Lion Shaped Mountain: Thorns and Thistles

Looking through a small window into the complex world of Sierra Leone's chimpanzees.

This is the fifth installment of a 12-part series on the chimpanzees of Sierra Leone. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

The year is 1909. The sun begins its descent behind the Atlantic Ocean. An American reporter stands on the deck of an old wooden ship. He looks east towards the coastline. He sees the shape of a lion illuminated by the setting sun. He opens up his journal and records his thoughts,  “On the left, in a gorgeous blaze of orange and pink and lilac, the West African sun was dropping into the Atlantic. On the right, out lined against the sky, was the bold headland that a daring mariner once saw as a crouching lion and named Sierra Leone.”

photo of sierra leone
Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Back in the early 1900s, railway workers were building a rail system to connect Freetown to other cities throughout the country, which was at the time a British colony. Photo by David Hond.

The ship glides into the Freetown Estuary and drops anchor at a large wharf. The reporter retreats to his cabin to gather his belongings. He stuffs loose articles into his bag. He grabs a small revolver that he brought for personal safety from his night stand. He carefully places it on top of his clothes before clasping his bag shut and slinging it over his shoulder. Finally, he picks up a white pith helmet from his dresser and, looking in the mirror, styles it perfectly atop his head.

As he walks over the gangplank to the shore, he is greeted by the chaos and confusion of Freetown, the capitol city of Sierra Leone, a British colony. He is directed over to an officer sitting at a desk. The official tells him that he must surrender any firearms before entering the country. Reluctantly, he produces his revolver and hands it over to him.

In the haze of dusk, he is led to a station where he will wait to board a train that will tour him through some of the more populated parts of the country. As he waits, he notices that the train tracks are unusual. Both the rails and the ties (or “sleepers” as they are called here) are made out of metal. He inquires as to why the ties are not made out of wood, as they are elsewhere. He is informed that they have had tremendous difficulty with railroad tracks in this part of Africa — due, in no small part, to “white ants” that keep eating the wooden ties. The solution is to construct them out of metal. The reporter notes that the metal ties seem to be rusted all the way through.

The quickly growing thickets of thorny vines and branches that surround the tracks also pose a challenge. This vegetation, combined with the country’s characteristically soft and soggy ground, has necessitated the planting of elephant grass along both sides of the tracks. The elephant grass dries up the ground and steals nutrients from other plants in the area, preventing them from overtaking the tracks.

Even with these problems, the railway connects Freetown to the other city centers in the colony. It is from this railway that the journalist will see the country and report his observations to the rest of the world.

A train pulls up to the station and the reporter climbs aboard. As he makes his way to the nearest empty window seat, he is struck by the disarray of the train car. It is very dirty and not at all like the much nicer trains in other parts of Africa that he has travelled to. He looks out the window as the dusk light fades into evening darkness. The elephant grass along the track is tall and obscures much of his view.

The train rolls on, passing railway workers, some far off on the horizon, laying track in the middle of a trail of elephant grass that leads deep into the interior of the country to the east. The grass has been planted there in anticipation of an expanded railway route. The train continues south.

The trail of elephant grass extends far beyond the horizon and far beyond the workers, bisecting the country. It extends through villages and farms. It passes through fields and forests. It grows under trees filled with monkeys. Birds walk through the grass searching for insects. Leopards hunt their prey alongside it. The trail finally terminates near the base of a mountain range.

The villages that live near the trail of elephant grass struggle with what it is doing to their farms. The promise of a new railway means very little to them, especially as the elephant grass has degraded their soil and stolen nutrients from their crops. What had previously grown no longer does.

One of these villages is Matamba. The reporter in the train will never visit this obscure village, or even travel near it. In fact, most British colonists do not even know of its existence, despite the fact that it occupies a prime location on the banks of the Pampana River. The villagers utilize the river for irrigation during the dry season — this reliable water source supports the community’s large farm.

Within the village, huts are interspersed with mango trees that offer shade as well as fruit. A large forest abuts the village, and a forest trail connects Matamba with other villages, including one that is much larger.

Night gives way to morning. A woman from the large village travels through the forest trail with a sleeping infant wrapped in a bunting on her back. She emerges from the forest and continues towards Matamba through the village farm. The baby is awakened by the bright sunlight. He opens his eyes and begins to cry. His mother tries to comfort him as she walks, but his cries become screams as they travel further.

The baby’s cries are making it difficult for his mother to walk. She sees a large ear of maize growing on the farm, picks it, and hands it to her baby, hoping it will calm him. The baby grabs the vegetable and is immediately taken with it. He stops crying and begins to peel back the layers of the maize. When he gets to the yellow kernels, he shoves it into his mouth and begins to suck on it.

In the distance, farmers from Matamba are watching. They drop their tools and run to the woman. They begin to shout at her, telling her that she is a thief and these are not her crops to take. One farmer grabs the woman and drags her, with her baby, all the way to the village.

photo of women in Matamba
Women on a farm outside the former village of Matamba. Photo by Andrew Halloran.

There, the farmers call out for the chief. As they wait, they pull the baby from the woman’s back and throw her to the ground. The baby screams. Finally, the chief appears from his hut. The farmers tell him how the woman stole maize. The chief is enraged. He orders that the woman be punished. This will serve as a message to all those who would steal crops from Matamba.

The woman is brought to another end of the village. She is stripped of her clothes and beaten with a switch. Her hair is pulled from her head and body. She screams. Her baby, held by one of the farmers, is unharmed. When they have finished torturing her, they give her baby back to her. They tell her to tell others in her village what has happened to her. Bloodied and naked, the woman ties the baby back on the her back and makes her way back to the larger village, struggling at times to walk.

When she finally arrives at her village, her community gasps. They run to her and help her get to her hut. They call out for her husband. Her husband appears, looks at his wife, and runs to her. She begins to collapse, and he catches her as she falls. Weakly, she tells him what occurred. As he holds her, he calls out to the rest of the community, anger filling his voice. Everyone in the village stops what they are doing and comes running to him. When this man speaks, everyone listens. He carries significant influence among the people of his village. They know what the chief of Matamba does not know: the woman’s husband is the chief of the large village.

As his wife is treated and her baby is cared for, the chief calls for a meeting with several of the strongest men in the large village. Together, they make a plan. Revenge will be swift and severe. Matamba will disappear from the Earth on this night.

As the quiet of night begins, the people of the Matamba begin to retreat inside. The last embers of the fire used to cook the evening’s dinner go out, and the village becomes still.

Men from the large village creep into Matamba brandishing knives and clubs. Without making a sound, they make their way through the village. Suddenly, a scream fills the air, followed by more screams and the sounds of clubs smashing against flesh and bone. Very quickly, the men from the large village travel to each hut, killing anyone that gets in their way. Before the sun rises, everyone in Matamba has fled or been slaughtered.

Morning comes, revealing lifeless bodies and a blood stained ground. The chief of the large village, along with others from his community, walk through the carnage. He stops under a mango tree, in the center of the village, and makes a declaration: Matamba must cease to exist. The huts must be burned. No one is to set foot in this village ever again. The large village will take Matamba’s farmland, but the village area is to be cursed.

As Matamba burns, a thatched border fence is erected around the site. The fence stands as a symbol of the Matamba exile, forever preventing people from resettling the area.

Weeks later, the fence remains. The area has very quickly become overgrown with thorny vines. Flowering thistles cover the area where the blood of the community soaked the ground. Fruit appears on the branches of the mango trees, where several chimpanzees now nest. Once kept out of this area by the presence of humans, chimpanzees are now safe there. No humans enter the area. They are safe from hunters. There is fruit in abundance. The events of the recent past have created a new home for a new community of chimpanzees.

A century later, I walk through tall elephant grass and listen again to the story of Matamba. The story is a favorite of the local villages here. My companions are from the local villages. I have been walking through the forests with them for years. They never get tired of this story. It is always repeated with both amusement and reverence.

photo of chimpanzee nest in mango tree
A chimpanzee nest high in a ficus tree in Matamba. Photo by Andrew Halloran.

I recall the reporter on the train. The railroad never made its way to this part of the country. In fact, there is little trace of the railroad in much of the country today. The rusty metal ties did not survive the harsh environment of Sierra Leone. The old railway, like the forest elephants and leopards of Sierra Leone, is gone.

What remains, however, is the elephant grass. It has divided and in some cases overtaken forests. It dictates where the villages can establish farms. It determines where species can live. It shapes almost every aspect of the landscape.

We come to the end of the elephant grass and wander into the forest where we find chimpanzee footprints. We follow the footprints and come to a familiar thatched fence. The fence, which separates the former village of Matamba from everything else, is now used to support animal snares. A large dead cane rat is held in one of the snares. One of my companions removes it and stuffs it into his sack. Violating the curse, we step over the fence and wander into Matamba.

Inside Matamba, we come to the magnificent chimpanzee kingdom filled with nests, discarded fruit, and footprints. The chimpanzees are not here. They are, without a doubt, wandering through other parts of the forest foraging for food. As I walk among the trees, I can’t help but feel that the ground beneath my feet somehow seems to convey the history that I’ve heard. It was here that a woman was tortured. It was here that the residents of Matamba lay dying during the midnight slaughter. It strikes me that the history of this area did not end when the humans were evicted. Over a hundred years of chimpanzee history has also played out on this soil. This history that has contributed as much to the present-day Matamba as the human history has. It is merely absent from our oral histories and absent from our knowledge.

The reporter, Edgar Forbes, would end up writing a book about his African travels in 1910. His reports came from the safe confines of a colonial railway and colonial city centers — one infinitesimally small window into an unimaginably large and complex world.

What is known about chimpanzees comes from a similarly small window, and we cast our generalized knowledge upon every chimpanzee community and every chimpanzee individual. The two communities of chimpanzees that I study in Sierra Leone — the Matamba and the Mabureh — are not like others. Like all chimpanzee communities, they are unique. They are the product of random turns of history and random adaptations to their circumstances. Where they are living, how many are in their group, how often they reuse their nests, their environmental pressures, how many offspring they can support, where they are safe, where they face danger, what they attack, what they are attacked by, and every other aspect of their life bear the indelible prints of their unique antecedents.

I leave Matamba. An hour after I leave, Dodger and Sykes return to their kingdom among the mango trees. They sense the remnants of our presence. They stand alert. After a few minutes, they relax. Soon, the entire Matamba community appears. They will reuse their nests from the previous night, thus violating the model we have assumed of nomadic chimpanzees behavior. As they do almost every night, the Matamba chimpanzees will sleep in the Matamba forest, home to chimpanzees for over 100 years.

The Lion Shaped Mountain series is a story of two communities of chimpanzees living with seven communities of humans. It is pieced together with little bits of evidence – camera trap photos, tracks in the mud, stories from local communities, nest sites, examination of biological samples like fecal matter, and every other clue that I have come across in the last decade of studying them. I’ve named the chimpanzees, assigned personality traits, and imagined certain interactions based on my own perceptions. However, the reader should be assured that each liberty is grounded in a data point.

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