I could talk about chimpanzees all day,” says Peace Nakitto. Like most people who work with animals, Nakito (fondly nicknamed Mama Zakayo) has immense respect for them and gets sentimental just talking about them. But for her, it is man’s closest relative in particular that stole her heart.
Nakitto, who will most notably be remembered for starting the tradition of celebrating Zakayo’s birthday, leaves behind 10 memorable years at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC). Zakayo is the oldest chimpanzee living at UWEC.
Nakitto is now Country Co-ordinator for Yebo, a UK-based organization that focuses on using animal-assisted therapy and primate-based learning to support socially and emotionally disadvantaged children in Uganda, South Africa and the UK.
It was founded by Lisa Davies, a primate researcher and child welfare worker after she discovered that chimpanzees react in the same way humans do when traumatized, abused, ill or disabled.
Yebo works with Raising Up Hope, an orphanage in Kampala that takes care of street children who have had abusive and traumatizing upbringings.
Davies collaborated with Nakitto while doing her research in Africa and they’re using their knowledge and experience to help disadvantaged children.
“I love working with children, and animals,” says Nakitto. “The more you understand them, the deeper you grow to love them. Primates and children understand each other. That’s why children are the most prominent visitors at the primate enclosures.
Primates are driven by feelings, just like children. They are always chattering and arguing. A grudge between two members is a quarrel for the whole troop. But chimpanzees have a lot of compassion.
There are a lot of things you could learn just by watching a baby and mother chimpanzee relate. The bond between them is extraordinary. That’s one thing people don’t seem to understand.”
Nakitto is also working with Uganda Reptile Village. “I want to take my knowledge and experience further to help other organizations.
There is little awareness and appreciation for reptiles in Uganda and they don’t receive nearly as much attention. Consequently, many reptile species are vulnerable.
Unlike other creatures that live in protected areas like giraffes in national parks, reptiles live side by side with human beings and, therefore, need more protection. We’re working in conjunction with Nairobi Snake Park to bring on board some of their concepts and ideas.”
Nakitto’s passion for animals and conservation started when she was only a little girl. Her parents had cats and dogs in the home and greatly cared about their welfare.
“If we had to eat, they had to eat. They had needs just like we did and my parents taught us to respect that.” This was in contrast with what she saw outside the home and she was greatly moved. As a little girl, she used to linger around Zakayo’s cage during visits to UWEC.
Throughout her school life, she had taken any opportunity to preach conservation and respect for the welfare of animals. She served as Wildlife Club chairperson, minister of environment and performed other nature-related duties at school.
Though she wanted to do an animal-related course at university, her father noticed her strength in communication and decided that she was better suited for education or journalism. She did a Bachelor of Arts in Education.
After university, she started teaching, but kept her dream about working with animals alive. One day, she walked into UWEC and offered to work as a volunteer.
Nakitto continued teaching while working as a volunteer; shoveling poo, feeding the animals and doing whatever else she was assigned to do for six months until she was offered a permanent position.
“For me, it was never about the money, it was about making a difference where I have a passion. Whereas many graduates looked at this kind of work as dirty and unprofessional, I had set my mind to contribute to the growth of UWEC.”
Immediately she walked into the animal cages, she came to the realization that this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. “I fell in love,” she exclaims. Her 10 years at UWEC were the most eventful of her life.
“Animals can tell that something is wrong. When I went for my farewell, there was an outpouring of emotion. One of my favorite chimps Sarah, who is also Miss UWEC, gave me a huge goodbye kiss.
Unlike humans who finally forget you, animals don’t. They show their appreciation every time they see you. I am already missing them. I get goose bumps just thinking about it.
Every day at the centre, there was something new, risky and perhaps even life threatening, but always entertaining.
One morning at the centre, it was business as usual. I was walking through the shady trees when suddenly; two groups of agitated Vervet monkeys came charging at me.
I prepared for the worst and wondered what I could have done to disturb them. As the scuffle continued, I realized that they were rival groups and I was simply an obstruction.
I stood very still and when they realized that I wasn’t taking sides, they continued with their melee and I walked away.
Another time, these monkeys attacked me for wearing a shirt with a picture of a chimpanzee on it.
Of course the incidences in the chimpanzee enclosure are most unforgettable. There was one chimp that always washed her feet.
One day, a mischievous tourist threw in a cigar and she crossed her legs and started smoking it. I’ll also miss grooming the mane of Salaama, the friendly lion.