SOS from the Jungles of Congo

For those of you who have been following my adventures in Congo (first one starts here), we are approaching the end. After reading the excerpt below, you might understand why, at that point, I was counting the days until my escape…literally.

For the last 2 months, the calendar on my wall served as an anchor to my sanity. I became obsessed with finding new ways to break down the months into weeks, the weeks into days, and the days into hours.

For example, every Wednesday for lunch, beans were served with cabbage instead of the usual plantains.

I only have to eat beans and cabbage 8 more times before I get to go home.

Besides my 24-hour excursion to Bukavu (read more about that lil’ adventure here) and when Eric swept me off to Uganda for 2 weeks (which literally saved my soul), I was pretty much confined to my house and the sanctuary.

I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere by myself due to safety restrictions, especially after dark. I also wasn’t supposed to wear skirts; women’s legs have to remain covered…although no one seems to know why.

So, as my tiny act of rebellion, every Saturday night after the sun went down, I would put on my only skirt and sneak over to the hotel next door and have a beer…exposed legs and all.

I’ll only sneak out in my skirt 7 more times before I get to go home. 

Another survival tactic was keeping a regimented workout schedule. Thankfully, my room was spacious enough that I could work out on the days I didn’t run with the boys (read about those lil’ adventures here)- So, running on Monday/Wednesday/Fridays, Bar Method video on Tuesday/Thursdays, circuit training every Saturday, Yoga on Sundays…

I’ll only do Downward Dog in this room 6 more times before I get to go home.

Yes, there were pockets of fun throughout the day. I loved the staff and, of course, the chimps. But the circumstances and treatment I had to endure had worn me down. And I missed my boys terribly (Eric and Biscuit)…and my freedom.

I was ready to go home.

I’ll only have to sit across from her and inhale her smoke for another month, 7 days and 10 hours…


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SOS

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

I have tried to spare you the details of trying to navigate one of the most tumultuous relationships I’ve ever experienced (which happens to involve the same person who dictates what and how much I get to eat; if I can leave the area I’m confined to; when I get to use the internet; how much second-hand smoke I will be inhaling a day; and whether or not I will serve as an outlet for her random bouts of anger originating from any number of sources on a given day).

Below is a glimpse of a weak moment, during an exceptionally trying day, at the end of a grueling week…that pretty much sums up six months of enduring an impossible situation.

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I often envision myself setting one off, seen from a birds-eye view, catapulting out of the 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 the Congo, held prisoner by an abusive, parasitic woman who exists solely on souls and cigarettes, exhaling an endless stream of poison that slowly, methodically extinguishes the essence of those who have unknowingly landed in her web, kept alive just enough to quell her appetite as she whittles them down to an empty shell of their former selves, forcing them to resign the passion they once had for the cause they were fighting for, leaving them questioning whether anything is worth fighting for at all…

A side note:
This woman does, in fact, have some redeeming, even admirable qualities. Perhaps, on a day far removed from this one, I will remember what they are.

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What happens when you stay up past your bedtime… and you can’t speak Swahili (revisited)

Okay friends, I know this is a repeat, but I just got back from vacation and the reality of what I have to pull off in the next 3 days. (Just minor things…roof over my head, money to pay for said roof…job to provide money to pay for roof over my head. Don’t worry, I’ll pull it off, I always do…but my creative juices are a bit stifled at the moment).

So, since this is, in fact, another Congo adventure, I thought I would recycle it for those who missed it the first time…or for those who just want to laugh again at the ridiculous shit I get myself into…

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Saving Lwiro

I was only one month into my 6-month stint working at the chimpanzee sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite the fact that everything I was seeing and doing on a daily basis was on the verge of surreal, I was confined to a very small area (given the whole ‘conflict/tail end of civil war’ thing) and my daily routine was already getting a bit monotonous.

Although I am an introvert through and through, my only options for companionship were my limited encounters with the chimps, awkward charade-like exchanges with the staff (French/Swahili speakers) and way too much time spent with my cantankerous Spanish-speaking supervisor. I was becoming increasingly desperate for civil, grammatically-correct, ‘I can actually crack a joke’ conversation.

I seriously started considering my exit strategy when I found out two women were coming to volunteer for a month. The thought of late-night talks, belly laughs and an occasional sounding board for said cantankerous boss quickly overrode all introverted tendencies, and I began counting the days. Not surprisingly, we were all close in age and cut from the same cloth (it’s a rare breed that decides up and moving to the Congo to save the chimps seems like a good idea), and it was immediately apparent that getting ourselves into trouble was not going to be a problem.

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No big deal…just taking a stroll with Jane Goodall.

Typically, our work day started at 6:30am and ended around 4:30pm. Dinner was served at 5, and we had all usually ‘showered’ (in a tub/bucket kind of way) and eaten by 5:30.

Since we weren’t supposed to leave our house after dinner, this left a good chunk of time to entertain ourselves with very limited options; there was no electricity, we were usually too exhausted to read by candlelight, and going to bed before 8pm was simply torture. So most evenings were spent sitting around a candle on the porch, chatting, sipping beer or tea and periodically challenging each other to guess how much longer we had until our self-imposed bedtime of 8:30…because come on, who goes to bed before 8:30?

It was 8:30 on the dot. We had just blown out the candle and headed inside to get ready for bed. The girls went to their room, then immediately came running back out saying there was a fire outside their window. They jetted outside while I fumbled around in the dark trying to find my lantern, which had conveniently disappeared, yet again.

By the time I emerged, the girls were nowhere to be seen. I proceeded to run up the stairs to the gate and ran into Valentine, one of the night staff. Usually, when I’m in panic mode, the only thing that comes out of my mouth is English (Spanish on a good day). But this time, the words flew out effortlessly (thanks to the trusty French podcast I listened to each morning while preparing the chimps’ breakfast.)

Tu sens ca? il y a un feu! (Do you smell that? There’s a fire!)

His eyes widened and he threw open the gate, taking off in a sprint. I silently congratulated myself for my mastery of the French language, translating his urgent response and subsequent actions to, Yes, Natalie, I do smell a fire. We should go immediately and put it out!

And with that, I was off to save Lwiro from its fiery fate.

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Everything up to this point seemed completely logical- there was a fire and we were running toward it to put it out. But when we got to the fire, Valentine stopped abruptly, took a sharp turn to the left and lept into the forest. So I did what any insane woman in the heart of Africa would do.

I dove in after him.

This is a good time to point out that I had seen Valentine on a daily basis since my arrival. He was a sweet, soft-spoken older man who always had a smile on his face.  And although our conversation never progressed beyond the usual ‘ca va?, Oui, ca va bien’, he was one of my favorites.

So as ludicrous as it sounds, I never questioned my safety when diving into the depths of the jungle to follow Valentine. I did, however, question my sanity when I realized that I was sprinting through the depths of the jungle with no lantern and no clue as to where we were going or why.  And all I could think about were the millions of hungry, venomous predators I was pissing off as I stomped on top of them trying to get to wherever we were going as quickly as possible.

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Before I knew it, Valentine was long gone, and I could see nothing other than thick, green vegetation closing in around me. The reality of being lost in the jungles of Congo with my extremely challenged sense of direction jolted me into survival mode. I screamed out at the top of my lungs… at the very moment that I ran smack into Valentine.

Completely disoriented and beyond traumatized, it took me a few seconds to gather myself and realize we were both staring straight at Susan… who was standing on my back porch.

She immediately burst out laughing, “Where the hell did you come from? We have been looking for you for the past fifteen minutes!”  

“Wait, what? Fifteen minutes? I don’t know what the hell you two have been doing, but Valentine and I have been chasing someone for hours! Athough I’m not sure who…or why.

And did anyone manage to put out the fucking fire?”

The light of day…

There was no fire. The neighbors were burning trash like they did almost every day. Although in our defense, we had never seen them do it at night, and it in no way resembled a harmless ‘we are just burning trash’ fire.

And as it turns out, my flawless execution of French was all for not. Most of the older workers communicate mainly in Swahili and know very little French if any. Valentine most likely saw the panicked white woman flailing about, pointing toward the forest, and assumed I’d seen some dangerous intruder.

And as for my near brush with death in the bush? I was actually in my own backyard, no further than a quarter of a mile from our back porch.

Lessons learned

Not a terrible idea to learn a few ‘could save your life’ phrases in the local language

Keep flashlight/lantern attached to your person at all times

No going out past bedtime

You can donate directly to the sanctuary here to support all the work that goes into protecting the chimps and other wildlife in danger of extinction. 

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Down & dirty in the Congo…germs included.

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Be clear, I’m not a germaphobe.

In the states, I probably take more liberties than most with the various bacteria lurking on doorknobs, kitchen counters and community peanut bowls. I’m sure I’ve raised a few eyebrows when I fail to skip a beat before rescuing a precious morsel from the floor that fell off my plate.

Cringe if you must, but I’ve always had a resilient immune system, which I credit to the steady flow of all things vitamins and minerals I try to consume…and the threat of having to stay in bed all day if I do get sick, which I rarely do. So why dowse myself with copious amounts of anti-bacterial gel?

So off to the Congo I went, armed with my super-human immune system and a solid supply of vitamin supplements, fully prepared to embrace any unsavory bacteria strings I might encounter in the jungles of Africa.

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…Let’s just say, since my arrival, I’ve found myself a bit hesitant to ingest the contents on my plate…or breathe in, really.

The reality is, soap is a luxury item here (as is toilet paper). The only cleansing option available is a toxic-looking, soap-esque powder that’s locked up in the sanctuary office.

Each morning, Christophe scoops out a small portion on a scale, scribbles down the exact weight, and then distributes it to the workers for their daily shower. (It seems counter-intuitive to shower before you are going to do hard-core labor for 8 plus hours, but it’s to protect the chimps and monkeys from germs).

Beyond that, the only cleaning supplies I’ve spotted in the kitchen are an extremely weathered scrub brush and tap water.

That brings us to drinking water. A seemingly normal process, the water is boiled and stored in plastic bottles…that held their initial purified contents a very, very long time ago.

You know the smell- the water bottle you refilled a couple of times, left in your gym bag for too long, opened it back up, got a whiff…and decided against it. I’ve found it best just to shut off my senses and chug.

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Mama Bea…Love that woman.

And then there is the issue of electricity. There is none.

This means our refrigerator is now more of a bug and cat deterrent than a means to preserve perishable items. I’ve refrained from trying to explain my loss of appetite when Carmen offers me leftover chicken from two nights before…I just can’t do it.

My break from my carnivorous tendencies has proven timely at this point, placating my conscience and my stomach.

Or so I thought…

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I’ve just finished my first round of antibiotics. And yes, my bottle of anti-bacterial gel is my new constant companion.

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You can run, but you cannot hide. (Congo adventure continues)

It’s super gloomy out, my body hurts and I’m sleep deprived. These all seemed like perfectly valid excuses to skip my run this morning.

But now the guilt is starting to set in, so I suppose the least I can do is write about this little hobby of mine that I’ve frequently risked life and limb for… in the most unlikely of places.

So for the rest of you who chose leisure over physical excursion this morning, you can suffer vicariously through my brief tale of another adventure trying to save the chimps in the Congo.

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I haven’t gone more than two days without running for most of my adult life. There has been a handful of exceptions, most of which were related to precarious travel circumstances, most of which I would usually find a way to circumvent.

This scenario, however, has taken a little bit longer to navigate. More accurately, the motivation factor has been lacking, especially after experiencing my daily walk to and from work.

My office is located in the Natural Science Research Center. This is the only significant landmark that exists in the village (Lwiro) besides the dilapidated guest house that functions as the ‘fancy’ hotel, local bar, special event center, and wedding venue (for those tolerant enough to endure questionable levels of hygiene and a bathroom with its sink in pieces on the floor).

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There is one main, very dusty road that snakes through the heart of Lwiro, connecting to the small villages on either side. The rest of the landscape is cultivated land with a few random collections of banana trees…and lots of children, goats, pigs, cows and women hauling unfathomable loads of anything and everything on their backs.

Every morning on my way to work, there is always a steady stream of villagers traveling from one village to the next. I am now one of them, but I don’t exactly blend in, and my presence is always acknowledged in some fashion. Sometimes I get an enthusiastic Jambo, sometimes a less than friendly glare. But anonymity is not an option.

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This brief walk admittedly elicits more anxiety than it should at this point, but I’m slowly adapting. Except when I have to pass a group of young boys. Without fail, they approach, staring straight through me without saying a word. And just after I pass the last of them, the cheekiest of the group will yell out god knows what in Swahili, while the others bust out laughing.

Despite all of this, after a month without running, I was beside myself when the new volunteers, Ruth and Susan, suggested a jog. We were told the safest way was to take the main road uphill, winding through the villages on the same path the women and children take to and from the fields and market area.

I knew the path well and expected dry, rocky and crowded. But adding in the ‘running factor’ was a whole different animal. Imagine walking on an uneven, very dry river bed, completely covered with jagged rocks, deep ruts, and large potholes. There is nowhere to land that is flat or soft. It’s just a matter of whether you want to choose the large slanted rock or go for the collection of small, piercing stones. Now add in the variety of farm animals to navigate- baby goats being the most difficult, pigs, the most unpredictable.

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All of this, however, is somewhat manageable until the path narrows and you realize you’re not making life any easier for the women trying to make it down the same trail with twice their weight in tools, wood, sugar cane or any combination of all of the above balanced on their heads…usually with a baby or two in tow. I have definitely hurled myself into a ditch more than once trying to get out of their way, only to have them stop, laugh and cheer us on up the hill.

Then, there are the children. They descend out of nowhere, dozens of them trailing behind us, laughing and screaming, Mazungu! Mazungu! (white person) the whole way back. Not exactly a stress-reducing endeavor.

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After our first couple of runs, a couple of the boys we work with, Luc and Simone, asked if they could join us. Having locals with us allows us to roam further out of the village…with the bonus of keeping the children at bay so we can focus on dodging chickens and such.

But the long stretch of open road that I’ve been craving holds its own set of challenges… mainly breathing. It’s still dry season here, which means the occasional UN convoy or random battered vehicle that passes by leaves us literally in the dust. And this dust is not to be taken lightly- a chalky, all-consuming version that goes straight for your eyes, forges its way up your nose and settles into a gritty layer coating your lungs, replacing any thought of the fresh oxygen that was previously propelling you forward.

Everyone we pass feels compelled to contribute in some way – cheer us on, remind us that we are indeed white/Mazungu, and sometimes even join us. It’s usually the women who join in, matching our pace barefoot or in flip-flops, laughing and cheering each other on, clearly unaffected by all the elements I find so annoying. 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’m tired and my body aches. How can I complain to a man who does manual labor for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, eats less than I do and runs in a pair of old hiking boots split open along the souls?

And yet he runs, almost every day.

I’ve thought about this a lot. What motivates him to run when I know how exhausted and hungry he has to be. I’ve asked him, and he just shrugs his shoulders. I think it might be for the same reason I do it, despite how challenging it can be.

Running is the one thing that’s all his, on his terms. He can relish in the freedom- the power and strength he alone has cultivated- even if only for an hour a day.

…even if the path he takes never gets him any further than the dusty road back to Lwiro.


A pretty brilliant reaction to this lil’ adventure written by anonymole

“Girl, you bein’ chased?”
No
“Why you runnin’? You late for somethin’?”
No.
“Why you runnin’? You got to go, you know..?”
No.
“Why you runnin’ den?”
Because I can.
“Ah, alright den. You keep runnin’ den. You sure you ain’t bein’ chased?”                                                                                                      

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Casualties of the Trade: Trying to keep our Chimps around.

An early release of my Sunday meanderings, mainly because tomorrow will be consumed with a long training run and a 12-hour packing frenzy. Yes, that’s correct, yet another move…I think this makes number 9 in two years.

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I will refrain from complaining, though. I’m moving to a beautiful space in the perfect neighborhood, literally steps away from one of my favorite people on the planet.

However, some serious magic needs to happen in the next 72 hours for all of this to go down. But it will…it always does.

This is admittedly the not so fun part of my adventure…and also the whole reason I spent 6 months living in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was written in 2013 so some of the statistics might be outdated. There have been improvements that should be celebrated, but these precious creatures are by no means out of danger…all the contrary.

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.

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

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Why DRC?

There have been volumes written on the conflict here- it’s origins and implications. To spare you the dissertation, here’s the conflict and its environmental impact in an extremely abbreviated 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.
– Grauer’s Gorillas and Chimpanzees in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

Although the country is now categorized as ‘post-conflict’, the crisis continues. You can imagine how this has endangered an already endangered primate population. Worse still, DRC is the only country in the world where Grauer’s Gorillas and Bonobos exist.

Although exact numbers can’t be confirmed due to the conflict, the Grauer Gorilla population has declined by an estimated 50-75% over the last decade. The remaining Bonobo population has had a similar fate. The Eastern Chimpanzee, though more numerous, is still in danger of extinction.

Why is this happening?

An undercover investigation has found that up to two gorillas are killed and sold as bushmeat each week in Kouilou, a region of the Republic of Congo.” 

The main threats to the primates here (and the majority of places wildlife exist) are poaching; massive forest degradation, 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, the main culprit is the illegal bushmeat and pet trade. 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 chimpanzee or bonobo that is captured, 5-10 others were murdered in the process.

Many of the infant chimpanzees die before they arrive at their destination. The death rate for infant gorillas is much higher due to their decreased capacity to cope with stress and illness.

One sanctuary in Congo reported that 80% of rescued infants died in captivity.

IUCN documented that the Congolese authorities and its partners have confiscated 16 Grauer’s gorilla infants from military and civilian society since 2003. This number is extremely low, 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. We are only 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 in DRC has anywhere from 5-8 children. Three in five of the 60 million plus 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, or chimpanzee. For the majority of the population, the concept of ‘extinction’ is as foreign as a 401k. They are in survival mode and need food for their families. The reality is, it’s common knowledge how much money an infant chimp or gorilla would bring in…

Who exactly is buying these animals?

As asinine as this is, it’s primarily the ex-pats working in these countries who are the main culprits- the UN operation in DRC, MONUSCO, being one of the main perpetrators- military, wealthy officials or mineral tycoons and larger scale traffickers.

The illegal wildlife 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 middleman usually earns substantially less than the criminal at the top, who can earn up to $40,000 for each gorilla.

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Kongo when he was rescued

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Kongo now

“Nearly 3,000 chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans are illegally killed or stolen from the wild each year”

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 opp on the beach, 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 (I’m sure you know where I stand on that issue).

These people have absolutely no excuse. For them, it’s 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 these animals being abused, 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, could have only been pulled off by an established, well-coordinated network across Central and West Africa.

In 2010, 69 chimpanzees were exported with valid CITES permits (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), declaring the animals captive-bred…all shipped off to Chinese zoos or safari parks.

There is no captive-breeding facility in Guinea. but interestingly enough, there are several export routes built by Chinese ‘development’ companies. It’s estimated as many as 138 chimpanzees and 10 gorillas have been shipped to China using these routes. Be clear, these are only the ones that were reported…which I assure you is only a fraction.

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.

Love those chimps, but it’s time for a cold beer and hot shower

The adventure continues…

If you missed the first half, it was quite the ride:  A Break from ‘the bush’: Adventures in the Congo

The car stopped abruptly in the middle of the street and everyone piled out. I quickly realized that I had no idea where I was meeting Sylvie.

Thankfully, she picked up her phone and we arranged to meet at the Ice Cream shop nearby. The thought of something cold was enough to make me cry, but something frozen…ice cream, no less. The possibilities for the next 24 hours seemed endless.

 

After yet another prayer-inducing moto ride, I was soon chatting with Sylvie over pistachio ice cream, cramming our life stories into abbreviated versions that led us to why we were living in DRC.

Two hours later, we dashed out to find Sylvie’s car. We were losing daylight and still had a full itinerary to tackle- a tour of the city, a ‘snack’ at her house, dinner at The Orchid, a Congolese concert after, maybe dancing…

After a whirlwind tour of the city, we arrived at her place, hidden behind an enormous, steel gate with a guard on watch 24/7.

Her flat seemed like a penthouse. She had a huge deck overlooking the river. And, most importantly, she had a shower, like a real one…with a shower head…and running water…hot, running water.

 

Sylvie’s roommate, Habib, had a bottle of wine chilling and a full spread waiting for us- grilled chicken, two different salads, grilled vegetables…actual green vegetables.

The day I arrived in DRC, I declared myself a vegetarian. I couldn’t’ stand to see the way the lil’ goats were treated. And that’s the meat I would be eating.

On this day, however, I happily fell off the vegetarian wagon with no remorse.

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Lunch at the Sanctuary…every day.

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Lunch at Sylvie’s.

Next stop was The Orchid, the hot spot for ex-pats and wealthy Congolese.

I guess this is a good time to try to explain what life as an ex-pat is like in a place like DRC. I won’t torture you with Congo’s horrific history of being exploited by ‘white men’s’ religious or mineral-seeking agendas. But you can see ‘our’ footprint everywhere you look. Congolese people are still being taken advantage of and/or repressed, but now it’s under the guise of ‘humanitarian/UN peace-keeping” or “mutually-beneficial economic/trade agreements.” That’s my very strong opinion, anyway.

It’s shocking when you first see it, the wealth juxtaposed to the blatant, extreme poverty. Enormous SUVs forge their way through the streets packed with small piles of scrap metal hovering over four wheels. Lakeside mansions surround lake Kivu, hiding tiny, dilapidated shacks behind them, all packed with an average 4-6 children. And I assure you, it’s not the international aid workers or peacekeepers occupying the latter.

And yes, Sylvie lives in one of those beautiful places on the lake. She doesn’t live quite as extravagantly as some of the larger non-profits, but she lives well.

Living well, however, comes at a cost. People who choose the life of an ex-pat in conflict or poverty-stricken countries are signing up for an extremely stressful, uncomfortable existence. It can get lonely, depressing, frustrating, and dysfunctional.

For obvious reasons, ex-pats are regarded as extremely wealthy and privileged. Most locals believe we (people from developing countries) have infinite resources. We do, comparatively speaking. But it’s hard for locals to understand that not all of us have access to those resources, that some of us really are struggling to keep our heads above water.

I’ve experienced this at the sanctuary. The boys sometimes come to me, telling me in detail about their sick child or dad’s funeral they can’t pay for. It’s heart-breaking to hear their struggles and know they think I’m just too greedy to help them. It’s also very frustrating. I truly don’t have any money to give them right now, to the contrary. But again, they can’t wrap their heads around this. I get it, but it doesn’t make it any less maddening.

On that note, we are also taken advantage of to the extreme when it comes to the buying goods and services. For example, our go-to moto driver charges us $5 each way to get to the closest internet cafe 7 kilometers away. One day, out of desperation, I flagged down some random guy to see if he would give me a ride. He agreed…for fifty cents.

Drivers charge local Congolese the equivalent of $5 or less for the 30-minute drive to Bukavu. As a foreigner, if you don’t know any better and can’t speak French, you will pay $50 or more. I know this from experience. I had a driver quote me $50 to go to Bukavu. I was told this was normal, so I agreed to his fee, getting a verbal agreement before I got in. When he dropped me off, he said I owed him $100. He did not get $100. He got $50.

I know how terrible this all sounds. Why not just give the moto driver the $10? This is infinitely more than he can make anywhere else. This could feed all of his children for a week.

But the reality is, I truly don’t have it. I’m working at the sanctuary for room and board. My sweet husband and I have made a lot of sacrifices for me to do this, financially and otherwise. I can’t ask him to wire me money everytime someone asks me to help them or overcharges me because I’m not a local.

I want to emphasize, THESE STATEMENTS ARE GENERALIZATIONS! Yes, this happens frequently. However, there are also so many honest, generous people here who would give you their last plate of beans if you were hungry, even while their stomachs were empty.

They’ve seen so much horror, experienced so much death and lived generation after generation starving, stripped of their rights, and made slaves in their own country. Yet, they still open up their homes and hearts to foreigners. I have experienced this, as well, way more times than I’ve been overcharged.

The last thing I will say here is the vast majority of people who go to work in these situations are doing it for genuinely altruistic reasons. They are sacrificing comfort, safety, relationships, sometimes their lives to try to make a positive impact in these people’s lives. They treat and pay them well. They feel guilty when their drivers drop them off at their fancy houses, then go home to their homes that are anything but.

It’s not an easy life to live, and very few are able to sustain it for more than a year or two. I respect them tremendously…I only lasted six months.

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Another element inherent to living as an ex-pat is a very small community is your world is in fact, very small…which can get a bit incestuous. This means if you are single, your options are extremely limited. There is also the added dynamic of a phenomenon that can happen when you’re reality is so far removed from that of your husband or wife or partner living back home. Communication is limited and chances to see each other, rare. Your reality becomes the small, isolated world around you. You bond quickly with those who are in the same extreme situations. In other words, infidelity is rampant.

This brings us to Jaque.

Sylphie and I got to the Orchid and sat down at a cozy spot overlooking the lake. She ordered our beers and started chatting with the waiter. I closed my eyes, soaking in the cool breeze coming off the lake, relishing the chorus of French, English and Swahili swirling around me with the spirited rhythm of African drums filling in the spaces between. Any thoughts of ‘roughing it in the bush’ melted away as I waited to indulge in my second meal of the evening. No matter that I wasn’t hungry, there was food, and it wasn’t beans and potatoes, and it was hot, and the beer was cold.

But before our beers even arrived, there were two men sitting across from us. I don’t even think they knew each other. I looked around the room and couldn’t help but laugh. All eyes were on us, the men looked envious, the women annoyed.

To be clear, I am not single, nor do I have any desire to cheat on my husband. But like I said, marriage doesn’t register to most as an issue that would interfere with how the night’s events unfold.

Jaque, a married man from France, seemed to think tonight’s events were going to end in his favor. And he was NOT subtle about it.

Before I knew it, he had arranged for his driver to take us to the concert we were going to. After, we would go to a new trendy dance club. And tomorrow, we would be renting canoes from the hotel, after which we would have a fancy lunch before his driver took me back to Lwiro….all his treat.

Okay, Jaque, I’m in. But be clear, Sylvie won’t be leaving my side…and she is who I will be going home with tonight.

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The Orchid: Indulging in the luxury of air conditioning, uninterrupted internet, and cold beer.

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A bit of local music

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Jaque, “I’ve totally got this”. Guy behind him, “Damn, he’s totally got this”. Me, “You got nothing, my boy… besides the beer in your hand, you got nothing”.

As it turns out, I can hold my own dancing Congolese Rumba and still stay up later than 8:30pm.

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A Break from ‘the bush’: Adventures in the Congo

An adventure to be sure…

After a month and a half in the bush (although it feels more like a sparse collection of trees than a dense jungle), I decided it was time for a reprieve.

IMG_1049As often happens in these scenarios, I became fast friends with a woman who visited my supervisor, Carmen, two weeks ago. Sylvie is the Director of Conservation for Kahuzi-Biega, the national park/UNESCO World Heritage Site where our chimpanzee sanctuary is located. We instantly clicked and she invited me to visit her in Bukavu, the closest city to Lwiro.

I was hesitant at first, primarily because I didn’t want to inconvenience her. But to be honest, I was mainly dreading the thought of making the trek there by bus- a long, hot, exhausting affair, to be sure.

The closest village to Lwiro is Kuvumu, only 7 Kilometers away. However, the only available mode of transportation there is by moto. The road is a brutal collection of deep rivets, enormous potholes and large, obtrusive rocks, so the whole ordeal takes over half an hour to conquer. And this is only the first leg of the journey.

That said, the thought of a hot delicious meal (ex-pat style), wine and good company trumped my reservations. A week later, I was on the back of Obe’s moto (my new friend/chauffer), on my way to the big city.

Me.obe.motoI was already sweating in the afternoon heat, clinging 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, would be mistaken for a pile of scrap metal. But Obe assured me, “This is much better than ‘le bus’…much faster, much better.”

This ‘faster, better, taxi service entails waiting as long as it takes to fill up any random car way beyond its intended capacity. But what the hell. When in Congo…

The back seat was already packed with one poor woman smashed between two very large, very well-fed men. The driver granted me the option of claiming the entire front seat for an extra 2,000 Francs (less than $2). Or, we could wait until we found another passenger, who would basically be sitting on my lap. I tried to seem indifferent as I dumped out all the contents of my bag, praying I had the extra 2,000 Francs before my travel companion was spotted.

An hour later, front seat all to myself, we approached our destination. Lake Kivu dominated the view, expansive and seemingly tranquil, with only a few men in pirogues retrieving their nets from the murky water.

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But any sense of calm was overwhelmed by the cacophony of noises blasting through the window – relentless horns passed down from one car to the next, excited chatter from the endless row of vendors lining the street, herds of goats audibly resisting the ropes around their necks. A haze of chalky dust overtook the car, accompanied by a steady stream of smoke billowing out of the piles of burning trash.

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vendorsThe spirited beat of Congolese music spilled out of the radio, providing the perfect soundtrack for the colorful, frenetic performance I was now a part of.

I caught a glance of myself in the review mirror, a huge smile firmly in place.

Welcome to Bukavu.

You can donate directly to the sanctuary here to support all the work that goes into protecting the chimps and other wildlife in danger of extinction. 

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