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

Train to Kigoma–1975


view of Kigoma, Tanzania on


A steam locomotive and passenger cars
Left over from British colonial days
Crosses central Africa daily;
Dar Es Salaam to Kigoma
From Indian Ocean to western shore of Lake Tanganyika
Carrying hundreds of Tanzanians
And four white Americans.

We depart on time, four hours late, whistle blowing,
A party atmosphere in third class.
Rows of benches with families
Spreading cloths, to sit together
Swapping meals and Swahili wisdom,
Singing and clapping
In celebration of easy mobility.

Seated on the outdoor platform
Between cars, I feel the humid air
Lighten and cool in the breeze
As the train makes its way through the plains;
Flat topped trees scattered in silhouette,
Dust clouds camouflage herds of wildebeest
Giraffe move slow motion, stirred to run.

Ujamaa villagers walk alongside the tracks
Women carrying heavy bundles balanced
With perfection upon their heads,
Babies wrapped in slings on their backs.
Men hoe in meager corn rows, stop to
Look up longingly at the passing train.
Children wave and laugh and run alongside.

Stops may be a few metal huts
A smelly latrine hole in the ground
Or a modern station with platform
Waiting room and parking lot.
Dodoma–growing and ambitious
Tabora–vestiges of British rule
Still linger, clinging to the land.

Moving onward to reach Kigoma
A sleepy village on a hillside
Overlooking the world’s deepest lake
Of shining cichlids and snapping crocodiles,
Miracle sunsets, then shimmering fisherman boat lights,
Open markets and cattle herded
Through red dirt main street.

I breathe deeply of Africa
Hearing chiming birdsong of  liquid notes
The smells pungent and moist
Of chimpanzee musk, their tolerant gaze
As Americans stare, dazed, dazzled
At the spectacle of teeming life
In the multi-layered jungle.

It is a garden such as this
Where man began
It is plains such as this
Where man,  nomadic,  trudged, weary
It is land such as this
That blesses and curses,
Reclaiming always what has been taken away.


Kigoma sunset found at…/Tanzania/blog-26128.html