After University, I moved to Uganda to live in the jungle for seven months so that I could study chimpanzees.
The forest was full of dangers. There were buffalo, elephants and rebel soldiers escaping from Congo at the end of their civil war.
A wildlife ranger accompanied me everywhere. One of the rangers, Adolf (in photo), always carried his AK-47 machine gun.
With the rangers, we would explore the forest looking for fresh evidence of chimp activity. But the chimps were notoriously difficult to find.
After three weeks of not seeing or even hearing the chimps, we ventured deeper into the forest -to a place that the chimps rarely visited.
We climbed the side of a forested valley and found a comfortable place to sit and listen for the chimps. It was 5.30 am.
8 am came. Still no chimps.
Shaggy-haired black and white colobus monkeys were awake and calling across the forest canopy. But no chimps.
10 am. Still nothing.
Bored and frustrated, Adolf suggested we play cards while listening for the chimps. The grass we sat on was still damp from the earlier rain.
Adolf placed his machine gun horizontal on the ground and we used the magazine cartridge as a surface to keep the cards dry. I didn’t think this was a good idea. But Adolf insisted that it was safe.
Adolf dealt the cards and we started playing a local game called Matatu.
Ugandans don’t gently place their cards down when playing. They whip their wrist and slap the card down. He whacked the cards onto the magazine of his weapon.
With each slap I flinched, expecting the gun to go off. Slap…
But the gun didn’t go off. We played a few more distracting rounds, desperately hoping the chimps would call.
Then we heard something familiar…
The calls were coming from deep within the forest, over the hill from where we sat playing cards.
But it wasn’t chimps. It was people.
“Why are there people so deep in the forest?” I asked Adolf.
They were poachers. And it was Adolf’s job as a Wildlife Ranger to catch them.
Adolf collected his cards into his pocket and prepared his machine gun for use other than a table for cards.
We set off to hunt poachers.
Adolf, a Ugandan wildlife ranger and I had been sitting on the side of a forest valley, waiting to hear chimps call. We’d been sitting for eight hours and heard nothing chimp-like.
As the sun reached its highest point we suddenly heard calling in the forest. But it wasn’t chimps calling, it was people in the middle of illegally poaching animals. We set off to hunt them down.
We slid down the hill, ducking under branches until we settled at the bottom of the valley floor. We could still hear the poachers further up the valley.
The poachers were hunting whatever animals they could find in the forest: deer, monkeys, wild pigs. They either sold the animals for meat or fed their families. Monkeys would always get a high price, usually sold as pets.
We ran up the valley following the poachers as they talked among themselves. Their voices grew louder as we crept closer. I could see one guy was wearing a red top, easily distinguishable from the forest greens.
Adolf fired his machine gun in the air. We scrambled out of the trench and chased the poachers up the side of the valley.
My heart was pounding. I expected the poachers to fire at us. But still, I ran forward.
After a few minutes, we stopped running. We couldn’t see or hear the poachers. They’d scattered in the forest. We’d lost them.
By now the insects were screaming in the afternoon heat. Still, I could hear my heartbeat as I stood catching my breath.
Then, I saw the red top of a poacher on the other side of the valley.
“Adolf, over there, there’s the poacher in the red top”, I shouted.
Without hesitation, he raised his gun up and fired at him.
The guy fell to the ground behind some large rocks.
We stood in silence. And I was in shock.
I had helped to kill someone.
A few weeks earlier I was talking to some women in the local village. They were complaining that the wildlife rangers were killing their husbands. These men were poachers. And the women wanted the government to compensate them with new husbands.
As we crossed the valley in silence to collect the body of the poacher, I thought, “If I hadn’t shown Adolf where the poacher was, perhaps he’d never have seen him and he wouldn’t be dead”.
I wasn’t sure how I’d react on seeing a dead body.
We inched around the rock. I peered over Adolf’s shoulder.
There was nobody. No guy on the floor in pain. And I saw no blood leading away.
“What happened?”, I asked Adolf, breaking the silence.
“He ran away. I wanted him to stop so that I could question him”, Adolf said.
“But you shot him and he fell to the ground”, I said.
“No, I fired a warning shot”, Adolf replied.
Adolf knew that rangers had been killing poachers. He didn’t want to be responsible for putting another body on the pile. And I was relieved that I hadn’t helped to kill someone.
My life could have taken a very different trajectory. I don’t know how I would have dealt with knowing I was responsible for the death of someone.
Do I have the psychological fortitude to face the responsibility of killing someone?
I don’t know.
I’ve been offered opportunities to work for big companies where I could be earning much more than I am as a Virtual Assistant. But being a Virtual Assistant brings me so much more than money.
The freedom to work from almost anywhere I like.
The freedom to choose who I work with.
The freedom to spend time with my wife and our dog.
I have time for a daily walk in the forest, reading, and long conversations with friends. Most importantly for me, I have the time to learn how to become a better person.
Remembering the day when Adolf and I could have killed someone reminds me of the fragility of every moment. You never know when something life derailing will occur.
Surprises, good and bad are always just out of sight.
And I know that the freedom I value from working as a Virtual Assistant could be swept away at any time.
Are you spending your day in the best way possible or are you postponing a better life?