As instructed, I arrived at the New Stanley Hotel, in downtown Nairobi, at just before 11:00 AM, to meet Pat Soffer, primatologist. Willoughby didn’t have to tell me about the fish and chips at the hotel’s cafe; I’d eaten here many times. The Thorn Tree was a pretty standard meeting place in Nairobi. A block or so from the Hilton, at the end of the main downtown street, a short walk from the central government buildings, across from a central bus station, it was a slightly pricey but reasonable hotel with an inexpensive, leisurely outdoor restaurant open early in the morning for breakfast and coffee, all day for lunch and dinner, and late into the evening for drinks.
A giant tree…a thorn tree as it happens…grew from the middle of the outdoor eating area, and around the tree was built a bulletin board. The bulletin board was mainly for travelers and tourists to hang notes for other travelers and tourists. A typical scenario might be for a couple of backpackers to cross paths in Malawi or Tanzania or Uganda, both thinking they’d be passing through Nairobi in a month or so. Then, when either would arrive in town, they would search for a note from the other and put up one of their own, and in so doing, sometimes reconnect in the Tourist Capital of East Africa. Among these numerous mostly unanswered missives, other more interesting but less overt messaging would also take place. A small but steady amount of arms, drugs, and intelligence trafficking was facilitated by notes on the Thorn Tree’s bulletin board. And, now and then, people organizing expeditions into the Congo would meet up here.
So on my arrival at the Cafe, I went right to the tree to look for a note from Pat Soffer, prepared to write my own. I realized I had no idea what my contact looked like, and the restaurant was full of westerners any one of which could be Pat Soffer, Primatologist. Seeing nothing, I took out a note pad, located a blank page and penned:
“Looking for Pat, Mutual Interest in Monkeys”
And I was just about to pin this to the board when a woman who had been standing next to me also looking at the bulletin board took a step closer and snatched the paper from my hand. “Welcome to Nairobi,” she said, gesturing toward a table already set for tea, along the back wall. “you’re early.”
Pat Soffer struck me right away as someone who’d been around the block more than once and who knew how to take care of herself. Darkly tanned with a lot of split ends in her black hair, brown eyes, broad shouldered, trim and muscular, I had the vague impression that she was of Greek ancestry, though her last name did not match. For just a second I was surprised she was a girl. “Pat” is the ultimate western non-gendered name. Surprised but glad. I was tired of working with that special Intrepid Explorer Ego that usually accompanies western Y-chromosomes in the bush.
So we talked. Pat confirmed that Dieter was her advisor in undergraduate school. She had a vaguely defined plan to get a Master’s degree at Oxford, then return to Dieter’s institution to work under him towards a PhD, but by that time there had been some difficulties and for some reason or another Dieter was no longer taking on female graduate students. Other than the one he had just married, that is. Yes, it was true; all the complexities of high school relationships returned but with a vengeance in graduate school, especially in Anthropology where fieldwork complicated things. Pat ended up getting her PhD elsewhere, and spent most of the time since those days off in the field somewhere.
Dieter Phillips had asked her to consider joining him on an expedition to the Eastern Congo, where we were now heading, under the condition that she, Pat, would only be in the field at the same time as Dieter’s wife, at the new Mrs. Phillip’s request. Pat had no problem with that. She explained it this way to me: “Dieter Phillips was not my type. Phyllis, on the other hand, was, physically; but not emotionally or mentally. She was a child. But I would have enjoyed the window dressing and had fun playing with the dynamic, especially if it would have given Dieter a hard time. I wasn’t really happy about being rejected from my choice of graduate school because of marital insecurity by two emotionally retarded latter day hipsters, which is how I regarded the two of them.”
“So your interest in South Dakota was not for the opportunity to work with the great Dieter Phillips?” I inquired.
“Hell no. I wanted access to their primate skeletal collection. It is the largest and best documented in the world. At the time, that’s what I wanted to do…measure bones. In the end, I’m glad it didn’t work out. I live in the field now. You know what I’m talking about.”
I certainly did. If you spend enough time in the field, not being in the field feels strange.
“Let me ask you, then, what was the point of Phillips” expedition, the one you didn’t go on? Why didn’t you go, in the end, and what did he find? I’ve been told almost nothing about it, other than that I’m to help you.”
“Ah. I figured that. They were probably worried you would not come if you knew…”
I waited, now more intrigued than ever.
“Dieter Phillips was looking for a new species of primate, a kind of ape, called Sungudogo,” she said.
“He had evidence that it really existed and intended to document its presence, collect a few to bring back as specimens, and then get funding for a much larger project.”
“OK, that much I either knew from what they told me in Brussels, or inferred. Why would you NOT go on such a search? Even if Sungudogo did not exist, there are probably plenty of other primate-related things in the area you could have worked on.”
“Sungudogo is a gorilla no taller than this,” she said, as she held her hand about four feet off the ground.
“While knuckle walking?” I asked, “Four feet would be about right. you’re saying Sungudogo is a bit bigger than the average gorilla?”
“No,” she said, glancing at her hand and with a grin moving it a few inches to one side. “This tall. From the top of the table. While standing full height on its hind limbs.”
“What?” I said, wishing I hadn’t been sipping my tea at just that moment. “A two and a half foot tall gorilla?”
“Well,” she said. “You should have guessed from the name; “sungu” from ape or chimp and “dogo” for small, like the word “kidogo.” Small Ape. Sungudogo.”
“Yeah, I had noticed that, those two terms are used in a lot of languages in the area. But I didn’t think…” I thought for a moment. “Wait, is this why you didn’t join Phillips? Because Sungudogo is no more likely to exist than Bigfoot?”
“Exactly,” she said. “I told him that I’d be the first to join his second expedition!”
“So, they went off without you. How did they explain Sungudogo in the end? Was it a local totemic symbol, or some other sort of made up creature, or something lost in the translation, or what?”
“Ah…no, not exactly,” she said, that same wry grin returning to her lips.
“It exists,” she said, suddenly getting serious. “I’ve seen one.”
I stared. Waiting for the punchline.
“I think they killed Dieter.”
That was not the punchline I was looking for.
“Listen,” she said, leaning in close and moving my half finished cup of tea off to the side. “You are going to have to trust me on something,” now putting her hand on my forearm, as though what she was about to say might cause me to bolt.
I looked at her, and saw something in her eyes that caught my attention. Worry. Fear, maybe.
“There are a couple of things that have to be cleared up, very soon, before we can go forward with this expedition. I have been sworn to absolute secrecy and I can’t even tell you certain things.”
“That won’t do at all,” I replied, maybe a little too tersely. For that I earned a tighter grip on my forearm.
“I know,” she said. “This is where you have to trust me. We’re both going to Goma, Zaire. You know that place, right?”
“Only in as much as I live there when I’m in country and not on a job, sure.”
“Do you have a place there?”
“No,” I replied. “Not at the moment, I gave that up. I stay in a hotel. But yes, I know the place. I understand We’re going to points north of Goma, so that is where I assume we’ll start out. Arrange a vehicle, get supplies, maybe poke around for information, get our land legs.”
“Here’s what we need to do, Mallows. We’ll meet in Goma in a few days. I’ll supply the vehicle, I have access to a Land Rover. I need to make a stop and verify something and then, if all that works out, I can tell you everything I know. I promised to not tell anybody, you included, everything that I know until we are in country. We’ll talk in Goma in about a week.”
I don’t know exactly what made me trust her, but really, the cost was not high. If things didn’t work out, Goma was where I should be anyway. This is where the action was in mining and mercenary work. Once I got to Goma, even if Pat never showed up, I’d be fine. I gave a nod.
“Besides,” she said, seeing my nod and relaxing a little. “Goma’s where you would normally go this time of year anyway, since your job in Brussels is done.” Echoing my thoughts, knowing more about me than I thought she did, like everyone else I’d spoken to so far. She let go of my arm, reached out her hand for me to shake it, and as I did so, she stood. “See you in Goma in a week. I’ll send a telegraph to the
Pierre Hotel when I know my exact schedule. That’s the one you usually stay in, right?”
And without waiting for an answer, she turned and walked out of the Thorn Tree Cafe, took a right towards the Hilton and Government Center, and disappeared. …