'Papa', the Chimpanzees' Human Father

Not even lack of a pair of shoes could deter his passion for Chimps Conservation!

by Anthony Ochieng and Jacquiline Wahu

NGAMBA CHIMPANZEE SANCTUARY , UGANDAHe approaches me with a big, vibrant smile but says nothing.  With brevity of words he greets me in Swahili, “Habari yako?” I cheerfully respond, “Nzuri sana.” He kindly offers to help me with my luggage. Am left with my camera bag which am too uptight with like it’s a part of my body and rarely allow anyone else to handle. You got to understand, it’s my tool of work and it’s quite fragile.

We then proceed to the volunteers’ quarters where am handed over to the Sanctuary Manager, Philip, who does the induction of Ngamba Island Sanctuary. As a photographer, the place heightens my sense of adventure as it looks quite unexplored, unexploited and barely inhabited. My mind is glued to the thoughts of capturing the birds and the lake view. I can only hope Philip finishes the induction soonest possible. (Phillip, if you read this, ignore that last part…) 

About Ngamba

Welcome to Ngamba Chimpanzee Sanctuary

Ngamba Island, happens to be the first destination I desired to visit right after indulging in Conservation Photography. My dream came true when I landed the opportunity to support the Sanctuary with Conservation Photography. The excitement was overwhelming. I vividly recall my happy dance to my favorite tune after receiving the confirmation email

Ngamba Island is among Koome group of Islands, in the middle of L.Victoria, 23km southeast of Entebbe, Uganda. It’s about 40 hectares with 95 percent of forest cover which is home to chimpanzees.

The Sanctuary on the island was established in October 1998. Currently, it’s home to 49 orphaned chimpanzees. These wild cousins to humans were mostly rescued from border points, airports and from individuals who pet them or use them as circus props. The island is magical. The sunset in the evening breeze is breathtaking. But my highlight during my stay in the island was interacting one Paul Nyenje, aka ‘Papa’. He deeply inspired me as he shared his conservation expedition.

The Boots
The Boots of the care givers getting ready to feed the chimps

The Journey

‘Papa’, the Lead Chimpanzee Care Giver, began his care giving career in 2006 as an intern. He candidly narrates his journey to me like it all happened yesterday. “As a young boy I frequently visited the Uganda Wildlife Authority Zoo forest as back then it was not fenced. My visits were driven by the desire to feed bananas and sugarcanes to the chimpanzees as this gave me a certain satisfaction.

Before joining the Chimpanzee Sanctuary, I was in brick-making business which was the source of my income. (He giggles and proceeds) One day, there was a heavy downpour which spoilt all my bricks. This broke my heart as it was just a small business that enabled me sustain my daily needs and pay my school fees. During my quest for an alternative source of income, a friend who convinced me to go back to the village, where I could make at least USh20 per day from working on people’s farms.”

His zeal getting educated neither withered away nor died. He was determined to continue studying and he began rearing chicken to raise his school fees. Unfortunately, while in grade seven he was unable to fund his education again. Luckily, he had an understanding teacher who accepted chicken as means of payment for school fees for him to complete his studies.

Papa and team mates feeding the chimps at the platform in Ngamba Island
Papa and team mates feeding the chimps at the platform in Ngamba Island

‘Fireman’ at Kabaka’s Palace

Paul thereafter completed his senior two and got a chance to volunteer at Kabaka’s palace. He was surprised to learn that fire must be kept lit at all times in the palace. He was assigned to keep the fire burning as his major duty. While on one of his assignments in Kampala he picked a brochure on the streets which had a picture of a chimpanzee. It revived his love for chimps and immediately got an interest in it. He sought help from his former teacher on gaining a better understanding of the organization on the brochure.

He came to a realisation that he wanted to work with chimps and decided to pursue a certificate course in Tourism. “I had no money; I used to read notes from my friends as I barely attended half of the program. Later, I was allowed to complete my studies after the school learnt that I was volunteering at Kabaka’s Palace.” He recalls.

Once he completed and passed in his course, Paul applied for an internship position at the Chimpanzee Sanctuary. He requested his former teacher to deliver the application on his behalf since he could not afford to go all the way.

Walking 100 Miles to Borrow a Pair of Shoes

He was lucky enough to be invited for an interview at Entebbe. However, had no idea on what to wear for the interview especially on the feet as he did not own a pair of shoes. He resolved to walk close to 100 miles to his brother’s place to borrow a pair of shoes to groom for the interview. Meeting his brother was a bonus as he combed him with a few interview tips.

The determined young champ passed the interview for having acquainted himself with feeding chimpanzees in his early days.

The next challenge was communication at his work place due to language barrier. “I could barely speak English and could only say ‘Hi’. The ‘Wazungu’s (white folks) accent was too heavy for me to grasp what they were saying”.

He recalls being served tea with a modern flask that he didn’t know how to use. Lilly Ajarova, the former director of the trust, whose accent was light, came to his rescue and showed him how to use the flask and later often helped acquaint with the new environment. He diligently worked but avoided talking during meetings. His efforts did not go unnoticed as he was retained after the three months internship.

He attributes his hard work, passion and team spirit as the reasons he landed his Care Giver job in the Chimpanzee Trust and has grown to lead in it since 2007.

Papa with other care givers updating the chimps daily diaries
Papa with other care givers updating the chimps daily diaries

Sophie the Chimp

“My favorite chimp is Sophie.”  I curiously ask, “Why Sophie?” “When I joined the Trust in 2007, other chimps would bully me. The first time I went to the forest, Nagoti and Connie came charging at me. Sophie, jumped in front of me blocking the other chimps from hurting me. That’s how Sophie and I started bonding. Sophie was rescued at Malaba, border of Kenya and Uganda. I can refer to her as the super star of the forest. She has a best friend called is Megan. She is very welcoming to new chimps and rarely gets involved in fights. “

Sophie the chimp that saved ‘Papa’ from Connie and Nagoti

Nagoti, one of the chimps at the Island

Connie was confiscated at an army roadblock in southern Uganda. She is very affectionate and protective of the young chimps and have earned the nickname ‘The Loving Mother”

“We have to be the ambassadors of all the wildlife, we need them and they also need us. Raise your voice on any illegal trade of any wildlife including chimpanzee. My desire is to see them in their natural habitat without being threatened by human beings.”

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