Monday, April 9, 2018

Dale Peterson's "The Ghosts of Gombe"

Dale Peterson is the author or editor of twenty books, including Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (coauthored with Richard Wrangham), The Moral Lives of Animals, and Eating Apes.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Ghosts of Gombe: A True Story of Love and Death in an African Wilderness, and reported the following:
On July 12, 1969, Ruth Davis, a young American researcher at Jane Goodall's chimpanzee research site in the Gombe Stream National Park of Tanzania, walked out of camp following a chimpanzee into the forest. Six days later, her broken body was discovered floating in a pool at the base of a high waterfall. What happened?

The Ghosts of Gombe is my answer to that question, done by reconstructing in great detail two years of daily life at Gombe as it unfolded for the half dozen to a dozen young volunteers and researchers who were then assisting Dr. Goodall in her pioneering study. That daily life included marijuana-smoking among some, secret affairs among others, a marital breakup, snake bites and malaria, research discoveries and failures, as well as some astonishing personal friendships that developed between three of the people and some of the chimpanzees. The Ghosts of Gombe, then, is not merely a simple exercise in literary forensics, a non-fiction Who or What Done It? It is also a fine-grained portrait of life--or lives--at a remote African research station during the late 1960s. The lives portrayed include not only those of some chimpanzees and the Euro-American researchers but also those of the African staff and local fishermen who worked and lived there, and who supported the full operation with their labor and expertise, their cultural traditions and social knowledge, their good will and sympathies.

The Ghosts of Gombe is a complex weave, in other words, and page 99 presents a strand or two having to do with the Africans, particularly the camp cook, Dominic Bandora, and a local fisherman named Alphonse who lost his left foot in a railroad accident. To my mind, Alphonse is among the most compelling characters in the book. Like Dominic, he was a cultural outsider, a member of the Wafipa tribe from the south, whereas most of the staff and the local fishermen where Waha. Dominic, meanwhile, had a few years earlier been fired as the Gombe cook for failures due to drunkenness; he returned in the summer of 1968 asking Jane Goodall for his job back. Page 99 opens with Dominic, smiling, friendly, and just then meeting Jane again after a few years' absence. They begin catching up...
on family matters. His daughter, Ado, was, he told her, mkubwa sana sasa--"all grown up now." Then he asked for his job back, and so Jane hired him again. Thus, young Sadiki Rukumata, who had been the cook for some time, was demoted to assistant cook, and the quality of the meals improved. At least Ruth thought so, noting the appearance of some excellent deserts--chocolate cakes and apple pieces--and describing Dominic in a letter home to her parents as "a small, funny old man, extremely proud and an excellent cook."

Dominic was an Mfipa like Alphonse, which meant that Alphonse now had a natural ally in camp, a brother in the African sense, someone from the same tribe and region and background. Alphonse was funny and fair, and he became friends with a number of others on the staff, but now Dominic made sure to walk down to the beach every morning and sort through Alphonse's daily catch. That was good, but then Dominic went off one night and came back drunk. He started arguing with other men at the kitchen, and when Nic told him to leave the kitchen, he said, "That's my kitchen!" He wanted to fight. The following morning, of course, he was terribly apologetic....
Visit Dale Peterson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue