Two Steps Back

There is a zoo in Kinshasa that is privately-funded by a Chinese man who decided he wanted 4 endangered chimps and four critically endangered Gorillas displayed in his zoo. It seems the ICCN (Congolese government wildlife authorities), our founder and supposed partner in rescuing and protecting endangered primates, is now backing the transfer of these four gorillas (from GRACE in Goma) and four chimpanzees (from our sanctuary, CRPL) to appease this man.  Ironically, CRPL’s reputation as an established refuge for orphaned chimpanzees now makes it an easy target if those protecting it decide to align with criminals or corrupt officials out to make a buck.

These chimps, most of which were abducted as infants, have already seen their entire families murdered (Maiko arrived with a bullet fragment lodged above her right eye-most likely the remnants of what killed her mother), been stuffed in bags or tiny crates, chained to poles, starved, abused, forced to live in tiny crates- all for the economic benefit of their worst enemy and biggest threat -humans.  Even after being rescued, they were still kept in cages simply because CRPL did not have the resources to build bigger enclosures. It was only last year that CRPL finally completed 4 large, natural enclosures to house most of its resident chimpanzees and monkeys.  After years of confinement, these four chimps- finally free to roam, to climb trees, to swim and play with their new family- will be anaesthetized, stuffed in a crate and wake up in a strange place in yet another cage. 

This is something to think about the next time you visit a zoo or a circus; most of those animals staring back at you have experienced similar fates. Although the founders will deny it, and maybe they truly don’t know or choose not to ask, animals rarely arrive at a zoo without experiencing extreme levels of abuse and trauma. And really, are they so much better off in their safe, confined cages, in a climate that is not natural and reduced to sheer boredom and complacency? For what reason, for our entertainment? Or perhaps the more altruistic justification, so these animals on the verge of extinction can breed and continue to ‘flourish’? Are we truly ‘saving’ these animals by perpetuating their existence in cages?  In my opinion, the concept of breeding animals so that they can survive in cages is an oxymoron- akin to stating that a dying man is better off on a life support machine. Both scenarios require a decision to be made, usually for the benefit of the one who still has the power to decide, with little understanding of how severely they are impacting the quality of life for the one on the receiving end.

Of course, it is not so black and white. As a sanctuary for confiscated primates, we provide what we hope to be temporary protection from the elements that threaten the survival of the chimpanzees- rampant illegal bushmeat and wildlife pet trade; increased forest degradation and fragmentation; and high levels of infectious disease transmission from humans- all of which are fueled by the ongoing political and civil unrest.  If we were to release them back into the wild right now, they would most likely be recaptured, especially now that they are more accustomed to human interaction. It is not ideal, and yes, they are confined, but in the closest thing possible to their natural environment and surrounded by their own kind.

I guess I find solace in the fact that there are places like this that are dedicated to the protection, survival and, hopefully, future release of the apes (and other endangered species) back into the wild. ImageYet if these Congolese officials (who represent key players in global declarations for the protection of endangered great apes) approve this transaction, they are undermining the credibility of our efforts to protect these animals. Qualifying for funding is challenging at best, but will our present and potential funders really want to give thousands of dollars to a sanctuary that is subject to trafficking by its own founders? There are too many political layers and players involved to contemplate at the moment.  In the meantime, we have 4 chimps to save. Don’t worry, I will keep my wits about me, just don’t be alarmed if you see a picture of me chained to a chimp enclosure floating around the internet.

The Dusty Road to Lwiro

Morning Exchange

As surprising as this is, I wasn’t terribly inspired to run when I first arrived, especially after experiencing my daily walk to and from work. Our office is located in the Congolese Research Center for Natural Sciences (CRSN), which is the only significant landmark that exists in Lwiro, other than the dilapidated guest house that somehow still functions as the local bar, special event center, wedding venue and hotel (for those tolerant enough to endure questionable levels of hygiene and sharing a bathroom with a sink resting on its side on the floor). The rest of the landscape is cultivated land with the rare collection of banana trees sprinkled throughout and one main dirt road that connects all the small villages on either side of Lwiro.  On my way to work, there is always a steady stream of villagers traveling from one village to the next. Regardless of who it is, I can never walk down the road and expect the passerby to ignore my presence.  Sometimes I get an enthusiastic Jambo (Hello in Swahili), sometimes a less than friendly glare, but one thing is for sure-anonymity is out of the question. A group of young boys is most definitely the worst. They slowly approach, all eyes fixed on me as I walk towards them, and just as I pass, the cheekiest of the group will yell out god knows what in Swahili while the others burst out laughing.

Despite all this, after a month without running, I was ecstatic when Ruth and Susan suggested a jog. The path we were told was safe was all uphill, winding through the villages and on the same path that the women and children take to and from the fields and the market. I expected it to be dry, rocky and crowded, but adding in the ‘running factor’ was a whole different experience. Imagine walking on an uneven river bed,  completely covered with jagged rocks, deep ruts and large pot holes. Now extract any reminisce of moisture; that is our path. There is nowhere to land that is flat or soft, it is just whether you want to choose the large, slanted rock or go for the collection of smaller jagged stones. And then there are the variety of farm animals to maneuver-the baby goats being the most difficult and the pigs, the most unpredictable. All of this, however, is manageable until the path narrows and you realize that you are not making life any easier for the poor women trying to make it down the same trail with twice their weight in tools, wood, sugar cane, produce, or any combination of all of the above balanced on their heads…usually with added burden of a baby in tow. I have definitely hurled myself into a ditch or two trying to get out of their way, only to have them stop, laugh and cheer us on up the hill.  And finally, there are the children. Luckily, it is usually on our way down the hill  that they start coming out of the woodwork, by the hundreds it seems, although we don’t dare look back. They all trail behind us, laughing and screaming at the top of their lungs, “Mazungu! Mazungu!” (white person, white person) the whole way down.

After a couple of weeks, we managed to recruit one of the workers, Luc, to join us. Finally, we are free to roam a bit further and out towards the open fields and main road.  Having a Congolese with us has helped keep the herd of small children at bay, allowing us to refocus our efforts on dodging chickens and such. However, the long stretch of open road that I so longed for holds its own set of challenges- mainly breathing.  It is still dry season here, which means that the occasional UN convoy or random battered vehicle that passes by leaves us quite literally ‘in the dust’; a chalky, brown dust that goes straight for the eyes, and then the nostrils, until it makes its way into a what feels like an impenetrable gritty layer coating your lungs, replacing any thought of fresh oxygen that was previously propelling you forward.  Everyone else is traveling by foot, usually in small groups of men or women, and they all feel compelled to contribute in some way – cheer us on, remind us of the fact that we are white (Mazungu! Mazungu!) , laugh at us or even join us. Although I have noted that is usually the women who decide to join us, matching our pace barefoot or in flip-flops, laughing and cheering each other on, clearly unaffected (and certainly not complaining) by the cars, the dust, the rocks; all the things I find ‘uncomfortable’,  they just take it in stride, enjoying the opportunity to run…simply because they can. 

It is precisely the adversity of it all that inspires me to faithfully join Luc each week, even when I am tired or my body aches. How can I complain to a man who does manual labor 6 days a week for 10 hours a day, eats less than I do and runs in a pair of old hiking boots that are split open along the souls? Yet he still runs, almost every day, because he can, on his own terms-relishing in the freedom, power and confidence that are truly his…even if only for an hour a day on the dry, dusty road to Lwiro.

Saving Lwiro

Relay 025

I hesitate to write this down and humiliate myself  any further, but why should I deny you all a good laugh for the sake of my already shattered pride. 

To set the stage, I first must introduce you to the new volunteers that arrived two weeks ago, Susan and Ruth.  Their arrival couldn’t have come at a better time, as I was starting to wonder how I would last 5 more months alone. Although this experience as a whole is an adventure, the daily routine can get a bit monotonous, so some company was more than welcomed. We are all close in age and cut from the same cloth, which makes things much more entertaining. The group dynamic has also opened up more possibilities for us to explore the area and socialize a bit. 

Typically, our work day starts at 6:30 a.m. and usually ends around 4:30 p.m.  Dinner is served at 5pm and we have usually all showered and eaten by 5:30. This leaves g a good chunk of time to entertain ourselves, but our options are a bit limited- there is no electricity, we are usually too exhausted to read by candlelight and going to bed before 8pm is just torture. We usually pass the evening hours sitting around the candle on the patio, sipping wine or tea, chatting, laughing and periodically challenging each other to guess how much longer we have until our designated bedtime of 8:30pm.

This brings us to last night:

At approximately 8:30 p.m., we blew out the candle and headed inside to get ready for bed. The girls went to their room and immediately come running back out saying that there was a fire right outside their window. I ran inside to get the lantern, but by the time I fumbled around in the dark and found it, the girls were nowhere to be seen. I proceeded to run up the stairs to the gate, when I saw one of our workers, Valentine. For once, I knew exactly what to say in French, thanks to a very handy French podcast I had memorized. I confidently posed the question, “Do you smell that? Is there a fire?” His eyes widened, he threw open the gate and took off in a sprint. I took this as a confirmation and interpreted his urgent response as,  “yes, I do smell a fire, and we should go immediately to put it out!”

Assuming the girls were already at the scene, I took off after him, ready to help save Lwiro from its fiery fate. Everything up until this point seemed completely logical, until we started to approach the fire and Valentine stopped abruptly, took a sharp turn to the left and leaped into the forest.  Without pause, I did what any insane, very white woman would do in complete darkness, in the middle of the jungles of Congo; I dove in after him.

This is a good time to point out that I have seen Valentine almost daily since my arrival. He is a sweet, soft-spoken older gentlemen who always has a smile on his face.  And, although we don’t say much more to each other than the usual “Ca va?”, Oui, Ca va bien”, he is one of my favorites.  So, I never questioned my safety in following Valentine into the depths of the jungle. I did, however, question my sanity when I realized that I was sprinting through the depths of the jungle in the pitch black with no clue as to where we were going or why, trying to see where my feet where landing and praying with everything fiber of my being that I was not disturbing the silent, hungry, venomous predators that were surely lurking below. I lost sight of Valentine and could see nothing other than the thick, green vegetation closing in around me. The thought of being lost in the forest with my extremely ‘challenged’ since of direction prompted me to yell out in a state of panic… at the very same moment that I ran smack into Valentine.  I was so disoriented that it took me a few seconds to finally realize that we were both staring straight at Susan, who was staring back at us from our patio with a  very confused look on her face.  She burst out laughing, “Where the hell did you come from? We have been looking for you for the past fifteen minutes!  Fifteen minutes? Fifteen minutes!! “I don’t know what the hell you two have been doing, but Valentine and I have been chasing something or someone for hours…although I’m not sure why or where…and by the way, did anyone manage to put the damn fire out?”

The light of day:

First of all, there was no ‘fire’. It was a bonfire that the neighbors had set intentionally. Although, in our defense, it is the dry season here and the fire was HUGE and seemingly unintended.  As for my brush with death in the bush, I was actually in my own back yard, no further than 1/4 of a mile from our back patio.  And, as it turns out, my impeccable French was for not. Most of the older workers speak very basic French and communicate mainly in Swahili.  It never occurred to Valentine that I would be alarmed about the bonfire harmlessly burning next door, so clearly there must have been an intruder! 

Needless to say, I have been avoiding eye contact with the workers all day and can only imagine what they must think of me…that crazy American. 

 Lesson learned- no going out past my bedtime.