Greetings are very important in Ugandan culture. Where we work, it is customary to greet those you encounter with a standard exchange in Runyoro, the local language here. For example, if we find a farmer working in his garden in the morning, we might initiate the following conversation:
“Thank you for your work.”
“Thank you for your work also. You are welcome here.”
“How was the night?”
“The night was fine.”
“What is the news?”
“No news.” (Note: It is important to respond in this way even if you do have very big news. You will go on to share that news later in the conversation, but for now, this is the standard reply.)
“How is this place?”
“This place is fine.”
This typically marks the end of pleasantries as well as the end of Jack’s and my conversational repertoire in Runyoro. From there, field assistant Nick continues the conversation by chatting with people and finding out whether they’ve seen or heard chimpanzees recently.
So began an unusual conversation a few days ago. In our unending quest to find evidence of chimpanzees, we turned onto a dirt trail that runs parallel to a surprisingly intact strip of riparian forest. A farm borders the forest strip, and our path led us to the home of the farmers who own that land. There we found an old man, a young man in his late teens, and several small children. Nick made some initial inquiries in Runyoro, and the young man, named John Mary, began to speak in an animated way. He switched to English and explained that this patch of forest belongs to his family. Nick implored him not to cut their trees. He replied that, ah no, they were cutting trees here some years back, but a couple of NGOs came to educate their family about the importance of protecting natural forests. They stopped cutting and hope to plant more natural trees there in the near future. He said that it is difficult to convince others to do the same. We shifted our gazes across the river, where people were busy cutting down trees for timber and to make way for crop fields. He said that the older landowners around here rent out their land for farming, and that as long as they receive their rent money they don’t mind what people do with the land. He expressed frustration that they don’t think about the impact of forest cutting on their children and grandchildren. They only want to get the money to fill their bellies now, because soon they will die and then they cannot eat, he said with a laugh.
The topic shifted to where he heard the chimps vocalizing that morning. We thanked the family and said our goodbyes, continuing along the path in the direction where he heard them. His words echoed in my mind as we went on our way. He is a great example of the power of education programs. His family stopped logging and is committed to the notion of forest conservation. All this talk of forests wasn’t mere rhetoric for our benefit. The evidence is easy to see—it’s leafy, green and, still standing tall in remarkable abundance.
John Mary will leave his farm soon to resume his schooling in town. In the coming years, he will continue to fight an uphill battle to protect his family’s bit of forest. From impoverished local individuals to large multinational corporations, many have a stake in what happens to community-owned forests like these. Because of conservation organizations and people like John Mary, however, the value of natural forests to the livelihood of chimpanzees, humans, and entire ecosystems cannot be ignored.
Author’s note: This post was originally published at Scientific American in 2013.