Field notes from Uganda 8: Farewell, potatoes

It’s the end of the field course here in Kibale and I’m now looking forward to getting home. The day my plane lands there’s a wedding to attend, but even before that there are many things I’ve missed — my wife, hot running water, reliable electricity, my record collection, and the ability to walk in the forest without fear of being trampled by elephants.

On the very last night here I went out with a small group to look for bush babies. We were rapidly successful, scanning trees with our torches and looking for the orange reflections of their large eyes amongst the foliage. I was walking slightly ahead, looking for the next one, when from the vegetation at the side of the road, moving as silently as an iceberg, a large bull elephant emerged right in front of us. What are the chances. It made it clear that we were not welcome, but luckily wasn’t interested in causing us any further trouble.

The elephants will not be missed. There are, however, a number of things that I will remember fondly. In no particular order:

1. The potatoes. I’m not joking. The potatoes here in Uganda are the best I’ve tasted in my entire life, especially when roasted. I could eat them continuously. I’ve never had potatoes like them before and all others will pale in comparison. The only other foodstuff worthy of note are the doughnuts of death, which occasionally appear at afternoon tea — small blobs of hard, salty deep-fried dough. They’re basically vegetarian pork scratchings and they’re incredible, even though each one palpably reduces your life expectancy.

2. The students. Normally at the end of a field course I watch the tearful parting of the participants with absolute equanimity. It’s not that I’m glad to get rid of them so much as relieved at the lifting of responsibility and the peculiar social tension that results from the teacher-student relationship. On a TBA course, however, it’s completely different. All the students are mature post-graduates, all highly talented and motivated. It also helps that we’re not assessing them, which allows us to completely separate the important roles of teaching and support from any academic judgement. This dissolves one of the major social barriers, and not coincidentally, they learn a lot more as a result.

3. Primates. To quote Liza Comita, a fellow forest ecologist, if you’re going to do dull and repetitive fieldwork, do it somewhere with monkeys. I’ve never been anywhere with such a fantastic abundance and diversity.

4. This view in the morning:


One could easily get used to opening a front door to this view.

Some things, however, I won’t miss at all.

1. Ironing underpants and socks. This isn’t for aesthetic reasons, but to kill the eggs of the mango fly, which are often laid on wet clothes when they’re hung out to dry. On contact with skin the eggs hatch and the larvae burrow under the skin causing painful, infected swellings. One of the other teachers has pulled almost 40 larvae out following an unwise excursion to the swamp where they swarm in abundance. This has been enough of a warning to make everyone a little paranoid.

2. Finding an internet connection. In the Dark Ages, monks travelled the world looking for the exact location where the firmament was thinnest and their prayers would ascend most readily to heaven. High, desolate places were particularly favoured for establishment of holy sites. The same principle applies to obtaining a mobile signal in Uganda. I am sending this while sat on a pile of rocks on the hill above the field station. Returning to a place with reliable wireless will be a delight.


On this occasion, the internet beam fell around the septic tank

3. Elephant terror. Once you’ve had a bad experience with the elephants, every noise in the forest becomes a potential elephant. Branches swaying in the wind, an animal running away in the undergrowth, a hornbill squaking as it lands clumsily in the canopy. All these make me jump and scan for the nearest escape route. In most forests I’m confident that, as a human being, I’m pretty much the most dangerous animal around. Everything else tends to run away. Here I’m definitely not. It’s a new experience for me to be scared in the forest and it’s not one I’ve enjoyed.

4. This view in the morning:


The baboons hold their morning conference to plot the day’s mayhem.

Actually, the baboons aren’t too much of an issue, so long as you ensure that your doors and windows are locked whenever you’re not around. They’re certainly not aggressive, other than to each other. In a place with limited electricity and internet, an no TV, they provide a permanent soap opera on your doorstep. The researchers who study them have almost come to love them. I doubt I’ll ever get that far but they at least provide good entertainment. It still baffles me though that a standard greeting among male baboons is for one to grab the other’s testicles. It’s one way to get their attention I suppose.


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