As I sat down to write this entry, an overwhelming cynicism enveloped me, and I felt defeated. Too late. Again, we’d been too late.
Congo’s timing can sometimes mock you. Preparing for the forest, blasting music as I loaded sample tubes into my bag and a book to read at night in our little green tent, nothing could have been further from my mind than suffering and cruelty.
Which is why, when Richard came to me and told me there was another orphan up the road, I nearly didn’t believe it. I wished we hadn’t delayed our leaving. Not because I didn’t care about the orphan (because I obviously do), but because seeing new orphans always brings a fresh wave of heartbreak, as though one’s heart had never been broken before.
It never gets any easier. It only gets harder.
I also wasn’t sure what we could possibly do for this orphan -- I always mandate quarantine, but we were about to leave the house empty and guardian-less. I’d never in a million years send a new orphan to the sanctuary, and additionally, all of our transfer papers for the end of March were already completed with the manifest listing five chimpanzee orphans. Not six.
But you do what you have to do.
The man who had “seized” this orphan, who was actually with the police, and had taken him from a camp near SIFORCO, which is a huge logging concession nearly 100km from here. Part of my research includes data about how logging and mining concessions do terrible things for conservation, increasing the levels of bushmeat hunting and its requisite cost - forest orphans.
Unfortunately, though I explained to the police officer that keeping chimp orphans was against the law and that, if we decided that our sanctuary could take this orphan, it would be without payment, he continued to ask me “what the price” would be.
Finally frustrated, we told him we would bring him an answer tomorrow. It was, after all, already late -- nearly 6 pm -- and we had many things to arrange.
At home, we talked about the options, and decided that, instead of hiring our sanctuary sentinel to guard our house during the night and do double duty (I presume without sleep), we would install our two employees who are married, one of whom is a chimp guardian at the sanctuary, to stay at the house, guard the house, and also take care of the baby during his quarantine period.
It seemed like a good solution, and for worry-warts, all the bedrooms would be locked up regardless so even blatant blundering couldn’t have that much of a cost...
With my confidence in Djodjo’s chimp mothering abilities (he’s really quite remarkable), the only thing I’d ever worry about would be the house. The orphan would be in great hands!
This morning, Seba and Adam packed up the back of the moto and I sent Djodjo and Richard to retrieve the baby. Everything else just seemed like logistics at that point.
When they returned, empty-handed, I assumed only that the proprietors of the chimp had demanded money, and sighed with the expectation of further haggling and bullshit.
But Richard’s eyes were glassy, and he radiated consternation as he inhaled deeply on his cigarette, nearly smoking the filter.
“They ate him,” he said in French.
A simple enough phrase to translate, my brain still refused to believe its English equivalent.
My knees nearly dropped from under me. Too late. He’d just been alive, pant-hooting yesterday as we’d taken pictures of his solemn, amber eyes and his wizened little face.
And now he rested in the stomachs of two policemen -- men entrusted with enforcing Congolese laws --
--- laws that include the protection of chimpanzees.
The day darkened, and I barely heard as Richard explained that the Captain had been furious with the men, and had docked their pay. But none of it mattered.
We could have taken him last night, and we didn’t, and now we never could again.
I absorbed myself with the logistics, fighting off tears.
“We should tell Damien we’ll need him again,” I said, “and go back to the original plan.”
I sat down to write a journal entry, wondering how many chimp bodies I’d be forced to count in my relatively short stay here.
Looking out the front door, I saw a man approach, careful to avoid the huge mud in the yard from the previous night’s tremendous rainfall.
...I recognized him... from our police karate class and he approached me and spilt Lingala out in such a rapid pace that I had to hold him by the shoulder to stop him for enough time to tell him I didn’t understand.
Gracia and Beya came out, and translated for me.
“He says you and Adam need to come to the police station,” translated Gracia. “He says that the baby is there, not dead.”
Confusion swept over me, and then over Adam, and I wasn’t sure what to think other than that I should be extremely wary. Sure we’d been teaching the police karate for nearly a month now, but being summoned to the police station is never something that should be taken lightly.
We brought Djodjo with us and walked delicately through the mud, when, on the road some hundred yards from the police station, we heard a chimp screaming.
Our pace quickened, and upon arrival at the police station we found the two men originally accused of eating the baby (by their own admission), along with every other policeman in the station.
We also saw the captain and the lieutenant, the latter of whom has always been very genteel with us and is eager to please in karate classes.
I asked the lieutenant who it had been who had spread the lie about the baby being eaten, and the lieutenant tried to convince me that it was just an assumption that Richard had made, that no one had actually said so.
Apparently even the parameters of friendship do not exclude flagrant lies in Congo.
He explained to me that the men who had seized the chimp had used gas, and had given the baby food, and wasn’t it only right that I give them a whole bunch of money.
So, in French (which even in retrospect was not perfect but still very compelling), I explained to him that, by our very strict policy we only ever gave primes of $1 for the finding of a chimpanzee orphan.
And that, even if they used gas and were honorable men, if I gave them the money for their trouble that they asked for, the many witnesses at the police station would certainly tell their wives, who would tell their neighbours, who would tell their friends, who would tell their neighbours, and soon, the entire town of Aketi would be buzzing about all the money that the whites had paid for a baby chimpanzee.
Looking him directly in the eyes, entreatingly willing him to understand, he was clearly unhappy, but conceded that I had a very valid point.
He beckoned for one of his men to cut the cord attaching the baby to the pole outside of the door to the prison, and Djodjo picked up the baby while Adam severed the cord tied around the baby’s waist.
We spoke a bit about the next Jujitsu class, and picked a path through the mud back to our home.
Djodjo is with little Souza now (the name he was given by his captors). The police, while seizing the infant, did nothing to the hunters who killed his mother, but little Souza Siforco might hopefully have a happier ending.
It will mean a lot of work, but if we can save one more life, it will be worth it.
Pictures to follow.
Addendum: I confirmed with Djodjo that it had in fact been one of the policemen who had confessed to the baby’s killing and eating, and when he described the man Adam and I knew him from the classes immediately.
We don’t know why the lie was started, except perhaps to emotionally extort us into giving money to the captain. It obviously didn’t work, but I guess overall, the idea behind it is no less upsetting.