This summer we lost someone that, if I can quote a former student and friend of mine (Dr. Michael Waller) was “one of the great characters of my life”. Mboule Camara died in late June 2017. He was born in Maragoundi, Senegal in the 1940s. I met Mboule in the year 2000, when I first traveled to Senegal to conduct a survey of chimpanzees in this savanna habitat. I was introduced to him by Peter Stirling, also a key part of the Fongoli Savanna Chimpanzee Project. Without Peter I would not have met Mboule and without Mboule, I don't think the Fongoli Project would have ever materialized. We rolled on up to Fongoli and asked a bunch of men under a Saba tree if anyone would take us out “en brousse” (to the bush) to find chimpanzee nests. Mboule said he would. He was my first field assistant and my guide to the wonderful world of Fongoli.
Since Mboule passed away, I have thought a lot about what I might write, when it was not as painful to write about this unique man. There is too much to write, in fact. And, many of the stories that I love about Mboule and I know that others love might make him seem too much of a funny or comical figure to those who didn’t know all aspects of the man. So, maybe I won’t write about some of those moments, no matter how endearing they are to me. Maybe I will ask those who knew him to have a private conversation on one of the many messaging platforms we have these days, where we can reminisce about the funny stories we have to tell about our times with Mboule. Because there was so much more to him than that.
One thing that I do want to write about though is something I heard at his funeral. Or, more specifically, at the sacrifice (we’d say memorial in the U.S., I think, or feast or maybe even wake) held in his honor three days after he passed. (I actually missed Mboule’s funeral, as I was out following chimpanzees and didn’t get my messages until the end of the day when I reached a high spot where my cell phone got a signal. He had died early in the morning and was buried before noon. Missing his funeral is one of my great regrets in life.)
I understood virtually nothing that was said at the sacrifice, as most of it was in Malinke, Mboule’s first language. My project manager, Dondo Kante – and Mboule’s longtime friend – translated some of what was said to me. He mentioned the only woman who had gotten up to say something about Mboule. Everything else was said by men. She was crying as she spoke, which brought tears to your eyes, regardless of the fact that you couldn’t understand her. Dondo told me that she related the story of how Mboule helped her with finances while she searched for a place to live, and she talked about what a big heart he had. Many of the things people said were along these same lines. Most people I know from the United States would think that Mboule was a very poor man; yet he helped others and he always put his family first. He was about as genuine as they come.
Mboule was my first field assistant and guide at Fongoli. He revealed a lot to me about the chimpanzees and he learned a lot too. He laughed when I told him chimps ate termites, and I saw him years later schooling students on how chimps ate termites. He told me that chimps used caves, and many primatologists – and others – found this fascinating. Without Mboule, it would have taken me years to discover this. He took me all over the Fongoli range that first year, to the point that I didn’t want to look for another chimpanzee nest. I’d written data on hundreds of nests on one of those days, only to follow Mboule a little more and have him stop and point up to yet more nests. He knew that “bush” like the back of his hand. He had a GPS built into his brain. He could beeline it straight home from anywhere in the 100km area we found the Fongoli chimps using – and he could do it at night. He’d run after me when we were chased by angry bees, hitting them out of my hair so that only he was stung. He helped me bury our dog, Nyegi, something I’ll bet he never imagined doing in his life – and I doubt many of his friends and family would have believed it either. He introduced me to the cultures there, and he was responsible for making it possible for me to work in Fongoli.
Mboule retired some years ago – at least from guiding students and following chimpanzees. (Although he danced so much at our 10th year anniversary of the project that I wondered why the man was retired!) But, we’d always talk about the chimps when I got home from following them. I’d pass by his compound on the way to ours, and he would always ask me if they were in a large group and where they had nested. Then we’d discuss whether that was near or far, what they were eating and if they had caught any monkeys or bushbabies. He’d continue to ask about some chimps that were no longer in the group, but I never had the heart to tell him they’d disappeared. He helped out with orphan chimpanzee Toto and was always eager to learn news of him, even after he went to sanctuary in Guinea. I think that’s one of the things I’ll miss most about Mboule. Those conversations that weren’t even in very much depth because of our language barriers. Still, they meant so much to me, as did Mboule. I will miss him greatly.
(With thanks for photos to Erin Wessling, Maja Gaspersic, Clayton Clement, & Stephanie Bogart)