Monkey See, Monkey Do, Monkey Dead

By Jess McGlothlin 

Samuel was concerned about hippos.

The 5’6”, impossible-to-age Kenyan was of the firm belief that our campsite was at the best possible point given the circumstances, but he wasn’t happy.

Although I couldn’t tell if the annoyance was geared more toward the quintet of donors who were currently being shepherded into two Land Cruisers to be whisked off to the nearest lodge, or the fact that staff was being left to camp by the lake for the night.

As a photographer documenting the donor visit to an NGO project in rural Kenya, I apparently fell squarely into the “staff” category, and was also left at the lake with my tent, some camp cooking supplies, and the six other staff.

Thank God.

I’d had my fill of the donors, with their scented hand sanitizer, designer “safari” clothes, and insistence on raising their voice to an “understandable” level when they spoke to the in-country staff. (And, occasionally, me. I’m American. Very white. I promise I speak at least passable English.)

Samuel, too, seemed relieved at the loss of our donor baggage, but wasn’t a fan of the camp spot. We had no vehicles to sleep in—they were on their way to the game lodge down the road—so tents it was.

“Don’t go out at night,” he reminded me, eyeing the hippo heads we could see lounging in the murky water. “Kiboko get unhappy on land.”

Fair game. I set up my little one-man travel tent and helped the rest of the crew cook a simple dinner of ugali and some kind of curry. Mutton, maybe? I didn’t ask. We worked our way through a packet of digestives for dessert, packed everything away with a precision reminiscent of camping in bear country back home, and everyone crept into their respective beds.

Night fell, ushered in by the monkey hoots and hippo bellows that make it impossible to think you’re anywhere other than Africa. Sleep came quickly; it had been a long few days of work and we had more long days to come.

It couldn’t have been more than a few hours when shouting yanked me from my ugali-induced slumber. I peered outside the mesh wall of the tent to see a hippo lumbering through camp, just as promised. Samuel and Adamu had the lump of grey spotlighted and were calmly having a long, determined conversation in Swahili at it… decidedly not with it. I rolled over and went back to sleep, content the boys had it well in hand.

It was still dark when I jerked awake to the sound of the zip to my tent lurching along its track. Adrenaline flooded my system… this was a different kind of problem. An entirely unwelcome one. I reached for my old Ka-Bar TDI and the headlamp that rested beside it. 

But something in the pull of the zipper was off. The guy mouth breathing outside my tent was either zip-challenged or very drunk. Sucking in a breath, I coiled my legs and clicked the headlamp on.

I don’t know if you’ve ever encountered a baboon at two feet, with only a mesh screen separating you. But I can tell you from experience that in the middle of the night, it’s a solid jolt.

The baboon screeched at the light, snarling before bounding away into the darkness. Pulse thudding loudly in my ears, I committed to go after it. Fucking monkeys.

A gunshot pulled me from my stupor and I discovered my adrenaline-shaky hands struggling to work the zipper just as the baboon had. Shouts sounded now, voices raised in surprise and anger, and our little campsite erupted into zig-zagging flashlight chaos. I went in the direction of the shot, headlamp beam occasionally transected by fleeing baboons and cursing Kenyans.

Samuel stood outside his tent, shirtless and in his shorts, bare foot poking at the dead body of a yellow baboon. He squinted into my light, the beam catching a white flash of his teeth as I turned the light down to the carcass.

We weren’t supposed to have guns on this job, but apparently Samuel made his own rules.

“Breakfast?” he asked with a snicker, poking at the baboon again as the screeches of its brethren faded into the surrounding darkness.

We gathered around a campfire with pots of coffee and tea, and roast baboon. The boys figured the baboons had watched us settle into our tents for the night and gotten a little too curious for their own good.

What’s the saying? Monkey see, monkey do. Monkey dead.

We spent the remaining nights zip-tying our own tents closed. Samuel’s firearm never made an appearance again, and eventually the donors returned from their game lodge stay. The job resumed and none of us said anything about our wee-hours cookout.