First day in the sanctuary

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I really had no idea what to expect when they told me I would be helping out in the sanctuary… and I can’t say that I came away from my first day feeling satisfied and encouraged. Christophe, who is in charge of overseeing the workers, has so much on his plate. When I asked him what time the feedings were and when I should be there, he pretty much told me: 6:30-9, 10:30-3:30. I almost laughed, but refrained and tried to explain that I was here primarily to write grants and to ask for money. He shook his head, looking just as confused as I was. Herein lies the problem; I’ve lost the little bit of French that I had learned in Paris; Carmen, my supervisor, is Spanish, so most of my training has been in Spanish (which I assure you, mine is not perfect!); and I’m reading and researching all day in English…and Swahili is clearly not my go-to at this point. With all the different languages flying around, trying to learn the very regimented procedures in the sanctuary was a bit of a disaster! We worked mainly in the food prep room, and the breadth of my knowledge regarding kitchen utensils and appliances is limited in English, so pretty much non-existent in French. The animals get fed three times a day,  and each piece of fruit and vegetable (usually around 8-10 different types) has to be weighed and portioned out for 128 animals! You can imagine the scenario:  Christophe asks me (in French) to grab the bowl on the table filled with ‘choux’ (cabbage), cut it into 5 pieces and place each piece in the bowl that corresponds to the specific animal or group of animals outlined on a piece of paper taped to the wall. Complete deer in the headlights moment and then all I could do was laugh…then panic! Christophe was mildly patient, but  my insecurities took over and I translated every encounter between him and the other workers as, “Wow boys, we got a real gem this time; she can’t speak, understand or chop an ear of corn into 6 pieces with a dull knife!

But, I wanted an adventure…

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Introductions: The Chimps of Lwiro, Kongo & Crew

Kongo arrives at CRPL after being chained to a post by child soldiers Congo now, right, with pal Kamituga in the new chimp forest

Top Photo: Kongo arrives at CRPL after being chained to a post by child soldiers

Bottom Photo: Kongo hangin’ with his buddy in the sanctuary

Introductions: Meeting Kongo & His Crew

My first experience with the chimps was intimidating, to say the least. Despite the 6-meter electrical fence between us, when dozens of full-grown chimpanzees start dropping out of trees, jumping over bushes and hurling themselves toward you…I somehow suppressed the urge to scream and took a BIG step back.

They all stopped as close to the fence as they could get, looking me up and down for long enough to feel a bit awkward. And then the silence broke and the spectacle began: utter chaos ensued, all of them trying to solidify their position in the spotlight- beating their chests, stomping their feet, tackling each other…sheer mayhem.

But even with all this going on, I couldn’t help but notice his approach. Kongo slowly came over to sit directly in front of me with an undeniable sense of authority. The other chimps honored his arrival with screams of delight, each competing for the chance to be close to him and granted grooming privileges.

But Kongo brushed them all aside, his gaze fixated on the new visitor. He looked at me intensely, straight in the eyes, but more as a question rather than a threat. His presence was commanding to be sure, but comforting at the same time; his gentle demeanor and air of wisdom juxtaposed with his size and rank.

I was smitten. But did he like me? Did I exude whatever it was that one should in order to win the affections of an ape?

I began to walk slowly along the length of the fence. He immediately stood up, trailing behind me by a few steps until I stopped. He would catch up, taking his time, then turn to face me and sit down. I would walk, he would follow, I would stop, he would sit. This continued along the entire 5 acres of the fence. I took it as a sign…I think he likes me.

Kongo arrived at the sanctuary on October 16th, 2007 from the Beni region. He was rescued from a rehabilitation center for former child soldiers and was most likely captured as a baby.

They found him chained to a post in the hot sun with no food or water. Carmen said when she removed the chain, he hugged her and wouldn’t let go. He seemed humanized and didn’t exhibit the normal behaviors of a chimp, so she suspects he spent most of his life in captivity.

Kongo is now the leader of the group, adored by the chimps and the staff. His chains are hopefully a distant memory as roams the forest area, lounging in the shaded grass and basking in the adoration of his adopted family.

You can donate directly to the sanctuary here to support all the work that goes into protecting Kongo and the rest of these amazing souls.