After the week of teaching, and before my tour was about to start, I had a few days to myself. The original plan was to go to Kampala, but my first encounter with it was really busy and chaotic, so I figured somewhere quieter would be nice. This is how I ended up by the beach in Entebbe.

I have to say, it turned out to be a wonderful plan. The beach was beautiful. I had to keep reminding myself it was a lake rather than a sea – the waves crashing by the shore certainly suggested otherwise. There were nice restaurants and live music on the beach in the evening, and it also turned out that there was more than enough stuff there to entertain me for a few days.

During our first day, my friend Isa and I went on a remarkably good tour of the Entebbe botanic gardens. Our guide Kim (who you can see in one of the pictures above) was incredibly knowledgeable about the plants in the botanic gardens, and talked us through the different crafts and medical uses of the plants, as well as the history of the place. Kim is the founder of Green Youth Conservation Uganda, and very passionate about nature and conservation in general, so we had some good chats about NGOs and collaborating on future projects. He was a wonderful guide, and I’d really recommend his tours to anyone visiting Entebbe.

Medicinal herbs, of which there are many samples in the botanic gardens, are a bit of a controversial topic. A lot of people die because they seek out local witchdoctors and herbal remedies instead of going to a hospital – without blood tests they can be misdiagnosed, and the effectiveness of the herbs is questionable. However, there is now a lot of systematic research happening to determine whether the traditional herbs are actually effective, what the active compounds are and how they work. A number of our students at KIU were doing exactly this research, testing herbal remedies for diseases such as epilepsy and depression. So I wouldn’t encourage anyone to ┬árely on herbal remedies instead of tested medicines. However, who knows – maybe a number of useful drugs in the 21st century will be developed from exactly these herbs.

Another surprise on the visit was the presence of animals in the botanic gardens. The Vervet monkeys seemed to be having a lot of fun playing with each other. It was nice to learn that they take turns carrying babies because they enjoy it, and that they love grooming each other – so much so, that they will pretend there is something to pick, because grooming is pleasurable to everyone involved.

The next day I also went for a visit to a very interesting place – the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Established by Jane Goodall, this is a rescue centre for chimps who are orphaned, or confiscated from poachers. While the island is relatively small compared to their usual habitat requirements, it gives them a more natural living environment than a zoo would, and the staff were lovely and very dedicated to the welfare of the chimps. When we were there, a chimp that didn’t feel like coming out that day (and was therefore still in a cage) was being stroked by a volunteer to keep her happier, and she even had some crayons in front of her and was making a drawing.

Because all the chimps come out to feed at the same time, it’s also a great place to observe chimp social behaviour – something I’d never seen before. I have to say, I was absolutely fascinated by what I learnt.

Chimps are not amongst my favourite animals because, well, they’re not the nicest creatures. They’re aggressive to each other, and a lot of their interactions seemed to be solved through physical power. On the day that we went to visit the island (but before we could see it), a male chimp tried to beat a female, but then got dragged away into the forest by four females. There were also arguments about food, with much complaining from one particular chimp – their society is very hierarchical, so the dominant males tend to get most of the food, and the chimp screaming on the ground had his food taken by the alpha. And generally, after much feeding-related furore and fighting, the dominant alpha male ran through the entire group thumping the ground, until everyone calmed down and eventually made their way back to the forest.

However, what I found the most fascinating were the guide’s stories about how complex chimp politics were. The alpha male has a number of duties, such as keeping order in the group, and he needs to have the support of the group to be in power. However, sometimes the dominant male goes too far and starts turning into a dictator. If this happens, there is a sort of revolution, and the leader is overthrown. There is then a period of extreme politics, with factions forming, chimps bargaining and swapping sides, until finally the chimp with the most support is elected as the new leader. Doesn’t all that seem so… Familiar?

All around I had a really lovely time, and would recommend Entebbe to anyone looking for a few quiet days of nature exploration. And seriously – I still can’t get over the chimp politics.

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