Thursday, March 15, 2012

Primates on the Playground

For most of my life my mother has been afraid of flying.  She is a homebody by nature, whose idea of traveling is going to the Durham Super Target.  She is happiest when she is in snuggly pajamas, in her beautiful living room, with her protein milkshakes and a good book.  For decades she has supported but never truly understood my wanderlust or my desire to live and work in Africa.  And yet, over the age of 60, she recently boarded a flight that took her into the air for over 12 hours, across an ocean, to a foreign place with a blazing sun and perpetual shortages of petrol, electricity, and water.  I think that God recognized her effort, because the heavens rewarded her courage with unseasonably cool weather, and a plethora of petrol for the duration of her visit. The ONLY time that I have ever driven up to a gas station and filled my tank without waiting was shortly after her arrival.   By comparison, since she left we were without a car for more than a week, because no one could find fuel and our tank was empty.
My mother and Kennedy fell instantly in love, and she carried him everywhere, which seemed sweet at the time, but has left us all with a 23 lb baby who thinks he needs to be held constantly.  She was the hit of the party when we visited the boys’ village, and was surrounded by a crowd of jostling children eager to have their picture taken with her camera. We have an entire series now of village children, including several with my mom seen grinning in the middle of a crowd of 30 kids. She was affected greatly when we visited Chrissy at PIH, where she had been admitted again for likely TB in her abdomen. My mom was heartbroken when we visited Chrissy’s home to check on the her motherless children, where the 12 year old brother is the breadwinner and the 10 year old sister the surrogate mother. She cheerfully survived power outages, water shortages, and long hours of crying babies and a house full of kids. I am extremely proud of her.
As my mother quickly learned, one of the greater challenges when living abroad in the developing world is, believe it or not, boredom. Petrol is a constant issue, and the ordeal that one has to go through in order to fill the tank makes us reluctant to use fuel for recreational purposes. We pay someone to wait on line for gas for our truck while we are at work, and he recently waited for three days on different petrol queues but was unable to get more than ½ gallon. People start lining the streets with cars outside the petrol stations at the merest rumor that gas might be arriving, and traffic builds up, often to the point of blocking the roads in both directions. The gas stations are volatile places, where fights break out over the order of the jerry cans, and who has been waiting longest.  The police and army often patrol in order to maintain peace and order, but the crowds can sometimes be intimidating.  So we try not to do a lot more driving than necessary. 
Home is also definitely the easiest place to be for a family of seven. The energy required to leave the home is enormous.  Getting all 5 children and two adults dressed, with shoes on, with full bellies and empty bladders, strapped into their car seats or seatbelts and off on an adventure is an operation requiring careful coordination, and not to be undertaken lightly. Even if we had fuel and were motivated enough to wrestle the children into the car, there is really nowhere to go.  There are no parks or playgrounds, certainly no museums or movie theaters, and definitely no arcades or adventure centers. Over the months we have lived here we have discovered a very few places that we can take the children.
And yet, my patient mother had to get out of the house once in a while.  And, miraculously, the fuel crisis had temporarily eased, leaving us with a full tank.  So, feeling generous and anxious to entertain my housebound mom, I planned a trip to the Lilongwe Wildlife Center.
This is a beautiful preserve in the middle of Lilongwe, where they have one of the best (and only) playgrounds in the city. It has a wooden fort with stairs and balance beams and swings, and there is a gigantic hill of dirt with a climbing rope anchored to the top. There are large swinging benches on a wooden platform, surrounded by a small picnic area.  Just past the playground is a path that leads for several kilometers in a circle, where crocodiles, lions, and monkeys are kept, often after rehabilitation. It is a great place, where we held the girls’ birthday party in December. The employees played “Musical Chairs” and other games with the children, painted their faces, and took them on a short tour of the park to see some animals. 
So off we went, arriving after work one Tuesday afternoon, and accompanied by Aine’s bestfriendClaire (as she says it) and our nanny Laura.  We had packed carefully, and planned on feeding pb and j sandwiches to the twins while the big kids played.  Immediately upon arrival the children raced to the mound of dirt and began climbing, as the adults wrangled the babies out of their car seats and into their strollers, then maneuvered them down an embankment to the playground.  After settling down on the swing, we took our food out of the plastic shopping bags and began chatting.  A few minutes later Laura interrupted the conversation to say, “I didn’t know there were monkeys roaming free here,” and I turned my head.  A group of 5 or 6 monkeys, each about the size of a toddler, was approaching the hill where the children were climbing.  The children noticed when I did, and began scrambling down quickly, sliding in the dirt and running toward me in a near-panic.   Having traveled and lived in Africa and India, I am not too afraid of monkeys. Just the previous weekend we had taken my mom to the Zomba Plateau, and a baboon mama, with a baby clinging to her belly, had stolen a croissant off of Malawi’s plate at breakfast. So I found the sight of my children fleeing from the monkeys with arms flailing and mouths open in screams of terror funny, and began to laugh.  My mom, also amused, took pictures of the primates approaching her panicked grandchildren, while Laura continued to feed the babies bits of sandwich.  I stopped laughing when I realized that the monkeys were also descending the hill, and were heading down the embankment toward the playground. I made a hissing sound and raised my hand, then feigned brandishing a weapon as I scanned the ground looking for an actual stick to wave in the air.  This is a technique which I had seen many Africans use, and which usually seemed to frighten animals off.  Yet these monkeys were indifferent to my display, and continued to advance.  The biggest one, who led the approach, bared his considerably sharp teeth at me and returned a hiss. The children began to panic in earnest behind me.  Although I was still (mostly) certain that nothing would happen, this pack of monkeys was not acting as they should act when confronted by humans. In fact, the leader jumped up on the top of one of the swinging benches, looked down at us and hissed again as we scurried out of his way.  My children began to scream. My mom, apparently oblivious to the escalating danger, continued to take pictures.  I began to yell for help.
 I was trying to shout, in Chichewa, in a way that would capture the attention of the park employees, but not contribute to the anxiety levels of my whimpering, crying, and occasionally screaming children.  There was a group of Malawian gardeners pulling weeds about 50 feet from us, but they did not look up. “Excuse me,” I yelled in my faltering Chichewa. “Monkeys coming.”
No response.  Meanwhile, the leader monkey advanced, still growling, and my children screamed louder and tried to hide between me and the wall behind me.  My heart rate increased, and I began to yell again, louder this time, and less concerned about how I sounded.
“Monkeys coming. Please! Excuse me! Excuse me!” I repeated, my voice growing hoarse. Finally one of the men looked up from his work and noticed the cowering, frantically gesturing Azungus down the hill.  He clearly did not understand us, however, and was somehow unclear about our need for help.  Apparently he did not see the menacing pack of primates that was openly threatening us. He turned to his friend for a second opinion about what, exactly, we might be saying, as the fanged monkey leered at us and crouched as though he was about to leap.  I tried to be courageous, and put my kids (and mother, who had finally stopped taking pictures) behind me, readying myself for the oncoming assault.  At that moment, however, the manager appeared, having been summoned by another one of the gardeners who found our bizarre behavior disturbing enough to seek help.  The manager, thank God, immediately deciphered the situation, and walked down the embankment toward us, scattering monkeys as he approached. The pack scampered to the forest and climbed the nearby trees, then looked down at us in disdain.
My heart still pounding and my throat sore from my barely muted shouts of panic, I quickly realized that if I did not convince my children to stay at the playground for a few minutes now that safety had been restored, they would never again return to the Lilongwe Wildlife Center.  And that would be a shame, because it is a great place. And we had just spent 14,000 Malawi Kwacha for a family membership.  I tried to point out that we had been attacked because we were feeding the twins their lunch, which the animals wanted.  It was also very deserted that day, as Tuesdays are apparently a day that the park is short-staffed.  I attempted to convince them to take a walk with a park ranger, with whom we would be perfectly safe, so they could see that it is a great place to hike and enjoy nature and the enclosed animals, but they would have nothing of it.  They were truly traumatized by the event, and they cried and begged me to take them home with such looks of desperation and such fear in their voices that I had to comply.  Even Claire, who is South African and pretty tough, was terrorized.  They clung to me as we walked to the car, staring with wide eyes up into the trees as they held my elbow, searching for monkeys, then dove into the car and slammed the doors. It wasn’t until we were all comfortably inside, windows closed and doors locked, that the story became funny.
Who needs museums and zoos when you live in Africa?