WWLK: Women We’d Like to Know. An HIV/AIDS Researcher Takes Time Out to Think

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Food for Marriage visits with women who are taking charge and making a difference: in their lives and the lives of others.  

Dr. Geri Donenberg is a professor in Chicago, Illinois. She has devoted her career to educating underserved young women at risk to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in communities around the world. This week, in between meetings in Kigali, Rwanda and Kampala, Uganda, Dr. Donenberg found herself with 24 hours of free time. The following is an excerpt of how she spent it, at an animal reserve on Ngamba Island on Lake Victoria, Uganda.

I had no wifi for one and a half days. How wonderful! I was so disconnected and truly enjoyed just sitting and thinking and observing. The island experience was simply outstanding. It is remote and I was the ONLY tourist on the island.

My room was set in a small cottage and was lovely. The bed was large, but there was only a very small lamp for light. I sat outside on the porch of my room for at least an hour watching the birds and a large lizard crawling around.


My hosts, Amos and Innocent, treated me with such warmth and kindness. There was also a personal chef who checked in with me before each meal to ask what I would like to eat. He creatively “cooked up” meals with vegetables and the most delicious spices. I couldn’t even tell you exactly what they were, but dinner consisted of pumpkin soup and a main dish that included beans with rice in a flavorful sauce. After dinner, Amos and Innocent made a bonfire and sat around it with me telling stories about the chimps escaping and the mischief they caused. I could not wait to see.

In the morning breakfast included eggs wrapped in a freshly warmed tortilla with lightly fried sliced potatoes and onions. The chef also served the sweetest pineapple I have ever tasted. He put chocolate sauce on the plate, although I didn’t eat it. Now it was time for the main event.

The island consists of about 100 acres of forest and two acres of land on which the staff stays and the chimps sleep overnight in cages which they VOLUNTARILY go into around 6 p.m. They wait for the staff to open the gates and then come through the tunnel and into the cages. If they choose to stay in the forest, it is okay. When they return, the staff feeds them and then it is evening and they posture, grunt, poo, fight, talk, head butt, butt-butt, and so on. What a show!


In the morning, the tunnel is opened and they make their way out to the forest. However, there is a feeding area just before the forest. We stood on platforms and tossed bananas, limes (called oranges in Uganda), carrots, maize and tomatoes over the fence and watched the chimps snag, catch, and eat what they can.

The hierarchy is interesting, and the staff know the names, details and characteristics of all 49 chimps. They can tell you where the chimp exists in the hierarchy, where they were rescued and what they like. Three babies have been born in the sanctuary unexpectedly. All the females are given birth control, so it really was an accident!

The chimps roam the forest all day and return at 11:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. for feedings. Then they are off again. Two of the chimps prefer to return to the cage instead of going to the forest. It is so strange and interesting. Amos allowed me to come up with a game. We filled two large plastic water jugs, like the ones you see in offices, with vegetable and fruit. Then we gave the chimps the bottles to figure out how to get the food out.


I loved watching their minds work, how they struggled and eventually figured out how to do it. I sat and watched for hours. When they want food, they scratch their bodies. One of them made such funny poses he looked like he was doing yoga.

On my last night, Amos placed a single table outside the dining area overlooking Lake Victoria. He set the table with a bottle of wine and peanuts so I could enjoy the sunset. Unbelievable!


The following morning we took a boat around Lake Victoria. On one side of the island we pulled up and the chimps came to get their food, wading in to catch the fruits and vegetables we tossed to them. Then we went to a community village nearby. What a contrast. Such poverty. The sanctuary is working closely with the villages to improve conditions and health. Amos took me to see the medical clinic that the sanctuary helped build, as well as the water purification system. I also visited a school in progress with about sixty children aged 4 to 14, who played and sang as we visited. It didn’t seem as if anyone told them they were poor. It was such a moment for me, part of the whole unforgettable experience.

Dr. Geri Donenberg is Director of the Center for Dissemination and Implementation Science, professor in the departments of Medicine and Psychology, and Director of the Healthy Youths program at University of Illinois, Chicago. 





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