Just six months ago, I hopped off a bus in Masindi, Uganda, nervous about starting my volunteer work for the Kasokwa Forest Project (KFP). The organization works with primates living in a small section of the forest as well as the people and community surrounding this fragmented ecosystem. Although I had been eager to work with a group that addressed human-wildlife conflict - what I consider one of the biggest conservation issues worldwide - I was terrified that I had committed to living in a new and possibly strange place, in a country I had never been to before.
Yet armed with my love of ecology and chapati and my desire to meet new people, I felt almost secure in my insecurities.
The Kasokwa Forest and surrounding communities are places that I now love and consider my home. I discovered that humans and primates share a dramatic and often angsty relationship, and it was a perfect place for me to live and understand human-wildlife conflict.
One of the best ways that I can explain this environment is by first explaining another place, the Budungo Forest. This forest is one of the largest and oldest tropical forests in Uganda, and it is the forest from which the Kasokwa Forest fragmented nearly a hundred years ago. This forest has become home to a field site of researchers who primarily study the groups of chimpanzees, baboons, and other monkey species living there. To these primates, these researchers are some of the only humans they have contact with; you can stand merely meters away from a chimpanzee who may only grant you the occasional glance.
The Kasokwa Forest - Budungo's more complicated child, if you will - spans a couple of kilometers between two towns. When taking my morning walk along the dirt road from my house to the forest, it was so narrow at parts that I could see the cultivated sugarcane and other farms on the other side. This, in fact, was one of the most interesting aspects of my work - the reality that the Kasokwa Forest was surrounded by homesteads and gardens on all sides.
"To really understand how humans and animals shared this resource, I was very lucky to work with Joseph, my mentor for my time in Uganda, and the manager of the KFP."
To really understand how humans and animals shared this resource, I was very lucky to work with Joseph, my mentor for my time in Uganda, and the manager of the KFP. Joseph is a shorter Ugandan man, someone who characteristically is always smiling. He liked to weave tales of his past passion as a professional boxer, and his present love, the chimpanzees of the Kasokwa Forest. As a volunteer, I assisted him in monitoring the community of sixteen chimpanzees living in the fragment: observing their location and activities, their feeding habits, and any encounters they had with the locals.
It was with Joseph’s guidance that I learned about the complex behavior and individuality of these chimpanzees.
This messy relationship between humans and primates was never clearer to me than when I aided two field assistants with a baboon-human conflict project. There are two troops of baboons that reside in the Kasokwa Forest, and as any resident near the forest will tell you, baboons are the worst crop raiders - they seem to eat any type of crop! This project's aim was to gain more information on how baboons crop raid in order to help growers understand how to minimize conflict.
On a day-to-day basis, the field assistants spoke with local owners of gardens and then assessed how many of their crops were raided by baboons. They looked for trends in crops eaten, or where crops were planted in relation to the forest boundary. Some owners either wanted immediate compensation for their raided crops, or viewed this data collection process as KFP did - siding with the conservation of baboons over their livelihood. Along with monitoring the community of chimpanzees, and working on the human-baboon conflict project, another volunteer, Christine, and I worked to strengthen the relationship between the Kasokwa Forest Project and the surrounding communities.
One of the main ways we did this was by teaching at the neighboring schools. We taught every grade, from the rowdy yet excited first and second graders, or the typically hard-to-engage high schoolers. And we taught everything: from how to identify different primates, the behavior of chimpanzees, general forest ecology, and how to be a good forest manager. For these kids, the conservation of a tropical forest was not some far away imagined place, but their own backyards.
Yet for living so close to the forest, their knowledge of their ecosystem was mixed. To address some of the student’s confusion with telling different primates apart — locals often confuse chimpanzees and baboons — we brought in pictures of the primates in Kasokwa Forest; we tried to show the students how they could be ecologists and use visual cues to identify which monkey or ape they had seen. In addition, we were able to bring in recorded sounds of the forest, and we taught a lesson on chimpanzee and baboon communication. Before we left, Christine and I worked with teachers at the schools to put together a curriculum of primate conservation and forest ecology that teachers could use in their classrooms.
"And we taught everything: from how to identify different primates, the behavior of chimpanzees, general forest ecology, and how to be a good forest manager. For these kids, the conservation of a tropical forest was not some far away imagined place, but their own backyards."
I would be missing a pivotal part of my education in Uganda if I did not speak about my experiences living among the Bunyoro people in the rural village of Kibwona. It was living in the village that really taught me about the varied cultures within Uganda. While I lived in an area where people spoke the Bantu language, Runyoro, Uganda is home to over fifty tribes, all speaking different languages and maintaining different traditions.
One of the first lessons I learned living in the village is the importance of greetings. Among the Bunyoro, everyone is given an mpako, or pet name, at birth, and this is used as a way to greet your friends. Within my first two weeks of being in Kibwona, my friend and cook for the KFP volunteers christened me with my mpako, Atoki. I then spent the rest of my time trying to learn everyone else’s mpakos so that I could properly greet my friends. I gladly learned to cook chapati, a fried flat bread, and make an acceptable chai, an African milk tea with spices. I grew to love that you could pick up and play with a baby while greeting a local mother, and going to one of the three Kibwona chuches, even though I am not a religious person. And though the Bunyoro women made the task look effortless, I failed completely with carrying a jerry can of water on my head.
There were also moments when I felt that I could accept cultural differences without giving up my own personal values. Within the village, for instance, most people cared very little for domestic animals unless they could somehow help guard their house. This meant that poorly fed stray dogs and cats were a common sight. My house became a safe haven for animals, and by my departure date, our house was regularly feeding two dogs, a puppy, and a kitten, while trying to spread the message of animal appreciation.
Among other revelations, I was disappointed to see that in the afternoon, only men would come out to the local field to practice soccer; most of the Ugandan women I met spent their days looking after their gardens, cooking, and cleaning. In our attempt to change this trend and give women a chance to play sports, Christine and I helped erect a volleyball court and recruited women to play. Our women-only scheme did not last long, however, and soon men wanted to play too. We knew that this would not be a bad thing, and we ended up enjoying evening volleyball games where both men and women from the community came to play. It was through these evening volleyball games that I met so many different people and came to appreciate how a sport can be used to build friendships and collaboration among a community.
I want to thank the InterExchange Foundation for making this experience possible. Without the Christianson Grant, I would not have been able to volunteer with the Kasokwa Forest Project and truly understand the work done in an area where humans and animals are in conflict over natural resources. I would not have had the opportunity to work and live with a magnificent group of people that helped me to experience the food, culture, and life of East Africa.