For seven months between 2002 and 2003, I lived in western Uganda, deep inside the Rift Valley. I was working on a project to habituate chimpanzees to our presence so future researchers could observe them without interfering and affecting their behaviour.
It was hard work. I left my bedroom at Semliki Safari lodge each morning at 5 am and drove to the start of the Riverine forest in my little white Suzuki Jimny with a local Wildlife Ranger who protected me from buffalo, lions and Congolese Rebel soldiers.
We started early in the morning to reach the forest before the chimps descended from their nests. (Yes, chimps make nests.)
The Ranger and I had been doing well. We had found the chimps and followed them each day for weeks. We were there when they climbed into their nests and we were there when they woke up. In the ten-year history of the project, no other researchers had ever had such a continuous observation.
After months of hiking across the savannah, scrambling up the side of valleys and charging through dense undergrowth to follow the chimps, I was exhausted. My feet were shredded from all the walking and I was covered in mosquito bites that I’d itched raw.
The safari lodge manager, a 6-foot five Australian called Clint, suggested that I take a day off and rest. But I didn’t want to. If I didn’t go to the forest one day, I wouldn’t know where the chimps slept, so I would struggle to find them again. And I’d made such significant progress. So I struggled with tired and sore-ridden legs.
Another day, another 20 km.
And again, the next day… another 20 km… and the next 25 km… and the next day.
One of the sores on my left shin had been growing and started to throb. I couldn’t wear my wellies because the rubber pressed on what was now a golf ball-sized boil.
I showed Clint the boil on my swelling shin. He smiled.
“It’s probably a mango fly,” he said.
“Urgh, what’s that?” I asked.
“The adult lays an egg on something damp, probably your towel… if it didn’t dry properly, then you probably spread some eggs all over your body. One of those eggs has hatched with your warm skin. The larva hatched then buried under your skin, attached to a pore, feeding off your body. Usually, when they’re adults, they break through the skin as a fly. Still, this one looks different… it must be huge!” he described with great pleasure.
Because they are firmly attached, you can’t just pull a mango fly larva out.
“You’re going to need to suffocate the thing with something greasy. It’ll then pop to the surface for air. ” Clint explained.
I smeared some Vaseline over the mass in my leg and waited two days.
The larva did not come out for air. Instead, the lump just got bigger and darker.
Clint said that the larva had probably died.
“You’ll need to get that out of you as soon as possible before the infection spreads,” he said.
The nearest hospital was in Fort Portal, more than a day’s drive away. Before I could consider whether I wanted to go to the hospital, Clint volunteered,
“I’ll cut it out.”
We didn’t have a sterile environment, we didn’t have a scalpel, and we didn’t have any anaesthetic. So the only resources we had were some banana gin called waragi (sort of Ugandan moonshine), a sharp hunting knife, and a hydrogen peroxide solution (a strong disinfectant).
I lay my leg over a table and lay back in a reclining chair.
Clint swabbed his knife and the surface of my skin with the gin. Then, leaning over me with absolute glee, he pierced the skin on the top of the swelling and prepared to squeeze…
“This is going to hurt,” he said.
“It’s already painful!” I screamed.
Clint squeezed and pinched the skin around the wound. I howled in agony. I looked away from the disgusting stuff seeping out my body – a mixture of dead mango fly larva, its waste products and my bodily gunk.
Clint squeezed and squeezed until there was nothing left to squeeze except a giant bloody crater in my shin.
“This is going to hurt even more,” Clint said, grabbing the bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
He didn’t give me much time to consider the pain to come. Instead, he emptied half the bottle of hydrogen peroxide over the hole in my leg. I screamed as my wound bubbled.
“Good on ya, mate, you didn’t pass out,” he said after leaving some hydrogen peroxide in my wound to bubble and hiss and spit pale red foam. Clint watched, proud of his work. At least, the hydrogen peroxide would surely kill any bacteria in the wound.
I spent the following days in bed recuperating and worrying that I’d never find the chimps again. But there wasn’t much I could do. I read lots, cleaned my wound often and watched little green and yellow snakes chase tiny geckos in the thatched roofing.
After a week of resting in bed I was strong enough to get back to the forest and find the chimps. And we did find them. Fig season had started and the chimps were gorging on them.
I was lucky. I could have ended up in the local hospital from a severe infection.
I was addicted to tracking the chimps and spending all day in the jungle.
If I had just rested and not gone chasing chimps day after day without rest, I probably would have remembered to put my towel outside in the sun to dry it thoroughly and kill any mango fly eggs. But I was exhausted and must have failed at least once to do this.
I was just getting started in my career as a primatologist. I wanted to prove to the project director that I could be the researcher that spent the most time around the chimps. And I was willing to work every day, all day and weekends. Checking another day off in my unbroken chain of tracking days was addictive.
Although I never had a corporate job, I’ve heard many stories of people feeling the corporate pressure to push themselves. A drive or addiction to work late. To work weekends. And always switched on. Burnout seems to often be the outcome of all this.
This was my equivalent of a corporate struggle to physically push myself for the glory of a project and recognition… until I burnout and my body broke.
Unsurprisingly, after the makeshift jungle surgery, I have a scar on my shin. The scar reminds me not of the pain of that experience but of knowing when to stop and rest. I’m not a machine (as I thought at that time).
Our minds, bodies, and emotions can only sustain our best selves for so long. Without knowing when they are at their breaking point, our best work is simply not possible. And I want to do the best work I can rather than the greatest amount of work I can handle.
I’m now much kinder with my body. I’m more aware of my physical limits and think I’m better at knowing when to take a step back or rest.
Tchin tchin to knowing when to rest.
P.S. Mango flies are not sweet. I think their alternative name describes them more accurately – skin maggot fly. And I never want to experience them again.