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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Simon, Luc & Mama Bea

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Walk Home from Work

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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.

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Mon amour, Kongo

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The boys…monkeying around.

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Namoya, the newest rescue, and her faithful protectors.

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’

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

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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