"Wild Life" Is a Special Coming-of-Age Story

Keena Roberts's subtitle, "Childhood of Baboons and Button-Downs," tells it all.

Posted Nov 06, 2019

I recently began reading a fascinating book by Keena Roberts called Wild Life: Dispatches from a Childhood of Baboons and Button-Downs and couldn't put it down for more than a few minutes at a time. Roberts's first book, and I hope not her last, is a memoir of growing up in a research camp in Botswana with her researcher parents, and the transition back to the life of an American high school student in a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia. Part of the book's description reads:

     "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."

The stories in Wild Life make it clear that the transition between the two different cultures was difficult in many ways. I was intrigued and deeply moved by Wild Life, and I was pleased that Keena could take the time to answer a few questions about her journey. Our interview went as follows.

Why did you write Wild Life?

Wild Life is the true story of my childhood spent half in my parents’ primate research camp in the Okavango Delta in Botswana and half in a fancy private school in the U.S. The book was originally based around journals that I kept while in Baboon Camp and that described every aspect of our life in camp, from guarding a thawing chicken from baboons to fixing our own plumbing and what we did when someone got sick or injured. 

Grand Central Publishing
Source: Grand Central Publishing

Who is your intended audience?

Everyone! I hope Wild Life will appeal to anyone who’s wondered what it’s like to grow up among the animals in a game reserve in Botswana. I was an avid reader of adventure stories as a kid, and I know I would have loved this book. There’s certainly an appeal as well to anyone who felt like an outcast in high school, for whatever reason. Just because my differences stemmed from how I grew up, anyone who had a tough time fitting in during the middle and high school years will likely find a lot to identify with. 

What are some of your major messages? 

The biggest message is that it’s okay to be different. I struggled a lot with reconciling the “Baboon Camp” version of myself with the “American” version, and if readers take anything away from this book I hope it’s that all the weird and wonderful things about yourself should never be hidden away just because they’re different from what you may perceive in others. 

What sort of influence did your early life have on the choices you made for a career

I was a teenager at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana. Our camp was so isolated from civilization that I didn’t really know many Botswana [people from Botswana] and wasn’t aware of the impact the epidemic was having on the country until I started looking beyond our camp. I was amazed at the commitment the Botswana government made at both a national and local level to combating the epidemic, and that really started my interest in public health, specifically around HIV/AIDS. I’ve now spent more than 10 years working in this field. 

Keena Roberts
Keena with baboons.
Source: Keena Roberts

What advice would you give people about following their dreams and not letting others deflect you from this track?

In terms of writing a book, the number-one thing is patience (and massive amounts of coffee). I wrote an early version of this book when I was between jobs back in 2012 and it was a hot mess. I didn’t know anything about structuring a book or how to take almost 11 volumes of a child’s journal and turn them into something that read like a book or would appeal to adult readers. In the seven years between then and the book eventually coming out, there were at least four full rewrites and countless hours of editing. I can’t believe how different the final version is from my first attempt, or how many people provided input along the way. I’m endlessly glad that I stuck with it. 

What are you doing now and what are some of your current and future projects? 

Oooh, I love talking about future projects. Right now I’m working on a fantasy novel set in the Okavango Delta and based on the lives of the baboons my parents studied when we lived there. I spent many years helping my parents with their research and got to know the baboons very well. Their society is absolutely fascinating, and so much drama occurred both within the troop and with other nearby troops that it was almost impossible to write it all down as it was happening. I’m really excited to turn it into a novel. At the moment we’re calling it “Watership Down but with Monkeys.” 

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

I really hope you enjoy my book! There’s no story like it in the world, and I’m so excited to be able to share it with you. Baboon Camp was a magical, dangerous, other worldly place that I sometimes can’t believe I was so privileged to spend time in. I really hope it resonates with readers looking for a world to escape to when they need a little adventure.