By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Robert M. Sapolsky
Narration by: Mike Chamberlain
Robert Sapolsky’s “A Primates Memoir” is a masochist’s guide to Africa. It is what you expect from a biological anthropologist who sojourns to Africa in the late 1970s. Sapolsky lives in a tent while studying baboons. At the age of 12, Sapolsky appears to know what he wants from life. In his middle-school years, he begins studying Swahili, the primary language of Southeast Africa. He wants an understanding of life.
Sapolsky’s Ph. D. thesis, written in 1984, is “The neuroendocrinology of stress and aging”. Presumably, his trip to Africa became the basis for his academic thesis. Sapolsky’s experience in Africa is recounted in “A Primate’s Memoir”.
While studying Baboons, Sapolsky is exposed to the worst of African society. His memoir of those years touches on the aftermath of Africa’s colonialization, Africa’s ubiquitous diseases, its governments’ instability, its corruption, and its abundant and frequently poached wildlife. Though some of what Sapolsky writes has undoubtedly changed, today’s news shows that characters like Idi Amin, Somali terrorists, greedy government bureaucrats, and wildlife exploiters still walk, drive, and bump down streets and dirt trails of Southeast Africa.
Sapolsky returns to Africa after marrying. He squires his science and marriage partner to revisit a baboon troop he was studying in the 1970’s and 80’s. At the same time, he touches on the cultural norms of a society that seems little changed from his early years in Africa. He recounts the melding of a tragi-comic story of an African who is mauled by a hyena. In telling the story, he reveals the victim’s stoic acceptance of life as it is. Each time the story of the mauling is told by different people, it changes. The change comes from a blend of truth and fiction that conforms to the tellers’ view of themselves and life in general. The essence of the story is that an African man, sleeping in a tent, is mauled by a hyena looking for food.
When the story is told by Masai warriors hired by a company to protect its employees, the victim is saved when the hyena is speared by the Masai warrior’s courage. When the story is told by the victim, it is a company cook who bashes the hyena; with the hyena running away in terror. When the story is told by a newspaper reporter, the Masai warriors were drunk and not doing their job; the cook bashed the hyena, and the victim survives. When the story is told by the cook, the victim’s yell brings the cook to the tent; the cook grabs a rock, bashes the hyena, and the hyena flees. Finally, when the story is told by the company employer, the victim is not an employee, the Masai warriors did spear the hyena, and the employer had no responsibility for the victim.
A cultural interpretation is inferred by these many versions of the same story. Some humans indulge in alcohol to escape reality. Most humans wish to protect an idealized version of their existence. News coverage is often a mix of truth and fiction to make stories interesting, more than accurate. Truth is in the eye of the beholder. Some people are willing to risk their lives for others. Private companies focus on maximizing profit and minimizing responsibility. Life is happenstance with each human dealing with life’s consequence as an end or beginning. Experience defines or extends understanding of life. Undoubtedly, there are more inferences to be drawn.
The overlay of Sapolsky’s memoir is the reported evolution of a baboon family in Southeast Africa. He shows that baboon families, like all families, are born, mature, and die within a framework of psychological and physical challenges imbued by culture. All lives face challenge but culture can ameliorate or magnify the intensity and consequence of the challenge.
Sapolsky gives the example of Kenyan “crazy” people who are hospitalized, treated, and fed to deal with their mental imbalance. In America, it seems “crazy” people are left to the street. The inference is that Kenyan “crazy” people live a less stressful life than American “crazy” people. This is a positive view of Kenyan culture but there are ample negative views in Sapolsky’s memoir. Rampant poverty, malnutrition, bureaucratic corruption, and abysmal medical treatment are Sapolsky’s recollected examples.
Sapolsky’s memoir shows he clearly lives an unconventional life, but it seems a life of purpose. What more is there?