Forty Years Ago Today

photo by Larry Goldman
photo by Larry Goldman

In recognition of this unforgettable day 40 years ago, I’m reprinting this part of my Gombe saga, working as a student research assistant for Jane Goodall in western Tanzania in 1975.

At first glance,  Gombe National Park in Tanzania felt like paradise—a serene piece of the earth filled with exotic and fascinating wildlife, an abundance of fish and fruit to eat, and the rich unfamiliar sounds and smells of the tropical jungle.  It was a façade.  It was surrounded by the turmoil and upheaval of political rebellion and insurgencies in its neighboring countries, inflamed even more by the fall of Saigon in Vietnam a month previously due to the earlier pull out of the Americans from that long and tragic war.

Only a few miles north of our research station in Gombe National Park in western Tanzania, there had been years of civil war in the small land locked country of Burundi.  When the wind was just right, we could hear gunfire and explosions echoing over the valleys that separated us.  Escaping refugees would sometimes stop for food on their way to villages in Tanzania to the south, seeking safe haven in one of the poorest countries in the world, only a decade into its own experiment with socialism, Ujamaa.

There was also word of ongoing military rebellion against the dictatorship of President Mobutu in the mountainous country of Zaire twelve miles west across Lake Tanganyika.

Morning comes early for field studies of wildlife, as the research day must start before the chimpanzee and baboon subjects wake up and begin to stir. Before midnight, while we slept soundly in our metal huts scattered up the mountainside, a group of armed soldiers arrived by boats to the shore of Gombe National Park.

Storming the beach huts housing two unarmed Gombe park rangers and their families, the soldiers seized one and demanded to be told where the researchers were. The ranger refused to provide information and was severely beaten about the head and face by the butts of the rifles carried by the invaders.  The armed soldiers then divided into smaller groups and headed up the trails leading to the huts, coming upon four sleeping student researchers, tying them up, taking them hostage, forcing them into boats and taking them across the lake back to Zaire.

Asleep farther up the mountain, we were wakened by some students who were fleeing, hearing the commotion.  No one really understood what was happening down lower on the mountain. There were shouts and screams, and gun shots had been heard.  Had someone been injured or killed?   There was no choice but to run and hide deep in the bush at a predetermined gathering spot until an “all clear” signal was given by the rangers.

We hurried along barely familiar  trails in the black of the jungle night, using no flashlights, our hearts beating hard, knowing we had no defense available to us other than the cover of darkness.

That was the longest wait for morning of my life, sitting alongside Jane holding her son Grub.  A hand full of other students had also made their way to the hiding spot, none of us knowing what to think, say or do.  We could only barely see each other’s faces in the darkness and were too frightened to make any sounds.  We carried no weapons, and there was no way to communicate with the outside world.   We had no idea how many of us may be missing, or possibly dead.

Jane held Grub in her arms, trying to keep him quiet, but his eight year old imagination was ignited by the events that had just unfolded.

“Will they kidnap me, Jane?  Will they come for me?  Where will they take us?  Will they shoot us dead?”

Jane, her face hidden by her blonde hair loose about her shoulders,  sat rocking him, cradling him. “Shhh, shhh, we don’t want them to find us.  We’re safe staying right here.  Everything will be fine in the morning.  No one will take you from me.”

Grub began to sob silently into her shoulder.

When the morning of May 20 dawned, the park rangers located us, and pieced together the events as best they could–the soldiers were Zairean rebels living in remote mountains, fighting  an insurgency against the Zaire government. Seeking funds for their cause, they saw a kidnapping of Americans and Europeans as a way to raise quick funds and world publicity and sympathy.  Four of our friends/coworkers were missing, the camp was ransacked and the rangers hurt but with no life threatening injuries.   There was no way to remain safe at the Park, and our colleagues needed whatever help we could offer for their rescue.

We were able to send a messenger to a nearby fishing village, and a radio call was sent out to the small town of Kigoma, then relayed to Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi.  Help arrived within a few hours, when a United Nations boat monitoring the civil war activities in Burundi pulled off shore near our camp.  We were told we needed to evacuate Gombe that day, and would be taken to Kigoma, and then flown by bush pilot to Nairobi, Kenya to cooperate in the investigation of the kidnapping.

In Nairobi, at the US Embassy, I met CIA agents who viewed our wild primate studies with some suspicion.  Each of us were grilled individually as to our political beliefs, our activities at the camp and whether we may be somehow involved in subversive actions against the Zaire or Tanzanian governments.  We were dumbfounded that our own countrymen would be so skeptical about our motives for being in Africa.  It became clear our own government would be no help in resolving the kidnapping and bringing our friends home to safety.  The agents did not shed any light on whether they knew our friends were alive or dead.

We were then hustled into a press conference where we were interviewed for television and print media by the worldwide news agencies, and my parents saw me on the CBS evening news before they actually heard my voice over the phone.  I flew back to Stanford the next day, spending 24 hours on a plane that made six stops up the coast of West Africa on its way back west, so that I could tell what I knew to the administration officials at Stanford as they prepared a plan to free the students.   I then returned home to Washington state to await any news that came too slowly from a place so far away that I remain astonished that I was ever there at all.

It took over three months, private negotiations and ransom money to free all four of our friends back to safety.

photo from a press conference at Stanford a few days later
photo from a press conference at Stanford a few days later

9 thoughts on “Forty Years Ago Today

  1. Amazing Story. Glad you and the other students survived. As far as you know was all of Jane Goodall’s research legit? There were rumors of faked entries in the news in the past.

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  2. I know she acknowledged the error of unattributed use of material from another source in one of her recent co-authored books Seeds of Hope (about plants) but I’m unaware of anything about her primate research that has been legitimately questioned — she certainly had her share of criticism for not acting the part of the traditional field researcher, in that she named her research subjects, touched them and fed them to lure them to camp for easier access.

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  3. I am sure it is difficult for you every year to relive this mentally, Emily, and I thank you for facing that challenge and sharing with the rest of us. Many blessings to you, your family and your former co-workers.

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  4. A harrowing account of perilous times – for you as a young student-researcher, for Ms. Goodall and her son, and for all who were part of that on-site research expedition. If that same situation occurred today, you and the whole group might not have survived. But our Saving Lord had other plans for Emily Polis.

    Unfortunately, things have not changed significantly in that vast continent. Conditions, in fact, have escalated to a savage degree — for the human and the animal populations alike. The disastrous long-range effects of colonialism as well as human greed and indifference to all life are still being felt in nearly every country, including the area where you were working.

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