Do Not Feed the Baboons!

It’s the first of the month and as I turn the page on The Nature Conservancy’s wall calendar, I see them: three baboons. Just like the ones I did not see in South Africa. These guys, photographed in western Tanzania, appear to be working at opening some sort of shellfish from Lake Tanganyika, which the caption tells me is the world’s longest lake, holding “17 percent of our planet’s fresh water and (boasting) more than 300 fish species.” Lucky baboons.baboon in grass

At the Cape of Good Hope, which I visited with my cousin Dorothy, the warning signs were everywhere — “Baboons are Dangerous and Attracted by Food.” I’d seen similar signs atop Table Mountain towering 3,000 feet above Cape Town where we’d gone earlier in the week — traveling in a rotating gondola named The Flying Dutchman, me seated on a central perch, white-knuckled hands gripping a metal post and eyes tightly shut; I understand the view is magnificent.

Dorothy had told me of picnicking on the beach with her daughters when they lived in Cape Town and being watched by baboons hovering nearby. I was intrigued and wanted to see the animals myself. So everywhere we went in Table Mountain National Park, I kept hoping to catch a glimpse of a baboon and lamenting the fact that the closest I was coming to one was the ubiquitous signs. In the gift shop I even bought a refrigerator magnet that reads “Beware Baboons. Do Not Feed.” I guess I was being annoying, voicing my fear that I’d have to add baboons to my list of Animals I Never Saw in Africa because my cousin finally ducked into the gift shop and emerged with a small baboon figurine which she presented to me – “So you’ll finally shut up about baboons.”

South Africa 0052In the park flyer I read that baboons on the Cape Peninsula are protected, the only ones with that designation in all of Africa. You are warned to keep a safe distance from the animals, move away slowly if one approaches you, and hide your food. Feeding a baboon will get you fined. All of this information proved to be moot as I never did see one. And I thought I never had seen one anywhere ever until my daughter remembered that baboons had swarmed over our car as we drove through a wild animal park in New Jersey many years ago, defecating all over the car windshield. That memory removed any intrigue that might have existed before.

Dorothy confirmed that baboons are not very nice animals. But then this picture showed up in my e-mail. Go figure.

baboon on a bike

Nelson Mandela 1918-2013

nelson mandelaThe world is celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, who died at age 95 in South Africa, and I am remembering a wonderful week I had in Cape Town in 2009. It was June – autumn in that part of the globe – and the choppy water in Table Bay caused cancellation again and again of the scheduled boat to Robben Island. It took four tries, but on the last day before my departure, I was able to get there and stand in the same prison cell where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years’ incarceration.

This was my second trip to Africa with my cousin, Dorothy Woodson, who is curator of the African Collection at Yale University Library. In 1994, she had been a Fulbright Fellow in Cape Town, charged with sorting through and archiving voluminous boxes of written materials of Mandela and other political prisoners from Robben Island. She described the experience this week in the Yale News as follows:

“What a heady task this was. Reading messages written on little pieces of toilet paper that the members of the African National Congress ‘High Command’ wrote to each other, revealed rich insights into the daily lives of this most unusual gathering of men…(Mandela’s) leadership, even under prison conditions and restrictions, was clearly evident as he encouraged his colleagues to pursue further education in the form of correspondence courses and guided their political education by the reading of scholarly works. ‘Robben Island University’, as it was called, created a new cadre of intellectuals subscribing to Mandela’s goal of creating a non-racial South Africa.”

In the course of her project, Dorothy had spent great deal of time on the island or traveling back and forth between the island and the mainland. It was understandable that she had no interest this time in accompanying me on my one and only visit there. Besides, she was in Cape Town to attend a book fair. I tagged along with her to several sessions there and elsewhere, including several social occasions where her large circle of friends and associates were anxious to see and entertain her.

Everywhere I went I marveled at the diverse mixture of people and thought how well Mandela’s hopes were being realized. It is a work in progress of course, and I was not brave enough to face a visit to any of the all black townships where people still live in poverty. I glimpsed a vast expanse of slums with their shacks and shanties from the roadway, and while a tour such as the guidebook suggested would bring needed funds to the area, I could not do it. I did, however, buy intricate beadwork done by women in the townships and sold for them by a non-profit organization. One piece, of which I bought several, was a magnetized portrait of Barack Obama. Afterward, I entered a nearby shop where the shopkeeper announced almost immediately, “I LOVE your President!” “Yes,” I said, “so do a great many of us. Also his wife, Michelle.” “Oh, I don’t care about her,” she said. “But him I love.” I laughed and showed her my bead portraits, one of which remains on our refrigerator door.

Both the President and Mrs. Obama will be in South Africa for Mandela’s funeral services. I hope that shopkeeper gets a glimpse of them, if only on TV.

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[Photos: top –; bottom – Mr. Apartheid Puppet created by a German anti-apartheid organization, on display at Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island]