Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Chimpanzees

To prep me (and excite me!), Cleve sent me photos of the chimpanzees we'll be caring for while we're in Aketi.

This is Kathe, the older female.

And this is Bolungwa, aka "Baby Bo"! 

Cleve and the team have been offered 15 chimpanzees for sale since September 2007, not including the chimpanzees offered for sale as bushmeat.

I'm hoping to be able to confiscate more orphans after setting up a better support system for them.

There is a lot of work to be done...

Excitement of Research

One of the things I’ve been especially anxious about has been how in the world I will be able to tackle some of the components of my research.

I mean, saying “I’ll be collecting fecal samples from these people” is one thing to theorize... but practically?

Many people are superstitious. I have hair the color of fire. I am an unmarried woman. Also, if you weigh me down in the Salem Lake I won’t drown.


So you can imagine me coming up to some people and asking them for their poop? Agh! So I’ve been at odds, contemplating how exactly I’m going to accomplish doing what I need to get for my analysis?

Anyway, I was discussing over email (and one hilarious Skype phonecall) with Cleve about the samples I’d need to obtain and how. And he filled me with such confidence!



It does reassure me that, at the very least, I won’t have trouble *getting* the samples. Now I just need to get IRB approval so that no one thinks I am abusing people when I take their poop.

Having Cleve there is incredibly comforting. His knowledge, his existing relationships with the local people... his presence there will be a boon to my possibilities.

Cleve and the gang.

Preparation 2.0

Adam and I went to Campmor this past Sunday to get items for our first couple of weeks in Congo -- being in a crumbling Belgian mansion is one thing, but being in the jungle in a tent is something completely different. And requires different preparatory things!

Many of which we a) didn’t have and b) weren’t planning to get.

(If you’re needing some backstory, check this entry)

So anyway, we went to Campmor to get Adam a hiking bag, maybe some sleeping bags (either a double or two bags that were twinnable/combinable), and some general camping essentials. We’re not sure entirely what we’ll need, but Cleve had told me that, when getting a tent, I should just make sure it’ll protect me against termites and ants. If there’s one thing I know from experience that you DON’T want in your tent, it’s safari ants.

What I didn’t count on was the fact that Campmor... and all of Paramus township.... is CLOSED on Sundays. We’d driven all the way out to New Jersey, only to have to drive all the way back. The REI that used to be at Columbus Circle was closed, so we had no choice but to go to Paragon Sports, a “huge” (by NYC standards) sports store at Union Square.

I wanted to get Adam a bag like mine -- I’ve had my bag since about 1996 and it’s only just now starting to show signs of wear. I’ve dragged it ALL over the world until finally, as I came back from Congo the last time, it finally lost a piece and broke. But I called Kelty and told them about the piece my bag was missing, and they’re sending it to me for only $5!!

This is me in Kisoro, Uganda, at the FAMOUS Traveller’s Rest Inn -- where George Schaller and Dian Fossey stayed!
Add Me and My Trusty Kelty Bag to the list of famous residents. Hehe.

Anyway, there were no real tents on display to get inside. The salesguy didn’t even know about the Nemo Morpho tent we were looking at, and when I tried to voice my concerns about the footprint and the carnivorous ants, and our salesguy, sort of a sad stereotype of himself with his patchouli’ed whiteboy dreadlocks, had absolutely no idea what I was talking about and offered no suggestions for conversational compromise.

We did get into the one tent that they had, and it did fill me with excitement. Of course, we also have to figure out how to get Adam sleeping in a position in-tent that will be comfortable for him (he sleeps sitting upright to help his snoring and his back)

We wanted to get a Kelty bag for him, but, as our own salesguy said, “Oh, they’re fantastic bags, but this store is way too trendy to sell them.” Instead, we got him a good North Face bag and he got used to carrying it around, full of sample things from the store.

There is still so much to get, but it feels nice to be moving forward, however slowly. And I’ll know that, if I wear myself out with my to-do listing, I can always crawl inside of Adam’s new bag and he can carry me around.

Questions From Me - Answered by Cleve

If you have questions, feel free to leave them in the comments here!

How is the weather?

Either hot and wet or hot and dry. The rainy season lasts from about May - November and you will be arriving at its height, so bring good rain gear and a rain-proof tent. The dry season is very dry, bring good water bottles, and polar bar water purifier tablets if you can (I boil my water). It can get chilly at nights at this time. The dry season is usually easier on my health, and the roads are a lot easier to travel!

How are the people?

It is a mix; they can be so generous and sweet, and also so greedy (mainly in the towns). There is a lot of resentment and jealousy towards whites, more than i have seen in other countries. A lot of aggressive begging (but not as much in smaller villages). The Congolese also love loud and noisy debates, and that is just something to get used to. But they also love having foreigners here, and we have some friends who would give you the shirts off their backs.

How dangerous is it? (This might sound lame, but I would like to know)

Well, these things can change with outbreaks of war, etc;, but I have rarely if ever felt physically threatened here (except at Bili a few times, where we had elephant-poaching soldiers harrassing us in the town); it is not dangerous like in the Virungas, for example. The worst thing I have to deal with is harassment by corrupt officials (it gets very annoying), but nowadays a phone call from Michel usually puts an end to that quickly. We have a lot of friends looking out for us...

But it is Congo, and things can always change. During the civil war, I have heard that the soldiers were a nightmare. So it always good to keep up on current events in Kinshasa. But Hans, sunny and I will help you do that.

How is the food? The water?

I like the food, but for a vegetarian the diet can get a little boring after a while: manioc roots and leaves, beans and rice, gourds, fumbwa(white forest leaf) and mushrooms. But I just found some potatoes in Buta, which has livened up my diet considerably. The water is fine when you boil it.

How is the mansion?

Comfy, for Congo. And very secure, although people steal things from the yard (like my rain gauge).

What do people do for a living?

In Aketi and Bili, mostly work the fields: manioc, corn, etc. And hunt and fish. But emanating from Buta is a rapidly-expanding diamond and gold industry.

What languages are spoken besides Swahili and French?

Lingala (the lengua franca), and in Aketi and Buta, Kibenza and Kiboa. There are some Azande (as at Bili) who speak Kizande towards the North. Kiswahili is actually not so common here

How often can I get on the Internet?

Through the began (which maybe Hans will let me leave with you) --- if for some reason that doesn't work, you can take a trip to Buta (a days motorbike ride) and use Zefas cybercafe (where i am now).

How is the town?

It is basically the crumbling ruins of an old Belgian train station town, with people sort of inhabiting the decaying mansions without actually maintaining them. The people are pretty friendly, especially since Michel and Polycarpe come from there. It is a hell of a lot more calm than Bili!

How is the bathing situation?

There is a bath tub with a big barrel of cold water beside it and a scoop.

What things should we bring with us beside the obvious?

I will work on a list. Bring antibiotic pills (though you can buy them here), malaria medicine, and maybe dec against filaria (ask your doctor). And lots of good books!

What is the shopping situation? (Like street market) What can we buy?

No problem with foods, and medicines aren't a problem for me. But forget anything like quality AA batteries or really quality anything. But flashlights, lighters, etc are available

What are some of the important customs?

Let me think on that one. It is an almost socialistic society, which can be good, ie. People look out for one another and for you, but also bad: jealousy of anyone who 'rises above' and, say, gets a higher salary. The latter is a very bad problem and you have to be very careful not to 'play favorites'.

How is the phone situation?

You can use your cell phone in Aketi and Buta, but not anywhere else. This may change soon (ie. More towers will be built).

How often do you talk to the locals?

Well? Considering i live with 6 of them, most of the time. But yes, i do go out and talk with folks about our work, and spend a lot of time with people near the sanctuary.

What is the best way to travel?

Motorbike, or bicycle for shorter distances.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Gorillas in the Mist

I decided maybe two weeks ago that I was keen to see Gorillas in the Mist again, mostly because it had been several years since I’d seen it last and Cleve and I had been joking about “going bush” à la Dian Fossey.

But I definitely hadn’t seen the film since I spent so much time, with chimpanzees and gorillas, and I guess I even surprised myself tonight by my involuntary reactions.

I got shudders when Digit put his hand in Fossey/Weaver’s... I could literally smell the musk of a gorilla and the hear low grunt of contentment.

Maybe that’s why I got so sucked into the film that I found myself crying out, and getting breathy and teary and generally uncontrollably upset.

When they pull the baby gorilla (“Pucker”) away from her dead mother, I nearly had to stop watching.

Part of me feels like a gross stereotype. Next thing, I’ll be screaming “GET OFF MY MOUNTAIN!!”

I guess the positive notes I should take from it is steeling myself for the challenges ahead --

But really, I can’t fault myself for caring already. How could I not?

later edit: Of course, now it's 4am in New York and I'm looking for anything happy and light to watch... and what's on HBO? Last King of Scotland.

Can't bear to watch more movies that ache inside. Not tonight.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

From Rings to Tents

Part of the excitement of the Congo trip recently has been the possibility of getting to share the experience with the world -- and no, not through this blog, but with the ENTIRE world of National Geographic!

A production company contacted me a couple of weeks ago to gauge my interest in participating in a show they are pitching to National Geographic about the Bili Ape. Would I mind contributing? Would I be alright being on camera?

HA! As though I’d have a problem ;)

But the practical side of it is that we’d be flying out from either Entebbe or Kinshasa to Aketi with a privately chartered missionary plane, and it tends to get expensive. But if the film crew was coming out too, we could fly on the same plane and save money.

Now, the film crew would be going directly to Liguga to film the chimpanzees in the forest. And trekking through the forest, following the chimpanzees, for about 2-3 weeks! What an incredible adventure!

I’ve gotten to trek through the bush for observational study when I lived in Kenya, but the Blue Monkey group I was following lived and ranged right near my tiny, forest periphery shack. So there was no real camping involved, sadly.

I do like camping! I spent a summer with Wilderness Ventures in high school hiking and camping throughout the Pacific Northwest.

But suddenly, the beginning of our trip has changed so much. It means that instead of bringing our bags and things directly to Aketi, we’d pack our hiking bags separately, and bring those along and give the rest of our luggage to a TWWF employee to hold onto for a couple weeks until we came back from the forest.

Adam doesn’t even have a hiking bag. And here I was, idling my time looking at other things online and suddenly, I’m looking at tents instead. (Thus far, I think I’ve settled on the Nemo Morpho AR).

But hurrah!! What an adventure! I can’t wait.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

On Here and There

Sometimes, it just takes some perspective-

Me: It's Fourth of July here, and I'm going to eat veggie burgers
Cleve: Wish I were there! Very bored in Buta
Me: I'm so sorry you're bored! I'll eat a veggie burger for you! Or maybe take pictures of some fireworks, and you can return the favor next year!
Cleve: Good idea! I will swat a mosquito for you and also sweat some, as I am sure you are really missing the African Experience!
Me: Hot! Take pictures :P

Thursday, July 3, 2008


This about me Adam, aka. Bear. I am going to Congo with Laura and I am excited about our trip. In the mean time, I am trying to get ready for my second degree Black Belt exam in Tang Soo Do. Its a lot of work and I am working hard for it. I work at the University of MD. I like my job and I'm going to miss it but I don't want to miss an opportunity like this. Also, I'm moving to NY after this to be with Laura. I can't wait. I'll write again soon.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Passports and Visas and Tickets, Oh My!

One thinks that, when faced with 3 whole months to get ready, that one can take one’s time. This is what I originally thought my second long-term stay in Eastern Africa -- in fact, I left everything until the last minute and ended up leaving a big mess behind.

Of course, you don’t have to deal with the mess until many weeks/months/years later, but it is a bit of an albatross.

Yesterday, I went and got Passport photos -- not for a passport (which I already have) but for my official invitation letter that will be sent to the Congolese Embassy in Washington, DC.

This photo will be on my Congolese visa, and I’m pleased; it’s a good photo. I guess part of me wishes that it could replace my actual passport photo too!

Which, as you can see, is extremely unfortunate. To be fair, I was a lot heavier (and a lot younger).

Today, I mailed my photos and copies of my and Adam’s passports to my employers in the Netherlands -- they’ll be the one who issue me the official letter and get all my shiznit in Congo prepared.

Oh, and my friend Cleve, who facilitated this whole research/sanctuary project and is currently in Aketi, let me know about our accommodations there, which I had been previously uninformed about:

“You will be living in a spacious but crumbling Belgian colonial mansion, built in 1956 and apparently not renovated since Independence. We get our water from a well and cook it. There is a bath tub and a big tub of water with a scoop. And a nonflushing toilet (just pour water down it):; We use a generator for power, and gas is one of our biggest expenses. ”

In my previous adventures through different countries in Africa, I have had ALL sorts of housing. I lived in a tin and wood shack in Kenya with an outhouse out back, and in a nice house in Uganda, and in a shitty house in Goma, Congo. And I’ll tell you -- in Kenya and Goma both I would have sold my soul for a bathtub! So not only does the description make me happy, but I’m sure it’ll reassure Adam and his/my family.

And what a story to tell, crumbling Belgian mansion indeed!