A Family Affair

Published in Africa Geographic, October 2003

Our guide beckoned us urgently. “Fifi come!” he said, his face cracking into a huge grin as though about to meet his best friend. “And Freud”. A chimpanzee ambled into the clearing and looked at us appraisingly. To say that we were thrilled would be an understatement. Celebrities usually avoid bold eye-contact with their fans, and Fifi was undoubtedly a celebrity. Part of our pre-travel reading had been Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, where Fifi, a playful three-year old in 1960 when Ms Goodall began her studies, featured in such detail that we felt we knew her intimately. Dancing around her was little Freud. As far as I remember he was six years old, and like his human equivalent, full of mischief. He had that comical pink rubber-mask face of all young chimps, huge ears and an endearing tuft of white hair where his tail would be – if great apes had a tail. Today he was Tarzan, climbing up a young sapling, grabbing a vine whose end was worn smooth from the grasp of many hands, and pushing off with his feet to get a good swing. But he pushed too hard, swung too far, hit a neighbouring tree and tumbled to the ground. Oh the humiliation! He cried. He banged the ground petulantly with the palms of his hands, and then ran to his mother for comfort. Her mind was on other things. Absent-mindedly clasping her youngster to her chest, Fifi continued her search for bananas.

Banana-feeding was used by Jane Goodall and her research team in the 1960s to facilitate the study of the chimpanzees. It ensured regular visits by the animals to the area near the observation hut and speeded up the long, slow process of habituation. The practice had been discontinued several years before but chimpanzees have long memories and Fifi lived in hope that the banana machine would miraculously reappear and dispense fast food.

What did appear was a troop of baboons. Freud was delighted and released his hold on his mother to play catch-me-if-you-can with the youngsters. I was astonished to see the two species playing together so happily. I had read that chimpanzees sometimes hunt and eat baboons, so surely the smaller animals would have an instinctive fear of them? Not so, apparently. The adult baboons kept a wary eye on Fifi, raising their eyebrows and half-closing their eyes in a threat gesture. The light-coloured eyelids give the message to other baboons “Don’t mess with me”. Did the signal work with chimps, we wondered? Difficult to say, since Fifi simply ignored them. She was only slightly more interested in the latest arrival. “Atlas” explained the guide. “Freud’s big brother”.

It was time for the chimpanzees and baboons to rest in the afternoon heat, and for us to catch a water taxi back along the shores of Lake Tanganyika to Kigomo. We could have stayed the night in the little visitors’ hut, but we didn’t know this when we went to the National Parks office in Arusha on the off-chance that visitors were permitted at Gombe Stream. It had been one of the ten “Must Do’s” that we’d set down for our eleven month trip through Africa and we still couldn’t believe our luck in meeting these… I want to say “people” … personalities that I’d read so much about.

© Hilary Bradt

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