May 19 – 47 Years Later

Gombe Stream National Park, 1975

Reflecting on, and with respect for, the courage shown by Tanzanian park rangers and my kidnapped research colleagues on this unforgettable day 47 years ago  —  I’m reposting this again as part of my Gombe saga from when I worked as a student research assistant for Jane Goodall in western Tanzania in 1975. An archived New York Times account is found here.

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 other researchers 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 eight year old 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 clasped Grub in her arms, endeavoring in vain to keep him quiet, but his fears 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 beaten 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 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 could 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, to tell what I knew to Stanford President Lyman and other administration officials as they prepared a plan to locate and 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 to this day 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. They have remained close to each other and to the remarkable man who helped free them, Dr. David Hamburg. We have had several reunions together over the years to remember those days of living in a place that at one time seemed like paradise.

In the past two years, we lost both Dr. Hamburg and Dr. Donald Kennedy, both instrumental as our faculty and mentors during our years at Stanford. Dr. Goodallnow 88, still remains a vital part of the global message not only to preserve the wild chimpanzee, but to reverse the destruction of our natural world. Prior to COVID, she was traveling over 300 days a year giving lectures around the world through her organization www.janegoodall.org

Several of my colleagues have written about their experience at Gombe:

Out of Africa – the kidnapped students speak

Following Fifi by Dr. John Crocker

A Model of Prevention by Dr. David Hamburg

Jane Goodall by Dale Peterson

The Jane Effect by Dale Peterson

Jane Goodall, smiling at me as I came up to give her a hug, courtesy of WWU University Communications

and of course, Jane’s wonderful books that led me to Gombe in the first place:

In the Shadow of Man

Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Wild Chimpanzees of Gombe

A documentary “Jane” is found streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime and is reviewed at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/18/movies/jane-review-jane-goodall-documentary.html and there is an immersive Gombe experience at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“Becoming Jane”

Meeting again in 2018 – photo courtesy of WWU Communications
giving Jane a hug, courtesy of WWU Communications
Gombe Alumni and faculty in 2011 at Stanford (I’m in the very back 5th from the left)

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Trusting All This to be True

Trust that there is a tiger, muscular
Tasmanian, and sly, which has never been
seen and never will be seen by any human
eye. Trust that thirty thousand sword-
fish will never near a ship, that far
from cameras or cars elephant herds live
long elephant lives. Believe that bees
by the billions find unidentified flowers
on unmapped marshes and mountains. Safe
in caves of contentment, bears sleep.
Through vast canyons, horses run while slowly
snakes stretch beyond their skins in the sun.
I must trust all this to be true, though
the few birds at my feeder watch the window
with small flutters of fear, so like my own.
~Susan Kinsolving “Trust”

When I stand at the window watching the flickers, sparrows, finches, chickadees, and red-winged blackbirds come and go from the feeders, I wonder who is watching who.  They remain wary of me, fluttering away quickly if I approach.  They fear capture, even within a camera.  They have a life to be lived without my witness or participation.  So much happens that I never see or know about; it would be overwhelming to absorb it all.

I understand:  I fear being captured too.

Even if only for a moment as an image preserved forever, I know it doesn’t represent all I am, all I’ve done, all I feel, all my moments put together.  The birds are, and I am, so much more than one moment.

Only God sees me fully in every moment that I exist, witness to my freedom and captivity, my loneliness and grief, my joy and tears, knowing my very best and my very worst.

And He is not overwhelmed by what He sees of me. He knows me so well, in Him I must trust.

photo by Larry Goldman (Gombe National Park, Tanzania)

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A Refuge in Briars and Brambles

What’s incomplete in me seeks refuge
in blackberry bramble and beech trees,
where creatures live without dogma
and water moves in patterns
more ancient than philosophy.
I stand still, child eavesdropping on her elders.
I don’t speak the language
but my body translates best it can,
wakening skin and gut, summoning
the long kinship we share with everything.
~Laura Grace Weldon, “Common Ground” from  Blackbird

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things”

Nearly thirty months of pandemic separation and
I long to share our farm with our far-flung grandchildren
who live across the ocean, to watch them discover
the joys and sorrows of this place we inhabit.
I will tell them there is light beyond this darkness,
there is refuge amid the brambles,
there is kinship with what surrounds us,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness,
there is rescue when all seems hopeless,
there is grace as the old gives way to new.

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Almost No One Noticed

White egret
glided over
grasses, fiddlehead and fern,
then landed,
as I was caring
for young children by a pond.

Angelic, her wing span
fanned its gentle wave
across the shore

and no one noticed.
No one applauded or knelt
upon the grass.

But the children, eyes and mouths
as round as moons,
stopped and held her for that moment,

watched as she preened
her wings,
leaving them one feather
in the midst of spring green.

~Jesse LoVasco, from Native

Every day, there is so much I miss seeing,
sounds I fail to hear, a nurturing softness that eludes me,
all because I am wrapped in my own worries.

The wonders I miss may never come my way again,
so Lord, give me the eyes and ears and hands of a child
seeing and hearing and touching everything for the first time.

To notice the beauty that surrounds me,
let me marvel at a Creation
that started as mere Word and Thought and Hope,
left behind like a feather for me to hold on to.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –


And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
~Emily Dickinson

Deep in the tarn the mountain
A mighty phantom gleamed,
She leaned out into the midnight,
And the summer wind went by,

The scent of the rose on its silken wing
And a song its sigh.


And, in depths below, the waters
Answered some mystic height,

As a star stooped out of the depths above
With its lance of light.


And she thought, in the dark and the fragrance,
How vast was the wonder wrought
If the sweet world were but the beauty born
In its Maker’s thought.

~Harriet Prescott Spofford

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A Shimmering Evening Light

Lined with light
the twigs are stubby arrows.
A gilded trunk writhes
Upward from the roots,
from the pit of the black tentacles.

In the book of spring
a bare-limbed torso
is the first illustration.

Light teaches the tree
to beget leaves,
to embroider itself all over
with green reality,
until summer becomes
its steady portrait
and birds bring their lifetime
to the boughs.

Then even the corpse
light copies from below
may shimmer, dreaming it feels
the cheeks of blossom.
~May Swenson “April Light”

For over two years, we have been surrounded
by a shimmering corpse light hovering close,
masked and wary when we needed each other most.

Even so, the world is not defeated by death.

An unprecedented illumination
emerged from the tomb on a bright Sabbath morning
to guarantee that
we struggling people,
we who became no more than bare twigs and stubs,
we who feel at times hardly alive,
are now begetting green,
ready to burst into blossom,
our glowing cheeks pink with life,
a picture of our future fruitfulness.

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Posting Their Intentions

The woodpecker keeps returning
to drill the house wall.
Put a pie plate over one place, he chooses another.
There is nothing good to eat there:
he has found in the house
a resonant billboard to post his intentions,
his voluble strength as provider.
But where is the female he drums for? Where?
I ask this, who am myself the ruined siding,
the handsome red-capped bird, the missing mate.

~Jane Hirshfield “The Woodpecker Keeps Returning”

Piliated woodpecker
Flicker

One would think the bold rat-a-tats heard emanating from trees and buildings all over our farm would be due to very bold and fearless birds. Yet woodpeckers tend to be our most timid and seldom-seen though most-audible visitors. They project a loud and noisy presence to the ear but prefer to be invisible to the eye. I guess they don’t want us witnessing their repetitive self-induced head trauma

That’s not so different than some people I know, especially when they hammer away on social media, even when it hurts. I know that tendency: I want to be heard and want my voice acknowledged. I want my opinions to resonate and reverberate for all to hear, but hey, since I’m basically a shy and self-protective person, I prefer to remain in the background.

Whenever I hear an insistent pecking echoing from on high, I look to see if I can spot that busy woodpecker, admiring their dominance of the airwaves and persistence despite woody obstacles. Although most often I can’t see them in the branches, there is no question they have succeeded in getting my attention. I look forward to a day when they’ll allow me to see them as well as hear them.

They are worth the wait and the listen.

Downy woodpecker

“If only, if only, ” the woodpecker sighs
The bark on the trees was as soft as the skies…
~from the story “Holes”

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A Dusk of Morning Visitation

Just as the night was fading
Into the dusk of morning
When the air was cool as water
When the town was quiet
And I could hear the sea

I caught sight of the moon
No higher than the roof-tops
Our neighbor the moon

An hour before the sunrise
She glowed with her own sunrise
Gold in the grey of morning

World without town or forest
Without wars or sorrows
She paused between two trees

And it was as if in secret
Not wanting to be seen
She chose to visit us
So early in the morning.

~Anne Porter, “Getting Up Early” from An All Together Different Language. 

And who has seen the moon, who has not seen
Her rise from out the chamber of the deep,
Flushed and grand and naked, as from the chamber
Of finished bridegroom, seen her rise and throw
Confession of delight upon the wave,
Littering the waves with her own superscription
Of bliss, till all her lambent beauty shakes towards us
Spread out and known at last, and we are sure
That beauty is a thing beyond the grave,
That perfect, bright experience never falls
To nothingness, and time will dim the moon
Sooner than our full consummation here
In this odd life will tarnish or pass away.
~D.H. Lawrence “Moonrise”

I could not sleep last night,
tossing in turmoil
while wrestling with my worries,
concerned I’ve dropped the ball.

As a beacon of calm,
the moon shone bright
onto our bed covers before sunrise.

This glowing ball is never dropped,
this holy sphere of the night
remains aloft, sailing the skies,
to rise again and again to light our darkest nights.

Its lambent reflection of His Love and Peace is balm;
I am covered in its beauty.

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Operators are Standing By

Just before the green begins there is the hint of green
a blush of color, and the red buds thicken
the ends of the maple’s branches and everything
is poised before the start of a new world,
which is really the same world
just moving forward from bud
to flower to blossom to fruit
to harvest to sweet sleep, and the roots
await the next signal, every signal
every call a miracle and the switchboard
is lighting up and the operators are
standing by in the pledge drive we’ve
all been listening to: Go make the call.
~Stuart Kestenbaum “April Prayer”

These buds have been poised for weeks and then,
as if responding to the Conductor’s uplifted arms,
readying for a momentous downstroke,
they let go of all their pent up potential~
exploding with harmonious energy
enough to carry them all the way to autumn
when they fly, gone with the wind.

We wait impatiently until next spring,
operators standing by to take our pledge,
for the next encore performance.

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Raise Your Hands in Wonder

Here, where this present
darkness presses in, pushes
down, imprisons you in
ice and stone to wall you up
alive or crush you into dust,
even here, the gold glimmers
through a crack in the rock, splits
the stones as it flames up
in the ruby hue of a tulip
bursting into bloom, droops
down in the blushing pink
of a cherry blossom fluttering
in the breeze, sings in the
trilling call of a finch,
shines in dewdrops sparkling
on a spider’s web. Oh the gold
pulsing in graced moments
of camaraderie and laughter,
in the warmth of gentle hands
caressing a cold brow, in quiet
words of love that brim
the hearer’s eyes with tears.
And the gold that rises up
like incense when you raise your
eyes, your heart, your hands
in wonder, thanks, and praise.
All this golden glory! Light
and love. And life. And life. And life!

~E.M. MacDonald “The Double Strand”

It feels as if everything is emerging from the darkness:
birdsong is earlier and louder,
grass squeaks with growth,
buds unfurling with vigor,
light glowing with promise.

There is much momentum
running pellmell into longer days;
so much glory bursting all at once.

As showers blow in
from clouds gray and thick with menace,
we are stilled and quieted in the drenching,
waiting, arms raised, for a shaft of light
to break through again,
turning everything from gray to golden.

photo by Natalia Burke

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Under Your Wing

For you have been the help of my life;
you take and keep me under your wing…
~from Psalm 63

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins “God’s Grandeur”

Next week we read of the crushing of Christ in the Garden of the Oil Press, Gethsemane. 

Even there, the moment of betrayal is the moment He is glorified, as He glorifies God.  Crushed, bleeding, pouring out over the world — He becomes the wings that brood and cover us.

Jesus is the sacrifice that anoints us.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

1 O God eternal, you are my God!
for you I long in body and soul;
as in a dry and waterless land
I search, I thirst, I faint for you.

2 On holy ground your glory I saw;
your steadfast love is better than life;
I'll bless your name as long as I live
and lift my hands to you in prayer.

3 You feed my soul as if with a feast
I sing your praise with jubilant lips;
upon my bed I call you to mind
and meditate on you at night.

4 For you have been the help of my life;
you take and keep me under your wing;
I cling to you, and find your support;
O God my joy, you are my God!
~Christopher Idle

Oh God, you are my God
Earnestly I seek you
My Soul thirsts for you,
My flesh yearns for you
In a dry and weary land
Where there is no water

I remember you at night
Through the watches of the night in the shadow of your wings
I sing because you helped me
My soul clings to you
And your hand upholds me
You alone

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