Wild Life: Ten Things I Learned Growing Up in Botswana

A childhood learning about baboons in Botswana may not have been typical, but it had its benefits

I had what you might call an "unusual" childhood: Both my parents are primatologists, and when I was 8 years old they moved our family from the United States to a research camp in the Okavango Delta of Botswana in Africa to study the social behavior of baboons.

We stayed there for the majority of the time over the next ten years, living in tents, cooking over a campfire, and interacting with the wild animals that wandered through. Hyenas ate our soap, elephants uprooted our homemade water pipes, and the baboons (in the case of one particularly sneaky individual named Dougie) sometimes stole frozen chickens and scattered their remnants all over the shower.

Since we've returned to the States, I often get asked: "What was it like growing up in the Okavango? What did you learn?" And while I definitely did not have the same experiences growing up as the average American teenager, coming of age in the wilderness did teach me a lot.

Baboon Camp
The camp where the Roberts' family lived while observing baboons. Keena Roberts

Lions aren't very good at climbing trees

Lions can climb trees, but not the kind with high branches. When out walking by yourself, always keep a climbing tree in sight in case lions show up and you need a quick escape. Just be sure to pick one with branches that start higher up.

Escaping from a crocodile is not the same as escaping from a hippo

If your boat is ever overturned by an animal, choose your strategy wisely. If you're attacked by a crocodile, swim on the surface of the water so it's harder for it to pull you down. If your boat is overturned by a hippo, do the opposite and swim down low—hippos will attack anything on the surface of the water.

Always shake out your shoes before you put them on

It's not fun to find a scorpion in them. If one does sting you, your leg is going to go numb and you won't be able to walk for a day or two.

Baboons love nail polish!

If you paint your toenails, you might be able to get the little ones to come over and gently stroke your feet whenever you have a new color to show them. They also really enjoy ankle bracelets.

Hydration is key

It gets up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and that's hot enough to melt shampoo bottles. If you don't drink enough water, you'll end up with a bad case of dehydration and no shampoo.

Get ready to become your own surgeon

When the nearest doctor is more than 5 hours away by boat, sometimes you have to treat your own injuries. Every home surgery kit should include needles, duct tape, and some decent whiskey.

Learn to listen to the birds and monkeys

They'll be the first to tell you what animals are around and whether or not you should be worried. Oxpeckers are the most important to listen for, as they're usually riding on the backs of buffalo.

A leopard attack takes less than 7 seconds, start to finish

I've had the unfortunate experience of listening to a recording of a leopard attacking our research assistant and can tell you that those 7 seconds last an eternity.

Leopard Botswana
A leopard in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Keena Roberts

There is nothing in this world more beautiful than an Okavango sunset

Memorize every color, sight, and smell because you'll miss it terribly once it's gone.

Life was tricky when I started high school back in the U.S. My classmates thought I was strange, but I didn't know what to make of their lives either. Dawson's Creek? Abercrombie and Fitch? These concepts were just as alien to me as treating blister beetle rashes and dodging honey badgers were to my peers.

Though it took a while, I was able to blend in by watching what everyone around me was wearing, doing, and saying just as closely as I watched the wind and listened to the birds back in Botswana. And, just as in Botswana, I survived.

I was 19 when I moved back to the U.S. permanently. There were a number of logistical reasons why my parents had to close the camp, but the primary reason was that it became too dangerous to walk around on foot. An influx of elephants from Zimbabwe and an increasing number of lions meant that even my radically adventurous parents thought it was too risky to keep wandering around with the baboons. After a number of terrifyingly close calls, they wrapped up their project.

I think about Botswana every day, and even though my camp is gone, I miss it fiercely. If I learned anything from my experience growing up in the Okavango, it's that adventure is everywhere if you just look for it.

Keena Roberts is the author of WILD LIFE: Dispatches from a Childhood of Baboons and Button-Downs available November 12, 2019 from Grand Central Publishing. She graduated from Harvard with a degree in psychology and African studies. She was deeply affected by the impact the HIV/AIDS epidemic had on Botswana when she lived there; at Harvard, she studied Botswana's response to the epidemic. She later earned a dual Masters from Johns Hopkins University in International Public Health and Development Economics. Most recently she has worked at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in HIV/AIDS and LGBT health policy, for a government contractor on implementation of the Affordable Care Act in the United States, and she now works for an international market research company examining consumer health in more than 100 countries around the world.

Wild Life book cover
WILD LIFE: Dispatches from a Childhood of Baboons and Button-Downs book cover Grand Central Publishing