In to Africa

Our evolutionary origins lie in Africa. We share 98% of our DNA with chimps. A peak experience and political story about a chimp in Africa.

BY G. PASCAL ZACHARY — There’s a collective code that asks Christians to be their brother’s keeper.  Buddhists go a step deeper, and embrace a first principle that we are not distinct entities at all but plot-points along a continuum of being called consciousness.

Well, I’m Jewish. And I’m a secular one at that. So a code that I go to is Darwin’s intersection with DNA. And the record shows that the closest surviving relative to we homo sapiens are Pan troglodytes — that is, chimpanzees.

Whether by spiritual or scientific standards, how we humans have related to chimps is apocalyptic, the subtext of a sleeper hit last summer called Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

This is a personal story that my wife Chizo and I have experienced with an orphaned chimpanzee that she cared for as a baby in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. (For the record, my wife is an Igbo Catholic — just like the Vatican’s Cardinal Arinze).

Chizo and Jimmy the chimpanzee

The chimpanzee is now an adult and lives in captivity in Ghana’s only surviving zoo, which happens to be in Kumasi, the country’s second largest city. This summer, Chizo and I shared a remarkable peak experience: we visited the zoo, to see how the chimpanzee is doing. Honestly, we did not even know if he was dead or alive, since the zoo officials do not communicate regularly with us.

We were delighted to discover that (a), the chimpanzee remembered us both distinctly, and that (b) he has fathered a child in captivity with a female chimp he’s been paired with for nearly 10 years.

The moment that we saw their baby for the first time — and realizing that this member of a kindred species was alive and well and somehow holding together a family in captivity — sent my wife and I into a “peak” which we will long remember.

To our delight, Jimmy recognized both of us. From a distance of 100 feet, he began crying with excitement. He clearly recalled his attachment to Chizo and began dancing for her, almost deliriously.

We were shocked by his growth — now a full-grown chimp, he seemed to possess the strength and size of a pro football player.

After a time, he grew calm and Chizo approached him. Jimmy “groomed” Chizo’s hair, flicking at her scalp with his long fingers.
Then they embraced. They embraced through iron bars, and with trepidation, because Chizo now realized Jimmy was too strong for her to
handle. As Jimmy curled his arm around Chizo’s neck, I held my breath.

After a time, Jimmy released her and Chizo, as the zoo director looked on, withdrew. I relaxed finally.

I asked the zoo director if Jimmy would ever be freed. “He is too popular,” he replied. Besides, he was now too old to easily adapt to a wild-life refuge.

The plight of Africa’s chimpanzees remains a source of anguish for me. Jimmy is still in captivity in Ghana. His enclosure in the Kumasi Zoo is large but the conditions of his life are grim. He is the so-called star, the zoo’s most popular attraction.

I have spent two decades specializing in African issues, and written three books about the continent.

Of all the things I did not do in Africa, failing to free Jimmy is the thing that I most regret.

My sense of regret is a bit less now, though not extinguished.

To explore this issue more deeply, our relationship with Jimmy — and the plight of chimpanzees in Africa, in general — check out my chapter, “Chimpanzee Politics.”

G. Pascal Zachary spent 13 years as a senior writer for The Wall Street Journal, where he wrote more than 80 page-one stories. His next national media berths included a column in The New York Times and senior title on the masthead of Time Inc.’s Business 2.0 magazine.

Gregg is the author of five books: “Showstopper,” about the making of the Windows NT computer program (1994); “Endless Frontier,” the biography of Vannevar Bush, organizer of the Manhattan Project and architect of the partnership between science and the military during World War Two (1997); “The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy” (2000; revised, 2003); “Married to Africa: A love story” (2009); and his newly-released “Hotel Africa.”

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