is my story. It’s about a girl who became a field biologist partly
because others did not think she could do it.
“Ha! I’ll prove you wrong,” I thought, and I did.
Yet, I was way over my head at times.
decided to study tropical biology in graduate school for many reasons.
Mostly, the science itself interested me, but I also chose this
field because of my personal insecurities.
I have a history of hypoglycemia and thus a history of fainting
(at the most inopportune times), and I was thin and shy.
I had grown up on a farm, though, so I was strong enough.
Still, I felt that I needed a great challenge to overcome what I
perceived as shortcomings. Moreover,
to counter my being the “brain” (i.e., nerd) in my small, country
high school and, later, in college, I wanted some of the glory of
working in exotic lands that Indiana Jones had made so appealing.
So, I went to study at the University of Miami, which supported
work in the tropics.
is where it got tricky. I
was somewhat diverted by my new social life.
I felt I was a nerd, and so this was a big deal to me. My hectic personal schedule caused many people in my
department to wonder if I was suited for tropical work—insecure,
skinny, prone to faint, and party girl.
Precisely because of these labels, though, I became more
determined to do biology in the tropics.
decided to work on mongooses in the rainforests in West Africa.
Mongooses were almost unstudied animals at the time (a decade
ago), and most species remain unknown today.
I seized the chance to conduct groundbreaking work in exotic
Africa, of all places. I began planning a two-month pilot study at a research
station in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where researchers had seen several
unstudied species of mongooses. One
professor remarked that he could not believe I was going.
“Annette,” he said, “I just can’t see you out there
swinging a machete.” Luckily,
his comment was countered by the increased interest of single men, who
thought it was darn cool that I was about to go swing a machete.
Tropical biology is sexy! On
the other hand, tropical diseases are not.
Another professor asked if I was afraid of malaria and river
blindness, which a previous student had contracted at that same research
station. The student had
not seemed greatly harmed by the diseases, and the danger did not seem
real to me, so I laughed and said, “No, I’ll go over a single
individual, and come back a community.”
A third professor said it would be almost impossible to study
mongooses, which are relatively small animals, in a large, complex
environment like a rainforest. I
became more dogged about going because of these challenges.
Reverse psychology works well on me!
arrived in Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown, on the west coast,
where I settled in for a few days to buy supplies.
Freetown was dry dust, a few tall trees, extreme poverty,
Mercedes, packed taxis, open sewers, expensive cafes, and no
electricity. I had expected
these things in my adventure, and I loved the experience—minus the
open sewers and the poverty. I
was in some shock that I was actually doing this.
I knew I just needed to get past the initial scare of a new
environment and things would turn out all right.
research station was on an island called Tiwai, in the Moa River, in the
eastern portion of the country. It
was about an eight-hour drive away.
I hitched a ride with some members of the Conservation Society of
Sierra Leone to Njala University, halfway to Tiwai, where I stayed for
three days waiting for the university’s truck to take me the rest of
the way. At Njala, an
instructor named Philip and his wife Martha invited me for dinner, and I
ate my first dried fish in a spicy sauce over rice.
There also, I was introduced to the pervasive rumors of West
Africa. A Fulbright professor had me over to his house to share
homemade french fries, and he told me that some people there are so
starved that they eat dead bodies.
His proof? People
often stole formaldehyde in what he believed an effort to preserve
bodies for protection against grave robbers.
I am sure my face showed my disbelief, and I wrote in my diary
that night “quite a juicy tale.”
He also told me about the secret societies of men and women
there, and that if a woman comes across a men’s society meeting, the
men cut off her nose. I did
not believe that either—mostly.
the time the university’s truck dropped me off at Kambama, the village
closest to Tiwai, I felt prepared for my new life. I was loaded down with supplies, and I had seen some of the
countryside, though I was beginning to feel a little isolated.
Tiwai was in a remote portion of the country, and it was a
three-hour walk to the nearest bus station.
Momoh Magona, the research station’s manager, met me in Kambama.
Momoh and two other employees from the station helped load my
stuff into a motorboat, and we crossed the river to the island.
is an island about four miles long and two miles wide, and is designated
as a wildlife sanctuary. Rainforest
covers most of the island, with trees up to 15 stories high, but there
are also patches of swamp, bamboo groves, and young secondary forest.
No villages inhabited the island at that time, but there were
three camps; the main research station on the west side of the island, a
small research camp to the east, and a visitor center near the north
tip. Travelers who wanted
to see a beautiful rainforest with one of the greatest densities of
primates in the world could stay in the last camp and take tours. Thus, the research camps were not completely isolated.
Because the island was remote, however, visitors came only rarely
and they consisted almost entirely of Peace Corp volunteers living in
other regions of the country.
gave me a tour of the west research station and helped me settle in.
I liked what I saw. The
camp was in a clearing on a hill, surrounded on three sides by
rainforest but with a gorgeous view of the river on the fourth side.
Better yet, hammocks were positioned in the best viewing spots. There was no electricity and most food was cooked over a
fire, but I knew this before arriving.
I had a large tent waiting for me, with enough room for a bed on
a frame and a bookshelf. I
also had this camp to myself. The
two other researchers who worked on Tiwai at the time were both
away—Kate in the east camp and Dawn offsite.
No employees slept in the camp at night; they all went to back to
their villages across the river. But
before they left that evening, Momoh offered to arrange for a guard to
stay in the camp, at least until Kate came back.
Knowing I had to be strong, I said no.
“You are a very brave woman,” he said, and everyone left.
Those words made me a little nervous.
night, I slept in my tent at the camp’s edge, right up against the
forest. Of course, I could
not sleep. I heard too many
rustlings that sounded as if they were from animals the size of pigs,
but in my mind, more dangerous. According
to my advisor, a leopard lived on the island.
I think I got two hours of sleep.
Luckily, morning and the camp employees finally arrived.
first, everything was grand. I
met all the workers, and everyone was pleasant.
I saw the river where one bathed.
It had mini-rapids and lovely, hidden pools among the rocks, and
no one had seen crocodiles there in over a year.
Then lunch began, and so did the “initiation” of the
newcomer. I was told
tarantula stories, jumping snake stories, and
(Five poisonous species of snakes inhabit Tiwai:
black cobras, spitting cobras, green mambas, the night adder, and
the Gabon viper.) Poisonous snakes always have made me nervous, but I had
interviewed several Tiwai researchers before coming and was not too
worried—most had seen only a couple snakes a year.
Still, this talk at lunch made me uneasy.
lunch, Momoh took me for a short walk into the forest to show me the
trail system. The
rainforest was beautiful and just like one imagines.
When evening came and everyone had left, I settled into a
comfortable hammock with a view of the river to catch up in my journal.
While I wrote, a group of Campbell’s monkeys foraged in the
trees next to my hammock. Then
three chimpanzees, including one with a brand new baby, came into camp
and stole fruit from one of the banana trees.
Fantastic birds flew by, and I saw wave after wave of bats cross
the river and settle into Tiwai’s forest to forage.
I tried to sleep that night, I kept hearing noises, including numerous
slithers under my tent. I
spent a restless night, and, it turns out, dangers truly were out there.
Somebody robbed the camp while I slept.
In the morning, I found the door to the storeroom open and the
lock missing. At the time,
I did not know that anything was stolen, but when Momoh and the other
employees arrived, we discovered that someone had taken the payroll of
about $350. The men were
rightfully upset, and Momoh sent a messenger for Kate, who helped
managed the research station. While
waiting for her to come, I continued to unpack, but I felt awful about
the robbery, because it occurred while I was in the camp.
I felt slightly responsible, as if I had fallen asleep on the
watch, and I felt taken advantage of in some respects.
arrived several hours later, introduced herself to me, and then she and
the men sat down to discuss what to do.
I watched from a hammock a short distance away.
Afterwards, Kate came over to talk.
I was a little frightened and I was decked out in my shiny, new
field gear, and I guess I looked vulnerable.
Kate gave me her own “welcome to life in West Africa”
initiation. First, she told
me of the decision about what to do regarding the stolen payroll.
She wanted to call the police, but the men rejected that, saying
the police were corrupt. Instead,
the men wanted her to hire a juju, or medicine, man.
Kate described to me how a juju man would go about finding the
culprit. All suspects
(i.e., all the workers on the island) would gather in a circle.
The juju man would go around the circle carrying a hot iron, and
lay it on each man’s arm. The
iron would burn only the guilty man.
Kate decided to delay hiring a juju man in hopes that some other
means would show itself. We
both believed that we would never get the money back.
Kate began her stories. The
first started as we took food out of wooden boxes to prepare lunch. She told me how the station used tarantulas to hunt roaches
in the boxes. During lunch,
she talked about the culture of the Mende, the main tribal group in that
area. Just three days
before, Kate told me, the village of Kambama had invited her to a
sacrifice to the river devil. She
went, and the villagers slaughtered a goat in the river, singing both
Christian and Muslim songs. On
a more relevant note, Kate told me that the station workers would not
enter Tiwai’s forest at night for fear of forest devils.
(Later, the men would express concern when I started going into
the forest at night to trap mongooses.)
came Kate’s danger stories, including her tale of giant forest hogs
(they can get chest-high there) chasing her up trees, and how she had
almost stepped on a cobra not long ago.
She also once hit a green mamba with her motorbike, and she,
snake, and bike all went down in a tangle, but she managed to get out
while the snake thrashed around. Kate
told me that she had never experienced as much gut-wrenching,
heart-stopping fear as she had here on Tiwai.
She also said not to worry, that Dawn, the other researcher who
had worked there for a year, had not seen a snake yet.
The fact that Kate, who seemed so sure of herself and in control,
could be scared in a “gut-wrenching” manner made me worry about the
level of danger.
went back to the east camp that day, and I spent a third night worrying
about burglars, giant hogs, and snakes, in every little rustle near my
tent. It can be scary to
wake up and hear scratching sounds, rustling, and slithers.
You just pray the sounds aren’t inside, but still you have to
know, so you turn on your flashlight and check under the bed and in the
corners, then turn the light off, try to see outside your tent, can’t
see anything, so in the end you lie on your bed with your flashlight
next to your pillow, and your glasses on, listening intently to noises
until you fall asleep. Animals
such as duikers, which nibbled on the tent or on the bushes next to it,
did not scare me, but I was afraid that one would nibble a hole large
enough for a poisonous snake to get inside.
snakes scared me. And, as
much as one tries to tell oneself that the chances are very small that
you’ll encounter a snake, your tired brain starts going in circles,
and it’s hard to get those thoughts out of your head.
To top if off, drums were being played somewhere that night, as
there would be on many nights. Later
I discovered that the Mende often played drums for parties, but at the
time, it was like an exotic soundtrack for my worries.
morning, to make myself feel better and to start conquering my fear, I
went alone into the forest a short distance.
The quiet forest seemed peaceful, not dangerous.
Later, a lunch of pancakes with mealworms (they had gotten in the
flour) countered that feeling of peace with nausea.
I already knew that I must not to waste any food, especially in
front of local people, whose children often suffered from malnutrition.
I ate it.
the afternoon, Momoh took me out on my first real venture into the
rainforest—to help look for mongoose burrows.
At first, it was splendid. Immense
trees, vines, humidity, and tropical sounds all outweighed my fear of
snakes. Then Momoh said,
“When you cross buttress roots, watch out for jumping tarantulas,
spiders that will jump on you.” When
we got back to camp, Momoh mentioned how surprised he was that we had
not run into a cobra in the places we had searched.
By that time, I was beginning to realize that Momoh told stories
to make himself seem brave. Still,
I felt frightened. We had
not found mongooses, but by then I wasn’t sure I wanted to, because
that meant I would have to come back for one to two years to conduct my
research and I was beginning to doubt that I could handle it.
I was wrapped up in fear, and though I kept saying “give
yourself time, Annette, and you’ll get over this,” I was making
myself sick with the question of “how will I explain this to my
research committee back at the university?”
I was scared to death of a snake biting me in a country that
possessed no antivenom. If
I was bitten, I would have to walk three hours before reaching
transportation that would still take eight hours to get me to a
short while later, my anxiety abated, but homesickness took its place.
I had no phone to alleviate it.
Cell phones were not yet prevalent, and the nearest telephone was
back in Freetown. I missed
my family and friends, and wanted to talk to them about this strange
environment I found myself in. I
kept thinking, “I have to survive two months of this and then come
back for more?” I was
especially concerned that I would be the only researcher on the island
next time, as Kate and Dawn were leaving in a couple of months.
evening, I heard voices speaking in Mende pass on the trail next to
camp. Thinking that one of
them might be Momoh, and having some letters for him to mail, I decided
to follow them to see if they were going to the visitor center, a mile
to the north. When I
arrived at the center, I discovered that I had missed Momoh, but I met
an American woman of about my mother’s age.
She told me that her husband and her daughter, a Peace Corps
worker, were out watching monkeys with a guide.
She and I squatted on rocks around a fire and she acted as if it
was the most natural thing in the world.
I told her about my feelings of isolation, and she was very
understanding and motherly. I
believed that if she and her family were not afraid to stay, then I
should not worry so much. That
one visit helped so much, and I managed to sleep some that night.
the next several days, my fears subsided a little.
I ventured out more and more into the forest on my own.
There was an excellent trail system, and I kept to the trails as
I wandered, looking for potential burrows that mongooses might use, and
keeping an eye out for small brown animals among the brown and green
leaves of the forest floor.
also decided to survey the eastern portion of Tiwai for mongooses, and I
arranged to visit Kate. The
east camp was about two miles away, and three trails joined my camp and
hers. The workers told me which route to take, but two-thirds of
the way to the east camp, the trail became overgrown and faded.
I tried several branches off that trail, but it began to get dark
and I finally gave up trying to find poorly marked trails in a dark
forest with just a headlamp. I
turned around to go back the way I came, but I lost the trail.
While I was lost, something that sounded like a large cat growled
repeatedly at me and caused my heart to jump, and I ran into some hogs,
but luckily they did not chase me up a tree.
I finally managed to find the trail and I returned to the west
camp. I knew I had to try
again, though, because I needed to overcome my fear and because Kate was
expecting me. I decided to
go to the visitor center to get directions from a male Peace Corp
volunteer who worked part-time on Tiwai and who often stayed at the
center. That decision meant
more hiking through a dark rainforest.
Luckily, the Peace Corp volunteer was there, along with the
American woman I had met before, and her husband and daughter.
They all knew that I was scared.
I was heartily embarrassed.
I must have proved that there truly is such a thing as the smell
of fear. The American woman gave me a warm coke and crackers to help
my nausea, and I stayed with them for a few minutes. The Peace Corp volunteer gave me correct directions, but also
said that he would never walk over to the east side in the dark except
for emergencies. Nevertheless,
I went, and I made it to the east camp.
Of course, I was still afraid, but I was proud to have made the
eastern camp was smaller and more primitive than my camp, and the forest
felt much closer there. Kate
and I ate slightly spoiled rice and beans by candlelight. Just when I felt safe, and I headed off to the latrine, Kate
warned me of the spider that inhabits it.
She said not to bother it and it wouldn’t bother you.
The spider was the largest I had ever seen.
It was a whip spider (also known as a tailless whipscorpion) and
was about three and a half inches by four inches, with its legs.
Then, in our tent we discovered a five-inch long gray and pink
centipede. (It turns out
that at least part of the slithering under my tent was due to
centipedes.) Kate and I caught it and dumped it outside.
Kate said that because I was not squeamish about that, that I
would have no problem here. Feeling
proud, I blew up my air mattress and tried to sleep.
I endured another sleepless night, but only because the air
next morning, Kate and I got up before dawn to travel to her study site,
where she pointed out potential mongoose burrows.
The rest of the day, I searched for more burrows by myself.
I thought I heard mongooses once but I never saw them, only
scratches in the dirt that I suspected they had made.
That evening, Kate walked back to the west camp with me so she
could study primates there for a week.
We got along great while she worked there, fixing spaghetti with
weevils and chili with ants, and talking up a storm.
It was great therapy.
couple of days later, a Peace Corp worker visited the island, and I
invited her to look for mongooses with me.
As on most previous days, I had no luck finding them—until we
heard a repeated “thwacking” sound.
We tracked it down, and, through dense bushes, we saw a mongoose
fighting a black cobra. I
was excited and happy. The
mongoose and the cobra circled and repeatedly attacked each other.
The “thwacking” sound was from the cobra striking at the
mongoose, missing, and hitting the dirt instead.
The mongoose and the cobra moved off into denser undergrowth, and
we could no longer see the fight. Then
we heard a yelp. Cobras, of
course, do not yelp, and we figured the mongoose had been bitten.
When I circled the area, though, I thought I saw the mongoose
chasing the snake.
had finally seen a mongoose, and snakes no longer were invisible
threats—now they felt somewhat manageable.
How convenient that I was studying an animal that fought cobras.
The following week, I recovered quickly from my first one-on-one
encounter with a six-foot long cobra (we faced each other a yard apart,
then I backed off slowly). By
the end of the first month, Tiwai felt like home.
It felt so normal that I had trouble recalling my earlier fears.
My sense of isolation and homesickness also abated with the large
number of visitors to the island and some mail from home finally
arriving. I grew to love the spicy African food. I also became used to moldy bread, cakes and pancakes with
mealworms, and food gnawed on by roaches.
We never had a tarantula in the food box for pest control.
Several of the workers did arrange for a juju man to come find
the payroll thief, but not all the workers would participate, so the
were still anxious moments. Kate
suffered from a severe bout of malaria that was worrisome. I found out that red colobus monkeys vocalize at dawn with
sounds like a woman’s screams, which can be disconcerting. I also experienced another type of serious fright.
During the second month, I spent some time alone in the east
camp, and on two separate nights, poachers walked through my camp.
Tiwai employees had noted poaching in the eastern part of the
island for some time, and only poachers would enter the forest in the
middle of the night. The first night, I hid; the other time, on Kate’s advice
(she said that the poachers were just hunters from nearby villages), I
yelled, “Who’s there?” and heard a quick retreat.
The men did not come back through camp, although on a later night
Kate faced down a hunting dog there.
however, these frightening events were widely interspersed among days
filled with touring the incredible tropical forest on Tiwai. I saw galagos, genets, duikers, and monkeys galore.
I saw chimpanzees cracking open nuts with rocks.
At least 300 species of butterflies and moths exist on the
island. Most importantly, I
began seeing my mongooses regularly, which gave me hope of being able to
trap them when I returned for more field research.
that time, I planned on returning.
I had worked through my fear, gained experience, and felt
competent as a field biologist. I
had survived this challenge. Far
more significantly, I enjoyed my time in the rainforest.
year later, I went back to Tiwai. On my second trip, I caught and
radiocollared mongooses, tracked their movements, and observed their
behavior. Because I did a
lot of night work during that second season, I saw new types of life,
including giant snails, phosphorescent mushrooms, civets, and bongos at
an incredibly close distances. I
also had two more close encounters with cobras, and I swear that I saw
more poisonous snakes than did all the previous researchers combined.
(The other researchers were all primatologists and looking up,
whereas I studied animals on the ground).
And I often heard lovely noises under and outside my tent.
Yet the hardest thing for me on this trip was the isolation.
I went to town for supplies only once every two months, and mail
took two to four months to get to me.
Luckily, another researcher named Cheryl lived on the island the
entire time I was there, and we were good friends.
Even so, when I got back to the U.S., my speech patterns were
impacted by my time in the field. I
worked alone in the field most of each day, and spoke mostly Krio when I
did interact with people. Back
at home, I spoke with a slight hesitation that took a couple of years to
get rid of, but it was only a minor aggravation.
the two-year trip I planned for completing my mongoose research ended up
only lasting a year. Liberians
invaded Sierra Leone, and Cheryl and I had to evacuate. A horrible civil war ensued, and the country still has not
recovered. At least one of
the research station employees was killed.
Even a decade later, we still do not know the status of Tiwai and
am grateful for the unique experiences I had in West Africa, and for the
chance to see the rainforest and the mongooses.
And I am particularly proud of finding a strength in myself that
leaving Africa, Annette Olson studied mongoose communication at the
National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.
She received her doctorate in 2001 and is currently a research
collaborator with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural
History. She is writing up results from nine years of studying
mongooses and plans to work on North American or African conservation