24 Hours in Bukavu: Part I


After a month and a half in the bush, I decided it was time for a break. As often happens in situations like this, I became fast friends with a woman, Sylvie, who visited Carmen a few weeks ago. She is the director of conservation for Kahuzi-Biega, the national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site where CRPL is located. We instantly clicked and she invited me to visit her in Bukavu, the closest city to Lwiro. I was a bit hesitant to take her up on the offer, primarily because she is moving to Tanzania in July and I did not want inconvenience her. I was also dreading the thought of making the trek there by bus, which I imagined to be a long, hot, exhausting affair. The closest village to Lwiro is Kuvumu, which is only about 7 Kilometers away. But the only available mode of transportation to Kuvumu is by moto and the road is a brutal collection of deep rivets, enormous potholes and large, loose rocks; the whole ordeal takes over half an hour to conquer and this is only the first leg of the entire journey. However, the thought of a hot delicious meal (ex-pat style), wine and good company trumped my reservations and two weeks later, I was on the back of Obe’s moto (my new friend and ‘chauffer’) on my way to the ‘big city’. I was already sweating in the mid-day heat as I clung to Obe’s thick down jacket, which he wears faithfully regardless of the temperature. He agreed to drop me off at the ‘bus stop’ in Kuvumu, which turned out to be a row of old cars parked on the side of the road. He led me over to a man leaning against one of the cars that in any other context might have been mistaken for scrap metal. Obe assured me, “This is much better than ‘le bus’…”much faster, much better”. I deducted that this was the ‘official’ taxi service to the city, a process that entails waiting as long as it takes to fill any random car way beyond its intended capacity. “What the hell?” I declared in English. “When in Congo…” The back seat was already occupied by one poor woman who was smashed between two large, very well-fed men. The driver informed me that he would grant me the opportunity to claim ownership of the entire front seat for an extra 2,000 Francs (less than $2), or we could wait to find another passenger to sit on my lap. I tried to seem casual as I quickly rummaged through my bag, praying that I could locate the extra 2,000 before my potential travel companion was spotted. An hour later, front seat all to myself, we approached our destination. Lake Kivu dominated the view, expansive and tranquil, inhabited by only a few men in pirogues retrieving their nets from the murky water. But any sense of calm was instantly consumed by the cacophony of competing noises that bombarded the senses – relentless car horns, excited chatter from hundreds of vendors lining the road, herds of goats emphatically expressing their reluctance to follow orders, a haze of chalky dust making its way into the car accompanied by a steady stream of smoke from the piles of burning trash. The intoxicating beat of Congolese music spilling out of the radio served as the perfect soundtrack to capture the colorfully staged, frenetic scene. I caught a glance of myself in the review mirror, a huge smile firmly in place.

Welcome to Bukavu.


IMG_0519Mind you, I am NOT a germaphobe. In the states, I probably take more liberties than most with the various bacteria hiding out on bathroom doorknobs, kitchen counters and recycled water bottles.  And, I’m sure I have raised a few eyebrows with my disregard for the consequences of rescuing a  savory morsel that managed to escape my plate and land on the floor. I always chalked it up to my super powered immune system, which is inundated with a steady flow of vitamin and probiotic supplements. After all, I rarely get sick, so no need to lather myself up with copious amounts of anti-bacterial gel; I have an army of antibodies ready for battle. I also recognize that there is a tendency in the U.S. to over-sanitize, purify, and pasteurize  every last molecule that resides in anything fit for consumption until is hardly a memory of its natural state.

So, armed with my normal dose of vitamins, I felt prepared to fully embrace the conditions I imagined would be inherent in a remote area in the DRC. Let’s just say that I have definitely found myself a bit hesitant, (or perhaps panicked is a better word) to ingest the contents that are often placed before me. For starters, soap is a bit hard to come by. I can usually conjure something  up in the main house, usually the dish soap in the kitchen. For the workers, however, it is not so readily available. It is a luxury item here (along with toilet paper), so it is kept locked up in a cupboard. Each morning, Christophe scoops out a specific amount that is weighed on a scale and then distributed to the workers for their daily shower (which is taken here on the grounds). As far as I have seen, washing the dishes, at least in the Sanctuary, (where are lunch is prepared) entails an extremely weathered scrub brush and tap water.

The drinking water is boiled, but then stored in plastic water bottles, which held their initial fresh, purified contents a very long, long time ago. You know the smell, the water bottle that you refilled a couple of times, then left in your gym bag for a while, then opened it and decided against it. I’ve found it best just to shut off my senses and chug.

Then there is the issue of electricity. We have none. This means that the refrigerator now serves as more of a bug and cat deterrent, rather than a means to cool and preserve  perishable items. I refrained from trying to explain my loss of appetite when Carmen offered me the leftover chicken from two nights before…I just couldn’t do it and have since declared myself as a reborn vegetarian. This better serves my conscience as well as my stomach. Although the treatment of the animals is no worse here than in the states, it is much more exposed and simply too close to home.

Alas, I have just finished my first round of antibiotics, taken a break from my carnivorous tendencies and made my bottle of anti-bacterial gel my new constant companion.

The System

CRPL’s office is housed at the Research Center for Natural Sciences, a government-run organization that founded CRPL (the sanctuary) and  donates our land and facilities. Apparently, ‘the Directors’  of the center have been pocketing a portion of workers’ salaries, (which is only a $100/month, if that). Fed up, all 800 workers rallied a  strike, which has lasted  for two months with no end in sight. Tensions have been building since I have been here, with frequent demonstrations in the courtyard. I assumed that the strike had little impact on CRPL, since our relatively small staff of 32 has continued working. What I didn’t realize was that our staff is also supposed to be paid by the research center, a promise that has not been delivered for 7 years! This means that CRPL has been paying all of the salaries and medical care for all staff members since its inception. As it stands right now, we only have enough funds to cover three months of food for the animals, with no new funding on the horizon. It is a constant battle between finding the funds to pay to workers who feed the animals, and finding the funds to feed the animals. And, since the research center will not pay their workers and the workers refuse to work, the offices are closed and there is no electricity (it’s also been out throughout the entire area for over two months…curious). CRPL has been supplying the gasoline necessary for the generator (which is crazy expensive, about $6.80/gallon) so that we can continue our work.

So, in short, the directors are robbing the workers, the workers have stopped working  and receiving their full paychecks, and yet, YET, ‘the officials’ have issued the revival of the ‘annual census’ (which has not happened in 8 years). This means that every single person employed here has to pay a fee and provide copies of their identification cards and paperwork to present to ‘the officials’. If they don’t provide the documents, they don’t exist, nor will their salaries (if they ever get reinstated), period. However, since the government has yet to fix the broken power line, refuses to pay for the gas to fuel the generator and will not provide a service to facilitate the census, all 800 of them came to our  office to make their copies!

At around 8am, people began trickling in to use the copy machine. Word got out, and within half an hour, hundreds of people began flooding the halls and pushing their way into our already over-crowded office…chaos ensued. I sat frozen at my desk, not having a clue as to what was happening, nor the capacity to communicate and try to help.  Carmen finally regained control of the situation and thus commenced the excruciating process of calling in all 800 workers, one by one, requesting their necessary documents and making copies of each. Nervous chatter-an indiscernible mixture of Swahili and French, varying degrees of body odor and the scent of an overused printer cartridge permeated every inch  of the room. And there I sat, silent, for 5 hours, my bladder on the verge of exploding, which at the time seemed a better option than pushing my way through a mass of hot, irritable, hungry, unemployed workers.


First day in the sanctuary


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…

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.