Salone Bobo gets down to business

Let me just preface this by saying I began writing in July and got halfway through…and it has been 2 months until I have been able to finish this blog! A lot of chaos ensued, keeping us on our toes every day. I am back in Canada now, and will write again soon about my last month and the return journey, but for now enjoy this recap of the summer/rainy season!

Wow…I haven’t written since May, and this was supposed to be a weekly thing! Just goes to show how busy I’ve been accomplishing some things and dealing with others! These few months were ones without many visitors or volunteers, hence I was even busier on my own to-do list – getting some major projects together, tying up loose ends and preparing to leave by late August.

Hiking through the forest around Tacugama
So let’s begin in June. As the sun started to fade and the rains dawned upon us, June was a difficult month at Tacugama. It started off hilariously with the arrival of our pathologist at-large, Carles! Dubbed ‘the local Spaniard’, Carles came here on a dual mission. His primary goal is to help us solve our mystery disease syndrome for once and for all, and he has been reviewing all of our cases. By having a chance to sit down in person, it makes a huge difference for us to be able to do some onsite pathology training and to review clinical, pathological and photographic evidence together to help shed light on some of these cases. We had an excellent and thorough review session over a few days going back 5 or so years and discovered new previously overlooked data that could have a significant impact on our investigation. Carles is also engaging with communities back home to fundraise for Tacugama for some long-term projects, and is probably most known around here for his long lens cameras and photography skills! The Spaniard occupied most of his time in his ‘jungle offices’ – of which he had 3 and growing – taking some photos to be used for promoting Tacugama.
Carles, Aram and I on a hike (with Emmanuel the forest guard and a tourist!) starting from the waterfall at the base of Tacugama

Our merry band of boys – the Canadians (me and Aram) and Carles shared many a laugh together (mostly thanks to Carles) and even went on a 3-hour long jungle hike in the rain. Carles loved to compare his toddlers to the most obstinate chimps and complain about fatherhood in the most hilarious ways. Upon his departure, the car was basically falling apart on the way to the restaurant – with Carles almost certain we would either end up like the Flinstones or be stopped by the police due to the state of our vehicle. When he got out, he had white powder all over his pants (from the cement the car was transporting earlier in the day) and we were joking about how he was going to get stopped at customs. Then came the best part. Aram and I stayed out late as we waited for Carles to get on the boat to the airport. Because of this, we were on our way back at 2AM just hoping to get home safely, when we encountered a routine police stop. They informed us that one of our headlights was broken (they were so dim we didn’t even notice) and wanted to hold the car and send us to the police station for the night until we could go to court in the morning. As this was clearly ridiculous, we were pleading our way out and saying we just needed to get home. The officers were about to let us go when they realized our registration ticket was expired. Then it was a big no-no, we were definitely going with them to the station. All we could think about was the reaction Carles would be having, and we were dying of laughter (internally, of course). Panicking and pleading, we finally got our get out of jail free card and made it home!

Jackie and Jackson in “Forest School”

A few days later, we had the arrival of our most difficult case yet. After working up in the provinces, our education coordinator came back with a chimp that had been found and brought to our team by the community. The claimed they had him for a day and he was found fallen from a tree in the bush. The boy was emaciated with every rib showing, had maggots and sores all over his body, couldn’t move his legs and could barely flex his arms, and SCREAMED like I’ve never heard a chimp scream (and they scream often) every time he was touched. The poor guy was in a horrid state and had clearly been left in the same spot (as he couldn’t move) for days if not more than a week. We imagined that since a mother (nor a group) would never abandon her infant, that the group and/or mother was most likely killed by hunters. Perhaps this baby fell in the commotion and got injured, or was left alone after such an incident and acquired a disease. In any case there was small hope since he was still eating. However, we were advised not to name him just yet, as his chances of survival were slim.
The rescued little one on the way to the hospital for x-rays

As the days went by, this lil guy got worse then better then progressively worse, despite immediate medical treatment. He slowly stopped responding except for a blank, hollow and empty stare in his eyes, which were mostly glazed over and unaware of any visual stimuli. He would occasionally pant-hoot in response but that’s as much as we got. Progressively his paralysis became worse, although he still had tone in all 4 limbs, he was never able to use his legs, and his arms became worse and worse until he stopped using them too. He started drooling and not wanting to or being unable to swallow anything. It is difficult for me to even describe this boy as these memories were quite painful to observe. After a battery of tests including bloodwork and many x-rays, we were unable to find any evidence of a disease or lesion. If his problem was trauma, it wasn’t related to a fracture – though he could have experienced blunt force trauma, spinal cord trauma, stroke or any other similar cause. Consulting with some experts, we began to think of horrible things such as botulism, tetanus and rabies, amongst others. As the lil guy stopped eating, and was definitely suffering many nutritional deficiencies, I was tube-feeding him enriched baby formula 5x/day. He would spend his days propped up on pillows under a heat lamp on our exam table, and our schedules basically rotated around his feeding and treatment schedule. In the end, he lasted 14 days of this misery (much longer than anticipated) and passed peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of one morning. The saddest part is, despite our efforts, when the day finally came, I couldn’t immediately tell if he was alive or dead because he looked the same as always – which tells you how unresponsive he got in the end. Part of me wished I could hear that horrid scream again just to know he had some fight in him. He didn’t deserve this, no orphan does, but we gave him a chance anyways.

Mohammed and I exploring a local beach bar

July also came with a few surprises, and as my time was getting closer I had to start preparing for my departure and putting some systems in place. We had finally got approval for some permits to ship essential frozen samples needed to solve the mystery disease. Little did I know we needed a whole load of extra Sierra Leonian government permits to go with before we could get the courier involved! So, down to the ministry I went, on almost a daily basis, chasing official after official. I kept getting excuses for why they weren’t there – they had travelled, the people who need to write/sign the letter went to a conference together, the wildlife ministry told me I needed to go to the Ministry of Health first, the Ministry of Healthy told me I needed to go to the Ministry of Agriculture first, etc etc. For days, no, weeks – I was waiting in line to see people for hours who ended up not being there!!! And the Salone style is the best – they will never say no, but just beat around the bush and end up stating the obvious. “Oh well, you know you have to go to the 2nd floor and ask for so and so” “Is he around today?” “Except if you go to the 2nd floor maybe he will be there” “Okay I’m just coming back please wait for me” “Well maybe we will be here, maybe we wont, except if you come back you will know”

My good friend Ibrahim and his 6 month old child whom he was so proud of! This is the morning after Lail-tu-Qadr (night of power), a religious occasion where we stayed up all night in his local mosque together – a completely different Lail-tu-Qadr than I’m used to!!!

Or another one…”oh he is not in today, but they will be back on Sunday and in the office Monday”. Arriving Monday at 9am “Hmm no sir they are not here, maybe they have travelled” “I thought they were coming back today!” “Yes but they were here at 7 and then left again this morning, except unless maybe they come back next week!” Aram and I had a riot laughing about the excepts, maybes and unlesses!!!

Moving Zack to his new group (he got kicked out due to escaping 1 too many times! brought on by his love for other men’s women…)

Anyways, turns out that we needed clearance in the end from the Office of National Security (ONS) which took another week of chasing just to be let in the building and see the right person. It all got arranged that we weren’t allowed to move without a police escort the day of the shipment. Low and behold, in true Salone style, the police never showed up, here I am with a box of frozen samples on dry ice – having been assured that morning by the ONS I would ride with the police…now with no ride and no boat to the airport!!! I then called ONS who said ‘why didn’t you move, you have our authorization don’t you?’ Ughhhhhh. Our driver Gibo graciously came with me to drive onto the ferry and make the flight (which left at 4am but we were supposed to be there the prior evening), but alas, the ferry had closed for the day! Luckily we found a small speedboat carrying 60 passengers across and it was about to leave! We had to abandon the car in a not ideal location hoping it would be guarded, and also ditch 2 boxes of dry ice, taking a giant 25kg box of frozen samples onto this hot, crowded tiny boat, as we dubbed it, the ‘Kissytown express’. We made it to the airport, and of course the cargo/export office had closed and the courier wasn’t available to meet us!!! In the end, they processed the export after much strain (no one had the authorization to sign and stamp it, the cold room wasn’t booked for overnight storage, on and on and on you can imagine the frustration and details), and it was midnight. Now, of course there were no boats going back!!! So we camped out until 4:30 and caught the next boat back, which of course went to a different location across town from our car and was the most nauseating choppy ride on top of it all. Wiped, at 7 in the morning, we got to the car (still in one piece) and made it back. This process started in July, but the ship date ended up being about a week before I left the country and thank god it was successful. Fearing the samples would be thawed without the extra dry ice, you can imagine my relief when I heard they arrived safe and sound and still frozen a few days later! This shipment was 2 years in the making and crucial to saving our chimps, so you better believe I pushed heaven and earth to get it to the destination!!!!

Our first chimp x-ray in house! Here is caregiver Morie monitoring anesthesia as we set up the x-ray!!!
July also marked the initiation of the Tacugama radiology program! After receiving our donated x-ray 6 months prior, we had been working on building a darkroom (which had lots of cracks and in the end wasn’t actually dark!) and getting all the tools needed for doing x-rays. This included film (surprisingly difficult to procure), developing chemicals, a tank for developing, the plumbing work for the tank, a darkroom light source, hangers, direction markers, an adjustable stand to hold the super heavy x-ray machine, a timer without lights for the darkroom, and more! We improvised on a lot of these, the most challenging being sealing all the cracks! All the thick tarps were “finished” at every market and store, everything we tried still let light through. I found Velcro at a tailor shop which helped to seal the door frame using 3 tarps stapled together, haha! Improvisation at it’s best. The next phase was testing the settings – but I only had 6 films to work with! I used 3 on human ‘guinea pigs’ (don’t worry, they agreed) and saved 3 for our chimp patient Nico who needed a checkup on his orthopedic implant. Luckily we succeeded with our human patients, and were able to successfully take and develop x-rays with correct settings, thanks to much help and assistance from my former boss Michelle in Canada – who used almost the same machine on horses for years! Again, working with a deadline to get Nico’s x-rays done before I left, every small barrier became a huge delay but we made it possible in the end, which I am incredibly proud of. Unfortunately for Nico, his arm isn’t healing as well as we’d hoped (he had a broken arm due to being shot and we flew in an orthopedic surgeon to fix it 3 years ago…but it never fully healed) and he will need another surgery. He is much bigger now, a wildly active adolescent male and managing a surgery like this will be extremely challenging.

The last surprise that came in July was the loss of our beloved Bimbo. Bimbo was the largest chimp at Tacugama and the 2nd most dominant male in his group, after the alpha Tito. He began challenging Tito more and more aggressively in July, but would eventually submit just before a big fight could’ve broken out, as Tito and him were pretty good buddies. However, as chimp alliances go, Tito had all the dominant females allied to him, and Bimbo’s only friends were the young adolescent females who weren’t much into politics yet. He was also big, clumsy and goofy. So, we separated him from the group to cool off for a few days then eventually reintroduced him. That morning was fine, but then there was commotion in the bush every 10 minutes or so. We figured Bimbo was instigating again, and around noon we were monitoring and trying to bring the group inside but no one was cooperating. They were far too engaged in the ongoing conflict which we could only hear and not see. Bimbo came around and walked down the fence line where he never goes, and then was followed by Tito and some others. Everything was quiet until evening when we had a big rainstorm. All the chimps came in except 4. Upon searching, we found Bimbo’s lifeless body, badly mauled, as Sita and her son Suma stood over him, with Tito nearby. It appeared that Bimbo challenged the wrong alliance and while Tito didn’t seem heavily involved, he allowed those closest to him to defend him to Bimbo’s demise. This was an extremely emotional time for all of us – everyone loved Bimbo and we were just ‘playing’ with him the day before since he was isolated from the group. We had just marked 1 full year without deaths (literally the day before), and especially without mystery disease deaths, the first year without deaths in over a decade. Having Sita and Suma brutally disfiguring and murdering Bimbo, a member of their own group, without anyone coming to his defence, highlighted the subtle divisions that no one saw coming – none of us interpreted the conflict as that severe. It was the worst call I ever got on the radio, and the 7 hours of gruelling post-mortem that ensued didn’t help. Bimbo and his clumsy antics and friendly silliness will forever be missed by all the staff and I’m sure by his youngster friends who looked to him as their buddy and leader within the group.

These last few months provided some experiences that really made me settle into the ‘Salone Bobo’ name I was bestowed by the locals. Bala went on vacation at the end of July, which meant Aram and I filling his shoes much of the time – getting supplies for camp, dealing with government officials, logistics after logistics. And as I was on my own, I took charge of many projects and spent a significant amount more time with my local friends. So, the way it goes, you always start to settle in the most right when you’re about to leave. But more about that in the next blog….

For now, lots o’ Salone-Canadian love,


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