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A sense of connection with the Congolese


Sultani, the giant mountain gorilla
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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And then eventually my father never showed up at Bujumbura. So we went to the next biggest city which was Kampala. I don't know how we... I don't remember how we got there but we went to Kampala where there were lots of people.

And Kampala was a very civilised place. It was real city with real people in it. And you know, not evacuated. And somehow the... I don't know, the consulate took care of us or something like that, we got an apartment. And then I remember weeks later my father arrived and he was very, very sick because he had had a drink of water along the way that... But he actually managed to drive out across the border and he was all right. And I remember him walking in on us being so happy that he had arrived, and him just being so sick that he gave us a hug but it was... And being so disappointed that he didn't pay attention to us, he just fell asleep. But he had a pretty harrowing trip out of there. So we didn't go back to the Congo which was very sad because I loved it. And I remember when we were there for instance there was a... There were a bunch of captured... Well, first of all there was a research centre called IRSAC Lwiro which I would wander around which was this beautiful old abandoned research centre from the Belgians which had giant libraries and huge elephants on the wall and lots of skeletons from different animals that had been collected and it's like, you know, being in an abandoned museum. It was extraordinary. I remember the biggest elephant tusk that I've ever seen were there. I think maybe the biggest elephant tusks ever. I remember them as being like 15/20 feet long. A pair of crossed tusks. And just that was a fantastic place to hang out in.

And there was also a primate centre there which had gorillas. And we would go visit the gorillas. And there was one giant mountain gorilla named Sultani which was huge, and so you would go by and you would see all the other gorillas and you'd feed them, you had to climb up a ladder because you sort of walked along the wall between the gorillas. And you would throw them bananas. And they would take the bananas and they would break them off like a person. They would peel them and they would eat the banana and then they would eat the peel, which I always thought was funny. And then you would get to Sultani, and Sultani, there was tree at the end of the walkway, and Sultani would jump up at the tree and he was like so much bigger than all the others. And you'd put a bunch of bananas like on a stick and Sultani would grab the whole stick and he would just eat the whole bunch of bananas like it was an apple. Just get it all. And he was huge and imposing and fat and... And when we were there Sultani actually got sick. And my father went to try to save him, he got pneumonia. And so my father, you know, they had him sort of anesthetised so that they could try to treat him and I was very afraid my father was going in and actually, you know, in the room with Sultani who was so groggy, trying to treat him. But not successfully, he died of pneumonia. I think he's probably sitting stuffed in Belgium some place. I think he was the largest mountain gorilla ever. But he...

Anyway, there are all kinds of things like that, that were just wonderful about the place. I mostly just remember the smells and the people. The people were just so friendly, the children. We'd go into villages and they'd never... Many of the children had never seen white people before. And they were kind of afraid of the adults. But they weren't afraid of me, so they would always come and play with me and they would always touch my hair. I had hair back in those days. I had a crew cut. But they loved touching my hair. And the women would come and touch my hair too. So I was always the celebrity when I went there but everybody was so kind to me and took care of me. And I never felt at all frightened, you know, walking to school, because I knew if anything happened they would have taken care of me. So it was a wonderful, very innocent time there. And part of me has always wanted to go back because I have such wonderful memories of it. But part of me has also realised that it can't possibly exist anymore.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes George Dyson

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Kampala, Africa

Duration: 5 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017