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letters from africa, nine months with shannon switzer Letters from Africa - Nine Months with Shannon Switzer

jettygirl photographer shannon switzer March 5, 2008

Dispatch No. 8: Burnt Sugar

"Death to Kibaki"

The graffitied words drifted past in a blur as my bus from Nairobi to Kampala entered the battered Kisumu province. Evidence of its recent troubles whispered from the remains of torched gas stations and shops- charred skeletons sprinkled amidst their perfectly intact neighbors.

"Let's just get through here," I pleaded in my head as I simultaneously heard the engine splutter and cut-out, leaving us to coast downhill towards the heart of town. PERFECT. After passing three hours on the street trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, the engine was finally "fixed" and I was able to re-board the bus.

My relief to leave the troubled area was short-lived as we came upon a heap of burning vehicles blocking the road. Rioters standing just feet from the bus were thoroughly enjoying their strategically placed vehicle-bonfire. We slowly inched our way through the chaos of angrily waving fists and pangas (machetes) as I wondered what I'd gotten myself into.

The frenzied locals spared our bus, but we didn't arrive at the border until midnight (we were supposed to be there by 6pm, when it was still light out). At this point the bus was still spluttering and finally deemed a lost cause, necessitating a bus-switch: bodies, luggage, and all of the cargo had to be swapped over.

Crossing the between-borders-no-man's-land on foot in absolute darkness, passport and money clutched tightly to my chest, I stayed close to a deaf Ugandan man and his son who had been my amicable neighbors on the bus and motioned for me to follow them. I got stamped in on the other side of the fence and gratefully re-boarded our new bus. Two more hours and a forty-five minute taxi ride later, I finally made it to my hostel in Kampala by 3 AM.

The next day I arrived in Masindi (the nearest town to our forest field site, about an hour and a half away) on the National Resistance Army Movement Day, a country-wide Ugandan holiday. The streets pulsed with the movement of Ugandan militia marching in precise formation to the crazy beat of traditional African drums. In town we were briefed by Ms. Zinta Zommers, the PhD student from Oxford University whose chimpanzee research we'd be assisting, and then stocked up on food and supplies for camp at the local market.

We quickly discovered that it is sugarcane-harvesting season. This means 24 hours a day large fires snap-crackle-pop through fields belching grey smoke into the paisley blue sky. It also means tottering transport trucks are stuffed to the brim, spilling excess sugar cane as they bump along the dusty red road. All the way back to camp, as we followed behind one of these virtual candy dispensers, kids lined up miles ahead waiting to swoop in and grab the tasty casualties. The Ugandan ice cream man, I chuckled to myself, of course I'd find him on my first day here!

The tension I felt in Kenya melted away after crossing the border. A lighter fresher air lingers about Uganda's countryside. When we walk down the road passing mud huts that dot the hills around camp, we are greeted enthusiastically with the signature two-handed wave (both hands gesticulating frantically overhead) and a cheerful "You are welcome!" We are offered bananas and jack fruit without expectation of payment and are invited into homes for lunch of fish, cassava, and millet, often followed by some friendly interrogation.

It usually begins with "Which crops do you grow at your home? At what time of year?" and sometimes evolves into, "Can you take me home to your country as you have now been to my home?" I'm afraid my response to both questions always disappoints.

Of course conversation is limited to their knowledge of English and my knowledge of their language. If I was confused by three languages in the Seychelles, now I can't walk 20 yards without bumping into a different dialect. There are some eighty languages peppering the villages across Uganda. I was surprised to learn the villages and towns are grouped into 6 to 8 distinct Kingdoms (my question of the exact number sparked heated debate amongst the locals I questioned). Each one has a traditional "King", although it is more of a title and tradition restored by the current government than a reality of monarchical power.

Despite the plurality of dialects, and no coherent national language (like Ki Swahili in Kenya) there is one word that knows no linguistic boundary. It echoes behind us in the road, it is called ahead to friends as a warning or a 'get-a-load-of-this!' It causes small children to scream bloody murder and run for their lives. I vacillate between laughing and cringing whenever the word

"MUZUNGU!!!" (WHITE PERSON!!) rings out.

It follows closely on our heels wherever we go, and as my fellow field assistant and friend, Katie Hall so eloquently put it, "So this is what it's like to be a celebrity…or a circus freak."

Our only safe haven from this word is in the forest, where we spend most of our days hunting for the ridiculously shy chimps that inhabit our study site known as Busingiro.

Despite the sanctuary it provides, I have developed a love-hate relationship with the forest. Just as I begin to settle into the first chunk of our daily 10 mile trek to find the chimps, I'm quickly reminded of my status in this complex community. I am a tolerated visitor, treated like a pesky in-law who has yet again dropped by uninvited.

My host affords a few nice pleasantries such as the melody of singing birds, antics of scurrying monkeys, and bursts of color as butterflies swoosh by, but all of these are quickly trumped by the unwieldy branch suddenly stabbing me in the eye or the horizontal root leaping in the air to snag my big toe and bring me crashing to my knees. Not to mention the myriad of thorns, spines, spikes, and burs which find a way to penetrate every square inch of my tender 'muzungu' skin.

When we actually do find the chimps, which is a momentous occasion due to its rarity, a feeling of suspicion often arises. Watching them evokes similar emotions to brushing shoulders with a stranger whose past is blotted by secrets I'm not sure I want to know. Similarly, when they look into my eyes I feel exposed, like they are instantly pinpointing all my good and bad, my ugly and pure. I am not sure that I like this.

Or maybe it's collecting their feces and urine that makes me a bit resentful. Whatever it is, the forest, chimps, and I have some work to do if we ever hope to move passed this love-hate stage of our relationship. One "Discovery Channel Moment" the chimps did grace us with was a hunt. I was beside myself with excitement witnessing in living color a scene I'd previously only watched on TV documentaries.

Before we knew what was happening two chimps had grabbed and flung a black-and-white colobus monkey out of the tree, down to their hungry comrades waiting below. Lots of pant-hoots and screaming ensued, and we later found some of the remains messed about a "nest" one of the chimps (probably the alpha male) had constructed in which to leisurely enjoy his monkey meal. Not a scene that exactly quelled my suspicions of these byzantine creatures, but I'll keep you posted as the research progresses.


I hope this finds everyone well and look forward to hearing from you as usual!

Your loving muzungu,

PS. Those of you in the Santa Barbara area should pick up a copy of the latest Independent, they kindly published an op-ed piece based on my previous update from Kenya! Or just check out the online version at: (Thanks Ben!)


Shannon's Previous Letters: Crying for Kenya - 2007.02.01
  I'm in Love - 2007.12.22
  Ode to Surfing - 2007.11.29
  Bachelorhood and the BBC - 2007.11.13
  She Sells Sea Shells - 2007.10.23
  Unexpected Flight Delays Lead to Unexpectedly Good Times - 2007.10.05
  Whale Sharks, Sea Turtles, and Chimps- OH MY! - 2007.10.01



About "Letters From Africa - Nine Months with Shannon Switzer": JettyGirl photographer Shannon Switzer left a few weeks ago on the trip of a lifetime. Although not necessarily a surf trip per se, we think her adventure is a story well-worth sharing with others. Before she departed, a few surf companies jumped on board with sticker donations for Shannon's trip. Her plan is to pass stickers out to the kids she meets as she travels throughout Africa. Special thanks to all who answered our call for stickers: Transworld SURF, Walking on Water, Mutiny Media, Leucadia Surf Shop, and Dal Sarcos. The kids are going to be stoked! If you or your company is interested in donating stickers to Shannon, please contact me at --Chris Grant



Photo: Gabe Rogel


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