The 1980s and 1990s: the worst nightmare for Ugandan families was Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDs). A devastating disease that sucked life out of people like a vacuum- cleaner sucks in dust.
The population grew desperate as the scourge affected every family in one way or another. To make matters worse, there was limited – and in some areas complete lack of – sensitization on how it’s transmitted and how the situation could generally be handled. And when human beings fail to comprehend something, they speculate. That is the natural way of dealing with mysteries and fear.
Devasted by AIDs, Ugandans came up with countless theories. The most plausible of them all was/is that the HIV virus that causes AIDs was being transmitted by primates like chimpanzees, baboons and monkeys. To this effect, many people conjured lots of negativity about the primates especially Chimps, even urging relatives and friends to keep
away from the animals. In fact, if you killed a chimpanzee or monkey back then you were
celebrated as the village hero; you will have eliminated a disease carrier and crop pest.
On the other hand, anyone who identified themselves with the apes was subjected to mockery and discrimination. And as human settlement on animal habitat increased, people had literally sentenced the apes to extinction. But there were a few people who just refused to be foolish and cruel towards nature. They gave up everything to cater for the vulnerable species with the intent of controlling their extinction. Ms. Betty Angucia is one of those heroes. She was a stalwart animal caretaker at Entebbe Zoo, now Uganda Wildlife Education Center.
How it all started
1995. It was a sunny afternoon at Entebbe Zoo. The sun was at its worst behavior, burning anything and everything in its way. But Betty, mother of two and wife of the zoo’s night watchman Daniel Afaa, was making the best of the situation. She sang along to her favourite song belting out of her small radio set as she did her laundry in front of her simple one-roomed house. Then something caught her eye and she paused for a moment. She noticed Dr. Josephine Afema, one of the zoo’s veterinary doctors, walking robustly towards her.
The always smiling vet was not smiling – She wore a nervous grin and he was carrying an evidently malnourished baby Chimpanzee. The vet introduced the baby chimp to Ms. Angucia. He told her that the little animal had just been rescued by the Uganda Army personnel who found it stranded and distressed in Arua. The mother chimp had been killed in a cross fire between the army and rebels in that area.
Ms. Anguria remembers the baby chimp having a bloated stomach; a sign of worm infestation, as well as hair loss, and the majority of her baby teeth had either fallen out or were so badly corroded that they had to be removed. She was clearly in sheer pain!
The more she tried to walk on her own, the more she trudged and stumbled like a drunkard falling face first. There was nothing left in her tank.
In fact, upon arrival at Betty’s trough, she tried to leap into her laundry to quench her thirst but she fell down again. Filled with empathy, Betty’s eyes instantly soaked with tears. Then Betty grabbed a plastic mag, filled it with water and surrendered
it to her. But the baby chimp, who was nameless by then, still couldn’t hold a cup
on her own. Her hands uncontrollably trembled.
This is when Betty stepped in to take full control of the situation. She held the cup for the chimp to drink and that is how their new relationship was born. This would bind them together forever. On hearing about Betty’s compassion, Debbi Cox, then Executive Director of Goodall Jane Institute, requested Betty to mother the chimp.
Cox, an Australian nurse, didn’t expect Betty to accept her new role as “mother of chimp” – not at least that quickly. Betty’s yes to the chimp was swift and sweet. Next was baptism and the baby chimp would, from then on, be known by the name of Ayikoru, a Lugbara name that means Joy.
Like in humans, baptism was a turning point in Ayikoru’s life; she had fully been accepted in the family. Even her portrait was hanged on the wall of the living room. Betty’s husband Afaa, who was also a dedicated employee of the zoo, witnessed the amazing moment. He was now the “father of chimp.”
Betty and Afaa had two biological children of their own and they made Ayikoru their third. They loved her like they loved the other kids. “I could tell my wife was fascinated by Ayikoru and she was going to spoil her with affection until she found life worth living again,” says a smiling Afaa. “Ayikoru needed and deserved all the love in this world given the trauma she had gone through that young.” Ayikoru’s mothering gets underway
But Ayikoru needed more than love. She needed medication and good food. Betty started with carefully nursing Ayikoru’s wounds and treating her just as Debby had recommended. Sure that Ayikoru was out of danger health-wise, Betty and Afaa introduced her to her ‘distant half-brothers’ five-year-old Moses Abiti and two-year-old Jovani Aniku.
At first, the boys were terrified to nothingness as they contemplated on how to mingle with their furry sister. Well, she knew how to draw them in as she started grooming them and they returned the favour. In the wild, animals are bound together by social grooming. It is a sign of care and togetherness. Ayikoru had finally met folks who care. But animals will always be animals and given the fact that Ayikoru was still recovering from the traumatic events that left her motherless, some of her encounters with her brothers were somewhat clumsy and edgy – to say the least.
“It was only and only in a few scenarios that she lost her cool and washed us with slaps before fleeing in protest,” recalls Abiti, who is now 27 years old. But the boys eventually got used to her and they knew it was only a matter of time before she initiated a truce. Aniku, now aged 24 years, says that Ayikoru would give them “high five” as a way of declaring ceasefire.
The boys never looked at Ayikoru as a pet but rather their sister and this is what helped them to understand her even when her moods changed. They would play together. Bath together. Pray together. Eat together. Sleep together. Needless to say, they shared the same bed and did chores like general cleaning together.
She would do everything they did with at least 98.7% efficiency, and she was never too ashamed to learn. Fascinated by Ayikoru’s remarkable behavior, Betty opened up to adopting more rescued chimpanzee two years later. First it was Kisembo, and then Yiki…the list is endless. One after another, they came and grew. Most of them lived in the zoo cages but they still had profound love for her because that is what they were getting from her. She continued to keep some at her place thou.
Yes society continued to misunderstand her but what really mattered to Betty the most was that she was lending a hand to helping preventing these apes from extinction.
All good things come to an end… But even the great stories come to an end. In 2002, Betty’s ‘chimp children’ were transferred to Ngamba Island hence the beginning of the renowned chimp island on L. Victoria. Their population had overwhelmed the zoo.
16 years down the road, she is glad she is among those who never looked away. Though now retired as a direct chimpanzee caretaker, Betty still plays the core role of a mother in a family to the chimps; she is the chef at Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust in Ngamba.
According to Evelyn Nalumu a former chimp caregiver, she hopes that one day people can accept chimpanzees as their distant cousins and the two species can live in harmony forever. In an effort to bring this realization to life, Ms. Nalumu has thrown her weight behind the conservation initiatives like be a chimp champ, a campaign dedicated to restoring the lost glory of degraded settings which previously served as habitats for the primates. Much of her work entails sensitizing the communities on the need to conserve the environment.
This is the same dream shared by conservation icons Dr. Jane Goodall, Debby Cox and Lilly Ajarova.
You and I can also be a part of conservation. Not all the time that conservation is asking for your money through donation. Donate if you can, but sometimes all nature needs is your care. Nature always reciprocate the love.