A Diplomat in wildlife

I promised a funny story from my Mother. She has no idea I am sharing this. At the beginning of covid, my son and I started to ask her a question a day about her life. Some of the stories I know really well, some I had never heard before. My Mother has a tight knit group of friends in the diplomatic corps. You might be surprised some of the stories I share later…

The Flat and the Baboons

In the early fall of 1969, we were preparing to return to Canada from Tanzania: we had little new-born by then, so were staying close to home.

We longed to see the Tanzanian wildlife one more time. We knew we didn’t have time to go very far or to stay overnight at one of the game parks, but thought we could go to the nearest part of Mikumi Game reserve, a day’s trip from Dar. We packed water and food and diapers, and set off with three month-old on a day’s excursion.

We went with another couple, and entered at a less used entrance to the park, because it was nearer. This part of Mkumi Game Reserve was flat, and did not have as many animals as other parts of the reserve: the roads were narrow and not well maintained. We intended only to stay in the park for a few hours, and return home. It was the dry season, and everything looked grey and bare. The other couple ended up quite a distance from us, but we were not concerned; too busy trying to spot wildlife.

Somehow, your father ended up leaving the main road: the road was a dirt one, so it was easy to think that you were following the road when it verged on an open area. In a few minutes, the road narrowed and the underbrush seemed to close in. Your Father felt that eventually the path would curve back to the main road, but it seemed to be getting narrower and narrower.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that we needed to double back –but the car suddenly seemed to slow and lurch. We had gone over a vine with huge thorns that had punctured a tire. To say we were nervous was an understatement. We were in the middle of a thorny thicket, no one knew where we were, there were tsetse flies buzzing around us, and your father had to get out and change the back tire. I had to roll up the window to keep the flies from getting in, and was trying to keep our 3 month old cool in the suffocating heat.

Your Father worked as quickly as he could: he jacked up the car and was beginning to take off the old tire, when I spotted a baboon sitting in the thicket. Your Father was unaware, so I knocked on the window to warn him. Baboons can be scary looking up close, especially when they show their huge canine teeth, and this one was not shy. It was a large male.

Your Father was very nervous: he wanted to reassure this baboon that we were not dangerous, while reassuring himself that he wouldn’t be attacked. He started talking to the baboon:

“ Hello George, you don’t need to worry, I’m just changing the tire here – see, I’m just taking the lug nuts off….”

The large baboon moved closer, just a few feet. He was about 150 feet from us, but was very slowly coming closer: he would come forward a few feet and then sit. To my horror, I realized that a whole troop of baboons were following him. They were spread out in a semi- circle, and seemed to follow the large male as though they were a well-rehearsed army division. I then understood why a large group of baboons was called a troop.

They inched forward, deliberately and slowly. Your Father could see some of them at his side, and he kept nervously looking at them, all the while talking with his back to the big male.

“Okay George, you can stop now. You’re getting too close. Tell your soldiers to back off ……Okay, okay. You are just doing your monkey thing.”

“See, I’m just putting on the new tire.”

The baboons had spread out, and were getting closer. I honked on the horn, and they backed away, just a foot or so. They didn’t like that, and made screeching noises, which frightened us all the more. There was an intelligence about these animals that was unnerving.

It was a standoff between baboon and human, and your father was pretty sure a whole troop of baboons had a distinct advantage over three humans and a flimsy, disabled Renault car. Clearly the baboons were not responding to English, so he switched to rudimentary Swahili greetings:

“Jambo, Mzee (hello, honourable old man), Habari gani? (How are you?) Habari za mama? (How is your wife?) Habari za watoto? (How are your children)………”

“Okay, okay, George, you’re getting way too close, and I still have some more lug nuts to go – honey, get ready to open the car door – George it’s okay, okay? Okay, I’m almost Done, George! Msouri, Msouri sana (good, very good) !!!!

By the time your Father was tightening the last lug nut, the troop of baboons were less than 30 feet away, I was starting the engines and honking the horn, the baboons were starting to screech. I opened the driver’s door, and moved to the passenger’s seat – as your father leapt in I tried to move over – it was a scramble of flailing arms and legs and uncharacteristic curses, with baby wailing from the bassinet in the back seat. Your Father drove the car forward, and we looked back. The big male was sitting in the middle of the road, yawning. The rest of the troop were retreating into the thicket. Nonchalantly.

We waved goodbye to George, and he just turned away, showing his big red backside.

Baboons 1, Humans 0.

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