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.

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. I wrote it in 2013 so some of the statistics might be outdated.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.

Kathe found in a village, 2009

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 and militia groups that have infiltrated the protected parks.

But 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 are then sold as pets both locally and abroad…if they survive.

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

It is estimated for every one chimpanzee or bonobo that is captured, five to ten others are murdered in the process.

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. And we are only one of three sanctuaries in the country. 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.

 

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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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The Smell of a Memory: My Adventures in Congo’

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Kongo and one of his crew ‘monkeying around’

They say that smells are a powerful trigger for memories. If this is the case, I can’t say I’m terribly excited about recalling my time here. This isn’t to say I won’t have good memories. I’m 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, the acidic smell of overripe fruit that makes it hurt to I breathe in.

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 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.

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Being a ‘research center’ in a remote area of a developing country necessitates a certain collage of accompanying smells that seem to be as much as part of the building as its white-washed walls.

Most of the time, 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.

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Luckily, six months of daily exposure has rendered this aromatic concoction as normal to my senses as the screams of chimps flying through my office window.

I am certain there are more pleasant scents that greet me throughout the day, but they seem to be snuffed out by the present tense.

There is, however, one final component that has proven a bit more difficult to embrace; our office is located right next to the bathroom. Under normal circumstances, this would seem like a convenient perk…except that the 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 drown 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 my walk that is filled with the smell of orange blossoms.

I’m 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 I never forget.

Maybe my next trip to Spain will take me back to Lwiro, DRC in the fall of 2013.

You can donate directly to the sanctuary here to support and all the work that goes into protecting these amazing souls, 

 

*In case you missed it, here’s a taste of the first few days in the Congo…

“Wait, you want me to fix breakfast for 54 chimps, 74 monkeys and a turtle”?

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Walk home from work

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Kongo…so handsome, this guy.

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Our walking ritual. I walk. He follows. I stop. He sits…

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Kongo making sure we know who’s in charge

Wait, you want me to fix breakfast for 54 chimps, 74 monkeys and a turtle?

I’ve been a bit consumed of late with an article that has proven to be more painful to write than expected. (see Your Mid-life Manic Pixie Dream Girl). It’s pissing me off, actually, mainly because the truth that lies beneath is a bitter one.

All to say, I got sucked into re-reading my posts from my time in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s been interesting to revisit that fearless, free-spirited girl who was in her element…which was usually placing herself in situations completely out of her element.

She was full of life and passion, she felt loved and still believed she could change the world. I miss her, to be honest, and wish I could get her back.

But for now, tales of her adventures remain, and an adventure it was…

Fixin’ Breakfast: Dull Knives and Rusty French

I 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 excited about my second.

When I asked Christophe, who manages the staff, what time I should be there to prepare the chimps’ meals, he started listing off the hours…which pretty much spanned the entire day. I almost laughed but refrained and tried to explain that I was here to write grants and try to get money for the sanctuary.  He shook his head, looking just as confused as I was.

Herein lies the problem; I’ve lost a lot of the French I had learned in Paris. To complicate things further, Carmen, my supervisor, is Spanish. So I spend most of the day speaking Spanish, trying to remember French, and reading and researching in English.

I’m basically a linguistic hazard at this point.

With all the different languages flying around, trying to learn the very regimented procedures in the sanctuary is a bit of a disaster. We work mainly in the food prep room/kitchen area. The extent of my knowledge regarding kitchen utensils and food preparation is limited in English, so not exactly a category I mastered in French.

The animals (54 chimps, 74 monkeys, and a turtle) 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.

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 corresponding to the specific animal or group of animals outlined on a piece of paper taped to the wall.

I laughed out loud and then went into a complete state of panic. Christophe was mildly patient, but my insecurities took over and I translated every encounter between him and the staff as, “Wow boys, we got a real gem this time; she can’t speak, follow directions or chop an ear of corn into 6 pieces with an extremely dull knife.

But, I wanted an adventure…

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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.

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.

Congo.bristleCongo now, right, with pal Kamituga in the new chimp forestNamoya copy

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

In keeping with my mission to make you laugh, I thought reaching back into the past might be a better strategy for now.

As many of you know, I spent 6 months in the DRC working at a chimpanzee sanctuary (read more at Congo Adventure). It was an adventure, to say the very least, offering endless opportunities to get myself into some extremely awkward situations. Or, as the following demonstrates, just making a complete ass of myself.

So for your entertainment (and god willing, at least a giggle or two), below is one such scenario…

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Saving Lwiro

I was only one month into my 6-month stint in the Lwiro, DRC. 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 boss. 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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Me, Susan, Mama Bea and ‘the boys’

Typically, our work day started at 6:30am and ended around 4:30pm. Dinner was served at 5, and we had all usually ‘showered’ (see pic below) 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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The ‘Guards’

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The ‘Shower’

Peanuts, Figs & Mayhem- Saying Goodbye to my Furry Friends in the Congo

We’ve arrived- the end of one crazy adventure and on to the next.

I had intended to write more about my experience living in the Congo, but the whole process became next to impossible. On the rare occasion that we had internet, it was usually only for a few hours, and it was excruciatingly slow.

Even if I wrote ahead of time and waited for the internet, I was constantly in a mild state of panic, knowing the electricity would shut off any second. Outlets were also in short supply. It was truly an adrenaline rush when the electricity came back on- all of us scrambling to find at least one outlet to recharge our only means of connecting to rest of the world.

All to say, writing and posting a blog was sometimes a weeks-long endeavor.

When I finally got back to the states, I had no desire to revisit the Congo. Yes, the experience as a whole was life-changing, but so many aspects of my day-to-day were beyond challenging…emotionally more than anything.

But those chimps- those crazy, extraordinary, and sometimes terrifying chimps- 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, for example, an ornery, cantankerous guy who loved to mess with anyone who dared enter the sanctuary. No matter how deep into the forest he was, the minute you walked through the gate, he would suddenly be sitting in the same spot, perfectly positioned to dowse you with spit.

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Goma and his cheeky smirk

It didn’t matter if I sprinted by him, he would always hit his target, meeting my gaze with a look of triumph, then disappearing back into the trees.

But even Goma nestled his way into my heart, gripping it tightly with those long, dexterous fingers and filling it up with awe and reverence.

They were ornery, intelligent, loving beings who taught me the extent to which animals feel emotions, both good and bad…exactly like we do. I saw this firsthand with our newest addition, Manoya, who was rescued the day before I got there.

She arrived emaciated, dehydrated and completely traumatized, then immediately had to be quarantined for 30 days. This meant she had to spend 24 hours a day with a caretaker in a large enclosure that was isolated from all the other animals.

The only details we know about her rescue is that the authorities found her going through customs, stuffed in a tiny crate. She was then handed over to the military who brought her to us by helicopter.

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Namoya right after she arrived

Every time I would check on her from a distance, the look on her face was beyond traumatized…it was sheer heartbreak.

Each of our chimps had a similar story (see Casualties of the Trade), all tortured in some way or another, stuffed in some inhumane contraption, most likely after seeing their entire families murdered.

But despite all of this, or probably because of it, they welcome each new orphan into their chaotic, not-so-functional family…just as they had me. Although be clear, this integration process isn’t without its challenges: clashing personalities, jealousy, power struggles…like any family, I suppose.

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Namoya’s new family

But I had survived. Six very long months later, I was walking up to the sanctuary for the last time…to say goodbye to my furry favorite.

I’ve already shared the chimp crush I had on Kongo (here), so I tried to go see him as much as I could (when I wasn’t working or hiding out trying to avoid running into ‘C’).

Kongo and I quickly established our routine, accompanying each other around the perimeter of the forest enclosure, getting to know each others’ 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 the ones who avoided him at all costs (Goma being one of them). I got to know his different moods- when he was grumpy, playful, ornery, or bored.

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I shared my snacks with him, vented about my challenges with ‘C’ (SOS from the Jungles of Congo explains a bit), counted down the months, weeks, and days until Eric came to visit, and then the months, weeks, days until I got to go home.

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That day finally arrived, and I knew it would be the last time I’d see him.

That day was bizarre…as if Kongo knew I was leaving. Every day before, he would greet me at the gate and escort me down our usual path. But not today. I waited a few minutes, looking for him up in the trees. I did my best version of a chimp call (which is pathetic, I might add). But nothing.

I started back toward the entrance, and there he was, peering out from behind the trees. I sat down and waited for him to come out. He just sat there, staring at me and then disappeared back into the forest.

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Now I was pissed. This was seriously how he was going to end it? I waited a few more minutes, then stormed out, slamming the gate behind me.

Realizing I had just thrown a temper tantrum because a chimp wouldn’t come ‘say goodbye’ to me, I pulled myself together and went back in.

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 kept his back to me. I couldn’t help but laugh. He was clearly not going to make this easy. 

I rummaged through my bag and pulled out a handful of peanuts, sliding 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 sliced mango, his second favorite treat. He ate them but still acted like he wasn’t interested. I waited a few minutes before I pulled out his favorite, knowing that would do the trick.

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

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I launched into my goodbye speech, lying, saying I would be back, and reminding him there would be another ‘save the world’ type who would take my place.

I slid a larger than normal portion of figs under the fence. He launched forward, grabbed as many as he could, and disappeared into the trees.

And that was it.

I made my way back down the path home, stopping one last time to see if I could spot him in the trees. And there was Goma, staring down with his head cocked back, that same cheeky look on his face.

Just behind him and further up, I saw the leaves start to rustle. A flash of black plunged down, caught a limb and then soared across to catch another and then another. Within a matter of seconds, the forest turned into complete chaos- chimps flying tree to tree, leaves shaking violently as the limbs tried to rebound from the weight of one chimp after another slamming down on them.

Goma finally plunged in, instigating more deafening screams that made even the staff members stop and look up.

I watched until the madness died down and the leaves became still. Several climbed to the top and perched on the branches, some grouped together, some alone, most of them looking down.

I’d seen these crazy displays before, but this one was sheer mayhem. I, of course, convinced myself that this one was for me…a dramatic farewell…

And I have a good idea who was behind it.

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

* Between 5-10 chimpanzees are slaughtered in the process of trying to capture one baby chimp.

*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.

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Below is the link to the documentary that inspired me to go to the Congo:

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

Please help support the efforts of the sanctuary to protect these guys by donating here.