Part I, The Adolescent Years: When I First Joined the Troop

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.

Part II, Subadult Years

Chapter 8, The Baboons: Saul in the Wilderness

Sapolsky updates the intricacies of the baboon’s social relations, particularly noting the rare friendship formed between baboons, Rachel and Isaac. Isaac is an interesting character, as he is particularly indifferent to hierarchy and engages in sex with young females during their first estrus cycles instead of fighting over the ones who are more likely to conceive. Sapolsky, of course, tells about his favorite baboon, Benjamin, who keeps the baboons up all night by calling out after a bad dream so as to confirm they’re all still there. Saul, from a neighboring troop, enters the pack by making eyes, and then love, with Boopsie. Saul remained isolated, an incredibly strange behavior, until he overthrows Uriah as alpha. Saul exhibits an intense rage, but only when provoked.

Chapter 9, Samwelly versus the Elephants

Samwelly was the brother of Richard, one of Sapolsky’s research assistants. He had a knack for building things, so that’s what he did. He built an elaborate house with multiple rooms, a door, benches, a hearth, and even made it waterproof with mackerel cans. One day, Samwelly dams an entire river, and he loses his mind when Sapolsky explains it must go. His lunacy is salvaged once a herd of elephants come and eat his house every night, so he had work to fix during the day.

Chapter 10, The First Masai

“The Masai people actually do live almost entirely on cow’s blood and milk, just like the legends have it.”

One day, Rob joins the Masai as they drain the blood of a goat and sacrifice it. They get to talking about his research and America, and Rob gives a brief introduction to human evolution. The Masai ask questions about human ancestors and if they were Masai. Soirowa says,

“People are always learning new things. Maybe, once, a long long time ago, these were the first Masia, and they did not even know how to be people yet.”

And everyone is satisfied with his answer.

Chapter 11, Zoology and National Security: A Shaggy Hyena Story

Laurence of the Hyenas, a fellow field biologist, grew up in the California deserts. His passion for hyenas gives them some limelight they truly deserve for their hunting efficiency. They work in packs and take down beasts 10 times their size with one of the highest percentage of successful hunts for a big carnivore. And lions have the worst.

Sapolsky also includes a conference in which a colonel inquired field biologists to help them develop a predatory strategy for their new tank. Laurence and Sapolsky take the government’s money and free food without giving them enough information to really be useful.

Chapter 12, The Coup

Sapolsky shares a story of the time he arrives in Nairobi during the beginning of a coup. He takes shelter from zooming bullets on the streets in Mrs. R’s boarding house for a few days until he makes his way to Nairobi National Park. At the last checkpoint to enter, soldiers motion for Sapolsky to pull over and put a knife to his throat until they take his watch and let him be. He says,

“Never since that time has it occurred to me that I can talk my way out of anything.”

Chapter 13, Hearing Voices at the Wrong Time

Rhoda and some women from the village ask Rob to drive a mad woman to the government clinic. First impressions are huge and this is Sapolsky’s,

“She was covered with goat shit, goat blood, goat innards, the bulk of which was smeared down her mouth… she seemed intent on strangling me.”

Upon arrival at the clinic, the employees refused to take the batshit crazy lady in unless Rhoda and the crew physically got her back in the room themselves. Sapolsky asks Rhoda what makes the lady crazy, and she says two things, she killed the goat and only men do that and

“She hears voices at the wrong time.”

This experience gave Sapolsky a harsh reality of how schizophrenics are handled in other cultures, and the woman died shortly after being locked up, which was passively dismissed by Rhoda.

Chapter 14, Sudan

On his first day in Sudan, Sapolsky couldn’t find a toilet for shit – pun intended. The people at the hamlet he was staying at said there are no latrines there, so Sapolsky shits in the middle of the street under a flashlight as the guy gathers all the people of the hamlet to watch. Rob catches a ride on a barge loaded with people, animals, crates, and barrels to make an 800 mile journey. It took 10 days to make it to southern Sudan’s capital, Juba, and all ten of those days passengers shit on the barge. In Juba, for the first time in Africa, Sapolsky felt very out of place. He didn’t stay long and ventures to a village on the top of a mountain to the bush. One night, Rob learns why everyone has fires at night. He’s attacked by fire ants, and if it’s any indication of how wretched that experience was, he leaves the next day. He joins some crazy Somalians on a lorry, but finds solace in a guy named Baker who finishes his journey with him to Torit.


Part III, Tenuous Adulthood

Chapter 15, The Baboons: The Unstable Years

After Saul lost his rank as alpha, all hell broke loose for months as ranks flipped on the daily. Benjamin held the alpha position for a short time, and thank God, because he was cowardly, hiding behind Devorah when another male threatened him. While it was a chaotic hell for the males, the females finally had a choice as to who they mated with. Go girl power! Two females joined the group, which is atypical as males normally transfer, not females. Slashes crossed the face of one female in estrus. She was harassed and left shorty after she arrived, but the other stayed, indicating the atrocities of whatever she was running from.

Chapter 16, Ol’ Curly Toes and the King of Nubian-Judea

By this time, Robert has discovered low-ranking males had the highest level of stress hormone all the time,

“indicating that everyday life was miserable enough to activate a stress response.”

These baboons hypersecrete good cholesterol but maintain lower levels due to changes in the brain and pituitary and adrenal glands. Additionally, highest ranking males do not have highest levels of cholesterol. Instead, subadult males do.

At this point, Sapolsky has his Ph.D., and his friends Soirowa and Rhoda question him about marriage and starting a family. Rob spends a great deal of time listening to village gossip and sharing spooky stories.

Chapter 17, The Penguins of Guyana

Sapolsky had to leave a riveting fight between Daniel, the temporary alpha, and Nathanial to retrieve his weekly supply from the lorry at the lodge. His tire was punctured for the third time that week. He goes through the shenanigans of repairing it and goes to another tourist lodge  to indulge and feel American for a minute. Sapolsky discusses the mixing of cultures in Kenya expressing,

“It constantly amazes me that there isn’t more overt hostility between the different cultures and tribes and races here that rub elbows all the time.”

However, he proceeds to give stories of elaborate scams in which hostility between groups surfaces.

After Rob gives a Masai villager a ride with a baboon in his Jeep, word quickly spreads that he and Richard herd them like sheep… which leads to the most elite prank of all time. He and Richard poured baboon blood in a cup and drank out of another, switching the cups out of sight of village children. This prank bit Rob in the ass after scammers pretended to charge him and report him to the police.

Chapter 18, When Baboons Were Falling Out of the Trees

This chapter outlines an elaborate scam created by the warden who takes Rob and Muchemi, a veterinarian, to a lodge dump to find sick baboons. The manager blew up at him, saying the animals looked sick. One baboon was thin, with an arched back – signs of TB… with Rob’s permission, the manager of the lodge tried to shoot the baboon and missed till they scattered. Rob, Muchemi, and Richard regrouped in the car, and Richard finally expressed their collective thought,

“”I think it was just a story he was saying about the baboons being sick. I think that man just likes to shoot baboons and wanted the warden to let him.”

Chapter 19, The Old White Man

An old white man used a voice amplifier to accommodate the surgical removal of either his trachea or larynx and had a hole in his throat. Everyone at the tourist camp pondered how his body functions, beginning with drinking.

“‘You cannot get the machine wet, like a radio. It will make sparks and rust.’ Everyone agreed and sympathized.”

They deduce he fuels himself with the two camera batteries he had purchased… which escalates to an explanation of why white women always take pictures: to make a machine that looks like their husbands after they die. Fear spread regarding the machine until he gave a hundred shilling tip and everyone assented,

“This old white man is a good machine.”

Chapter 20, The Elevator

Richard and Rob go to Nairobi, Richard’s first time in the big city. His trip to a bookstore resonates closely with a kid in a candy store. Richard rides the elevator to the fifth floor of their hotel, hyperventilating. He rode multiple times but later confesses he had ventured to Nairobi once before on a mission to change his child’s name, which was Hillary instead of Jesse, as he wanted. He entered an elevator and describes his experience like this,

Then, he took me into a small room with no windows… The door was closed, and suddenly it was roaring and my stomach was hurting so much I thought I was dying from Nairobi already.”

Chapter 21, The Mound Behind 7-Eleven

Sapolsky foreshadows the death of one of his baboons in this chapter by describing his attempted CPR, endotrachial tube, and burial of the baboon.

He transitions to a discussion of Dian Fossey, a legend who studied gorillas intensely but loathed the academic world. Dian worked in Rwanda, and Batwa tribesman used snares to catch forest bucks, which inevitably entrapped some of her dear gorillas, dying of gangrene in the trap. Fossey waged war on the tribesmen, destroying snares – their source of food. Soon, tribesmen intentionally killed her gorillas and lay them on the path to her cabin. She became a temporary extrovert to earn funds to “fight for her precious gorillas” and returned to Rwanda fighting with everyone till she was murdered one night. An American grad student who left Rwanda served as an effective scapegoat.

Rob visits the site of Fossey’s work and is devastated by the weight of what’s been lost and seized from the wondrous gorillas. He summits a mountain and runs down in fear of being murdered by a kid with a machete lying in the tent next to him. On his way down, he encounters Fossey’s cabin, grave, and grave of the gorillas.

Part IV, Adulthood

Chapter 22, The Baboons: Nick

Sapolsky’s research during the unstable years shows him that even more important than rank is the society in which the baboons lived. Physiological profiles are significantly affected by social affiliation which act as the means to cope with tough times. Personality also plays a significant role in stress – obviously Type A are more susceptible.

“Males who did the most social grooming and sat in contact with other animals most frequently had the lowest stress hormone levels.”

Nick joins the troop during the unstable years and isn’t well received, which is completely understandable because he harassed everyone. He slashed Rueben’s ass when he was submitting and chased Ruth up a tree and urinated on her.

Sapolsky recounts the love story between the aging Leah and Gums. They disappeared in a meadow together, and he never saw them again.

Benjamin showed his true colors of heroism when a lion spotted two kidlings on a sapling tree. Benjamin leaps out of nowhere in front of the sapling snarling and growling at the lion who flinches and leaves.

Chapter 23, The Raid

Sapolsky meets his wife, Lisa, towards the end of his postdoc in San Diego. Lisa immediately integrated into the village, women flocking to her with gossip and children flocking to her to play. The good times stopped rolling as the Kuria tribe attacked the Masai, shooting and stealing cows. The Masai band together to run 30 miles and chase the Kuria and their cows to the Tanzanian border with spears.

Chapter 24, Ice

Lisa and Rob head to Richard and Samwelly’s home village, where they eat, sing, and essentially celebrate all their relationships. Then, Rob plays some lighthearted pranks with a plastic snake and dry ice.

Chapter 25, Joseph

Joseph was a Masai security guard at a tourist camp, and he goes crazy. He quits his job and tells village children that he will see them in heaven. Villagers speculated if Joseph would kill himself, if he had been cursed by a shaman, if he was in too much pain from his ulcers. Joseph becomes a white man, then unwhite, then un-mad as he returns to his home village.

Chapter 26, The Wonders of Machines in a Land Where They Are Still Novel: The Blind Leading the Blind

Lisa and Rob venture to Mobassa. On the banks of the Indian Ocean, it is home to black Islamic Swahili people who are dignified and happy. A woman led them to her home and called them Germans asking for help with her refrigerator.

Chapter 27, Who’s on First, What’s on Second

Richard tells Rob and Lisa that a hyena has ripped through the tent of a cook the previous night at a campsite. They find him immediately and see lacerations covering his body. As the story goes, the Masai guards speared the hyena as he was fighting it. They investigate the crime scene. There’s no rip in the tent, but there are plenty of holes in this story. The cook stayed in the food tent which had no bottom, so there was nothing to stop a hyena from breaking in. The Masai guards were “drunk as skunks” on the town, so the second cook saved the first by throwing a rock at the hyena’s head. Case closed, but not really. The guards threaten the second man who receives no praise, and the old man steals the limelight in a newspaper article. Funny how the truth works, huh.

Chapter 28, The Last Warriors

Rhoda celebrates a massive victory as a school is built along the river. One day, the government outlaws warriors. So the Masai warriors run up and down the river with their cattle one day, and the officers were there with papers. Instead of violence, the Masai signed and resigned their warrior positions. Not everyone has stopped, of course, as some old men are taking boys to the bush and raising them in secret as warriors. Lisa and Rob meet one of these kids seized by warriors. They never see him again.

Chapter 29, The Plague

This chapter marks the beginning of the end of some of Sapolsky’s favorite baboons. It begins with a necrotic, feverish female from an adjacent troop sick at Olemelepo Lodge. After she perishes, they dissect her body and find nodules and hemorrhages coloring her insides in an array of sickly tectures and oozing bits. It was TB. Sapolsky, researchers, and veterinarians stew over the best way to quarantine the disease and struggle with the decision to do a firebreak… which means killing all the baboons who may have come in contact with it. Through time, Sapolsky decides against it and lets TB run its course. And it infects his troop. And he loses baboons he loves. He loses Benjamin and buries him, as he foreshadowed.

And the source of the TB is infuriating. Timpai, a Masai villager, took his TB infested cows to the meat inspector who sold the meat to the Olemelepo Lodge. Sapolsky’s conversations with Timpai, the inspector, and lodge manager were futile. And so were his conversations with people possibly consuming the TB infested bovine meat, whose remains lay outside the lodge for baboons to eat. And so Sapolsky was furious. And devastated. And wanted revenge. Over the years, he calmed down, had children he named after Benjamin and Rebecca, and took to teaching.




Takeaways from the Memoir

My takeaways from the novel:

What I learned:

Despite occasional confusion of how different tribes related, which warden or guard was corrupt, and how the hell Robert ended up in a lorry with Pius – the Coca Cola devil, the novel was a treat and truly taught me so much about the barriers researchers and advocates for animals experience. Robert shows the difficulty of navigating the bureaucracy of Kenya and the social restrictions impeding justice.

It shocked me when Robert said Tampai and the meat inspector were knowingly administering cow meat infected with TB to tourists, but I was way more shocked when Robert said that informing those tourists would be futile. He says, “When Timpai poisoned everyone by slaughtering the dead cow, there was irritation, but little more than that.” Sapolsky would ask people how they felt, and they replied, “Well, Timpai and that inspector have learned… they must be paying the police a lot of money, so maybe they will not do it again.” Sapolsky, in utter frustration, exclaims it could have killed them and their kids.

“They would say the archetypal resigned Swahili word, ‘dunia.’ ‘That’s the world, that’s how it is.'”

This was my primary aha moment from the novel. People living in a corrupt society where the people are constantly taken advantage of by any persons of authority in addition to merchants and businesses accept their lack of control. In America, although we are far from achieving justice in a myriad of contexts, we constantly fight for justice – we even feel entitled to it – and feel enraged at corruption. It goes to show our privilege as people who take surplus of food, commerce, material goods, and of course, our government for granted. In fact, many of us complain about all of these things listed, but I believe we can definitely learn peace in acceptance, and when it’s worth it to fight for justice.

Despite his fantasies of headlines outlining the lodge’s corruption, Sapolsky never attained the sweet revenge he hoped. I learned that people honestly don’t care about baboons, a species that is not endangered, and publications of the outbreak would only be shared in the scientific community, whose plethora of articles rarely become public knowledge or concern.

Lingering Questions:

My biggest question is was the lodge Rob was scammed to permit the manager to shoot the baboons in anyway connected to the other TB outbreak? I do wonder why Sapolsky never sought revenge for his baboons. I wonder what Timpai and the meat inspector are up to, and if they ever stopped selling bad meat. I wonder how humane it is to study baboons and other primates in a laboratory setting given their intense emotions and intellectual ability. I wonder what they think and feel in those situations, and I wonder if they feel fear when members of their troop are ill. I wonder how hierarchy and stress levels differ, if at all, in female baboons, and if testosterone should be tested instead of cortisol. I wonder what Sapolsky’s work at Stanford means to him in comparison to his field work.

Critical Assessment

Should you bother to read this memoir?

Yes, yes, and YES! This memoir appeals to anyone with any curiosity for Eastern Africa, animals, or field work. And honestly, even if you care about none of those things, Sapolsky will make you. I wouldn’t recommend the novel to, say, middle schoolers because of the crude language and concepts slightly beyond their reach. However, the novel is highly informative, entertaining, and earnest, and for those reasons, I would recommend it to any person over the age of 14. The memoir will tug at your heartstrings and pull you even further towards the end of the novel. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, and it feels just as fast.

Robert’s rights and wrongs:

I hope you enjoyed my alliteration, but in all seriousness, this novel is outstanding. It evokes deep thought and intense emotions regarding the welfare of baboons, specifically as Sapolsky personifies them in great detail, in relation to the corruption and necessity of the tourism industry. With his exceptional sense of wit and uncanny observations, Rob adds vibrant color through all of his experiences. His stories carry a sense of informality, like he’s recalling his vacation to his bros over some booze; he does not beat around the bush – no pun intended.

Sapolsky’s honesty is brutal, but refreshing. Despite all the times he was scammed, sustaining himself with canned spaghetti and camel’s milk, attacked by army ants, and fighting with wardens, Sapolsky remains upbeat and humorous. You cannot help but feel his frustrations, joys, and fears as you read. Furthermore, Sapolsky makes you want more at the end of the novel. You want to know how the troop evolves after the outbreak of TB, but instead are left with only a list of who perished.

Frankly, my only critique is the lack of organization in the novel. Without Sapolsky’s commentary of East Africa, the novel surely would have fallen flat. However, Robert lacked clear transitions connecting chapters of social experiences with research of the baboons, and it was easy to lose track of who was who, what happened where, and chronology became nearly impossible to distinguish.