Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A PRIMATE’S MEMOIR by Robert M Sapolsky

A PRIMATE’S MEMOIR is an account of the many years the author spent studying a particular troop of baboons in the Masaai Mara.

Sapolsky is at his best when recalling his baboons. Much of his work entails watching their behavior over very long periods, and so he develops a real – and possibly not very scientific – fondness for individual baboons, and is deeply affected by their fate. I had no idea baboons had such complex social lives, or such different characters, and I can understand how he came to be so involved in their private lives. It made me feel bad about eating meat.

The author also spends much time discussing the people he met during his long periods in the bush, and the strange vacations he took to such holiday destinations as Uganda (immediately after the fall of Idi Amin) and rural Sudan. Often this is very interesting, as Sapolsky just caught the end of an Africa now largely lost. Thus, for example, when he talks about double story buildings to the Masaai, they consider them as simply a village upon a village, and wonder what happens when the cows in the upper village urinate – does it hit the heads of those below?

Sapolsky is a very funny writer, with a great love for and knowledge of the African bush. He is on less certain ground when he speaks of the African people. He seemed to me to be frequently exoticising those he met, and occasionally stereotyping them. Thus, one character is described as having ‘bantu stoicism’ while white people are routinely referred to as ‘colonial whites’. At least its equal opportunity offense, to Africa’s majority and minority alike; and it didn’t bother me too much as I just skimmed those bits, to get back to the baboons, whose society he actually knows something about.

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