Treasuring the Pearl of Africa – by Landry Green

Landry Green (Twitter: @melesandry) completed her MZool in Zoology with Herpetology at Bangor University in 2019. In September 2018 she was one of the first students to take part in the primatology field course in Kibale National Park, Uganda. This is her story.

Photos: Alex Georgiev

Landry with her project group in Kibale (from L: Laura, India, Robert, and Iosifina)

I never considered myself a ‘people person’ – I much preferred animals. 

This was emphasised by my 8 years working in customer service/retail jobs where you, unfortunately, get to experience some of the worst sides of people. 

During my early 30s I decided on a career change, hoping to realise my childhood dreams of working with animals. 

I went back to school and got onto my dream degree – Zoology with Herpetology, at Bangor University (Wales, UK).

I had no idea of the adventures that awaited my four years in Bangor (or the changes to how I viewed my own species).

In September 2018, as I prepared for my final year, I had the opportunity to join the university’s first ever primatology field trip to Uganda, as a field course assistant.

While herpetology – the focus of my degree – is the study of reptiles and amphibians, primatology is the study of monkeys, apes and other primates. 

It’s a bit of change, but I jumped at the chance to learn about this charismatic group of animals while gaining new field skills. (Was this the start of my drawing closer to people?)

I also hoped to impart some of my student and life experiences onto my fellow students who were at earlier stages of their learning. (Why would I care? There was definite change in the air.)

I haven’t travelled much as an adult, had never been to Africa and my limited knowledge of Uganda was heavily influenced by media accounts of the country’s violent history. 

Originating from Northern Ireland, I’m no stranger to violence and political unrest, so I mentally prepared for a country in bloody turmoil.

However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a flourishing country with a booming tourist industry, a drastic change from its turbulent past. Northern Ireland could learn a few lessons.

Spotting primates with the help with field assistants Erimos and James (and a bunch of other students from Bangor in the back)

What was my favourite thing about Uganda? It’s easy to say ‘all of it’, given the effect the country had on me.

What about ‘seeing chimpanzees in the wild’ – surely this is a life-changing event for anyone, let alone a zoologist with a growing interest in primates?

But ultimately, the most memorable part of Uganda I brought home with me were the people I met there. Yes, I had changed.

During part of the trip, groups of students were assigned a Field Guide to take us around the rainforest of Kibale National Park to learn about the primates that lived there.

My group’s Field Guide, Robert, had been working in the rainforest since 1984 – when I was a mere year old, and my much younger group mates weren’t even born.

Over 30 years experience in the forest was telling and invaluable to my time there – he could identify a tree species from 50m away, a monkey from a split-second rustle in the tree canopy high above us, or what bird that was singing in the distance.

But I also found myself interested in his life and experiences in Uganda, his family, traditions and beliefs. 

I was most surprised to find that despite having met countless foreign students and researchers, Robert had rarely left the immediate area, and never his country. Kibale was his world.

Robert teaching his project students about trees and measurements in the forest.

He asked me about my life and family back home, my studies, and about the ‘forests of the UK’, which I had to painfully inform him were few and far between and drastically different from the rainforests of Uganda. 

I felt we had bonded through getting to know each other, with mutual curiosity about our respective unfamiliar worlds.

I wasn’t the only student to bond with their Guide during our time in Kibale, and our leaving day was a very emotional one for students and Guides alike. 

Robert wasn’t the only Ugandan I got speaking to, though I didn’t get the same length of time to share with the minibus drivers, researchers or chefs as I did with Robert. 

I left the country full of emotion, and nod enthusiastically every time I hear Uganda referred to as “the pearl of Africa”.

In nature, a pearl starts off as a piece of grit that gets stuck in an oyster’s soft tissue, and over many years gets shaped and developed into the smooth, iridescent object we value as a precious gem.

Indeed, Uganda has worked hard to shape itself into the rare beauty we know it as today and has many aspects reminiscent of the colourful iridescence of a pearl. 

But for me, the Ugandan people, like Robert, are what make it truly rare and remarkable. 

I have realised more than ever how special humans can be and how I am, actually, more of a ‘people person’ than I ever thought possible.

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