This is a travelogue, a personal essay from my time volunteering in Namibia. This piece delves into my experience of looking after an orphaned baby baboon for the night.
The names and descriptions of people in this piece have been changed for privacy.
You can read more personal essays from this trip here.
For more information about the volunteer experience, you can read my guide here.
I felt my heart fluttering restlessly inside my chest and swallowed. The day had flown by, shadowed by the weight of anticipation that lay heavily on my shoulders for what I was about to do tonight.
When I started my volunteer experience at the sanctuary over a week ago and had been informed that volunteers could opt to foster a baby baboon for a night, I had been certain that I would never do it. The idea had terrified me. I could hardly look after myself at the best of times, let alone a helpless orphan baboon.
But then, a few days ago, I did something crazy. I signed up!
I felt like the days since I had made the decision to look after one of the sanctuary’s baby baboons had raced past and couldn’t believe that, in hardly any time at all, I would be wandering over to the food-prep building and picking up Koos – my baby baboon.
I was terrified.
In no time at all I was stood in the food-prep room with a tiny, squirming baboon in my arms, feeling hot and nervous. I was beside three other volunteers who all looked a lot more confident than I felt and who seemed to have their baboons under better control.
I was wearing two jumpers today – one brand new. Neither of my two had been suitable for baboons as the baboons needed jumpers which had a zip at the front, so I’d gone to the sanctuary’s shop and purchased the only zip-up fleece that they had. It was bright red and not stylish in the slightest but at least it would help me look after baby Koos.
A wildlife coordinator stood in front of us, instructing us on how to create the perfect milk formula for the baboons. She went through the ratios of formula as well as the temperature, making sure to add tips for knowing when the temperature was just right.
My mind swam. There was so much to remember!
With Koos in one arm, I began to mix up the formula, careful to make sure it was warm, not too hot and certainly not too cold. I squirted some of the milky liquid on my hand, feeling the temperature. I think that’s fine? But what if it’s not fine? Oh, god! Why am I so useless at this?
“Now it’s time to prepare their nappies,” the coordinator continued. She lifted up a child’s nappy. “You need to poke a hole into it here for their tails.”
At least that part was easy. I managed to poke through a hole using my finger and expanded it slightly until I was sure that Koos’ tail would be able to fit through.
Getting the nappy on Koos was also fairly easy. He was a very cooperative little baboon, not trying to rush off when I put the nappy around his lower half. I heard one of the other babies letting out a cry of annoyance.
I felt proud once I had the nappy firmly secured on Koos. I felt around his legs, making sure that he wasn’t caught on it and that I hadn’t made it too tight. Thankfully I also had the coordinator come over to inspect it and she gave me the all clear.
“Now, if you give them their bottles, they should suckle on them slowly throughout the evening and the night,” the coordinator explained. “Make sure the baby is warm against your belly, beneath your jumpers, and make sure they stay warm all night. Don’t forget to change their nappies when required.”
I picked up the spare nappies which I had prepared, screwing my face up at the thought of having to change his nappy at some point tonight. Hopefully he’ll be well behaved. And with any luck I’ll be a good surrogate mother to him as well.
Copying the other volunteers, I cradled Koos close to my stomach and zipped up my jumper, concealing him inside. At first, I was worried he would just slide out the bottom but the coordinator reassured me that he would grip onto me and it wouldn’t be an issue.
She was right.
Once Koos was zipped up under my jumper with his bottle in hand, he seemed to curl up peacefully and didn’t fall out. I felt a rush of warmth spread through me. I’ll keep you safe tonight! I vowed.
It was time to re-join the other volunteers for dinner.
“OK,” Jess sighed. “I’ll admit, he is pretty cute.”
Yes! I knew you’d come around. Jess, my tent-mate, had always been very anti-baboons. She had not been impressed when I’d offered to be a surrogate mother to little Koos as that meant the baby baboon would be in her tent.
I had unzipped my jumper slightly to reveal little Koos who was curled up sound asleep with the teat of the bottle in his mouth. Worried not to expose him to too much cold or wake him, I promptly covered him up again.
“He’s so good.” I smiled. “Occasionally I feel him wriggling but then he’s flat out again.”
We were sat at one of the benches in the lapa which was coated in alcohol bottles. Around us, other volunteers were talking and laughing and from somewhere nearby I heard a beer hissing as someone removed the cap.
“I had Koos a few nights ago,” a female volunteer spoke softly from the opposite side of the table. “He was a little sweetheart.”
I cradled Koos gently with my arms, noticing how warm he was against my stomach.
“Did he behave throughout the night?” I asked.
She nodded. “He was so easy.”
My face was lit up with a huge smile. I felt so proud of myself for pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I had been terrified – and still was terrified – about looking after one of the baby baboons, but I had done it. The experience was completely unique and I knew it was something that would remain with me for the rest of my life.
I lay in bed, feeling Koos on my stomach. He was warm and comforting but I was struggling to sleep. Every time I would drift off, the slightest movement from Koos would wake me and I’d be alert, checking that he was alright.
Jess’s smooth breathing from the other side of the room told me that she was already asleep. She doesn’t have so much responsibility, I sighed.
Crickets and frogs chirped relentlessly outside the tent and in the distance a lion roared – probably Meatball (one of the sanctuary’s male lions).
I tried to relax but sleep just seemed to be evading me. Instead, my eyes flew open, and I gazed at the highest point in the tent.
When sleep eventually came it was fitful. I woke up, aware of Koos sleeping on my head but was scared to move in case I startled him. He seemed to be flat out but I knew he desperately needed warmth so ensured the duvet covered the entirety of my head as well.
I woke up again, realising that it must have been half way through the night and likely a good time to change his nappy. I coaxed Koos back under my jumper and prepared for the long walk to the bathroom.
Outside it was bitingly cold. The frogs screeched in my ears as I stumbled down the sandy path to the ablution block. It was a trek I made every night as the result of my pathetic bladder and I found it to be a peaceful walk.
Once inside the toilet cubicle I took off Koos’ nappy only to recoil at the sight. The poor little mite had diarrhoea! Immediately I felt guilt take over me. Did I made his formula wrong?
I wrapped up the soiled nappy up and placed it in the nearby bin before wiping Koos clean. He let out a cry of protest and tried to huddle deeper into my jumper, clearly disliking the feel of the toilet paper. I’m so sorry, I thought sadly.
When I was satisfied that he was clean enough, I put on a fresh nappy and carried him back to the tent.
Once in bed, the disjointed sleeping continued. He was sleeping against my stomach and then on my head again. I woke up constantly, checking he was warm and breathing. Is this what being a mother feels like? I wondered. If I’ve learnt anything from this, it’s that I’m certainly not ready for motherhood.
When my alarm clock rang, announcing the end to my sleepless and turbulent night, I felt a rush of relief.
I took Koos to the bathroom again in order to remove his nappy. He was a ball of energy, squirming against my stomach as I worked to take the nappy off. As the nappy fell off him, the contents spilled out all over my jumper and I let out a squeal of horror.
Oh, my god! I looked down at my black jumper which was completely coated in fresh baboon diarrhoea. I am covered in shit!
I swiftly cleaned Koos up for a second time before power-walking down the path towards the lapa. I need to give him back and I need to get changed as soon as humanly possible.
I met Jess as she was exiting the tent with her washbag. She squinted against the early morning sunlight and then looked appalled as she examined the state of me.
“Yeah,” she laughed. “I most certainly will not be looking after a baby baboon.”
“I can’t believe this,” I groaned, scuttling past her.
No one else had an experience like this, I thought ruefully. Everyone else said Koos was easy. And Koos probably is easy. Only I could fuck up so massively like this. I have let poor Koos down and he needs to be in the hands of more responsible people.
I was one of the first volunteers to arrive at the lapa. Thankfully. At least I wouldn’t be a shit-covered spectacle for everyone to see.
The only other volunteers there were those who were also looking after baby baboons, my team leader amongst them. I rushed over to the baby baboon enclosure, letting out an exhausted sigh as Koos leapt from my stomach and ran over to join the other babies.
“What happened?” my team leader asked, looking me up and down.
“I don’t know,” I confessed. “Maybe I made a mistake with the formula.”
“Maybe not.” Her voice was more sympathetic than I expected. “This happens sometimes.”
I was grateful for her kindness and smiled at her before turning around.
Now I just need to drop my top off at the washing machines for a thorough wash.