Sunday August 10 2014

George of the jungle


By Christine W. Wanjala

He answers to many titles. Old George, Americano. Maybe it is because his real name, George Atube Wuod Bar Ochieng Lakwa Bodo Konyomoi, phew, is a mouthful.

Maybe it is because he has been in the park for so long hence the old before his given name George.

Or it is the accent with which he chooses to ply his trade, guiding tourists on the various game activities around the Murchison Falls National Park.

If you take no other sound from this wildlife rich, pristine landscape, you will at least remember Old George’s cheerful catcall.

A long drawn out high pitched hee-haw! You will probably say it or attempt to say it a few times in response. This man’s enthusiasm is that infectious. Nobody hee-haws as well as Old George.

“I have been a guide for 39 years,” says the tall dark-skinned handsome man. The slight sag to his cheeks, probably due to some missing molars, makes his face even more endearing, especially when he smiles or laughs.

He says he was born in Nanyuki Kenya to Ugandan parents. His father was part of a regiment sent by the British to quell the Mau Mau rebellion. That makes him 62 years old now.
The family later moved back and settled in Ochetoke, Kitgum but his father was away most of the time as he was working at Queen Elizabeth National Park, as a policeman. His job was to catch poachers.

Loving the wild
“I got to see the national park in all its majesty when I went to visit him. I was in Senior Three and had gone to collect school fees. By the time my short visit was over, I had fallen in love.

I had seen animals like elephants in their national habitat. It is a world I wanted to stay in.

I told him I’m staying,” he narrates. Though his father was not keen on letting his son abandon his education to start life as a game ranger, then young George eventually prevailed.

Work begins
After undergoing training, he worked at Queen Elizabeth for two years as a ranger guide before coming to Murchison Falls National Park in 1976 where he has been full time more or less.
Thirty nine years is a long time and over that time, the curious school dropout has evolved into a highly informed extremely experienced guide. One of the favourites on Uganda’s largest park.

He knows every nook and cranny of the 3,840sq miles it occupies and is a wealth of knowledge as far as different animals found here are concerned, from their botanical names to their peculiar habits.
He says he is happiest out in the wild, savouring the natural wonders.

“I spend my free time exploring, and bird watching. I like hearing the birds sing. That is all the music I need, and it is the only one I care about. I need to hear the sounds of the wild. I can understand the animals speak and they know me too,” he says sampling a number of bird calls. They sound incredibly real.

Besides affording him the opportunity to be close to the animals he loves, George says being a ranger has helped him raise his family, educate all his eight children one of whom is an engineer now.

“I have also made friends from different countries that still come back and ask for me. One of them flew me to Kidepo National Park for a tour,” he says exuberantly.

He also treasures the study tours of most of Uganda’s national parks that he has been able to make.

On retirement
His contract expires in 2015. He wishes to go back home and spend more time with his family. He still has passion left even at the sunset of his career. He will still cry when an animal dies, even a snake or an ant and the poachers awaken vitriol in him.

Outside the verdant landscape, George cheers on his favourite football team, Chelsea. “If Chelsea loses, I cannot eat,” he says.

Lingua skill
He says he can speak a little of several foreign languages beside the Luo and Swahili he is fluent in. Spanish, German, French and of course English with plenty of flourish and pizzazz despite staying in Uganda.

“I’m like the Jacksons Hartebeest, it rubs itself against anthills to acquire a reddish colour. I end up speaking like this by associating with people who do,” he says walking off to attend to other tourists. He does not come back. But he had signalled he was tired of talking about his life.

Most memorable moments

The father of eight adult children tells stories of his most exciting moments at the park. Some sound like something out of a story book.

Like that time he says he came face to face with a pride of lions, in the dead of the night and escaped when he managed to overcome paralysing fear and looked straight at the one standing menacingly in his way.
“I said Mr. Lion, I’m not the enemy, let me pass.

And that Lion knew God, and it did what I asked,” he says. It is hard to tell whether he is telling it in jest or not, he insists it happened, but laughs as he tells. He adds it happened when he was younger and enjoyed his drink.

That he once had to shoot a charging buffalo dead in Chobe National Park sounds more credible.

He says he has had a few of the more common mishaps. “Once the car broke down, and I had forgotten my phone. We had no food or water and had to walk for six hours before we came across a lorry on which we asked for a lift,” he recalls.

1952:Born in Nanyuki Kenya
1960: Completed P7 at Pagen Primary School
1974: Dropped out of school in Senior Three at Kalongo High school and went for training to become a game ranger. Started work at Queen Elizabeth National Park the same year.
1976: Was transferred to Murchison Falls National Park.
Animal(s): Giraffe, because it is elegant, silent and harmless. The Oribi, a small antelope; it makes him go bambi!