Wild Life

Dispatches from a Childhood of Baboons and Button-Downs


By Keena Roberts

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Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight meets Mean Girls in this funny, insightful fish-out-of-water memoir about a young girl coming of age half in a “baboon camp” in Botswana, half in a ritzy Philadelphia suburb.

Keena Roberts split her adolescence between the wilds of an island camp in Botswana and the even more treacherous halls of an elite Philadelphia private school. In Africa, she slept in a tent, cooked over a campfire, and lived each day alongside the baboon colony her parents were studying. She could wield a spear as easily as a pencil, and it wasn’t unusual to be chased by lions or elephants on any given day. But for the months of the year when her family lived in the United States, this brave kid from the bush was cowed by the far more treacherous landscape of the preppy, private school social hierarchy.

Most girls Keena’s age didn’t spend their days changing truck tires, baking their own bread, or running from elephants as they tried to do their schoolwork. They also didn’t carve bird whistles from palm nuts or nearly knock themselves unconscious trying to make homemade palm wine. But Keena’s parents were famous primatologists who shuttled her and her sister between Philadelphia and Botswana every six months. Dreamer, reader, and adventurer, she was always far more comfortable avoiding lions and hippopotamuses than she was dealing with spoiled middle-school field hockey players.

In Keena’s funny, tender memoir, Wild Life, Africa bleeds into America and vice versa, each culture amplifying the other. By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, Wild Life is ultimately the story of a daring but sensitive young girl desperately trying to figure out if there’s any place where she truly fits in.


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Gorilla Man and Fifty Tiny Ballerinas

I sat quietly on the gym floor and wiggled my toes. I wasn't allowed to move, but I was so excited I thought I might explode. I always had trouble sitting still, but today it was much harder than usual. The slippery laminate floor felt smooth under my bright blue sweatpants and I ran my fingers idly along the grooves in the wood, needing something to do with my hands and wishing I was outside instead. My heart pounded and the glare from the overhead lights made my dark hair feel heavy and hot. When was it going to be my turn?

The first pair of girls from my second-grade class were called up to do their dance routine. Their blond hair was tied back with glittery silver ribbons, and under their pink leotards they wore tights with sparkles on them. I looked around the room at the fifty girls from my class all sitting patiently around the blue gym mats waiting for their chance to perform. They all look like Angelina Ballerina, I thought, feeling a small swell of pride in my chest. Not one of them had a green bandanna wrapped around her head. Their outfits hadn't been borrowed from a real-life gorilla researcher.

The glittering dancing girls shimmied across the gym mats, swaying and jumping in time to Kris Kross's "Jump" and giggling nonstop. They were followed by another pair, who did exactly the same thing to exactly the same song. And another pair. And another.

I elbowed Elizabeth and hissed, "This is so boring. Our routine is going to be so much better." I couldn't understand why she looked so pale and unhappy, her brown eyes wide. "Don't worry," I whispered. "This is going to be so much fun!" She smiled thinly and looked down at her red sweatpants. She'd insisted on wearing red rather than blue because she said she'd look like a Smurf in blue. I tried to cheer her up by offering to wear the blue, but it hadn't worked. I still thought we should have tried to put together a gorilla costume for her, but I didn't want to make her any unhappier. I'd considered bringing her a cookie that morning to make her smile, but I didn't know what kind she liked. I didn't know anything about her, really, except that her name was Elizabeth and she was almost as new to my class as I was. We'd been paired together for the dance routine because neither of us had a best friend to run to squealing when we were told to find a partner for the class. Well, I did have a best friend, but he was a boy and they got to play basketball instead.

The teacher called up the next pair of dancers; there were only a few more kids to go before we were up.

The routine went like this: I was the hero and Elizabeth was the gorilla I was chasing, who (according to the song) had stolen my woman and driven off in a fancy car. The song didn't specify whether the hero ever caught the gorilla, but in order to create a dramatic conclusion, I decided that I would end up catching Elizabeth. We would run around in circles for a few minutes during the "chase," and then the routine would end with me theatrically shoving Elizabeth to the floor and standing over her, victorious. We hadn't practiced the whole routine yet since Elizabeth hadn't wanted to, but I wasn't worried about anything except pushing Elizabeth; she was a lot bigger than I was, and didn't seem like the kind of girl that got knocked over very often.

The song itself is called "Gorilla Man," which my dad told me was written by a Zulu sangoma (healer) in South Africa named Condry Ziqubu. My parents used to play the song while we made dinner, dancing around the kitchen holding my little sister and pretending to be the gorilla to scare her. When I told Dad I wanted to use "Gorilla Man" for my dance performance, he smiled and said, "That's an excellent choice. Every good story has a car chase." And then Mom lent me her old green bandanna, the one she had worn to work with Dian Fossey with real-life gorillas in Rwanda.

I knew "Gorilla Man" by heart and had played it over and over in my head as we practiced our routine. I'd instructed Elizabeth on where she should go and what she should do as the drama played out. When the synthesizers began their downbeat, we'd square off: me, the desperate protagonist, and Elizabeth, the debonair gorilla who'd stolen my lady love.

"Look happier," I had to remind her. "You've stolen my woman! You're in a fancy car! You're not supposed to look terrified, you're the GORILLA!" For the past week of rehearsals, Elizabeth had looked nauseated as I jumped around the blue gym mats, acting out my choreography.

But now the day was here, and I couldn't wait to show everyone how cool I was. My classmates didn't know me very well since I'd only been back in the US for a few weeks, and no one really understood where I had come from. No one knew where Kenya was, so I had to just say, "I'm from Africa," when they asked me where I lived. They didn't know anything about Africa anyway, but just asked whether I had a pet elephant and spoke "African." My classmates had been genuinely surprised when I said that yes, I owned shoes but didn't like to wear them unless it was snowing. And no, I'd never seen a Koosh. What was it for? This was my chance to show them that the music from where I lived was so much better than their Top 40 hits. I wiggled my toes again and grinned. This was going to be so good.

Finally, it was Elizabeth's and my turn to dance. I hopped up eagerly, pulling Elizabeth behind me with one hand. Why did she look so scared? We were about to be the envy of all these boring little ballerinas around us! I squeezed her hand and smiled even wider, nodding to our gym teacher to start the music.

The synthesizers started, then the drums. I started dancing slowly in a big circle, moving my hands and tiny seven-year-old hips with the music, the way my Maasai babysitter had taught me, making sure to hit each downbeat with my right foot and throwing in an extra shimmy here and there with the bump of the synthesizer.

"Tell me where's Gorilla Man," Condry Ziqubu wailed, "No one's found a trace of him…people say he drives a smart car…he looks for beautiful women in town…" Elizabeth half-heartedly mimicked starting a car and started to drive around the gym mat, while I continued to dance. The drums picked up and I danced faster; it felt strange to be dancing to South African music in this school gym in the suburbs of Philadelphia instead of by a campfire in Kenya, but I knew the song so well I let the beat take me away, spinning, stomping, and waving my hands in the air as the bridge chanted, "I'm a, I'm a, I'm a gorilla; I'm a, I'm a, I'm a gorilla!"

After a few short minutes, we reached the climax of the song: the protagonist spots the Gorilla Man driving down the highway and yells, "We gonna find him, catch him, follow that car! We can't stop now! 'Cause he took my woman and drove away!" I danced my way behind Elizabeth, who had stopped driving and now stood in the center of the mat, looking like she might cry. I had timed it such that I reached Elizabeth just as the song got to its loudest point, and as the synthesizers and drums hit their final downbeat, I put my hands against Elizabeth's shoulders and threw her down on the mat, where she landed on her back and lay quietly as the music slowly faded out. I put one foot gently on her stomach and raised my fist in triumph. Gorilla Man had been defeated.

I panted in exhilaration and looked around the room. There was complete silence. No one moved. No one spoke. My classmates stared up at me with wide eyes and open mouths, a look of utter shock on their faces. Elizabeth whimpered and I removed my foot from her stomach. She rolled away and ran to the other side of the room, where she buried her face in my gym teacher's sweatshirt. One of my classmates giggled. Then another. Soon, all fifty second-grade girls were laughing and pointing at me. I didn't know where to go or what to do. I couldn't run away since they were sitting all around the dance area, and I couldn't turn to Elizabeth for help because she was crying in my gym teacher's arms. Bewildered, I stood there, looking from one girl to another in complete confusion.

"You…you didn't like it?" I said softly. The roar of laughter grew louder, and the pointing continued. My face burned and I felt a rush of nausea. Suddenly, my sweatpants didn't feel soft anymore, they felt hot and heavy and wrong. Everything was wrong. My pants were wrong, my turtleneck was wrong, my bandanna was wrong, I was wrong. The blood pounded in my head and my upper lip started to quiver. I heard my dad's voice in my head say, "Stiff upper lip!" but in that moment I hated him. He was wrong too.

I won't cry, I said to myself. I won't. I won't. I waded through the crowd of girls and walked slowly through the gymnasium to where my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Elliott, was standing in the doorway, watching.

I reached the doorway and glared up at her. She squatted down and balanced her elbows on her knees, looking me right in the face, ignoring the laughter that had followed me from the gym. My eyes filled with tears but I angrily brushed them away.

"Well that was certainly interesting," she said. I thought she might hug me, but was glad when she didn't. I wasn't about to cry on anybody's shoulder and I just wanted to be left alone. "You know what I think?"

"What?" I mumbled, my sleeve in my fist and my fist over my eyes.

"I think that you're back in the United States now, and not in Africa anymore. And I think it might be time to start acting like the other girls if you want to fit in."

You're wrong, I thought. It would take more than acting and dressing like everyone else to make me fit in; my wrongness was bigger than that, and I knew it from the top of my green bandanna to the tips of my toes, still calloused from the hot sand outside our house in Kenya. If I really wanted to fit in, I'd have to change the inside of me too.


The First Three Times I Almost Died

The first time I almost died I was six months old. We had just moved to Kenya and were living in a small green house far out in the middle of the grasslands in Amboseli National Park, close enough to the border with Tanzania to see Mount Kilimanjaro. My mother put me down to sleep in my crib with a candle burning on the windowsill since I screamed if the room was completely dark. As the story goes, when she came back a little while later to see if I had fallen asleep, she found me no longer alone in my room but suddenly in the company of a very large, very angry black mamba.

My mother froze. There wasn't anything she could do. She couldn't run into the room without scaring the snake into biting me, so she stood in the doorway, hoping the snake would decide that the flailing baby was too disruptive and leave on its own, which it eventually did, but only after I made an especially loud "coo!" and attempted to grab it by the neck.

I don't remember the incident with the snake, of course, nor do I remember the second time I almost died, a few months later when my parents sat me down to play in the grass in front of our house only to see me immediately swarmed by siafus, or safari ants.

"So what did you do?" I asked, years later when I first heard the story. Siafu bites are very painful, and our Maasai housekeeper Masaku used to tell me how siafus could kill and eat small animals and had jaws so strong that the Maasai sometimes used them for stitches when they had an injury. I couldn't imagine a baby surviving being swarmed by them. Mom looked uncomfortable.

"Well, we got them off you, of course," she said. "Dad brushed most of them off and then we got the rest of them to let go of you by dunking you in the rain barrel behind the house."

"You dunked me in a rain barrel?" I yelled.

"Of course we did! I mean, it was no big deal," Mom said. "Obviously you were fine. It was a lot less scary than the first time you met a baboon."

That one I do remember. I must have been three or so and was again playing outside the house in Kenya. I'd walked a short way down the dusty road that led away from our house and toward the nearby Maasai village, following elephant tracks. I wasn't paying attention to anything around me, just kicking one of the round balls of elephant poop that the other village children and I often used as soccer balls. I squatted down in the road to pick it up when I heard a rustle in the grass behind me and turned around to find a gigantic monkey standing over me.

Even as a small child I knew it was a baboon. The monkeys Mom and Dad studied were much smaller and had black spots on their faces; they were called vervet monkeys, though I'd always called them "fever monkeys" since it was easier to say. The vervets rarely came close to our house, but the baboons were often nearby; Masaku told me these nyani were garbage animals that came into his village to look for food. It was the job of the little boys in the village to chase them away from the cows and goats since, though the nyani were monkeys, they were skilled hunters and often killed baby goats and ate them. I knew this particular baboon was a male because his snout was wider and heavier than the females' and Dad said the male baboons were about the size of a Saint Bernard, whatever that was.

I dropped my ball of elephant poop and stared up at the baboon, which didn't seem all that scary. I smiled at it. Mom always told me that animals aren't dangerous by nature; they're dangerous if you startle them, and if you don't then you're just another animal to them. Then the baboon grunted and took a few steps closer to me.

"Keena," I heard Dad say quietly from the front steps of the house where he'd been watching me play. "I need you to do something for me."

"Okay!" I said brightly, still looking at the baboon.

Me and Dad in the backyard of our house in Amboseli National Park

"I need you to walk backward to me. Do you think you can do that?"

"Yes, Daddy!" I said. I waved to the baboon and began walking backward through the soft sand in the road. As I retreated, the baboon immediately sat down and snatched up my soccer ball, happily picking through it for partially digested seeds and fruits. Fresh elephant poop is one of their favorite foods.

It didn't occur to me that the baboon was any danger to me. Dad seemed relieved when he finally picked me up, but didn't raise his voice or shout in any way that made me think he'd been worried for my safety. Baboons were familiar, and just as much a part of my daily life as the Maasai warriors who trooped down the road singing songs in their bright red shukas or the herds of elephants, buffalo, and zebras that roamed through the grassland around our house, which Dad drove me out to see in our Land Rover if I'd been good.

We'd been living in Kenya for almost two years by then, all in the little green house in the grasslands under the mountain. I knew that Kenya was in Africa, and Africa was a long way away from another place called America, where Mom and Dad said we had another home that I didn't remember. "Home" to me meant soft wind and waving grass, the smell of zebras and the whooping of hyenas as the sun set over the plains. Home was our housekeeper Masaku letting me tenderize meat with an empty wine bottle before dinner and shaking out my shoes before putting them on in case scorpions or spiders were inside. Home was spending my days wrenching the lug nuts on and off the wheels of our truck and going on game drives with Dad to look at buffalo and watch quietly as they moved through the grasslands like ships on the sea.

America was where I was born, or so they told me. When Mom learned she was pregnant with me, she had driven into the capital city of Nairobi to one of the few clinics that had an ultrasound machine. Shaking his head sadly, the ultrasound tech informed my mother that her fetus was "too deformed" and had "a very, very small head. Too small for a human baby." Mom unsuccessfully tried to stay calm and made arrangements to fly to California to have her child, since my parents' academic affiliation with Stanford University gave her access to the hospital there.

The second I was born I was whisked into the neonatal intensive care unit and a team of doctors descended on me, led by a neonatologist named Dr. Sunshine. When I was finally brought back to my mother, Dr. Sunshine said cheerily, "Her head is fine. Just please promise me: no more backroom ultrasounds."

I also knew I had grandparents in America, though I never saw them. They often wrote us letters that my mother read to me, and sometimes sent me presents, including a stuffed owl I named Bundi, which Masaku had told me was the Swahili word for owl. Everyone gave me stuffed monkeys, since that's what my parents studied, but I liked the owl best because it was different. Masaku said that witches turned themselves into owls at night and that it was very bad luck if an owl landed on your house because it meant that someone who lived there would die soon. He refused to touch Bundi, even though it was just a toy.

My grandparents were furious when my parents brought me back to Kenya only a couple of months after I was born. When my mom had become pregnant with me, my parents had only recently relocated to Kenya from the Karisoke Research Center in Ruhengeri, Rwanda, where they had been working with the famed gorilla researcher Dian Fossey in a camp that was very basic and hardly a place to raise a baby. My grandparents were worried that our home in Kenya might be just as unsuitable.

It's important to specify that these concerns came almost entirely from my dad's parents, the ones who lived in suburban Chicago. His family was (as he later put it) "painfully conventional," and the idea of moving halfway around the world to study monkeys was an unbelievable shock to the country club community he had grown up in.

"I just don't know what to tell them," Dad's mother drawled in a Southern accent she brought with her from Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

"There aren't any monkeys in the US," Dad would say. "If I'm going to study them in their natural habitat I kind of have to go where that is."

"Are you sure you don't want to be an architect?" his father would ask, and Dad, third in a line of Robert Seyfarths and the first nonarchitect, would simply nod.

"This is what I'm going to do," he said. Eventually, they agreed it was fine as long as he didn't take his children with him, whenever they came along.

Mom's mother, my grandmother Sally, was never bothered by Mom and Dad's work. Mom was raised in the Foreign Service, in a family that spent time in Malaysia, the Netherlands, and Nicaragua all before my mom was a teenager, and before her father was killed in a plane crash on an aid mission in the Philippines. No one in her family was bothered in the least by having few modern amenities or not speaking to family members for months or sometimes years at a time because the mail was so slow. When she met Dad in college and decided to follow him into his PhD program in animal behavior so she could go "ask interesting questions about interesting animals in interesting places," as she used to tell me, her mother and siblings barely batted an eye.

"It really was very wet and cold up there in Dian's camp," Mom told me. "We lived in these tiny wooden huts that were heated with wood stoves and were always full of smoke. It was so wet that nothing ever dried and it was very hard to keep our notes and recording equipment from being chewed up by rats. There were just so many rats…" she trailed off. "At night they would sometimes run across my bed and I'd have to hit them with books."

It sounded to me like the entire time at Dian's camp was difficult. First, studying the gorillas was challenging. In order to observe their natural behavior, the scientists had to do everything they could to make sure the gorillas ignored them, including standing quietly as young silverbacks charged them in displays of aggression, and letting themselves be shoved down a hill covered in stinging nettles if the babies wanted to play with them. Back at the camp, Dian liked to slap Dad on the back and call him Bobby, even after he repeatedly told her that he preferred to be called Robert.

"Not to worry, Bobby," Dian would say, throwing her arm around Dad's shoulders. "Auntie Dian will always be there for you."

As Rwanda became more and more dangerous to work in politically, Dian began to show signs of strain. Her paranoia became increasingly odd, and when she eventually confided in my parents that she thought her phones were being tapped, they decided that the time had come to move on to a more stable and comfortable situation.

Kenya, my parents patiently explained to my grandparents, was much safer. Vervet monkeys are small and nonthreatening, and we could live in a real house, far away from the smoking shacks of Dian's mountain camp. But it was no use. To my grandparents, everywhere in Africa was the same and the whole continent was dangerous. One of the first sentences I learned to say on my own was, "I am fine, I am safe," spoken confidently through a phone from a hotel in Nairobi to my grandparents' house in the suburbs of Chicago.

And I really was fine, at least to the extent that I understood what that meant as a toddler. Every day, my parents would leave in the Land Rover to spend the day watching and observing the vervet monkeys, while I would hang out with Masaku as he did chores around the house or took walks to the village to talk with the other mzee, old men like himself. Masaku smelled like wood smoke, and his hands were soft and strong as he held on to mine as we walked.

Masaku taught me the names of all the animals on the plains in front of our house and that each animal has a different kind of track and its own kind of poop. As we walked up and down the road between the village and our house, he would point out crisscrossing lines of animal prints and wait for me to tell him which animals they came from; these small ones were gazelles', these hoofprints were zebras', and this poop was from a hyena—the easiest of all to identify because hyena poop is always white from the bones they eat. How many lobes on the paw of a simba (lion)? I held up three fingers. And do you see claws when you see the track of a duma (cheetah)? I nodded my head yes. Cheetahs' claws don't retract into their paws like lions' and leopards' do.

Sometimes one of Masaku's three wives would help babysit me, though as a child I always had a hard time telling them apart since they never really spoke to me. None of them ever said anything above a whisper. When Dad asked him why, Masaku replied, "One of them cursed the other two so they can only speak in a whisper and the one who did the cursing also whispers in order to hide her identity."

"And you don't mind?" Dad asked.

"Oh no," he replied. "The house is so quiet." And every afternoon, Mom and Dad would come back from work and take me on game drives out through the grasslands of Amboseli National Park to look for animals. The buffalo were my favorite since they moved around in such large groups that they would completely surround the car and make me feel like I was part of the herd. We often saw elephants, zebras, and herds of hundreds and hundreds of wildebeests grazing under the mountain and bleating like cows. My parents and I would sit out there for hours, quietly watching the animals go about their business, while Dad would periodically reach out the window of the Land Rover to empty my plastic bin into the grass. Potty training had to go on, even when there were wildebeests to watch.

Every morning as the sun came up and every evening as it set behind Mount Kilimanjaro, I sat on the front step of the tiny green house and watched the animals move across the land. Birds flew home to roost, elephants rumbled to their babies, and zebras moved out of the trees into the grass where they could see any approaching predators more easily. When it was time for dinner, we ate at a small foldout table in the kitchen, lit by hurricane lanterns and open to the night. Sometimes Mom and Dad told me the story about how an elephant sneezed on their windshield, and sometimes we'd talk about the vervet monkeys and how they were different from the gorillas they studied in Rwanda. When I went to sleep under my mosquito net with my stuffed owl, the thick smells from outside surrounded me and reminded me the animals were still there, just going to sleep as I was, and we'd see each other again in the morning when the sun came up.

Despite the peace of being alone with the wind and the animals, I couldn't help but feel a sense of disquiet creep slowly into my life. Why did Mom and Dad keep telling me my home was not my home? And what were these machines in my books called elevators, escalators, and microwaves? These things were as foreign to me as this place called America, and even though I was told I'd seen them before, I wasn't interested in going back. There was so much to see and do and learn about in Kenya, and Mom and Dad said there were no animals in the US. Why would I want a home that didn't include them? America could stay safely where it was, on the other side of the world; I had all the home I needed already.


A Dead Chicken
and an Offer of Marriage

We left Kenya for


  • "An unusual and fascinating coming-of-age story. . . Wild Life is a page-turner with universal appeal."—The New York Journal of Books
  • "The contrast between life in the bush and life in the city, and of how Roberts learns to balance her two selves-the girl in the delta who can do everything adults do and the weirdo who doesn't feel safe in America-is a terrific coming-of-age story. Full of details about field research and bar mitzvahs, what to do when you meet dangerous wildlife or dangerous mean girls, and how reading was her salvation, Roberts' fish-out-of-water story is impossible to put down.""—Booklist
  • "Wild Life is a moving, thoughtful memoir of a young woman finding her path. Roberts' frank and witty voice is perfect--she navigates both joy and sorrow with a deft, sure touch, and her descriptions of Baboon Camp are so bright and vivid you can smell the dust. I couldn't put it down."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Times New Roman'}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}Madeline Miller, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Circe
  • "This episodic, warm exploration of identity and culture is both wide-eyed and surprisingly wise...[Wild Life captures] a carefree girlhood among wildlife and a rougher existence at school in Pennsylvania...An immersive narrative that will have readers admiring the author's mostly charming adventures."—Kirkus
  • "Roberts's refreshing, upbeat debut is a rollicking memoir of girlhood adventure and matter-of-fact bravery [...] Roberts writes with humor and kindness throughout, especially as she examines white privilege and the cultural differences of the Botswanan [...] Resilient and resourceful, Roberts celebrates an unorthodox life in this endearing memoir."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Times New Roman'}Publishers Weekly
  • "A riveting account of a swashbuckling, lion-dodging, tough-as-nails childhood and also a perceptive examination of how the geographical and cultural fault lines within one person shift and rupture over time. I couldn't put Wild Life down-this book left me hungry for awe."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Times New Roman'}Maggie Shipstead, New York Times bestselling author of Seating Arrangements and Astonish Me

On Sale
Nov 12, 2019
Page Count
304 pages

Keena Roberts

About the Author

Keena Roberts graduated from Harvard with a degree in psychology and later earned a dual master’s from Johns Hopkins University in international public health and development economics. She has worked for government, nongovernment, and private contractors in the field of public health, focusing specifically on HIV/AIDS. Wild Life is her first book.

Learn more about this author