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Bwindi – eye to eye with my totem

Aug 12 • 6463 views • 12 Comments on Bwindi – eye to eye with my totem Africa, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Conservation, Diary of a Muzungu, East Africa, Society and culture, Travel, Uganda, wildlife




If ever there was a rude awakening, this was definitely it.

It’s early. It’s been one hell of a journey to get here, the house rat has kept us awake and I need my shut-eye. I turn over and try to get back to sleep.

But it’s not to be.

Above my head the gates of hell burst open.  

At any moment I feel the roof will give way and whatever’s out there will land on us; I can’t imagine what’s making such a racket. The noise seems to move from one side of the roof to the other.

“What the hell …?” I shout at Steve.

The unholy din subsides.

Woken from my deep sleep I’m not appreciating the hullabaloo created by the family of Red-tailed monkeys – locally known as Enkima – emerging from the forest to clamber across Stevie’s little tin-roofed shack in search of breakfast.

There’s a rat in the rafters, what I’m a gonna do…

Across the field of pineapples, tucked away in a damp corner at the edge of the Impenetrable Forest, stands my home for the week-end. It’s a typical Ugandan construction: a coating of plaster covers a wattle and daub box; shutters cover the two paneless windows. There’s no electricity, no running water and the toilet, an earthen pit latrine, is a two minute stumble in the dark from the house.

My first night in Bwindi, mosquito nets tucked in tightly, we take bets about whose bed the rat will scamper across in the night. We snuff out the kerosene lamp. As our laughter subsides, the house comes to life. There’s a definite pitter patter of small feet and it’s getting louder.

“It’s in the rafters above us!” Steve cries. “It’s coming over!”

We’ve attempted to pull the warped bedroom door shut but rats make their own rules. They love height. I try not to snigger; I secretly look forward to a rodent encounter.

The morning after

With the upstairs neighbours’ party over, but unable to go back to sleep, I get up to make some tea. As I go to light the gas ring, the rat leaps out from beneath the metal casing. It’s a whopper.

Mug in hand, I wander outside to investigate the bird-like ‘tut tut’ coming from a nearby tree. I twitch, ready to reach for my binoculars.

A blue face peers down at us. He sports a white, heart shaped patch on his nose. Pure white cheek whispers frame his distinctive features.  Seen straight on, the effect is quite alarming.

Resting to feed on some leaves, his sumptuous long copper tail loops suggestively around a branch. He quietly chomps away. His thick tail fur glows russet in the sun’s early rays.

“He must like women,” Steve comments “he’s never let me get this close before,” he says, sounding slightly put out. Steve has lived here for six months. I smile at my luck.

Wildlife enthusiasts thrill at the chance to get so close to nature but it’s a grind to have to deal with this kind of behaviour every day, especially when you have your own family to feed, but I admit to a real soft spot for these forest guenons.


Me and my totem, as drawn by the artist Taga

Nagawa, protector of the Red Tailed Monkey

“You must have a Ugandan name,” my friend Rashid had insisted one day, and so I was named Nagawa, protector of the Enkima clan. In Uganda, each clan is represented by a totem, which can be an animal, bird, fish or plant. You are not allowed to hunt, eat or kill your totem. I am honoured to have been awarded custody of such a fabulous creature.

Our red-tailed observer follows us around the clearing as we finish our tea.

The sunlight picks out a spectrum of colours in the grizzled brown fur of his back. The white fur on his belly looks as soft and downy as a baby rabbit’s. I imagine how it might feel to brush my face against it.

Takeaway chicken

A little later, Enkima pauses on the dry banana leaf roof of the chicken shed, peering beneath his front feet into the empty shed below. The chicken was carried off by the Safari ants one week-end while Steve was out of town.

The chicken may have gone but a bag of feed remains to tempt a hungry monkey. He quickly climbs down the outside of the shed and hops inside to grab a handful of feed before he’s jumping away across the roof of the house, back to his family waiting in the larger trees.

Monkey business done for the day, a bucket shower and a breakfast chapatti beckon.


To find out more about how protecting your totem can help conservation, visit the artist Taga’s brilliant Me and My Totem web site.

The Buganda Kingdom web site is a great resource for Uganda’s clans and totems.

This story took place on the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, south western Uganda. It was my entry into this year’s BBC Wildlife Nature Writer of the Year competition. Alas I was unsuccesful – fingers crossed for another year then!

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12 Responses to Bwindi – eye to eye with my totem

  1. Andre fouche says:

    Your story reflects the real Ugandan safari experience. This is how you should explore this great country!

  2. […] Bwindi – eye to eye with my totem | Kampala Days – diary of a … […]

  3. […] 41. Totems. Having the Ugandan name ‘Nagawa’ – thanks to my friend Rashid – has been a huge icebreaker. It’s given me hours of fun. I’m therefore a member of the Encima red tailed monkey clan. […]

  4. […] wasn’t my first time in Bwindi meeting primates. Coming eye to eye with my totem is a moment I will never […]

  5. […] few weeks, so I sought the shadows of the weekly Circle. There was no escape. I encouraged them to call me by my Ugandan name ‘Nagawa’ but they were hearing none of […]

  6. […] Within 48 hours he’s been baptised Segawa, brother to Nagawa (yours truly) from the Red-Tailed Monkey clan. […]

  7. […] mammals we might see in the Forest: a Golden Cat, Civets, Serval Cats, Jackals, flying squirrels, Red tailed monkey, L’Hoest monkey, Black and White Colobus Monkey, Blue […]

  8. […] offer daily flights to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Kihihi and Kisoro airstrips), Queen Elizabeth National Park (Kasese, Semliki and Mweya airstrips), […]

  9. Celeste says:

    Lovely piece.

    However, why go to Kenya?

    • the muzungu says:

      Kenya is an incredible place! People shouldn’t be put off visiting, only work with a knowledgeable local tour operator for the best, up to the minute advice. People read some bad news from one tiny corner of Africa and dismiss the whole continent; it’s a question of educating ourselves. On the plus side, Kenya is offering tourists some fantastic deals at the moment, e.g. halfprice park entry fees; the national parks are hundreds if not thousands of miles away from the trouble spots. The Kenyan economy desperately needs tourist dollars. Don’t stay away from Kenya and Uganda 🙂

  10. […] trekking in Rwanda, to attend the Kampala Art Biennale, to meet the Omukama of Bunyoro, to meet my totem – the Red Tailed Monkey – in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, to see Uganda’s eclipse! … and so many other life-affirming East African […]

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