little squeeze, and lots of little wiggly tails came out! Live mouth-brooding ciclid! Very cool.
After Kibale, I went to Jinja with the Chapmans for a couple of days - Jinja is at the source of the Nile. We went over a very heavily guarded dam, which provides much of the hydroelectric for Uganda. To control it would be to control a considerable resource. Photography of it is illegal. I'll take a moment to point out that Uganda has a wondeful system of selling electric to neighboring countries; in the process it actually turns off electric inside Uganda for rather long periods of time. So it's always good to ask what the schedule is for electric where you are.
I spent a day being a tourist in Jinja; it's a really nice old colonial town, with great old houses that are either tenements, US NGOs or falling down. Apparently, since it was the economic hub of the country for a while, there were lots of Indians and other Asians living there. Then they were all thrown out of the country during the great scourge. In the 90's all the shopfronts were closed in Jinja, and only now is it starting to come back. Parts of the residential roads reminded me of the Panama canal zone in the late 90s - lots of empty colonial housing with a backdrop of re-emerging jungle growth.
I decided I'd like to go to whatever tourist spot was the "source of the Nile", so I followed some signs along some empty dirt roads. I was convinced I must be on the wrong route, or going to a municipal controlled version of the source. But no, I got there, on a nice afternoon in the height of the tourist season, and I was the only person there. They opened up the bar for me, and a nice friend I made showed me the fastest flowing part coming out of lake Vic and took my tourist posed picture. It was very nice to see something that dramatic being very undramatic.