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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