Another part of my Gombe saga–my work as a research assistant in
Tanzania in 1975, studying wild chimpanzees for Dr. Jane Goodall
Several metal buildings were scattered along the shore at Gombe National Park, having been built over the years since Jane Goodall and her mother Vanne arrived on the bare beach in 1960. From the very beginning, one of the most powerful connections between these two British women and the Tanzanian villagers who lived up and down Lake Tanganyika was their provision of basic medical supplies and services when needed. Initially, under the cover of the camp tents, they tended to wounds, provided a few medications, and assisted whenever they were needed for help. Later, an actual dispensary was built as part of the park buildings, with storage for first aid supplies and medications, many of which were traditional Chinese medications, in little boxes with Chinese characters, and no translation. All we had was a sheet of paper explaining if a medication was to be used for headaches, fevers, bleeding problems or infections.
There were “open” times in the dispensary and each of the research assistants took turns to see villagers as they came by to be seen for medical issues. We saw injuries that had never healed properly, some people with permanently crippled limbs, centipede bites that swelled legs, babies that weren’t gaining weight, malarial fevers.
It felt like so little to offer. None of us had medical training beyond first aid and CPR, but what small service we could provide was met with incredible gratitude. We were even called to attend a difficult birth in a village up the lake a few miles away but arrived after the baby had been safely delivered by the village midwife. For this, we (and undoubtedly the mother and the midwife) were incredibly grateful as none of us had even seen a human birth before.
So it wasn’t a surprise when a villager arrived one afternoon, running and out of breath, asking that we come right away to help. There had been a terrible accident up the beach when a water taxi engine exploded while transporting a number of villagers, with their provisions, along with some goats and chickens. The people rushed to get away from the engine fire and the boat overturned, with people trapped among the boxes unable to escape. Even more tragic, Tanzanians were never taught to swim, so no one on shore could help in the rescue effort.
We dropped everything and six of us ran up the beach for a mile, and could see an overturned water taxi just off shore. The best swimmers went out and started searching for people who had been too long in the water. They began to pull the bloated bodies to shore, one by one, the lake water pouring from lifeless mouths and noses. All we could do was line them up side by side on the beach, trying to keep the biting flies from covering them, trying to make sense of the senseless. There were eight children of various ages, including two small babies, several older women, one pregnant woman, the rest men of all ages–twenty four in all, not a single survivor.
Although in my work as a nurses’ aide at home, I had cared for the dying and cleaned and cared for their bodies after death, I had never before seen so much death in one place. Within an hour, relatives started arriving, their grief-stricken wails of loss filling the air of this remote central African lakeshore. Husbands and wives wept, keening over a spouse, children crouched, in shock, by a dead parent. Grandmothers clutched their dead children and grandchildren and would not let go. It was a horrifying scene.
We had saved no one. We had no power to bring them back to life. All we could provide that day was our compassion for neighbors who had come to depend on us to help. It was not enough, and never would be enough.
I would not ever forget what was lost that day and and because of that, the knowledge I gained.