Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Kisangani "Dungeon": A Report from Cleve on the Kisangani Zoo

   Kisangani, The Democratic Republic of the Congo

                                          By Cleve Hicks

 November 19, 2008
Daniel takes Michel and me to Les Chalets, and treats me to a beer with some fries. Such a nice fellow.  And then I Ieave with Seba (my trusty and resourceful motorbike driver, with whom I have just traveled 500 bumpy kilometers out of the bush) for my final investigative mission of the season – to see the Kisangani ‘Zoo.’ Daniel strongly advises me not to go, as he has heard that it is pretty depressing. My flight is leaving tomorrow, and I am mentally and physically exhausted from 13 months in the field. But I am curious. Jeroen Swinkels visited the ‘zoo’ in 2007, and told me that it was pretty grim: a male chimpanzee sitting alone in a squalid cage smoking cigarettes to the amusement of the visitors (this was when we ruled it out as a possible refuge for our orphans Kathé and Kisanola). Time to see for myself. My butt and the backs of my thighs are still aching from the 3 day slog over the muddy roads, but it is a short distance to the ‘Zoo’. We arrive a little after noon, after having crossed the bridge above the massive falls (which I assume are the famous Stanley Falls – they power the entire city). The ‘zoo’ is advertised from the main road. We ride down a sandy path along the north bank of the Congo River, and arrive at a small collection of huts and paillotes splashed with banners advertising the different brews of Congolese beer. Maybe a half-dozen young Congolese are relaxing on the beach or in the paillotes, along with a pair of foraging donkeys. There is a lovely view of the falls to our east. We pass a barricade, and tell the sentinel or manager that we have come to see the zoo. My camera is in full view strapped across my chest – I am not hiding it! No one says anything about my not being allowed to take photos, and there are no signs to that effect. I pay the 1500 francs and Seba and I each receive a ticket. Seba and I tromp up the long, steep flight of stairs leading to the ‘Zoo.’ I am winded when we arrive. There are several what seem to be students engaged in some communal activity just outside of the entrance. We walk peacefully into the ‘zoo’, which looks as if it has been hit by more than one bomb in the recent past (it is a pretty good bet that it has). It is even more crumbled and ruined-looking than most of the caved-in compounds in the Congo. Nevertheless, for the moment the pretty trees and green foliage mask the depravity that we will soon find inside. Seba wistfully remembers that before the war he visited the place and it was a proper zoo, featuring elephants and other big mammals. The elephants were later of course eaten by rampaging soldiers during one of the wars.
            We are looking for the chimp enclosure when all of a sudden we are approached by the ‘caregivers’ --- actually, that is an inappropriate word, let us just call them the ‘zoo guards.’ One of them asks us who we are in a scowling, unfriendly tone. Then they declare belligerently that I am not allowed to take photos here. In a zoo?? What zoo in the world does not allow its visitors to take photos? They say that it will cost me 500 francs (roughly $1) for each photo.  I am so sick of being constantly harassed in this country, that I get on up on a high horse and tell them that I am here to make a report to the ICCN (the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature), the head official of which I will be meeting with in Kinshasa tomorrow (which is true, I will be meeting him). I film them protesting this and ask them if they really want me to give a bad report of their ‘zoo’ to the ICCN. We have a heated argument, which I film but really do not want to watch again, ever. There is a young man in the middle distance carrying a notebook and watching us in between observing the animals and taking notes at the enclosures. Both Seba and I think that he is a student, although Seba will soon tell me he thinks that he is a ‘spy.’ He does seem to be shadowing us.

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