Who: Anna Nunes van den Hoven, MSc student of Biology
What: Thesis research on chimpanzee habitats, in collaboration with the Chimbo Foundation
Where: Boe region, Guinea-Bissau
‘Guinea-Bissau has several conservation areas where chimpanzees live. I went to find out which forested areas outside the national parks are home to lots of chimpanzees; they might be suitable conservation areas. Most of them were located further away from villages, where there was not much human impact. That was what I expected, at least, and luckily I had enough data to demonstrate that it was the case.
I lived in a large village and travelled from there to smaller villages. A local village resident helped with my research and always accompanied me, which was a very good feeling. Our visit to a village was announced by radio, and then we cycled through the savannah.
My supervisor helped with communication, although I managed to make myself clear and explain my research with the help of drawings and my Portuguese. Later I learned a bit of Creole, which is a mix of Portuguese and the local language Fulah. I lived in Portugal until I was 12 so I had a bit of a basis to start off with.
I had to be very self-reliant: I had no internet or phone and could only write letters home now and then. It was tough physically too: I often ate plain white rice, I got very sick and I nearly ran out of clean drinking water a couple of times. That was quite scary. I hadn’t realized beforehand that it would be so primitive.
Because of the primitive conditions I became very close to everyone there. Precisely because I was so outside my comfort zone, was the only westerner at first and didn’t know anybody, I bonded strongly with the only people who could look after me.
I completely fell in love with those people: The life they live is so pure. Where they live is so remote and they have so little, yet they share everything, whether it’s a bowl of rice or the pleasure of dancing and music. When I left I threw a party. We danced beneath the starts until deep in the night; that was so amazing. And there was so much I could learn from them: they were incredibly wise and so calm. That simple life close to nature really is my thing, and I certainly miss it here.’