Chapter 1, The Baboons: The Generations of Israel
Sapolsky begins his memoir at the foundation of his interests in primates, specifically baboons. He found his love for primates as a child in the African halls of a museum and pursued his passion ever since, working in primate labs and in museums. Sapolsky opts to study savanna baboons when his scientific questions cannot be answered by his favorite primate, mountain gorillas.
Sapolsky’s primary research interest is stress-related disease as it pertains to human behavior, particularly how some people are more resistant to stress than others. He analyzes baboons’ behaviors through social relations, copulation, and feeding while measuring blood pressure, cholesterol levels, wound healing rates, and levels of stress hormones.
In pursuit of answering these questions, 20 year-old Sapolsky abandons a life of Saturdays with the boys and ventures off to Kenya to join a baboon troop, and he proceeds to name each baboon after an individuals in Old Testament, to both spite his high school teachers and entertain himself.
Sapolsky constantly redefines the social hierarchy of the baboons, which passes from Leah, the alpha, through matrilineal lines to her daughter, Devorah. Male dominance requires physical faceoffs, but alpha Solomon is rarely challenged until Uriah shows. Uriah challenged him incessantly, and Solomon showed submission right before a violent rampage against Devorah.
Chapter 2, Zebra Kabobs and a Life of Crime
After about 2 minutes in Nairobi, Sapolsky realizes his Zanzibari dialect of Swahili isn’t going to cut it. He says he showed up know “the Queen’s English in the Bronx,” so he can’t understand broken, slang Swahili of Nairobi.
Sapolsky, like most foreigners, falls right into a multitude of scamming traps right when he walks off the plane. His experience with locals near his home turf with the baboons isn’t too much different. While the Masai people are way friendlier than Americans, their desperate poverty forces them to have a constant ulterior motive.
Sapolsky has a strong taste of that same desperation when his professor forgets about him, leaving him stranded in Kenya with no income. Robert is left to his own devices, and by his own devices, I mean a life of crime. Sapolsky gives scammers a taste of their own medicine through elaborate plans and manipulations of exchange rates.
Chapter 3, Revenge of the Liberals
Robert finds childlike joy in darting baboons to collect samples from them. To him, it’s a way to maintain his liberalism while wiping out innocent baboons in the name of science. Sounds kind of like Good Will Hunting to me! However, the baboons quickly become aware of Rob’s tactics and easily distinguish a sneeze from a blow for darting.
Sapolsky enters a dangerous situation for many involved when he darts Uriah, the new alpha at an uncanny timing. An impala falls to his proximal demise, and naturally, all the males fight viciously over it. All the males go after Uriah who’s gotten hold of the impala, but he starts weakening from anesthetic. Rob has to scare the baboons away from the cave Uriah falls into, and enter it blindly, not knowing if Uriah is totally anesthetized or not. Needless to say, Rob makes it out alright.
Chapter 4, The Masai Fundamentalists and My Debut as a Social Worker
The Masai entered the central highlands of Kenya from northern deserts leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. They raided every community in their path, and most notably, they displaced Kikuyu farmers from the heartland of agriculture where they settled. Once again, the British offered empty promises to inhabitants of areas its controlled. The Masai occupied the southern grassland in exchange for the highlands… however, they were also promised the northern grassland.
Rhoda soon enters Rob’s life and becomes his first and best friend. Rhoda is unconventional in the village. Not only is she half Masai and half Kikuyu, her outspoken advocacy for education is revolutionary as she calls out old men for spending all the community and family money on alcohol.
Chapter 5, Coca-Cola Devil
I’m not sure if this chapter villainizes Coke or Pius, the head of a lorry more. Rob is taken captive by Pius as he painstakingly travels from the grasslands to Nairobi. For days, Sapolsky drinks Coke consistently, essentially remains sleepless for days, and eats even less than he sleeps, if that’s even physically possible. Of course, Sapolsky is saved after suffering for however many days. Honestly, I can’t capture the sugar induced pain Rob suffers.
Chapter 6, Teaching Old Men about Maps
This chapter is a short, heartwarming story of Rob blowing an old guy’s mind with the sheer size of the world.
Chapter 7, Memories of Blood: The East African Wards
This chapter narrates the story of Wilson Kipkoi, the only politically woke person in the bush, which led to an ever-present anger, mostly targeted at his father, Kimutai. Kimutai shared the same anger as his son, but his was tangible through acts of homicide against poachers. He grew up in the bush, under the eye of a British “bwana” and had a natural knack for shooting and tracking in the bush. During the 60s, Kenyans regained control of their country. Of course, at this time, they were told to protect animals instead of shooting them, and Kimutai rose up in the anti-poaching ranks. The government stopped sending resources and money, so Kipoi was forced to poach a giraffe. His son, Wilson, who he frequently beat and berated turned him in, but Kipkoi just retired.
Sapolsky also includes his experiences in Uganda during the overthrow of Idi Amin. Tanzanian soldiers suspect Robert of being an ex-mercenary for Amin’s army, but he refuses to say what he did to propagate those thoughts. Needless to say, he ends up facedown on the concrete with a gun pointed at his head until his Kenyan lorry saves him.