The Nabugabo Research Station

On the edge of Lake Nabugabo, about 30 minutes past Masaka, you’ll find a small compound, squeezed in next to a resort and a convent.  This research station is my home for the next month of my summer. I’ve already been here a month, and I’ve settled in quite nicely!

The research station was founded by Dr. Lauren Chapman and Dr. Colin Chapman to study fish and monkey ecology, respectively. They’ve been researching on this lake for over 20 years, but the station I am living in is only two years old. The fish team walks down to the beach and takes the small motorboat into the swamps and bays to look for weakly-electric fish and cichlids to tag. As for the monkey team, we’re living on our study group’s territory, so we find them at their sleep site and follow them all day to study their every day behaviour and to perform feeding ecology experiments. They sleep so close that I sometimes wake up to the sound of tiny feet scrambling across my tin roof, as the vervet monkeys cross our compound.

The station is home to about 6 people. We share three sleeping cabins, each with a spacious balcony where we can work outside, shaded from the sun while enjoying the breeze off the lake.  Julie and I share the Kingfisher cabin, so monkeys are the centre of attention. We’ve got a few pictures of them up on our wall, but the really telling part is the smell of bananas that lingers our room. To keep the bananas we use in experiments from all ripening at the same time, we keep the ripe ones in our room away from the others that are still green!

In the makeshift laboratory, the fish team keeps tanks for their experiments and our field assistant Matovu stores and processes his fruit samples. And there’s a freezer stores monkey fecal samples.  As a rule, we do not keep food in it next to test tubes of frozen dung… and serves as a constant temptation of enjoying a rare, cold beer.

The kitchen keeps our food safely out of reach from the monkeys, but we’ve got an ongoing battle with rats. There’s a gas stove for cooking, but that’s the extent of our appliances.  To keep the kitchen well stocked, we go to Masaka once a week to visit the general store, the farmer’s market and the bakery. We walk into the village to get fresh fruit and veggies from the local vendors. And, every few days, our neighbour’s son comes by to sell us avocados, mangos, papaya, and other fresh crops from their farm.

Next to the kitchen, there’s a storage room, an extra bedroom, and a shower room. There’s no running water, so a bucket of water and a bar of soap do the trick. As a treat, we sometimes heat water in the kettle for a hot shower. More often than that, we just rinse off in the lake. At the back of the compound, a shed doubles as home base for a local fisherman, Xavier, who works out of the fish landing next to our little compound.

For me, this research station beats any 5-star resort. Sunrise over the lake is always worth getting up for. It’s the motivation needed to get out of bed at 5:45 am! The strong breeze that brings waves to our beach serves as a small reminder of my hometown on the St-Lawrence river.

Needless to say, I’m quite happy to call it home!

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The long overdue introduction…

Alright, alright – I know I’ve been slacking off with this blog idea. I promised far too many of you that I’d keep you updated on my time here in Uganda with this spot on the net. Yet I’ve been in Uganda for just over a month now… and not a single post! But I promise you, I’ve got a good excuse. No, it’s not the quality of the internet (I’ve been checking my emails multiple times a week), nor is it that I am too busy to write (I’ve been swimming and reading nearly every day). Truth is, I’m only now settling in and finding the words to describe it all!  Plus, I have been designing my own research project here, and I’ve been in the field with the monkeys nearly every day, so I guess I *have* been busy enough!

Uganda is a wonderful place.  Though it’s only one piece of the enormity of Africa that I would love to explore, I am incredibly grateful to finally have reached this continent.  Anyone who’s has one or two conversations with me will already know that I have a (slight?) obsession with primates. With the likes of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey as my childhood heroes, it comes as no surprise that I’ve always dreamed of coming to Africa to see monkeys and apes in the wild.

For those who don’t know the whole story, here goes: I’ve had a thing for all things primates for as long as I can remember. Its not entirely clear to me when I decided that primates were my “thing,” but from that early collection of (30+) stuffed monkeys, they’ve shaped my life. As I learned more about how these animals were so similar to humans, my perspective on where humans fit into the world order began to take shape. It led me to become a vegetarian and an animal rights activist around the age of thirteen, made an environmentalist and conservationist of me in high school, and pushed me into the Environment program at McGill where I’ve studied Biodiversity and Conservation for my bachelors. In my first years of university, I swayed back and forth without much drive, unsure of what I really wanted to do. But, when I stumbled upon primatologist Dr. Frans de Waal’s book “Peacemaking among Primates” at a book sale on campus, I came full circle: I fell back to my childhood fascination with primates.

To my great surprise, a friend told me that there was a primatologist here, at McGill! Though he was mentioned to me a couple more times, it was only after I took a class with Dr. Colin Chapman that I got the guts to approach him to find out how I might actually make a career out of studying monkeys.

After a few conversations about monkeys and Africa, I finally got to the point: I really wanted to work with primates. After three exciting, and sometimes grueling independent study projects poring over data collected in the field, Dr. Chapman and I finally started honing in on what really interested me about primates. I thought about working in conservation projects or volunteering in primate sanctuaries, but with Dr. Chapman’s guidance, I realized that it was asking questions about primate behaviour that really interested me. When I started searching for ANY way to get field research experience (there is only so much one can learn from books) I found myself being offered the chance to join Dr. Chapman’s research team in Africa! All that was left – getting funding. Finally, within weeks of my departure date, I received word that I was a recipient of an competitive NSERC USRA research grant! All I needed now were a few more vaccinations and to pack my bags, and I was ready to set off for the heart of the continent I’d only dreamed of visiting.

And so, here I am! I’ve been in Uganda working at a research station on the edge of Lake Nabugabo for just over a month now, studying the behaviour of vervet monkeys with Dr. Julie Teichroeb.  I’m quite pleased to say that I am having the time of my life. I am surrounded by intelligent, interesting, and friendly colleagues and I am learning something new everyday. I wake up every morning to vervet monkeys just outside my front door. I can already identify most of the individuals in our study group, and they don’t seem to mind my singing. It’s a good thing, because it’s the best way I know how to let out my emotions when I remember where I am and what I’m finally achieving.

I have so many more stories, photos and thoughts to share, but I hear blogs are supposed to be short and sweet. I can’t promise all my posts will be short, but I hope you’ll be able to appreciate my excitement. You’ll notice my blog is named “Maxvina” (that’s a story for another post). In short, it’s a sort of pseudonym/online persona I’ve had as long as I’ve been present online. I hope that through this blog, you’ll be able to experience a bit of my adventures here in Uganda, and wherever else I might find myself in this awesome world.

Until next time,

Maxine