Ugandan Thanksgiving


This is the second in a series of blog posts where the author discusses her adventures studying baboons in Uganda. You can find the first blog post here.

After the first few weeks of struggling to figure out how to live in such a new environment, things have settled into a comfortable routine.

We no longer forget towels or soap when we make the trek up the hill to use the shower. We’ve gotten over the smell of the pit latrine behind our house, and we know how to get water and have our clothes washed and deal with periodic power outages. (We actually tried to wash our own clothes once and shared two observations: hand-washing your roommate’s underwear is the fastest way to bond, and our maid Hilda deserves every bit of the money we pay her and then some.)

Things had settled down into a routine, we were starting to be able to get a lot of good data from the baboons, and making friends with the other researchers around camp.

It was the perfect time for an Empaako dinner.

Empaakos are pet names used by two of the tribes in Uganda, the Batooro and the Banyoro, who live in the same area as us. In some ways, Empaakos are like zodiac signs. There are only 12 of them, and each comes with its own distinctive personality type. People receive them at birth, and everyone goes by their Empaako, not their given name.

If you’re not from the area, like the many researchers at camp, the field assistants who work here will give you an Empaako after you throw them a large feast, which is what we did last night.

Shivangi and I are the undergrads working with baboons here, and we teamed up with the other Harvard undergrad working with chimpanzees and two chimpanzee PhD students to host a meal for the local field assistants.

I had never seen some of the enormous pots that Hilda uses to cook oodles of goat meat, farinda, calo, peas, mushrooms, and more. Farinda has the taste and texture of refried beans; calo is a mixture of millet and cassava flours that has the texture of play dough and not much taste.

The most life-changing dish at dinner was the cabbage balls, hands down. They looked like meatballs and tasted like fried deliciousness. In addition to the food, we had lots of beer and sodas: some familiar ones, like Coke and Fanta, and some stranger, like Crest and Novida. It was a welcome change to our usual diet of rice and beans.

There was a quiet pause as everyone enjoyed Hilda’s outstanding cooking but conversation resumed soon after. The baboon field assistants pride themselves on eating a lot at lunch every day –looking at my one container of leftover rice and beans, they shook their heads, and told me to eat more food. Moses, one of the FAs, had been telling us earlier that day that he had borrowed an extra stomach from a friend especially for our dinner that night. When I told him I was planning to eat a lot of food, he shook his head. “I don’t believe it,” he said, “you cannot eat as much food as me.”

At dinner, I found that I literally couldn’t.

We stuffed ourselves like it was Thanksgiving, and then it was time for the naming.

For a while, Shivangi and I had amused ourselves by asking the Ugandans we knew what they thought our Empaakos should be. No one could ever agree on a name for Shivangi, although they all offered various options that she liked. I was always Abowli. So when it came time for the field assistants to announce the names that they had picked for us, I knew exactly what I was going to be, and I was right: Abowli.

Abowli is the cat, and it’s associated with easygoing, friendly women (men can be Abowli, but it’s rare). The field assistants explained when they named me that it was because I was “jolly,” and one of the PhD students explained to me that “there are no harsh Abowlis.” I’ll leave it up to readers who know better to decide if that seems appropriate.

Shivangi got Akkiki, which the field assistants describe as “a princess, or a hard worker.” Shivangi has requested that I come kill bugs in her room “because [she’s] a princess,” so she can spend her free time studying for the MCAT. Seems like a good fit to me.

Now that we have Empaakos, we’re going to be addressed by them, and we’re going to start to have to remember a whole new set of names for the people we know here. Time for the routine to get shaken up a bit.