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How Living With Baboons Prepared Me for Living Through High School

The world of mean girls and cliques was a startling change from working alongside my primatologist parents. Fortunately, I’d learned a bit about navigating vicious social structures.

Narratively
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Illustration by Brian Britigan.

I tripped over a thorn bush and stumbled into a warthog hole. My legs were already crisscrossed with slashes from a morning spent walking through spiny hippo grass in the flooded plains between islands in the Okavango Delta, in Botswana, and now streaks of blood appeared beneath the caked mud on my shins. I didn’t have time to stop though: I needed to find my monkey.

I was doing what my parents called a “focal follow,” a 20-minute period of time where I followed an individual baboon from their study troop and wrote down everything she did and everyone she interacted with in a string of complicated codes. The focal was meant to be a representative sample of how that female spent her time and, more importantly, who she spent it with, since in the world of baboon society the relationships between females determined everything. I found Comet again on the other side of the thorn bush and was relieved to see her just eating grasshoppers with her sisters as expected. Good, I hadn’t missed anything.

I glanced down at my handheld computer, where I typed the focal info, and a string of code blinked back at me, the computer threatening to overheat in the 100-degree sun. It wasn’t even 9 a.m., but that was the Okavango in summer.

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Eight-year-old me with my mom out with the baboons in Botswana. Photos courtesy of the author.

FF CO A1 DO A1 BB A2 BL A1 LS S1 LS F2 LS G1 LS END: a pretty typical day for Comet, one of my favorite baboons. She approached (A1) or was approached by (A2) her sisters, Domino and Barbara, and her mother, Balo, and then approached and supplanted (S1) a lower-ranking female named Lissa, who gave a fear grimace (F2) and moved out of Comet’s way. In the social hierarchy of our troop, Comet and her family fell roughly in the middle, while Lissa’s small family ranked at the very bottom. Comet was also lucky enough to have a brother, who could defend the family if they were ever attacked by the higher rankers, though the males didn’t participate in the same social structure that the females did. Their ranking system was entirely based on size and was a lot less interesting than the females’ hierarchy. My parents’ research focused on the evolution of communication and social relationships, and how human brains had evolved to process complicated thoughts through primates’ abilities to process and keep track of a huge amount of information about who they and their family were and where they stood in relation to others in their troop.

Sweat dripped down my back, and I hiked my backpack higher on my shoulders, taking a welcome break before starting another focal. Mom and Dad had given me a list of about 15 females they needed data about, which was again pretty typical for the day, but very different than how I imagined my friends in Philadelphia were spending their summers. Most 14-year-olds were lifeguarding or being counselors at summer camp, not wandering bleeding through a game reserve in Africa following baboons and keeping an eye out for lions. But it was familiar territory for me: I’d been doing this since I was 8 years old, and I knew the landscape, the baboons and the dangers like the back of my hand. Not even our research assistant, Mokupi, spotted lions as fast as I did, and I was completely comfortable in the bush.

Our camp was four hours by boat from the nearest settlement, and there was no one around except for our family and Mokupi. When we moved to the camp for big chunks of each year, the choices for my sister and me were either to stay there by ourselves, with a shortwave radio in case we needed something, or go out with our parents and the baboons. I found being out with the baboons immensely more exciting than sitting around camp, so as soon as I could prove I could climb a tree by myself, my parents started letting me accompany them. The collection of data itself was just a fun activity to do while I was out there: As soon as I knew who all the animals were, it was almost instinctive to start writing down what they were doing and who they were spending their time with.

“All done, Comet?” I said, and she grunted. I knew it wasn’t directed at me, but a girl could pretend, right?

It must have been reassuring for Comet to know where she stood in the baboon world. Females were born into their rank, after all, and held it until they died. They were ranked according to their families — and within families, younger sisters always ranked higher than older sisters, a fact that my own little sister liked to remind me of constantly. Comet moved off through the waving sagebrush, followed by Domino, Barbara and Balo, the rest of her family unit. They were content and happy in the sun, grunting to each other as they moved, and relaxed knowing that the highest-ranking family was nowhere in sight, a fact I could confirm since I had started my day doing a focal on Swallow, the older sister of the alpha female and, for lack of a more scientific term, a total bitch. I wasn’t relaxed when Swallow was around either, if I was being honest. Her focals were just lists of who she attacked and who ran away from her screaming.

I sighed happily and set off through the sage to find another female on my list to follow, keeping one eye on the ground looking for lion tracks and my ears open for the call of oxpeckers, francolins and babblers, birds that would let me know if anything else dangerous was around. The day was perfect.

* * *

Several months later, I dropped my backpack on the floor of my bedroom in Philadelphia, kicking up a cloud of dust. It was freezing. I never got used to the shock of the temperature change in December. It really shouldn’t be possible that all it took was one flight to go from 100 degrees to 30 degrees. My entire body was shaking.

I flipped on the radio I kept on my desk and the sounds of the Backstreet Boys flooded my room. I grimaced and turned the radio off again. Wasn’t that song on the radio when we left the U.S. eight months ago? How could America still be listening to this? Hadn’t anything new come out since then? I didn’t get it. Instead, I flopped down on the cold comforter on my bed and stared around my room, at the dolls from Swaziland, the San weapons slung over my desk chair, and the jars of dried beans and seeds I’d brought back from the Okavango.

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Me, 17, out with my friends the baboons in Botswana.

I heard a door slam downstairs and the roar of the engine as Dad drove off to get something for dinner. He always got the same thing when we came back from a stint in Botswana: fried chicken and microwavable Pepperidge Farm dinner rolls, classic American fare for a classic American family having a classic American evening. The fried chicken was great, but the ceremonial aspect of it was something I hated, since it meant we weren’t in Botswana anymore and I had to go back to school and figure out a way to explain to my classmates where I’d been and what I’d been doing. How did one even begin that conversation? I’d seen the upperclassmen only a couple of times before, when I’d gotten lost in the wrong part of the school, and they were absolutely terrifying, all tall and good-looking and sophisticated in a way that made my neck sweat. And I was supposed to talk to them? No way, I’d rather be stung by a scorpion.

Mom and Dad said we’d only have to spend six months in the U.S. this time, since they only had to teach one semester at the University of Pennsylvania, so that meant just six months I had to survive before they would pull me out of school so we could go back to Botswana and I could hang out with my monkeys again. Our teachers were never thrilled about this, but as long as we promised to keep up with the curriculum in a home-schooling capacity, they had agreed to let us go when our parents needed to. I could do six months, right?

* * *

“So who do you like, Keena?” The girl asking me took a sip of her Diet Snapple and quirked up one side of her mouth. I had no idea what her name actually was, but I had been calling her “Crushy” in my head because that’s all she ever talked about — who had crushes on whom, and who knew about them. The other girls at the lunch table stared at me, and I clenched and unclenched my hands under the table, trying to think of the right thing to say. I looked past Crushy to the “cool” part of the cafeteria, where a bunch of senior girls from the varsity lacrosse team were eating. Truth is, I did have a crush on one of them, a paralyzing crush that made me almost pass out when she gave me a high five after practice one day. But I knew enough not to talk about it.

“Uh … Alex is nice?” I picked a boy from our class with floppy hair who wasn’t (A) an asshole or (B) an idiot. Seemed like a good enough choice for this conversation, right? Crushy burst out laughing.

You can’t like Alex!” she shouted.

“Shut up,” I hissed, as heads at other tables turned toward us. “I didn’t even say that I did! Just that he was nice.”

“He’s way too cool for you,” Crushy went on. “And too hot. Only Meghan or Sam can like him. They’re both as cool and hot as he is.”

“OK?” I said. Meghan and Sam were both cool and hot, that was true, but from what little I knew about high school romance, I thought anyone could like anyone. Maybe that wasn’t actually true. My hands were soaked with sweat now, and I wiped them down my pants, wishing the baboons were here.

Baboon society made so much sense. You were born into a family, and immediately everyone knew who you were and where you stood in the world. Maybe your family was high ranking enough that you got to eat the best foods and sleep in the safest trees, and maybe they weren’t, but at least you and everyone else in your world knew which it was.

I didn’t have a clue where I stood in high school society. I thought I was a pretty cool person, but clearly I wasn’t cool enough to have a fake crush on Alex, so I guess I had one data point. I looked around. No one else had a massive book about dragons next to their lunch, so maybe that wasn’t a “cool” thing to have. No one else had a dusty, baboon-poop-stained backpack either, and when I looked closer, everyone was wearing something that either said Abercrombie & Fitch or Gap on it, not hand-me-down L.L. Bean clothes from their parents like I did. My own focal follow today wasn’t going very well. Approached by Crushy, put down by Crushy, now sitting silently and not speaking to anyone. FF KE A2 CR, S2 CR, END.

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Baboons in a hammock in Botswana.

Comet was a pretty cool baboon. What would she do in this situation? Sure, she was born into her rank, but she must have had some missteps along the way as she tested what she “could” and “couldn’t” do. Maybe Crushy’s put down wasn’t so much nastiness as someone giving me a clue as to where I stood in the hierarchy. I slid the dragon book off the table and out of sight into my backpack. If I could just learn to read the clues as they were given to me, maybe I could figure out where I fit in this world and navigate high school just like I did the bush in Botswana, with nothing attacking or killing me. I just had to do what the baboons did.

When I really thought about baboon society, all a female like Comet needed to do to survive socially was follow three basic rules: Stick tight with your family, give way to the high rankers, and try not to get eaten by anything. Though my risk of being eaten in Philadelphia was slightly less than Comet’s back in Botswana, if I applied the other two rules I might be able to make it — stick tight with my family (or stick to myself, since my family wasn’t at school) and give way to the high rankers. Absolutely fine with me; they were pretty terrifying anyway. The next time the senior lacrosse girls passed by me in the hallway, I did what Comet would do and moved out of their way without saying a word. No one looked askance at me, and the day continued without interruption. Had it worked?

* * *

I was emptying my old notebooks into a trash can on the last day of senior year when a younger girl approached me. I didn’t see her coming through the crowd of people tossing junk out of their lockers and shouting to each other, but that was just what it was like on the last day of school. Chaos. And even more so in the seniors’ locker area, since we were outta there. Done. Going to college, dude. Birds sang through the open windows, and I couldn’t wait to get home and take my shoes off. Shoes should be optional in the summer months, something I’d failed to convince the school administration of but still fully believed.

“Excuse me,” the girl said.

“Hey, Jamie! What’s up?” My physics notebook slid into the trashcan, and I smirked at it. Physics had far and away been my hardest subject senior year, and I was glad to see the last of that little fucker.

“Do you have any plans to come back next year?”

“What for?”

“Well, I — ” she shuffled her feet and looked around nervously. A boy named Ted lurched in her way to fist bump his buddy, and I pulled her out of the line of fire, hoping to make her feel a little more welcome. I recognized the “I Am Afraid of All of You” face she was making: I’d worn the same one when I was a freshman too.

“Sometimes people come back after they graduate to visit, and me and the rest of the girls on the lacrosse team were hoping you might do that too.”

“Of course!” I said. “Opening day. I’m there. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” She grinned.

“That’s awesome,” she said. “I’ll tell them. It’s just that … we all really miss you. We had a lot of fun this year. You were a great captain.”

“Thank you! You guys were a great team. I’m sure next year will be just as awesome. But yes, I’ll definitely come back.”

Jamie smiled again and retreated out of the seniors’ area like her skirt was on fire. I slammed my locker door closed and pressed my hand against the cool, blue aluminum. It was over. I’d survived. I picked up my empty backpack and slung it over my shoulder, carefully not to damage the fabric of my three-quarter button-up shirt from that ridiculous Abercrombie & Fitch store that everyone still bought their clothes from. I’d started shopping there as part of my plan to become a Real American Teenager, and it had worked: From my pants to my shirts and even my belt, I’d molded myself into what everyone else around me looked like. From there, I’d done the same with the TV shows I watched, the music I listened to, and how I talked to my peers. I was so good at lying about fake crushes on boys that even my closest friends believed them. Comet would have been so proud of me.

That thought made my face light up, as I walked out the door of high school into the hot summer sunshine. In a few short days, we were going back to Botswana, and I’d have a chance to tell Comet and her new baby all about it! Turns out, the baboons could do a lot more than teach a couple of primatologists about the evolution of communication. They could also teach teenagers how to navigate the waters of an American high school by learning to follow the rules — and not get eaten by lions or mean girls.

Keena Roberts works in global public health, writing about infectious diseases and analyzing countries’ responses to them. She grew up in a tent in her primatologist parents’ research camp in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, a childhood she wrote about in her memoir “Wild Life.” Her follow-up book is an epic fantasy with baboon protagonists, also based in the Okavango Delta: essentially Watership Down but with monkeys (she is also working on a very silly and very queer YA full of swords and love triangles). She lives outside of New York, in the mountains, with her wife and daughter and a variety of pets.