The Smell of a Memory

They say that smells are a powerful trigger for memories. If this is the case, I can’t say that I am terribly excited about recalling my time here. This is not to say that I will not have good memories, I am just not particularly fond of the smells that might encourage them- the acrid smoke of burning trash, overwhelming body odors that seem to linger, even in the absence of bodies, acidic smell of overripe fruit stings as I to breathe in. I am certain that there are more pleasant scents that greet me throughout the day, but they seem to be snuffed out by the present tense.

Nothing, however, can compete with my walk to work.

Our office is located in the Natural Science Research Center- a hauntingly beautiful memory of colonization, consisting of several simplistic yet imposing buildings linked together by long arching corridors that cluster around small, open-air patios. Despite the obvious state of decay, it is a huge source of pride for the locals and attracts visitors and high-level officials from all over the country. It truly is a beautiful place to walk to every morning…until you hit the hallway leading to our office.

Being a ‘research center’ in a remote area of a developing country necessitates a certain collage of accompanying smells that seems to be as much as part of the building as its white-washed walls. Most of the time all of the doors that line the halls are locked, (the government has still not agreed to pay their workers in full, thus the workers are not working) but every once in a while a door is left ajar and you get a peek at why you have opted to stop breathing out of your nose; various animal appendages and skeletons decorate the walls, piles of stuffed furry creatures cover the shelves with jars of what is most likely their former contents scattered throughout. A jolting combination of old fur, mothballs, decaying flesh and formaldehyde mock any admirable attempts of fresh air to pass through the dark, musty hallways.

Luckily, six months of daily exposure has rendered this aromatic concoction as normal to my senses as the screams of chimps that fly through the window of my office. There is, however, one final component that has proven a bit more difficult to embrace; our office is located right next to the bathroom. In normal circumstances, this would seem to be a convenient perk, except that this bathroom has no running water. To ‘flush’ one has to walk over to the neighboring office, fill up a bucket with water, walk back to the bathroom and drowned out the contents. That is the process. No one does it. I will leave the resulting odor to your imagination.

Interestingly enough, my path home is a welcomed journey back to one of my favorite adventures. I have yet to figure out the source, but there is a long stretch of bushes that fills the air with the smell of orange blossoms. I am instantly transported to Sevilla, Spain in the Spring of 1998- Flamenco music spilling into the streets, the taste of Manzanilla wine on my tongue and the sweet scent of orange blossoms making sure that I never forget.
Maybe my next trip to Spain will take me back to the fall of 2013 in Lwiro, DRC.

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The revised version, SOS from the Jungles of Congo, can be found here.


I never expected that my biggest challenge in the Congo would be a white woman from Spain.

Although I have tried to spare you all the endless rants about the reality of trying to navigate one of the most tumultuous relationships that I have ever encountered (which happens to involve the same person with whom I spend every waking hour- who dictates what and how much I eat, when and if I can leave the extremely restricted area where I live and work, how much second-hand smoke I will be inhaling in the span of a day, if I will be granted access to the internet or electricity, and whether or not I will be the lucky recipient to serve as an outlet for her anger originating from any number of sources on a given day). Below offers a glimpse into my experience at a weak moment of a particularly trying day after an exceptionally grueling week that makes up a seemingly endless string of months enduring an impossible situation.

Rocket Flare

I often envision myself setting one off, seen from a birds-eye view, catapulting out of the green blanket of trees like a frantic, directionally-challenged shooting star, alerting some sympathetic flyers-by that there is an overzealous crusader trapped in the forgotten trenches of Congo, held prisoner by a manic, abusive, parasitic white woman who exists solely on cigarettes and the souls of those around her, exhaling an endless stream of smoke that masks the toxic force that slowly, methodically extinguishes the essence of the unfortunate victims who have unknowingly landed in her inescapable web, kept alive enough to quell her appetite while they and their fellow crusaders are whittled down to an empty shell of their former selves, resigned to their inevitable fate, forgetting the passion they once had to fight for their cause…or even what that cause was.

A side note:
This woman does, in fact, have some redeeming, even admirable qualities. Perhaps- on a different day, on a different continent, far removed from the day of my departure, when I can bask in my strength of character and proven resilience- I will remember what they are.

A storm’s a-brewin’ (and we’re all in the same ‘boue’)

Warning: this one gets a little messy.

The Congo adventure continues…


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A storm’s a-brewin’

When I first arrived, DRC was in the thick of its dry season. Just looking over the fields would elicit thirst-  a dull brown backdrop of cultivated plots with little to offer but dried out crops scorched by the relentless sun.

Tragically, deforestation has rendered the ‘forest’ a sparse collection of trees, most of which have acquiesced to the parched color du jour, extinguishing any thought of moisture.

And then the rains came.

Almost daily, around three in the afternoon, dark, ominous clouds start to roll in, a deceptive calm awaiting their arrival. Everything is still, just a light breeze dancing in the trees, slowly gaining momentum that elicits long, languid backbends from the palm branches towering above.

Soon, an eerie darkness settles in. In a matter of seconds, the clouds unleash with a ferocity I’ve never experienced. A barrage of raindrops pummels the roof, drowning out all other sounds…until the lightning joins in. The entire sky lights up while I hold my breath, waiting for the thunder to come crashing down. It’s as exhilarating as it is terrifying. But the reward is worth the terror.

The parched landscape has transformed into a decadent patchwork of emerald, lime, and avocado greens. There is still brown, however. Only now, it’s a rich chocolate brown that covers everything.

And there is no escaping it.

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La Boue (mud)

The dust that used to make its way into every possible crack and crevice has been replaced with a pasty, relentless, dark clay that consumes most of my day. I am either trying to maneuver my way through it without slipping or searching for any available surface to scrape it off my shoes, only to step right back in it. When I finally reach safe grounds, I have to deal with the dried up remnants trailing behind me- in my office, my house, my sheets. Chunks of mud are forever finding their way into my socks, shoes, drawers, books…a bit more intrusive than its dusty counterpart.

This seasonal intruder doesn’t appear to relent to experience or adaptation: local farmers on their way to the fields, women on their way to church, children on their way to school. Even the goats roaming about tread lightly.

We are all its victims, taking every opportunity to scrape it off the souls of our shoes. Some continue on, letting the layers build up. Others give up and carry on barefoot. But no one escapes its unmerciful grasp…and it seems we are all in the same ‘boue’.

You can support all the work the sanctuary does to protect these amazing souls by donating here.

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Women and Goats


“The Greatest of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

I saw this quote when I first arrived and have had some time to ponder its application. And, although I believe Gandhi was correct, I think that that he missed another important barometer for the moral evolution of a nation- the treatment of women. Is it not often the case that a society’s need to exert power of those deemed less valuable, worthy, strong, etc. often correlates with a lack of compassion for or value of animals?

Unfortunately, I cannot help but see such a correlation here in the DRC, especially in the more isolated, rural area where I live. I simply refuse to consume goat or pig (or cows for that matter), as I see too many of them tied by their neck with a short rope to whatever can hold them down, carried around with their legs bound, forced to ride on the back of a moto and dragged behind their master by a rope tied to one leg. All of the chimps seeking refuge at the sanctuary experienced similar treatment, if not worse, and rhinos and elephants have been slaughtered to near extinction. Only 4 white rhinos remain in the wild here and an estimated 5,100 (or 75 percent) of elephants have been killed over the last 15 years in what is considered the ‘best protected park in the DRC’. (see reference link below). The gorillas have suffered a similar fate.

When I pass all the women on the way to the fields, hauling 3 times their weight in wood, sugarcane, potatoes or bananas, I can’t help but think of the goats. Although the ‘proverbial rope’ that keeps them bound and subjugated is not motivated by hunger or survival, but by over a century of oppression, fear, stupidity and a distorted interpretation and influence of religion. I can’t help but wonder if animals actually have more value here than women, as I often see small herds of cows (a symbol of wealth here) and they are never used to transport heavy cargo like the wives of their owners.

Every women here in Lwiro is addressed as “Mama”. Why? Because that is her identity. In fact, after a woman has her first baby, her name forever changes to the name of that baby, such as “Mama Patrick”. (this made me laugh out loud when I realized that my name would forever be “Mama Biscuit”) The second question I am asked by men, after, “Are you married?”, is “How many children do you have?” I am simply dismissed when I explain that I am not sure if I will have any. One man I spoke with last week was so concerned about my fate that he offered to give me one of his children. When I asked him how his wife might feel about this, he explained, “No problem, I have 5 others”. I opted to change the subject.

But this is the norm here. In fact, of the dozens of men that I have met, each of them proudly declares that he has an average of 5 children. When I respond with “wow, that’s a lot”, the typical response is, “Yes, here in the Congo, we have lots of children”. When I dare to ask why, the normal response is a shrug and, “that is just what we do here”. I refrain from questioning their involvement in the “have’ part and complementing them on how good they look for someone who has given birth to 6 children.

I think we can safely say that in the present context my limited capacity to speak the language has kept me in good graces here.

And who exactly takes care of these children? The same person who I see planting, harvesting and preparing the food, washing the clothes, fetching the water, hauling the huge loads of produce to sell at the market… and it is not the ‘man of the house’ (who I often see sitting idly with his neighbors, watching the world…and women go by.) Out of all of the 30 guys that I work with (all of whom are married and have 4-6 children), I have never met any of their wives, except one woman who came up to the sanctuary to sell her produce. They are not invited to any gatherings and most likely have no say in whether or not their husbands decide to go hang out with the “muzungo” instead of coming home to help with the chores.

I actually think this passage in Facing the Congo best sums up the antiquated philosophy here concerning women:

Congolese: “Your woman don’t know the meaning of respect…they don’t even want to have babies.”

American visiting Congo: “Not all women want to have babies.”

Congolese: Then why in God’s name are they on this earth? God put them here to multiply. Here we have a lot of children. Some are weak and will die, others are strong and will live. But it’s God’s will that women have a lot of babies, as many babies as possible.”

American: “Why not have one or two children and try to give them everything, instead of having seven or eight and hoping the strong will make it?”

Congolese: “Because we are on this earth to have children, I’m telling you! It’s God command!”

I certainly do not claim to have an in-depth understanding of this country and the origins of male chauvinism that prevails here. I also recognize that mine is a culturally biased perspective based on a very limited understanding of the inconceivable suffering, oppression, poverty, cruelty and devastation that the people here have endured. Such relentless violence, poverty and injustice is bound to manifest itself in a vicious fight for power, exploiting the most vulnerable and stripping life of its value and humanity. Ben Rawlence spoke to this in his book, Radio Congo:

“The residue of colonialism has engendered cruelty, brutality and a lack of confidence in any African achievement or even any African idea of humanity. What is it to be a man? Only money?” If there is no money, then the next mechanism for control on the food chain is power- dominion over those deemed less powerful- which from what I have seen is women, children and animals.

Be very clear, I am holding on to my stones very tightly. The glass house that is my birthplace has yet to demonstrate equality on multiple fronts; education, wealth and privilege, even democratic values does not an equal and just society make. As for our treatment of animals; The U.S. is the last remaining country (besides the African country of Gabon) to use chimpanzees for biomedical research on a large-scale- nearly 1,000 of them are still being imprisoned in biomedical facilities throughout our country (see link below for reference). The inhumane industrial-style animal raising used by most American farmers completely violates any thought of respect for animal welfare- pumping any animal fit for mass consumption with hormones, steroids and whatever other chemicals necessary to speed up production, add unnatural girth and counter the sickness and disease resulting from horrific living conditions. Slowly, progress is being made, but just like in the Congo, economic gain still reigns king.

Is there hope? I suppose if I didn’t believe so, I wouldn’t be here. I think it all comes down to cultivating, one by one, our collective humanity and taking action. So, I will leave you with one last quote from perhaps the best source of inspiration for both women and those advocating for the rights and protection of animals- Jane Goodall.

“Cruelty is surely the very worst of human sins…if only we could overcome cruelty with compassion we should be well on the way to creating a new and boundless ethic-one that would respect all living beings. We should be at the threshold of a new era in human evolution-the realization, at last, of our most unique quality: humanity.”

Casualties of the Trade

Kathe found in a village, 2009

I suppose this is a good time to explain more about why I am here….the whole ‘saving the chimps’ part that I have hardly addressed.


Why DRC?

There have been volumes written on the conflict here, it’s origins and implications. To spare you the dissertation, here is the conflict and its environmental effects in a tiny nutshell:

“In 1994, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled into DRC following the Rwandan civil war and genocide, settling in forest areas throughout the east including in KBNP. This destabilized the already fragile Zairian government, plunging the country into civil war and humanitarian crisis. Refugees, internally displaced people and numerous armed groups placed enormous pressure on DRC’s forests through uncontrolled hunting, harvesting of wood for fuel, habitat conversion for farmland, timber extraction and mining”  – IUCN, 2012. Grauer’s Gorillas and Chimpanzees in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

Although the country is now categorized as ‘post-conflict’, the crisis continues and you can imagine how this has impacted the already endangered primate population in the country. This is even more alarming considering that DRC is the only country in the world where the Grauer’s Gorilla and Bonobo can be found. Although data collection has been almost impossible due to the ongoing conflict, it is estimated that that the Grauer’s Gorilla population (between 2,000 and 10,000) has declined by 50-75% over the last decade. The Eastern Chimpanzee, though more numerous than the Grauer’s Gorilla, is also in danger of extinction, and the remaining Bonobo population is estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000.

What is happening to the great apes?

The main threats to the chimpanzees and gorillas in the DRC are poaching; massive forest degradation from human expansion, logging and mining activities; and infectious diseases spread by the hundreds of thousands of displaced people, refugee populations and militia groups that have infiltrated the protected parks. However, it is the illegal bushmeat and pet trade that is the main culprit of their rapidly declining numbers. Tracked down by dogs, the adults of the group are killed for meat to be eaten or sold in markets. The infants, if they survive, are then sold as pets locally and abroad. It is estimated that for every one or chimpanzee or bonobo that arrives at a sanctuary, 5-10 others have died in the process. The Gorilla death rate is much higher due to how susceptible infant gorillas are to stress and illness; one sanctuary in Congo reported that 80% of rescued infants died in captivity. This is in addition to the two parents (and other group members) that inevitably died in the process. IUCN documented that the Congolese authorities and its partners have confiscated 16 Grauer’s gorilla infants from military and civilian society since 2003; this is an extremely low number indicating that hundreds, possibly thousands of baby gorillas died in the process or were successfully shipped out of the country. All 55 chimpanzees at our sanctuary alone were rescued from the bushmeat and pet trade, and we are one of three sanctuaries in the country…so do the math. 

Why would someone eat a gorilla or chimp?

Because they are hungry. The average household here has anywhere from 5-8 children, and three in five of its over 60 million people live on less than $1.25 (£0.80) per day. For the refugees, militia groups and rural communities living in and around the forests,  meat is meat, whether it be an antelope, monkey, chimpanzee. For them, it is not a conservation issue or conscious decision to terminate a species, it is simply food for their families. If a chimp or gorilla is too small to provide meat, then everyone knows that the infant can be sold for a decent price, again food for their families.

Who exactly is buying these animals?

Locally, it is primarily the ex-pats working in these countries (the UN operation in DRC, MONUSCO, is one of the main perpetrators), military, wealthy officials or mineral tycoons and larger scale traffickers, for a start. The illegal great ape trade is no different than the drug trade, and they often go hand in hand; there are various tiers, players and profit margins involved that range from local hunters to large-scale international cartels. The poacher or middle man usually earns substantially less than the guy at the top, who can earn up to $40,000 for each gorilla. When you stop and think about how often you have seen a chimp out of its natural environment- in a movie or tv show, at a circus, as a photo op on the beach or amusement park, at a zoo or safari park…Michael Jackson’s little friend- all of these animals were hunted, captured, smuggled or traded and shipped off, except for those that were ‘bred in captivity’, of course (and you know where I stand on that issue). For these people, it is not a question of survival. The decision to capture or purchase an animal from the wild is a calculated, self-serving decision that will ultimately result in a miserable, abused animal trapped in a cage or chained to a tree.

The realities of the trade (cited in IUCN source listed above):

In 2006, a drug dealer was arrested in Cameroon with 50 kilo of marijuana, cocaine and a baby chimpanzee wedged between two sacks in the boot of his car. He confessed to regularly trading primates and employing at least five poachers to hunt them.

Since 2007, pending requests from zoos and private owners in Asia instigated the export of over 130 chimpanzees and 10 gorillas from Guinea. This transaction, using false permits, was only possible  through an established, well-coordinated network across Central and West Africa.

In 2010, 69 chimpanzees had left the country with valid CITES permits, declaring the animals captive-bred, all shipped off to Chinese zoos or safari parks. There is no captive-breeding facility in Guinea, but there are export routes established by Chinese ‘development’ companies. It is estimated that as many as 138 chimpanzees and 10 gorillas have been shipped to China using these routes, and these are only the ones that were reported.

Between 2005 and 2011, only 27 arrests related to the great ape trade were made in Africa and Asia combined. One-fourth of these arrests were never prosecuted.

The New Normal

ImageGoing to bed at 8pm

Waiting until the chimps stop screaming to finish my sentence

Finishing a book a week

Walking into a dark room and trying to locate the flashlight before even bothering to turn on the light switch

Inspecting all clothes and shoes for spiders before getting dressed

Speaking 3 different languages in a day

Knowing what day of the week it is based on whether there is cabbage or a pile of beans on my plate

Passing cows, goats and men with machetes on my way to work

Sharing the dinner table with 5 cats

Dousing myself with Deet instead of scented lotion

Missing my boys

Bathing with a bucket

Beans and Bananas

Being stared at…constantly

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 anesthetized, 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.