Dr Rose Badaza, a pteridophyte taxonomist, was leading a group of students to learn basic fern identification. Despite her short stature she’s a formidable personality with an air of command.
It’s often difficult to engage students in plants when their primary interest is animals; they’re so easily distracted. At one point one of the students picked up a frog, eliciting the usual cooing from the group, who all clustered round. Rose was unimpressed. Her eyes swelled and her lip trembled in mock apoplexy. “Put that frog down!”, she declared, turning heads within a five mile radius. “We are botanists. The frog is our enemy.” Duly chastened, the student gently released his prize.
With some downtime this afternoon I took a stroll through the home gardens in the village adjacent to the forest reserve. As I rambled along, familar small shapes darted through the bananas just out of sight, calling out “Msungu! Msungu!” and the occasional “How are you!”, though too shy to wait for a response.
As I turned to head back, one bolder child stepped out and beckoned me to follow. Approaching a hut just off the trail, a gaggle of children emerged, and all became clear. They had run home to smear their faces with white chalk, and were now excitedly dancing up and down, pointing at themselves and chanting “Msungu! Msungu!” with broad smiles on their faces. These days blacking up is considered terribly offensive. But whiting up? I’m fine with that.
One of the great nuisances here at the field station are the olive baboons, which prowl the compound in amongst the chalets, waiting to seize any chance to break in and help themselves to whatever foodstuffs they can find. The windows are barred but constant vigilance is essential. We have been warned of many occasions when they have discovered an overlooked entry point and wreaked havoc within.
Returning to my chalet this evening I found, carefully deposited on my doorstep, a partly-gnawed avocado, while a cluster of baboons sat at some remove watching my response. How should I treat this — as a peace offering? A gift? Is reciprocal altruism expected? I stepped over the abandoned fruit, then closed and bolted the door behind me. The avocado has since vanished along with the baboons. I fear that my insult will not go unpunished.