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 in 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 in to 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?

This brings us to the ‘present moment’.

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 daily 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 paused long enough to celebrate 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 towards it to put it out… until the moment we arrived at the fire, Valentine stops abruptly, takes a sharp turn to the left and leaps into the forest. So I did what any insane ‘white 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 was the millions of hungry, venomous predators that I had to be summoning as I stumbled about at an alarming pace, shouting out every profanity I knew in English, Spanish and French.

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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 an extremely challenged sense of direction jolted me into survival mode, and I screamed out at the top of my lungs… at the very moment I ran smack into Valentine.

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

She, of course, 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…although I’m not sure who or why…and by the way, did anyone manage to put out the fucking fire?

The light of day…

First of all, 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.

It also turned out that 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 towards the forest and assumed that I had seen some dangerous intruder.

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

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My ‘back yard’

Lessons learned

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

Flashlight/lantern should be attached to you person at all times

No going out past bedtime

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The ‘Guards’

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The ‘Shower’

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The Send-off : the Democratic Republic of Congo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was it. That was goodbye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Goodall on Chimpanzee Experimentation

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