Peanuts, Figs & Mayhem- Saying Goodbye to my Favorite 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

 

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.  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 groundnuts, 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 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 the other 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.

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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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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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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.

A storm’s a-brewin’ (and we’re all in the same ‘boue’)

Warning: this one gets a little messy.

The Congo adventure continues…

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A storm’s a-brewin’

When I first arrived, DRC was in the thick of its dry season. Just looking over the fields would elicit thirst-  a dull brown backdrop of cultivated plots with little to offer but dried out crops scorched by the relentless sun.

Tragically, deforestation has rendered the ‘forest’ a sparse collection of trees, most of which have acquiesced to the parched color du jour, extinguishing any thought of moisture.

And then the rains came.

Almost daily, around three in the afternoon, dark, ominous clouds start to roll in, a deceptive calm awaiting their arrival. Everything is still, just a light breeze dancing in the trees, slowly gaining momentum that elicits long, languid backbends from the palm branches towering above.

Soon, an eerie darkness settles in. In a matter of seconds, the clouds unleash with a ferocity I’ve never experienced. A barrage of raindrops pummels the roof, drowning out all other sounds…until the lightning joins in. The entire sky lights up while I hold my breath, waiting for the thunder to come crashing down. It’s as exhilarating as it is terrifying. But the reward is worth the terror.

The parched landscape has transformed into a decadent patchwork of emerald, lime, and avocado greens. There is still brown, however. Only now, it’s a rich chocolate brown that covers everything.

And there is no escaping it.

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La Boue (mud)

The dust that used to make its way into every possible crack and crevice has been replaced with a pasty, relentless, dark clay that consumes most of my day. I am either trying to maneuver my way through it without slipping or searching for any available surface to scrape it off my shoes, only to step right back in it. When I finally reach safe grounds, I have to deal with the dried up remnants trailing behind me- in my office, my house, my sheets. Chunks of mud are forever finding their way into my socks, shoes, drawers, books…a bit more intrusive than its dusty counterpart.

This seasonal intruder doesn’t appear to relent to experience or adaptation: local farmers on their way to the fields, women on their way to church, children on their way to school. Even the goats roaming about tread lightly.

We are all its victims, taking every opportunity to scrape it off the souls of our shoes. Some continue on, letting the layers build up. Others give up and carry on barefoot. But no one escapes its unmerciful grasp…and it seems we are all in the same ‘boue’.

You can support all the work the sanctuary does to protect these amazing souls by donating here.

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