The Send-off : the Democratic Republic of Congo

I received a request from another one of my favorite bloggers, the Modern Leper, to post some more pictures of my time in the Congo (you can get a taste of it here: Life in the Congo).

I always intended to post more, but trying to do it there would literally take days. On the rare occasion that we did have internet, it was only for a few hours during the day, and it was excruciatingly slow. Just posting a blog took a significant amount of planning, hence the reason why there are so few. Even if I wrote them ahead of time on a separate document, the likelihood that we would even have electricity was slim, so I was always trying to ration my time on all things electric. All this to say, to even get a blog to post was a day’s long, sometime week long endeavor.

By the time I got back to the states, to be honest, I was a bit traumatized and just didn’t feel like revisiting the Congo. Yes, the experience as a whole was life-changing, but some of the times and memories that made up that experience were anything by comfortable or fun or even humane (see The New normal).

But the chimps. Those extraordinary, crazy, sometimes terrifying chimps undeniably and forever touched my soul. I fell in love with all 54 of them, each with his or her distinct, funny personality and sometimes annoying quirks. (Goma immediately comes to mind, a cantankerous, yet playful little guy (okay NOT little) who without fail, no matter how deep into the forest he was, would suddenly be sitting in the same spot, within perfect range to dowse us with spit as we made our way into the sanctuary. It didn’t matter if we sprinted or ducked or tried to shield ourselves, he would always hit his target, meeting our gaze with a look of triumph before he proudly disappeared back into the trees.) But even Goma maneuvered his way into my heart, gripping it tightly with those long, dexterous fingers and filling it up with awe, reverence, heartbreak, and love.

They were (and hopefully still are) ornery, silly, loving, intelligent, shameless bundles of joy who taught me the extent to which animals actually feel emotions and love and pain. I witnessed this firsthand, seeing tiny Manoya arrive, skin and bones, starving, dehydrated and so traumatized she would cry non-stop when she had to separate from her caretaker. Every time I would check in on her, the look she had on her face was beyond emotion, it was sheer and utter heartbreak.

We didn’t find out much about the details of Namoya’s rescue, other than they found her stuffed in a tiny crate going through customs. Most likely, she had seen her entire family slaughtered and had been stuffed in a bag, tossed around in the back of a car, and then crammed into whatever contraption could best be smuggled onto a plane. Each chimp at the sanctuary had a similar story (see Casualties of the Trade). All had been through horrific trauma and tortured in some way or another. But despite all of this, or maybe because of it, it was amazing to see how they embraced each other (the majority of the time), accepting each new-comer into their mismatched, chaotic, not-so-functional family…just as they did me.

I will never forget the first day I met Kongo or the last day I ever saw him. I was immediately smitten, and I’m still convinced he was, too. (I know, he’s a chimp, but humor me here and read on).

We quickly established our almost daily ritual of accompanying each other around the perimeter of the forest, learning each others’ faces, expressions, and body language. I learned what his favorite foods were, what type of leaves he preferred and where his favorite tree was. I gradually discovered who his favorite chimp buddies were and which ones avoided him at all costs. I got to know his different moods- when he was grumpy, in good spirits, or apathetic and bored. I shared my snacks with him and told him about my challenges with Carmen (SOS will give you a sense) and how much I missed my boys at home (husband and puppy). I counted down to him the months, weeks, and days until Eric came to visit, and then the months, weeks and days until I got to go home.

And eventually it came- the day before I was going home and the last time I would see him. As crazy as this seems, he knew I was leaving. It was immediately obvious when I walked through the gate. He wasn’t there to meet me like he had done every day before. I waited, a bit worried, and then started down our normal path. I searched for him in the trees and down in the brush. I did my best version of a chimp call (which is pathetic, I might add). But nothing. My heart sank as I worked my way back to the entrance, and there he was peering out from just inside the forest. I sat down and waited for him to come out. He just sat there, staring at me and then disappeared back into the trees. Then I just got pissed. Seriously, this is how you are going to end it? I waited a few more minutes, then stormed out, slamming the gate behind me. Realizing that I had literally just thrown a temper tantrum because an ape didn’t come say goodbye to me, I decided I would act like an adult…or maybe just a human, and go say a proper goodbye, even if he didn’t come out to do the same.

I opened back up the gate, and there he was, sitting in the same spot where we always met. He didn’t even look at me before he started down the path, finally stopping to make sure I was following, but never letting me catch up. When we turned the corner of our last stretch, he finally sat down, but with his back to me. I couldn’t help but laugh. He was clearly not going to make this easy. I rummaged through my bag, pulling out a handful of peanuts and slid them under the fence. He pretended not to see, and waited until I sat back down to casually reach over and grab them. Next was some slices of mango. He loved mango, but still acted like it was ‘just peanuts’.  I let him finish and waited a few minutes before I pulled out his favorite, anticipating what might happen.

He finally turned around to face me, looking at me intensely, then looking down at my bag, and then turning sideways to avoid eye contact.

I launched into my good-bye speech, lying and saying I would be back, reminding him that there would be another ‘save the world’ type who would take my place, feeling ridiculous when my eyes started filling up with tears. I finally slid a larger than normal portion of figs under the fence. He immediately got up, grabbed as many as he could, turned his back on me, and disappeared back into the trees.

That was it. That was goodbye.

I finally left and headed back home, stopping one last time to see if I could spot him in the trees. I couldn’t help but laugh. There was Goma, head cocked back, staring down with what I swear looked like a smirk on his face. Just behind him and further up, I saw some leaves start to rustle and then a flash of black drop down, catch a limb and then soar across to catch another and then another. Within a matter of seconds, the whole forest turned into a circus, chimps flying from tree to tree, leaves shaking violently as the limbs tried to rebound from the weight of one chimp after the other slamming down on them, gaining momentum to fly to the next. Goma quickly plunged into the madness, instigating a cacophony of screams that made even the staff members stop and look up. I had seen these displays countless times, but this, THIS was sheer bedlam. I watched until their screams died down and the leaves became still. They were all perched up high, some grouped together, some alone, most of them looking down. I like to think that was my send off, and I have a good idea of who was behind it.

I waved, turned my back on them, disappearing behind the old colonial buildings that led me back home.

*by ‘forest’, I mean the large, fenced-in area meant to replicate what used to be the expansive jungle that they previously called home.

*The number of chimps has grown from 54 to 72 since I was there in 2013.

* As mentioned in Casualties of the Trade, between 5-10 chimpanzees will be slaughtered in the process of trying to capture one baby chimp, at which point, after seeing his/her entire family massacred, she is stuffed into a tiny cage or shipped off to other countries to live out the rest of her days locked up in primitive version of a zoo or chained up to be a private pet for an ego-driven, selfish person with too much money who wants something to display, just like he would display his gun collection or one-of-a-kind antique whatever that makes him feel important…don’t get me started..

*Goma and I eventually made a truce, and I was allowed safe passage, if and only if he was presented with a handful of peanuts upon my entry.

*Oh, and I got to spend the day with Jane Goodall. 🙂

Here are some links to documentaries about the plight of the chimpanzees (first one is what inspired me to go to the Congo):

‘Project Nim’: A Chimp’s Very Human, Very Sad Life

Real-life ‘Planet of the Apes’ thrives on Monkey Island

Jane Goodall on Chimpanzee Experimentation

You can get more details about the Centre de Rehabilitation des Primates de Lwiro (CRPL) at https://www.lwiroprimates.org/crpl-s-primates

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34 thoughts on “The Send-off : the Democratic Republic of Congo

  1. Wow Brooke. This sounds like a life changing experience. Kudos for opening your heart to these chimps and describing your relationships so poignantly. Thanks for sharing. I don’t know if I could handle the chaos or pain of these chimps, but I’m glad that such a sanctuary exists. Brad

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Brooke. My beautiful friend. I think I just fell in love with you. (Did I just make it weird?) Seriously, since first meeting you I have defined you as a rare soul, and every word I just read proves how right I am. Your heart knows no bounds and your dedication and perseverance to make the world a better place astounds and inspires me. As a passionate animal lover, I couldn’t help but cry when I read your description of the horrific and unimaginable cruelty these magnificent and sensitive creatures have to endure. And for what? For nothing. That’s what. My mind can’t even fathom the savagery and ruthlessness involved in taking the light from their eyes. I can’t process it. But what gives me hope and restores my faith in humanity, is you. Thank God there are selfless people in this world like you and Jane Goodall – those who risk everything to protect the ones who can’t protect themselves. Resistance can seem futile at times when battling evil, but it is so necessary. Resist we must. So, as I sit here on the sidelines, wishing that more would be done to stop the injustice and cruelty in this world, you have reminded me that I can keep wishing or I can do something. And I can’t thank you enough for that. You have also reminded me how lucky I am to have crossed paths with you in this crazy world, because being able to call you, my friend, is something I will forever treasure and not once take for granted. You are a warrior, and I am so very proud of you and your commitment to not give up. My life is much brighter since you came into it, and my heart is a little more full. This post, my friend, is magic. xoxo

    Liked by 3 people

    • Okay. I don’t even know how to begin to respond to this. First off, coming from you, those words go straight to my heart. Second, I can’t help but struggle to take them in. Yes, I am a fighter, I guess a bit of a warrior in the sense that I cannot tolerate injustice and often, but not always, HAVE to do something, anything, to try to fight back and speak for those who have no voice. I vividly remember the moment I decided to fight for these guys. Eric and I were watching a documentary, Project Nim, (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/08/movies/project-nim-about-a-chimpanzee-subjected-to-research-review.html), about a chimp who had been tortured and confined his entire life as a ‘rat’ of sorts in the name of science. (There are so many documentaries. I’ll post some links to a few on the blog, but they are heart-wrenching to watch at times). I sobbed, like gasping for air, snot running down my face sobbing. Eric said he knew at that moment that I was leaving for some crazy attempt to save them. Anyway, you have to know, my intentions are good, but I do it for selfish reasons, too, I guess. I want adventure and extraordinary and to feel like my life means something, that I’m doing something to make an impact. And then I immerse myself in the thick of it and then walk away wondering ‘what the fuck did I do’? I spent 6 months doing what? No idea now. And my level of optimism that they will survive all of the fucking cruelty and utter annihilation of their habitat (especially the gorillas and elephants…and rhinos…on and on), is sometimes so low, I just stop doing anything.
      So while I know I am willing to throw myself in the trenches, and I really do want to save this guys, I guess I wonder if I’m just another lost soul trying to figure out where I belong and using these guys as a means as an end to do that. I know, self-defeating outlook, but that’s how it feels some of the time. Now, be clear, I haven’t given up on them or me, and an elephant sanctuary is next on my list…or maybe a pangolin one. But right now, I need to focus on saving another ‘rare breed’.
      A long-winded way to say, thank you. You make my life brighter on a daily basis, and I think it’s so crazy how the universe places the exact person we need at the exact time we need them.
      You are an inspiration, as well, my girl. So you take THAT in. :o)

      Liked by 2 people

      • You know, pangolin were one of my absolute favourite animals growing up. Hell, they still are. I absolutely hate thinking about all the moronic reasons people come up with to just kill and kill and kill, and hearing that they’ve become critically endangered just about broke what little faith in humanity I had left.
        I’m a bit of a defeatist myself, which is why you won’t find me actively trying to make the world a better place, but I’ll tell you what: if you do end up going to that pangolin sanctuary I just might have to join you. I mean hell, it’s not like I’m doing much else with my life right now.

        Liked by 1 person

      • To do something extraordinary, doesn’t it mean you have to be a little selfish? And the notion that using this experience as a way to find that place you belong was a bad thing, in my opinion, is just so wrong. Your heart led you there, and to hope that it would change you and potentially help you find that place where you could blissfully exist, is the exact reason you should have done it. And you fucking did it, and it changed you. Right? We should all seek that which changes us and connects us with the best version of ourselves. So, I have you seated upon the same pedestal as Jane, because you both selflessly gave everything to not only save them but yourselves. I have mad respect for you both.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I guess you are absolutely right. If we didn’t want to change ourselves and grow, we would be settling for ordinary, right? It did change me, on so many levels, both good and bad, but mostly good. It is most definitely one of those reference points I go to when I think I can’t handle something. It truly was a test of …everything (next to Texas, as crazy as that sounds).
        But lets talk about this Jane and and I part. I gave up 6 months. She has dedicated literally more than half of her life embracing a life that is extraordinary, but has to be very lonely and exhausting. She travels 365 days out of the year, fighting for what most would see as a losing battle, but doing every possible thing she can to make sure it’s not. Speech after interview after book after flight, yet another hotel…I cannot wrap my head around it. I know, I can ‘hear’ you now..Brooke, just take it in”. Okay. Thank you. You are right. I am doing my best to fight for what I believe in and do what I can to have an impact. And although it’s not a competition…I think she might have a few miles on me. ;0). But thank you, my girl. Your faith and belief in me is beyond comprehension. So I promise to push send and sit here and ‘take it in’. Big hug to you, always.

        Liked by 1 person

    • ohh, let’s go! God, I honestly never had seen one before a little over year ago. I’m just fascinated. It just reminded me how much diversity and wildlife there is in the world that we might never know about it if we keep destroying everything. I love that you were exposed to wildlife like these lil’ guys when you were young!! By the way, you ARE doing something with your life right now!!! Maybe not exactly what you want and how you want it, but this is my new approach…what one thing can I do this very moment to make my life how I want it…even if it’s the tiniest thing. It seems so cliche, almost annoying, but it keeps me from revisiting the past and losing the present moment. So every time I get sad (always because of the past) or overwhelmed (which is being too much in the future, for me), then I real it in, breathe, come back to whatever I’m doing or do something different that will make me feel better. God, not that I’m telling you what you should do or how you should feel or think!!! I just understand how that feels, to feel stagnant, or free-falling..so forgive me if I’m way off track and seeming to be on a soapbox!! All just a huge experiment on this end!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Brooke what a heart touching piece of experience and the way you have narrated is simple fantastic, I was feeling as if I was navigating through the scenes along with you, so beautifully captured each such moments and the smaller actions and bigger reaction between you and the chimps.

    I was overwhelmed by this very nuanced presentation of thoughts that passionately moved me ” Goma maneuvered his way into my heart, gripping it tightly with those long, dexterous fingers and filling it up with awe, reverence, heartbreak, and love…” indeed such is the power of relationship between man and animal where we have always unfortunately looked at them as ferocious and harmful and without language and without any feelings which we are more often proven wrong than right.

    We don’t want to accept that reality and we keep looking at them with our jaundiced eyes and keep fighting with them for the space that is meant for both for us to live and co-exist in harmony rather than encroaching their space and capturing them to displace their demarcated space for dwelling and make it ours, and also for our selfish economic benefits doing the unthinkable and we madly start killing them for deriving that economy value which is so inhuman but there are people who keep doing it recklessly and without any guilt or remorse. There is such a paradox and we don’t have an intention to get it aligned…

    Having them in captivity and seeing them play and mingle with us with such joy and fun, we see that how much we presume about their behaviors and their feelings for us. We are all grossly flawed in our analysis and assessment. I can understand the sheer joy you would have discovered just by being with them, sharing your time with them, they want our attention, our affection and observing their life and living a life in the beauty of nature and making nature our family, an extended family we rarely visit in today’s virtual life and so busy in our real life we all pretend to be short of everything and time becomes the biggest casualty and take the pretext not be with nature that truly nurtures our senses.

    I couldn’t put it better the way you have captured these words “They were (and hopefully still are) ornery, silly, loving, intelligent, shameless bundles of joy who taught me the extent to which animals actually feel emotions and love and pain…”

    Thanks Brooke for such intriguing and insightful thoughts into the relationship between us and the animals around us.
    Have a wonderful Sunday!!!
    😀

    Liked by 3 people

    • I always get excited to see your name pop up…every word is such a welcome gift and affirmation that someone is taking in every word and feeling what I hope they will feel. Thank you so much for that. And then, there is the fact that your responses sound like poetry to me…”we keep looking at them with our jaundiced eyes and keep fighting with them for the space that is meant for both for us to live and co-exist in harmony “. So very true.
      I will say this though, Nihar, and I should have included this in my post. Those people doing the capturing, killing and smuggling are in sheer survival mode. Even the ones on the top of the chain, driven my greed and completely exploiting everyone involved and annihilating these guys (and countless other animals) are driven by fear and trauma. I’m so not excusing what they do AT ALL. It is beyond cruel and inhumane. But I did learn this: these people, most of them, have no concept of ‘wildlife conservation, extinction, environmental disasters, etc. They are 100% in the moment, trying to survive, provide for their families, put dinner on the table that night. And yes, I wish they would stop having so many children (religion plays a huge part in that, no question), and not realizing that every tree they chop down is only exasperating their extremely acute and devastating state. The hundreds of thousands of displaced people, refugees, etc. that are eradicating the forests are eroding their soil and depleting all of the resources they so desperately need- medicine, food, fresh water. This is a statistic from 2014 “almost 50 football field-sized areas are destroyed a minute!!! (http://www.borgenmagazine.com/destructive-link-deforestation-poverty/) I can’t imagine that number has done anything but increase. All this tangent to say, every single person is in an all out war with their neighbor (literally in Congo) to fight for the last drop of water or morsel of food. So killing animals, regardless if they are on the verge of extinction, is a welcomed chance to earn more income than they ever could farming or anything else, really. It’s so effing complicated and is rooted in corruption, terrible governance and unfathomable exploitation (yes, 100% started with my/western countries).
      But there are these heroes- Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey, Birute Galdikas (orangutans), Vanessa Woods (Bonobos..so love bonobos!!)…who have/are truly making a difference. I too, succumb to a defeatist outlook at times, but I never stay there. There is always hope until the last one (or two) are gone. So, we do what we can, right? No matter how small, no matter if it is $1 a month to support our favorite organization. we just do whatever we can. So, excuse the novel, but I’m clearly so passionate about this and I found a willing ear to unload on! 🙂
      Thank you so much for tolerating my long-winded answers andfor taking the time you always do to thoughtfully respond!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Brooke you have so subtly dissected the core problem between the man and the animal, life in Congo in such dire state, it is just a case in point and there so many other such places in the world and you have so nicely touched on so many divergent facets which have contributed to this state of conflicting existence. Poverty is one such aspect of human life where he can do anything to fight for his survival and beyond a point we all empathize the state they live their life and how much they struggle to find a meal for their family and yes they have a big family, there is so much dichotomy why they produce so many children when they don’t have the means and resources to feed them. Though they may be looking for work to earn and support their families but the bigger question is where are works and what is the government doing or does the government has any power and intent to do anything for the betterment of the people at large or fighting for the power and losing everything they have that can otherwise get channelized for building a better society.

        For people stuck in deep poverty and fighting for basic survival, and those political people fighting for their own power…can give little time for wild life conservation and protection of nature which in term protection them, they just take things for granted and they are desperate and they do everything in their own self interest, they have to survive first and it is not an one time affair, it is day in and day out struggle, the cycle of survival continues and they are caught in this survival conundrum of life….perhaps this is the life of people in Congo.

        50 football sized ares are destroyed every minute…this figure is staggering and difficult to fathom the damage we are all inflicting on mother earth and unmindful of the permanent change we are bringing onto the landscape which will leave a big scar on the face of mother earth, whom to blame and what do we leave for the next generation. There is no doubt that the direct correlation between poverty and deforestation, and we have enough empirical data to prove that impending problem faced by us, and we keep harping on the same and many are just overlooking the magnitude of the problem, and unless and until all of us and in our own little way as rightly pointed, even $1 a month can make a difference, and so truly all big changes have happened through these cumulative efforts of small initiatives where one or few people have take it on them to protect the animals, preserve the nature and build a bridge between the animals and man to peacefully co-exist, and for that they have tried their best to alleviate poverty and create that awareness amongst poor people the need for nature conservation and how their life can improve with a proper engagement with the nature.

        These problems are not small in nature and these problems are not localized but widely spread across and we just cannot resolve it easily as it may appears to be but what makes us feel confident that the change it is bringing with few people who are motivated and who have understood the root cause and are committed to building a better world for tomorrow, and it is the force of hope that is there and constantly giving the power to support those initiatives and movement to cover the larger landscape of the world…

        Brooke, it is such a pleasure sharing such profound thoughts and having such enriching exchange of ideas and love our conversations.
        Have a lovely week ahead and take care!!!
        😀

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Well first of all thank you for the shoutout, and for indulging me in my request. As for the rest: fantastic. I look forward to reading more about this as I continue through your archives, but man, what a great post! It made me happy, it made me sad, it made me laugh, and it almost made me cry.
    My eyes teared up reading about your goodbye, and not just because the subject matter was emotional. You write with such emotion! Your words guide me through the story, put me in your shoes. And the photos- lovely. So incredibly cool. I’m so glad I asked. And Jane Goodall! Wow! What was she like?
    And, of course, I commend you for your support of such a worthy cause and for raising even more awareness now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, thank you for inspiring me to recount my time with Kongo and the other crazy chimps. That came out of nowhere as I posted the pictures. And it makes me so happy that it affected you as it did. I just write what I feel and never know if the words will transition off the paper into something people can feel and experience. I’m glad you were able to be join me. 🙂
      Jane, well, as you might imagine, she is an amazing presence- such a small, soft-spoken, humble woman who’s essence is larger than life. And I’ll tell you, when you see her transform the minute she is in the presence of a chimpanzee, the way they immediately embrace her…it’s magical. There is just no other way to describe it. So, I feel very blessed to have met her. It was so completely random and coincidental that she happened to visit while I was there…just such a dream come true.
      Thanks for your kind words and heartfelt response, as always. Are you back from your sabbatical yet?! ;o)

      Liked by 1 person

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