Sometimes it grieves me that so few photos remain from my years in Liberia. The realities of West Africa at the time – inadequate film storage, poor processing, the nature of the film itself – have resulted in most photographs fading into darkness, leaving nothing but indistinct smiles and a memory. The traditional blacksmith who forged iron “country money” is gone, as are the piles of cocoa pods, the gaggle of “money buses” with their marvelous painted slogans (“God Bless the Woman that Born Me”, “The Wicked Will Fall”) and stacks of Russian waxed toilet paper in the Gbarnga store.
Still, there are treasures. In one photo, my father stands next to a village chief, both men solemn with the responsibilities of formal gift-exchange. In another, my mother follows my father along a narrow bush path, watching him as he tries to pretend he doesn’t see the line of bare-breasted women coming from the village to greet them.
And then there is Zero. For years I assumed her photo had been lost or tossed until I opened a box filled with mementos – passport masks, Benin bronzes, a clutch of silver bracelets – and found her image tucked into a sheaf of letters. The chimp (for she was a chimpanzee and not a monkey) was one of my good friends during my time in Liberia, and we came to know each other pretty well.
While still a young mother, Zero and her baby became targets for a hunter seeking meat. After the baby was killed, Zero ran for her life. Blinded in one eye and crippled by the shot, she soon was unable to go on and sheltered under a tangle of branches and vines.
It was her great good fortune to be discovered there not by hunters but by compassionate strangers who picked up the terrified, quivering animal and took her to the nearby hospital compound. There, she began her recovery under the care of the maintenance man and his wife.
Under normal circumstances, she would have had zero chance of survival, so she was given the name Zero. As the weeks passed, she not only survived but thrived, basking in the attention and affection of an entire community.
As her wounds healed, she began to spend her days outdoors, secured with an extraordinarily long chain that provided plenty of leeway for frolicking in sunshine or shade. She also developed a certain laziness. People accustomed to her habits joked with one another that, if you were sufficiently stealthy, you might catch her in a nearby hammock with a paperback in one hand and a lemonade in the other.
Eventually, she was allowed to roam freely even while strangers were around. She made no attempt to escape, but stayed between her house and the community tennis court. The court was a pitiful thing with a red clay surface that required frequent wetting and rolling, but it had a net and a fence, enough to provide amusement and exercise for folks who needed both.
One day, an unlucky shot went high and over the fence. Zero turned with the rest of us to watch the ball’s flight and then, gimping along like the wounded creature she was, she went after the ball. We watched with astonishment as she picked it up, brought it back to the court and handed it to one of the nurses watching the game.
It was the beginning of a long and illustrious career as “ball chimp”. From that day forward, every time someone entered the court, Zero hooted and hollered until she was allowed to come and watch with the rest of the crowd – and to fetch any balls that went over the fence. We fussed over her like crazy every time she did it, and she loved the attention. The more approval she received, the more she wanted to help.
We’d known she was intelligent and observant, but after what came to be known as The Great Tennis-Ball Caper, people started watching her more closely. The family who’d taken her in had a baby – nearly a toddler – who liked to be in the yard. It wasn’t long before people realized that every time the baby started to move beyond Zero’s perimeter, the chimp would go after the child and gently bring her back. If the toddler resisted, Zero would throw a classic, noisy chimp-fit. Inevitably, someone would come out to see what was happening and corral the baby again.
It wasn’t long before everyone had the system figured out. With Mom keeping an eye on things, chimp and baby spent long hours playing togther, and Zero added baby-sitting to her list of accomplishments.
Given her playfulness, her curiosity, her hunger to be in the spotlight and her eagerness to please, it was hard not to think of Zero as just one more of the mischievous, delightful children who surrounded us, begging for attention and approval.
She was far more than a child, of course – at least in terms of innocence. She had endured much in her life, including the death of her baby, the loss of her natural home and an end to any ability to come and go as she pleased. Given the circumstances, it might have been reasonable for her to follow the path of other chimps and grieve herself to death. Instead, she seemed to understand that the humans with whom she lived had given her a second chance at life, and she did her best to show her appreciation.
In short, she was a creature filled with affection, gratitude and basic good humor, willing to accept the foibles of the humans with whom she would end her days. Remarkably, everyone who came to know her agreed there was more than simple instinct behind her actions.
Perhaps because she knew grief, she seemed able to detect grief in people. If there were tears, she would amble over and stroke a hand or an arm until the simple silliness of it all overcame the tears with laughter. Suspecting anger, she would cover her head with her arms, shrieking and hopping around as though fending off punishment. Chided for her own misbehavior, she would stand and stare, heaving great sighs as if to say, “And who are you, to tell me I’m not perfect?”
Stubborn, cantankerous, feisty and willing to pout to get her way, she wasn’t perfect. But neither were we, and her willingness to tolerate our imperfections helped us to tolerate hers. In the end, nothing more was needed. A little honesty here, a little good humor there, and the chimp and her friends got along just fine.
Every now and then, I wonder if a little tolerance, honesty and humor might work for people. I hear both friends and strangers say from time to time, “There’s zero chance of that happening.” But they didn’t know Zero.