Thursday, April 16, 2009

More Press

Bravo to Cleve!,7340,L-3700963,00.html

The Final Distance

It’s now been two weeks since I crossed the border from Goma, DRC to Gisenyi, Rwanda.

It feels like a hundred years ago, and it’s no wonder that, sitting in comfort at the JGI house in Entebbe, that I’m loathe to recount our hurried journey out of Congo.

But here we go.


Touching down at Kavumu airport outside of Bukavu was like a dream. We’d made it, and though Aketi Kigoma had screamed through the last hour of the flight, refusing to be comforted, the rest of the chimps seemed calm.

We’d given Kathé our water bottles to play with, mostly to distract her from untying the various ropes and vines we’d used to repair her cage, and she was in a zen place, unscrewing and rescrewing the cap to her heart’s content.

Bolungwa and Django were sleeping, though one of them had felt the need to relieve themselves during the flight. Small plane with five chimps and four people, sharing the ventilation system with a dook? Always a good time.

ICCN was at the airport to meet us, along with about 40 other people who all proceeded to introduce themselves to me as I tried to keep my wits about me and make sure that all of our belongings were offloaded and that the chimps were okay.

I got to meet Ainare, the interim manager of Lwiro, who supervised loading the chimps into the pick-ups. Both she and I were unhappy by the number of people insisting on clustering around the chimps, so we tried to move as quickly as possible. To keep Kathé from attempting any escape maneuvers in the bed of the pick-up, Ainare, a vet, tranqed her and Adam and I were hustled to the airport DGM’s office.

I felt extremely bad that there was chimp poop in the MAF plane, but had absolutely nothing to clean it up with. I only hoped Joey and Jon could forgive us!

Adam went first to the DGM’s while I handled the last few logistical things on the tarmac before joining him, only to discover that he was already encountering problems. It was here too on the tarmac that I learned by phone of our staff’s arrest, and of the warrant that had been issued for Adam.

What should have felt like a purely exuberant day of success was already feeling more like a bad film.

Inside the airport DGM’s office, the immigration chief was questioning the visas we had obtained in Buta in January. We’d been issued ATLP’s, which, according to him, weren’t valid unless our passports were sent to Kinshasa to be issued actual visas. None of this, of course, had been told to us when we got the “visas,” which were listed in Bukavu as a $45 document (but for which we had paid $150 per person). We had a receipt, and technically the ATLPs were due to expire on the 2nd of April, but he angrily insisted that we were in the country illegally and was very firm on his plan of taking us to the bigwig DGM in Bukavu this very minute, with police escorts.

As you can imagine, this was the last thing we needed, but, additionally, Kathé’s knockout was only going to last so long and we were now under a time constraint to get back to the Sanctuary before she woke up.

Ainare convinced the DGM that we would return after depositing the chimps, and that, in return, he could hold onto our passports.

I am, in general, extremely reluctant to let go of my passport but I’d rather go without my passport for 1.5 hours than have Kathé wake up in the back of the pickup truck and freak out.

So off we went. I remember being in sort of a trauma-haze, worrying about our guys in jail, and trying to figure out my next move, all while sitting in the flatbed of the second pickup with the other four chimps - Aketi, Mangé, Django and Bo - trying to reassure them as we bounced and jostled through the rough volcanic-rock roads of South Kivu Province, barely managing not to fall out of the truck, my bra, and all the while fielding frantic phonecalls from Cleve, in Holland, who probably felt equally responsible for the predicament of our staff and equally helpless to save them as quickly as we both wanted to.

We did finally arrive at Lwiro, and Adam and I jumped out of the pickup to deposit our bags at the house and arrange ourselves for the trip back out to the airport to deal with our visa issues while the driver brought the chimps to the new dormitory, where they would be quarantined until their introduction with the remaining population of Lwiro.

Time was once again against us -- it was a 45 minute drive between the sanctuary and the airport, and South Kivu is simply not safe to drive in during the night -- we had to therefore hurry back to the DGM’s to retrieve our passports before darkness set in a little more than 2 hours.

I couldn’t reach my mom, but I managed to reach Rachel and let her know that we’d made it alright. She wasn’t happy to hear that Adam was a fugitive and that we’d relinquished our passports, but she promised to just let my mother know that I was “alright”.

When we finally arrived at the airport again, the sun was aglow in the warm yellow haze just before setting, and it illuminated the ridiculous reflector shades of the policeman who stopped our car at the airport gate. Though Ainare had paid for a 24 hour pass into the airport, the policeman was intent on us paying to enter the airport again -- $120!!

Though my patience was at its end and my stress levels near enough to popping my eyeballs from my head, I explained to him that we were only going to see the DGM and retrieve our passports, and then leave.

I must have looked a sight, as I saw my frazzled hair and wide-eyes in the reflection of his sunglasses, but he waved his hand non-chalantly to allow us to pass, as though he disdained us for not wanting to pay again to enter the airport.

We didn’t have as much luck at the second checkpoint. The officer there, luminescent in his safety-cone-orange trenchcoat, refused to let our car pass. When we offered to walk to the immigration office by foot, he pointed at me brusquely, saying in broken English, “You, okay” and, swinging his accusatory finger at Adam, “Him, no!”

Telling Adam it would be alright and leaving him at the hands of the various street urchins begging at the airport gate, I walked to the DGM’s office, imagining that I’d just be able to retrieve our passports and go.


The DGM was busy issuing some sort of fine to a UN woman who had (gasp!) taken photographs at the airport. He seemed to relish making her wait, which of course also translated into making me wait, as the sun crept farther and farther toward the horizon.

I’ll never understand how exactly being tricked and bamboozled by immigration put us at fault, but as I struggled to gain sympathy from these airport DGMs, I realized that there was no way that I was going to get our passports back. As a woman, you can get away with more in these sorts of situations, but even crying didn’t cause these two guys to yield.

One of them, who finally broke and did seem to feel bad, offered to accompany us to Bukavu the following day to visit the DGM. He’d rest with our passports that night, but assured me that he’d arrive at our house at 7:30am with a taxi to take us the 2.5 hour ride to Bukavu.

We’d originally hoped to spend lots of time at Lwiro -- but it seemed this visa problem was going to stymie any hopes we’d had of just relaxing and celebrating our success. With each new roadblock we encountered, it was feeling less and less like success anyway.

Additionally, though I played it close so as not to worry him, I didn’t know what Adam’s arrest warrant would mean for our departure plans. I mean, I couldn’t imagine that it could make its way east in less than 2 years, but it’s not the kind of thing you want to bet on and then lose. As I say often, there are lots of things in Congo that can be thought of as funny, but Congolese prison is just not one of them.

Our new plan was therefore to head to Bukavu the following day, see the DGM, and then board the boat to Goma and cross into Rwanda before the expiration of our fake visas on April 2nd.

It was probably fortuitous that I ran into a man in the DGM’s office whose name was literally “Of the Forest” -- and who was indeed a jungle savior, not only for his detailed knowledge of the boat schedules, but for his friendliness and offer to book us two places on the Wednesday boat at 11am.

Heading back towards the car, I ran into Adam, who I suppose had finally been deemed Not a Threat by the technicolor policeman (Adam was, after all, wearing the Peter the Penguin shirt I made him. Not very threatening) and allowed into the airport grounds.

He too was not happy about our passport situation, but there are some things you can fight constantly and lose or just accept that you’re not going to win and move on from.

We sped back to the sanctuary, and managed to arrive just as the darkness had finally descended. We sat for a long time with the Coopera girls and vented our day’s frustrations. It’s also always a bit jarring when fellow Congo-workers turn to you and tell you you’re brave, and that they’d never have gone through what you did. It, at least, puts things into perspective.

I’d been up since 3 am, but couldn’t sleep quite yet, so we went down to our beautiful room, where Adam took a much-needed hot shower and I flopped on our tiny, ever-so-comfortable bunkbed. My mother called me, and as I recounted the day’s events I felt myself getting more and more upset. Cleve and I spoke too, never a moment to pause and reflect, always more to do, never finished.

Our workers were still in jail, so I didn’t feel right even celebrating the triumph that was getting the chimps to Lwiro, and instead I just lay in the bed, crying not out of sadness but out of the overflow of emotion from the whole day.

Dinner was delicious - spaghetti with sauce and CHEESE and we had great company with the Coopera staff of Lwiro. We didn’t head back down the hill to our room until around 9:30 or 10, and I realized that if we left at 7:30am the following morning, it would be extremely difficult not only to say goodbye to our babies, but I wouldn’t even get to see my kids from Goma.

We texted the airport DGM, and asked him if he could come with the taxi later in the day -- maybe 10:30? Thankfully, he agreed, and not only did we have a schedule the following day that was more lax, but we could sleep in a little, too!

The next morning we had CORNFLAKES (!!) and milk! and I got to catch up with one of my original caregivers from Goma - Balume - who is now one of the HEAD caregivers at Lwiro and doing spectacularly.

We headed over through the mud to see our kids first, who seemed to be adjusting quite well! Kathé was a bit miffed at being indoors, and Aketi was more shell-shocked than anything else, immediately clinging to Adam and falling asleep, but Django and Bolungwa were delighted by all the new foods they were being offered!! And Mangé was, well, still Mangé.

It certainly made ME realize, in any case, how much we’d accomplished, and our goodbyes -- our last goodbyes for a long time -- were extremely hard. Bolungwa didn’t want to let me go, and though we had to rush to be ready for the taxi at 10:30, the feeling was mutual.

Before heading back to the house, we also stopped at the enclosure of the other chimps, and to my great delight, coming over to the enclosure’s periphery, were my kids from Goma. They recognized me, reaching out, curious, wanting me to come over ... ignoring the food that was being proffered at the other end of the enclosure. They were SO BIG I could NOT believe it! I could barely recognize Yongesa, she’d gotten so big! But Kanabiro and Gari and Shege had the SAME faces -- and once again, I found my face streaming with tears, wanting to hold them, seeing them happy, healthy... such a rush of emotions.

Because I’d been around chimps who were in quarantine, it was a bad idea for me to interact with my Goma kids. I had to watch from a distance, encouraging me all the more to come back sooner.

As we hurried back to the house to bring up our bags for the taxi, forgetting that time is forgotten in Congo, I realized too how sad I was to leave Ainare, whom I’d only just met but was already extremely fond of.

Our taxi did indeed come, though, and it took us nearly 3 hours of struggling through the mud, rain, and rocky terrain to finally arrive in Bukavu.

Compounding all of our other worries was our shrinking cash - we’d paid salaries and helped out people before leaving Aketi, including our “fee” to leave via plane to our “friend” the extortive official. And, though my mother had agreed to Western Union us some money to Bukavu, we decided it was best to receive the money after our meeting with the DGM.

The airport DGM, however, was sort of nice and friendly during our 3 hour taxi ride, and we talked with him *somewhat* liberally, though still leaving out pertinent parts of our harrowing journey. Out of all the DGMs we’d yet encountered, I’d probably trust him most with our lives, though all of them are technically mandated in the job description to protect us.

The DGM’s compound in Bukavu was not-so-surprisingly nicer than any we’d yet encountered in our tour of Central Congo. It had four walls, a lack of goats or miscellaneous poultry in the lobby, and instead, was furnished with ornately posh white leather sofas. (Why people in a hot country always go for leather, I’ll never know)

Upon entering the office, however, it seemed routine and familiar. Papers were stacked everywhere with tiny hand-written labels saying things like “Protestant Missionaries” (a big pile) and “Catholic Missionaries” (an even bigger pile), this office held FOUR desks, each with a man dressed in a fine suit.

We weren’t exactly sure which one was the DGM, so as I explained our situation I tried to look each of the four men in the eye. Somewhat less powerful, but hopefully more useful.

Predictably, while two of the men stayed silent, the other two broke off into the “Good Cop, Bad Cop” routine.

Bad Cop was intent on us printing more of our documents, sure that we had somehow conspired to be against the law.

Good Cop conversed extensively with the other 2 mutes, in Lingala, and I picked up maybe 60% of it, unbeknownst to them, mostly a conversation about not wanting Congo to look bad.

Bad Cop suggested that we get 2 1-month visas at $90 each, despite the fact that we were leaving the country the next day and our existing paperwork didn’t expire until the 2nd.

Even though I cried on cue, the fact of the matter was that we had paid FAR more for some documents that were illegitimate, but not yet expired. Not only was it not fair to penalize us for being tricked, but we’d already paid $100 more per ATLP, and they wanted us to pay $180 on top of that?!

I explained too that we had no money, which was true, despite our having money waiting for us at the Western Union. Bad Cop, infuriated by the fact that we were not cushioning our pith helmets with Benjamins like perhaps other whites he’d encountered, stormed from the office, claiming he was off to find a solution.

For me, at any rate, I felt that inner tension rise as Good Cop insisted that he call the DGM in Kisangani, the boss of the DGM who issued us the fake visa, to inform him of his lackey’s treachery! I wasn’t sure how far Adam’s arrest warrant had made it, so imagine my relief when they seemed to talk of nothing but trickery and less of our Wanted status.

Bad Cop eventually came back in, a proud smile on his face, claiming that he’d found a solution... for us to get 2 1-month visas at $90/each. Hadn’t I heard this one before?

I explained to him again that we didn’t have the money and that we would leave the country tomorrow, but no one ever said conversation in Congo was efficient. Oh, and he also said that we would recoup our money from the Buta DGM once their investigation was finished, somehow trying to encourage us to cough up the $180. Um, recoup our money that was trickily thieved from us? Try not to laugh out loud at THAT one!

They asked us why we weren’t leaving via Bukavu, and continually peppered us with questions about why we’d gotten fake visas, as though we’d had a choice, and why chimpanzees were important at all.

Trying to keep calm and under-the-radar, even after Bad Cop came back into the room with a “new solution” (2 1-month visas at $90 each), it was slightly disturbing to have a new gentleman come into the room and start talking to me about how there was a different sanctuary in Congo that was going to seize all of Lwiro’s chimps. What?!

Not a time to start a fight, I just pretended that I didn’t really understand him.

We waited and waited and waited. At the mark of the third hour, my crocodile tears only partially dried, and with one additional visit from Bad Cop once again suggesting his $180 bailout plan (that was once again rejected), Good Cop finally said that he couldn’t give us new visas for free, but that he would enable our departure from the country the following day, calling all of the relevant people to make sure we wouldn’t have problems.

We even got his phone number, and piled into our taxi to head away, our passports in hand. (HURRAY!) The first hotel, run by a conservationist in Bukavu, was sadly full, so imagine our relief when a nearby hotel, THE HORIZON, had room for us - a big, luxurious room with a bathtub and a TV and a huge squishy bed.

I left Adam to load our stuff into the room, and rushed with our cab driver to the Western Union to pick up the money from my mother. It was, however, closed, and as we raced through the traffic of Bukavu looking for one that was open, I realized that the poverty I claimed in the DGM’s office was perhaps realer and DID necessitate real tears... all the while wondering whether THE HORIZON took IOU’s.

Finally, we found an open Western Union, and our problems were, for the moment, solved. It still didn’t leave us much money to get out of the country, we had to pay the $50/each for the boat ride, and we had to buy our Ugandan visas.

Eating food at THE HORIZON that night was a dream -- bedraggled in our locally-made Congolese outfits, the few bits of clothing we hadn’t given away -- mushrooms on toast for me, BEEF for Adam, cold beers! Things that shouldn’t be tear-inducing sometimes are, despite your tough veneer.

We had only one day left to go -- one day left in Congo -- one more day susceptible to the arrest warrant -- and though there was only one day left it dragged on and on and on.

We did get to the boat docks by 10 am the next day to make our 11 am boat to Goma, and, thanks to De La Forêt, our two reservations were indeed already booked. No one had mentioned to us, however, that we only got 10kg of luggage a piece, but thankfully I had just barely had the extra $43 to pay in excess baggage charges.

There was, of course, a DGM at the docks, to whom we had to explain the whole story ... again. More alarming, however, was the HORDES of military and policemen at the docks. Maybe under regular circumstances it would just make me uncomfortable, but considering our urgent departure needs, it was all the more disquieting. Not helpful was the fact that they all hung around us, asking for money. At least regular beggars don’t have guns! (but do they have *bullets*?)

My heart did stop, however, when a man ran over to us, wearing a bright pink and red shirt that had lots of prints of different kinds of ladies’ shoes on it.

“Are you Lola?” he panted at me.

How much I wanted to say No and run, (RUN, LOLA, RUN!!) but considering I was between a fence and a lake, I had to concede that yes, I was “Lola” and waited for whatever bad news or obstacle he had in store for me.

Imagine my surprise when he was not a harbinger of doom, but an envoy of the Good Cop from the day before, making sure that we were okay. He’d apparently been sent down to the docks at 6 am to wait for us, but had missed us (who knows how), and wanted to make sure we hadn’t had trouble with our Fake Visas.

How nice, as a sendoff from Congo, to have Good Cop been true to his word. Of course, ShoeShirt man still asked for money, which we didn’t have to give him, but hey, it is Congo.

When we finally boarded the boat, it was SUCH a relief, despite one particularly large military man claiming that “Mama Lola” was “abandoning” him (I’d refused to give him money). Despite the boat being full though, it didn’t leave, and as I sat with a front-row view of the countless military and police officers on the dock, my stomach dropped and I was reminded of that moment on the plane in Aketi, just willing the driver/pilot to GO GO GO before it was too late!

It turns out the military & police were there to wish a farewell to some big official, who showed up predictably late, holding up the boat, and as the military guys goosestepped to greet him on the docks, we couldn’t help but snigger. Funnier too was the camera man who accompanied him onto the boat as he took his seat, filming him with great interest. It’ll be a box office hit for sure!

And, as the boat took off across Lake Kivu, the volcanoes at its periphery silhouetted in the grey morning, we were finally on our way.

I would imagine that airlines have a “no” list of movies they shouldn’t show on airplanes, like Con Air or United 93 or maybe even Soul Plane.

Why this $50 luxury boat travel company chose to show Speed 2 then is beyond me (it’s about a cruise ship being overtaken and all the passengers being evacuated, etc). Why not Poseidon or even better, Titanic? At least Titanic is more watchable than Speed 2, and as we watched with the bizarre French dubbing, we couldn’t help but laugh at inappropriately dramatic places.

Worse, however, was the local standup comedy DVD afterwards, performed by a Congolese guy who’d traveled to Belgium. As you can probably guess, most of the jokes were about how CRAZZZZZYYY white people were. I’d equate it with being at the Apollo. Every time this stand-up guy would make some comment about white people in Congo, everyone in the boat turned and looked at us.

Always fun!

But we did finally arrive in Goma, and, our savior, Don, who works at the US Embassy was there to greet us. He stood by as we visited our second-to-last DGM at the port (can you believe how many we had to see just to get out of the country!?), making sure we were alright. This DGM was a bit more enterprising/weasly than the previous 2, and tried to tell me that there was a mandatory fee for every white coming to Goma, a lie I didn’t buy for a minute (and I had a burly Embassy guy to back me up).

With the proper names thrown around, however, he released us without paying a nickel, and Don’s driver drove us away from the port and towards Rwanda at last.

Goma has changed SO much since I was last there -- they’ve built it up considerably and even the elephant graveyard is covered in huge buildings now! The Lebanese restaurant is gone, and Don was eager regardless to get us OUT of the country instead of having lunch there anyway.

It was wonderfully familiar, though, and I was almost sad I couldn’t stay longer.


Arriving at the border, I saw that it too had changed. Last visit, it had been a drab, grey building riddled with bullet holes. They had since painted it bright blue and yellow and red (the flag colors) and they even had a COMPUTER inside the office, though it didn’t seem like anyone knew how to use it.

We, once again, had to explain our situation, and Good Cop in Bukavu hadn’t quite gotten around to calling anyone at THIS post, so a few tense minutes were spent as the border guard eyed our paperwork suspiciously.

He insisted that we leave the receipt and the ATLPs there so that they could “investigate the fraud” -- however much of a joke this may or may not have been, we had gotten out of Congo without having to pay a dime, and if it cost 3 pieces of paper, so be it.

We got back into the car, Don and I both encouraging Adam not to dance until after we GOT to Rwanda, and zoomed through the barrier.

Rwanda was, of course, easy. I know my passport number by heart after filling out so many of these little cards, but for Americans, Rwanda is FREE ENTRY because it’s just that cool.

Don dropped us off at the hotel in Rwanda, and we excitedly made plans for lunch there the following day together. The hotel brought us hot towels to wash our faces, and cold champagne.

It was then that we knew we were free. Freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.


We’ll be posting more entries eventually, organizing posts and fixing old tags and uploading more photos once we get back to America. I’m also hoping to post a “hilarious search terms that found my blog” entry.

Thank you for tuning in. Once all the research stuff is squared away, I’ll also post an entry thanking the people who helped me immensely with that. But for a while, this will be the last entry.

Questions? Comments?

Email me at

Interested in helping chimpanzees? Please consider making a donation to Lwiro!!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Some More Thank Yous

The response to our struggle and success has been overwhelming, but we need to reiterate that we could not have done it alone!

Thank you again to:

Cleve Hicks
Debby Cox
Radar Nishuli
Carmen Vidal
Ainare Idoiaga
Petrus Viengele
Leopold Kalala
Claudine André
Shirley McGreal/IPPL
Joey Lincoln/MAF
Jon Cadd/MAF
Polycarpe Kisangola
Terese Hart
Andy Plumptre
Don Webb
Elizabeth Cook, DVM
Timothy Mann, DVM
Janice Gleason Skow
Hans Wasmoeth
Sunny Kortz
Carol Gould

While our guys in Aketi are out of jail, they're still being harassed on a daily basis. We work every day, fielding phonecalls in at least 3 different languages and using SkypeOut credit faster than we can wait for the page to load to recharge it!

The struggle isn't yet over, and I still have a LOT of blog entries to write! But today we voyage to Entebbe via car! More adventure is still ahead!

Photos From the Pilot

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Whole Story

This hotel in Rwanda is even nicer than I remembered. I sit on the balcony, listening to the sound of the waves hitting the shore and Bach and it’s so serene that I feel like I could cry.

I’ve been doing a lot of that recently. As I told Don and Stu yesterday, I feel like a teenage girl again.

And I’ve been loathe to write this entry -- to try and make our adventures as compelling as possible, as I write I transplant myself back to the scene, remembering vividly what it felt like so that I can best convey the life of the scene.

But I don’t want to go back to the airfield in Aketi again. Imagining the scene fills me with the same fear of the day itself -- and as I feel my heart sink into the pit of my stomach, all I can remember is how close we nearly were to losing everything we had worked so hard to achieve -- and how near to us failure became for that hour on Monday morning.

I will try anyway, however, to recount it as best I can


Monday, by 9 am, had felt like a long day already. The sun was particularly hot, and both my temper and those of the workers were short as we’d all had little sleep, and they were on the cusp of losing work while I was on the knife’s edge between wild success and disastrous failure.

Though we had given the chimps valium earlier in the morning, it had worn off too by 9 am and they were restless, hungry, and wondering what in the world was going on. Thanks to the Valium, we’d been able to take the chimps across the airfield to the river before the sun came up without being caged, and they continued to be uncaged, romping through the underbrush at the sides of an extremely narrow path cutting through the dense undergrowth where we sat hidden. It was off of the main path, so the countless ladies with their empty wood collection baskets who passed by didn’t even notice us.

It was impossible to find shade, and everyone looked pensive. In addition to sweating, I felt an unusual tightness in my chest, my eyes focussed on the narrow path towards us.

At about 9:30am, my eyes caught sight of an official, but quickly realized it was just Papa B, our extortive “friend.” It was his job to authorize the plane to land, and he’d been the only person told the specifics of our plan. He rarely wore his uniform, so it was rather funny to see as he made his way through the underbrush, trying not to get dirty or rumpled even as the leaves and branches pulled at his neatly pressed shirt.

He was, of course, visiting to discuss the subject of payment -- he was willing to offer us a “discount” but he wanted to ensure that I would pay him before everyone came. Nothing says “I’m going to take this money under the table” than a persistent demand to have the money in secret, right?

He assured us, however, counting the last stack of our meager remaining money, that he would protect us in the hours ahead.

So we waited.

The wait was indeed painful -- I could barely believe there was a plane coming even as I’d booked and confirmed it, and a deep-seated fear nagged at me that the plane would never come. In the interim, we tested out the cages, and discovered problems immediately. The bigger cylindrical cage had its door sticks too far apart, and Bolungwa escaped after only 10 minutes of trying.

As it was already 9:30, we set to fixing that cage immediately.

Aketi didn’t take to being caged, and, frustrated, took it out on Mangé, who isn’t much of a fighter, or a lover. More of a rocker/floor-cleaner. We separated them and left Mangé in the cage and let Aketi roam free, keeping an eye on him as he was still showing signs of valium haze.

Kathé was another story -- she was the only chimp for whom we’d made a wooden planks cage, as she’s far bigger and stronger than the rest of the kids. We’d made many modifications already with the carpenter, and now all that remained was to put Kathé inside and nail the top shut.

Kathé, tranquilized but not tranquil, had other ideas. It took six of us to get her inside, and it took her six seconds to escape.

The side bars were too far apart, despite all of our modifications. We had to think FAST.

I sent guys out to cut small branches, and we worked feverishly to make additional lattices on the sides and prevent further escape.

Laughing at us, Kathé rolled in the grass next to the cage, calm and flopped.

Our second attempts to get her into the cage were easier, but she immediately set out to untie all of the vine-knots that were holding the lattices in place. It was now 10:15am, so I figured it was a good time to get out to the airfield.

Carrying the three cages and Aketi separately, who was sleepy and heavy with Valium, we made our way out to the airfield.

Local people cutting wood and what-not were immediately intrigued and followed us closely, with no mind to our personal space OR the chimpanzees’. It was all I could do to run at them screaming to get them to move back and away from the chimps, but with the help of all of our staff out at the airfield, we managed to get a bit of breathing room.

Out of the protective shelter of the trees, however, it was hot, and as the sun razed our flesh and our patience, I wondered if the plane was ever coming. We put Aketi back in with Mangé, and the heat lulled them into a temporary truce.

As I contemplated despair, Polycarpe looked at me, an excited gleam in his eyes -- “I hear a plane!” he said.

And sure enough, five minutes later, the small black speck was visible from the ground. The plane circled around, becoming louder and louder until finally, it touched down.

Adam ran to me, tears of joy streaming down his face, “It’s here, it’s here!”

I couldn’t believe it! But our work was not done yet.

We introduced ourselves to Joey and Jon, who were two very cool and laid back pilots indeed! They started refueling immediately, as we loaded our luggage into the plane and prepared to the load the chimps as well, still a hundred feet from the plane in their cages.

The bags loaded, I headed over toward the cages, and my heart dropped as I saw the very thing I’d been dreading -- Mr Moibi -- decked again in his blueberry shirt.

At first I fooled myself into thinking that perhaps he was just there to wish us a fare-thee-well, but as he pushed documents in front of my face, menacing me and commencing a loud angry tirade about the $8,000 tax bill, my stomach dropped and it was all I could do to keep myself from falling or puking.

He pulled from his pants pocket a crinkled, torn note -- an invitation, to the ATE’s office -- to discuss the matter of documents and insisted that I accompany him immediately.

My heart raced, and as I returned to the plane to pull the additional documents we photocopied and prepared ahead of time -- a just in case for exactly this scenario -- I felt the rush of fear, that desperate urge to just get on the plane and flee. But the pilots had ten minutes left to continue refueling. It wasn’t an option.

I returned to Mister Moibi and tried to explain clearly, quickly, politely, succinctly, that we were within the Congolese Law, had permission from Kinshasa (the big boys), and that the pilots had a very tight schedule to keep that couldn’t be delayed. All of this was true, but it did not stop him from coming very close to my face, his breath even hot after the morning of equatorial sunshine, and whispering, his eyes narrowed menacingly, “I will take these chimpanzees from you,” he hissed.

He announced to the increasingly large crowd of spectators that we were all going back across the river to the office, and he beckoned to one of his goons (not in a uniform or anything) to grab the chimps.

The goon took Aketi Kigoma by the leg from between the bars of the cage -- and inside the cage there was no way he could defend himself and he screamed, terrified, struggling to release this stranger’s grip.

Everyone was screaming -- the din in an outdoor space was incredible -- and as Aketi shrieked in fear, the other chimpanzees followed suit, shaking their cages, afraid.

We screamed at this man to let Aketi go -- not only was he scaring Aketi, but he was in danger of being bitten or worse!

He did not listen, however, and in a moment of father’s protectiveness, Adam rushed over to push the man away from the cage. The man, startled, stepped back, as Adam placed himself between the two.

We rushed to phone our emergency contacts in Kinshasa. They confirmed that we were within the law, and we relayed this to Mister Moibi, who insisted, louder and louder, that we were not IN Kinshasa.

Mister Moibi, undeterred, clutched the documents and left the field, and we continued loading the chimps and our things onto the plane.

Five minutes later, he returned with a man we knew quite well who worked for the ANR -- an agency I’ve mentioned before is much like the CIA of Congo. Trying to remain calm, though it felt impossible in the heat and suffocation of the crowd, we explained to this ANR man what our plans were, and showed him our documents from ICCN as well as our detention permit.

As I tried to explain rationally our situation, Mister Moibi screamed over me, trying to contradict everything I said. Finally, the ANR man asked him to please be quiet. I could not help but grin.

“Are you contesting the legitimacy of these documents?” he asked Mister Moibi.

“No,” he said, confused. “Yes,” he said. He proceeded to try and relay the history of our alleged tax responsibility.

“Hold on,” the ANR man said to him. “This document [the detention permit] has a stamp on it, and its signed. Even if it’s false, it’s not their fault. They’re within the law” He then turned to us, smiling and friendly, and thanked us for our time in Aketi. He shook our hands, and helped me get into the plane.

Mister Moibi looked crest-fallen. His ally had basically said, even if he was right, he was still wrong!

I knew, however, that it most likely wasn’t over. We hurried ourselves to finish readying the plane, and said tearful goodbyes to our staff. Random people came over and stood in front of us by the plane, as another man with a camera took photographs for money. It was certainly surreal.

We kept looking towards the entrance of the airfield, waiting, but we had so much preparation to do. We had a little extra time, since it took about 10 minutes to cross the river by pirogue, but we would still be happier and more likely to succeed the quicker we could move.

People stood by our windows, asking us for money with obscure hand gestures as we secured the final straps around the chimps’ cages. We closed all of the doors of the plane, as everyone outside continued to make a remarkably loud goodbye. But when the noise seemed to increase significantly, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to turn around and see Kathé, our big female, OUT of her cage and pressing her face against the plane window.

She’d escaped again, and really now, time was a serious issue. I barely remembered to take photographs -- we vaulted the seats, taking Kathé in our arms.

She’d slipped through two of the planks, despite our lattice of sticks and vine, and she seemed completely unable to go back in the way she’d come out. Jon, the pilot, cleverly grabbed some tools and we worked on un-nailing one of the planks to give us enough space to put Kathé back in. We’d had to open up the back of the plane again to let Djodjo and Antoine (two caregivers) in to help. As Kathé cried out in stress, the crowd mocked her, yelling back. It was awful to see.

My eyes were restless, bouncing back from Kathé to the entrance of the airfield and back again to Kathé.

We managed to get Kathé back inside, trying to fortify the lattice with extra straps, ropes and what-not from the plane, ever-conscious as the minutes ticked by.

We finally decided to put the cargo net over the cages to prevent any sort of escape, and once it was secured to the floor, we were ready to go.

The pilots were nearly ready to go, with only the two side doors open still for ventilation from the heat.

About to leave, an official we’d had mixed dealings with previously came over with a policeman.

“The Administrator is coming,” he said. “You must wait.”

At this point, however, the pilots were already behind schedule and we really needed to go.

“We’re with the law here,” I explained from my seat. “And we really can’t wait. The pilots need to be in Bukavu by 14:00.”

“I understand,” said the man, “but he’ll be here really soon!”

“Get out of the plane!!” the accompanying policeman said.

The pilot, Joey, intervened. “We really can’t,” he said, “we’ve got to go.” With that, he turned on the front propellers, momentarily distracting the two men standing below the driver’s side door, allowing us time to close it and lock it.

It was only as the propellers whirred faster and faster that people cleared off of the airfield and away from the plane. We moved slowly to the end of the runway, preparing to turn around to take off. My eyes were peeled, unblinking, at the entrance of the airfield. We wouldn’t be safe... the chimps wouldn’t be safe... until we were off the ground.

The runway was so much bumpier than it had looked as we accelerated towards the other end. But as we felt the wheels leave the ground, Adam and I embraced one another in tears of relief, stress, and fatigue.

The chimps were free. Nothing could have felt better.

The flight felt quick in comparison to the morning, though Aketi Kigoma probably would have disagreed. Most of the other chimps slept (and pooped in poor Jon’s plane), but he spent much of the last hour screaming. Though we tried to comfort him, it was little help. I knew how he felt!

Landing in Kavumu airport, ICCN was there to meet us and guard the chimpanzees from any additional problems.

It still seemed packed, as countless strangers introduced themselves to me, when all I really cared about was the chimps.

Ainare, the interim sanctuary manager of Lwiro, was also there to meet us and it was wonderful to finally meet her in person!

We needed to meet with the DGM (of course) to register our immigration so I sent Adam along with our passports while I handled things by the plane, and talked to Cleve, only to discover that Polycarpe and the rest of our workers in Aketi had been taken to prison.

Even less rational was an arrest warrant that had been issued for Adam, as the story inflated itself with lies and exaggerations regarding his protection of Aketi Kigoma AND the man who was grabbing him on the airfield.

It was a terrible development in a story we’d been hoping could be a finished success, but it was only one of a hundred things going on at the time.

I walked over to accompany Adam at the DGM’s office and was encountered with a new problem -- the visas we’d been issued in Buta in January were INVALID. Not only that, but we’d been sold $45 documents for $300. Thankfully, we had receipts, but the airport DGM was intent on making us pay for our “illegal residence” in Congo and wanted us to come with him ... with the police ... to Bukavu immediately.

Of course, Lwiro is only 45 minutes from the airport, but 2.5 hours from Bukavu, so our going there at 3pm in the afternoon was pretty impossible.

Ainare convinced him to hold onto our passports, and told him we’d be back later that night to discuss options. Because we’d had to untie the plane’s ropes and straps from Kathé’s cage, I’d had fear she would escape from her cage while in the back of the pickup truck. Ainare, a veterinarian, had therefore sedated her but it meant that we were under a quickly-evaporating window of time in which to drive the 45 minutes back to the sanctuary.

The DGM agreed, so off we were, on the never-ending quest to give me grey hairs. I sat in the bed of the pickup truck with the chimps, trying to keep from being knocked unconscious by my own breasts or jettisoned right out of the truck as we rocked and bounced over the muddy, rocky, Congolese roads.

The chimps seemed calmer, probably too tired and hungry to care further.

And then we ARRIVED. I will post photos of the arrival, and I’m sure the staff there has additional photos and video as we released the chimps into a holding cage in the new dormitory as it is being completed.

They met their new caregiver, Claude, and ate and ate and ate. East Congo has such a wonderful variety of food and Aketi Kigoma literally crawled INTO the bucket of food and hoarded the bounty for three hours before he’d leave!

We’ll write later about our further struggles with the DGM, and getting the guys out of prison in Aketi, and our trip out of Congo and everything else, but all that matters now is that the chimps are safe.

We continue to be tired and feel defeated, but this fact -- that, despite its high price in many ways -- the overall success of the Aketi Five will always buoy our spirits.

Thanks again for all of your support, and thank you to Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation and MAF for flying us out, and IPPL for helping us fund the evacuation.

More entries to come, stay tuned.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

On a Lighter Note

While I write about some of the serious drama and trauma of the past 3 days, I thought it’d be fun to share a link that Inf sent me:

I Don’t Want to Leave The Congo

Wow, what a week

First off, I would like to say that we won!!!!!!! We first got the chimps to the Lwiro Sanctuary in Bukavu and we are out of Congo!!!!! We are staying in a fancy hotel in Rwanda right now. For those who don't know, Rwanda is great. There is no corruption, it is free for American Visas, it's clean, they have an excellent President and it's great. It's sad that when people in the U.S. think of Rwanda and they only know the genocide of 15 years ago. This country has made leaps and bounds since then and it's beautiful and filled with tourists. Gisenyi is great, you can drink the water out of the tap!

Okay enough about Rwanda, here is what happened. On Monday, we took the chimps out of Aketi. We woke up at 3AM, woke up the chimps at 4:30 to give them sedatives and took them across the river at 5AM to the airfield and hid in the bushes. We struggle to get the chimps in the cage and wait for the plane. The plane comes around 11 and there are a million people there. What we didn't want. As we wait for the plane to refuel and load the baggage and the chimps, the local 'adjutant' supposedly in charge of the environment is coming trying to stop us. He tried to hold the chimps and prevent us from leaving. The workers and I start loading the plane anyways. A man not wearing any uniform grabs one of the orphan chimps by the leg and tries to open the cage. The man does not know it but he is in serious danger of getting bitten. The orphan was Aketi Kigoma, the chimp I fostered. After the goon didn't listen and continued to grapple with the baby chimpanzee, I separated him from the orphan and blocked him from opening the cage, telling him NO! He stumbled back and looked scared. The 'adjutant' then left to get the police and more officials. After the plane was loaded, the big chimp Kathe, got out of her cage. The pilot was able to open the cage, the workers got her back in the cage and then the pilot strapped up her cage further and then cargo netted the cages so they couldn't escape. We are nervously waiting. Right before that, the 'adjutant' comes back with the ANR. He is like the CIA of Aketi. We showed him our documents and says that we are legit and we should go. The 'adjutant' goes back to get another official. The police try to stop us but the pilot was like no, we have to go, we have a schedule. The two pilots start up the plane and we take off. Laura and I leave and we ecstatic to know that we have rescued the chimps. During the flight the chimps slept most of the way. At the end they started to get rowdy in their cages, so I go back to settled them down.

We land in Bukavu and sanctuary people and the ICCN come to get the chimps. We then go to the immigration officials at the airport to show them our visas. They said they were invalid. We told them that we were told they were okay and we paid $300. The DGM said we were tricked by the DGM in Buta. He would hold our passports and take us to Bukavu to the immigration office the next day and find a solution. We also found out that our workers were thrown in jail and that there was a warrant for my arrest in Aketi. The warrant was for assaulting an official. I only physically intervened to separate a man (who was not wearing a uniform) from the baby chimpanzee that he was attacking. They twisted it around and said I beat up several police officers. It didn't matter to me because I was 1,200 miles away now and they couldn't touch me. In order to tell the other authorities, they would have to spend more money then they had. I am also out of the country now and I can't be touched.

The next day we go to the DGM's office in Bukavu with the airport official. We explained our story to them and most of them felt sorry for us. One of them wanted us to pay $160 for one month visas, even though we were going to be gone for one day. Laura is great actress and began to cry to gain sympathy. The head DGM said that if we were to pay, that would make Congo look bad. He said we could go and we didn't have to pay any money. He couldn't give us new visas but, he gave us his phone number and said if we need any help, to call him and a he would straighten out the situation. We then go to a good hotel in Bukavu and spent the night.

The next day today, we took a boat from Bukavu to Goma. We met up with Don, our friend from the UN and the US embassy and he helped us get out of the country from Goma and now we are relaxing in a nice hotel in Rwanda. We are safe, healthy and very happy. We now look forward to having a vacation in Rwanda and Uganda and going home.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Thank Yous

I have yet to write an entry, but I promise it’s coming! We’re just reveling too much in being in Rwanda, safe and sound and across the border without problems --

And this hotel is SO nice! We just got room service.

But we wanted to say some thank yous to people who helped us liberate the chimps from Aketi:

Cleve Hicks
Debby Cox
Radar Nishuli
Carmen Vidal
Ainare Idoiaga
Petrus Viengele
Leopold Kalala
Claudine André
Joey Lincoln
Polycarpe Kisangola
Terese Hart
Andy Plumptre
Elizabeth Cook, DVM
Timothy Mann, DVM
Janice Gleason Skow
Hans Wasmoeth
Sunny Kortz
Carol Gould

Crossing the Border (and our fingers)

After talking to Lauren, I feel like I should give additional information for the worry-ers.

Even though we got our passports back after being sold FAKE visas in Buta, we might still have problems in the country.

We’re on a speedboat across Lake Kivu this morning to Goma. Don will meet us at the boat docks -- he works with the US Embassy in addition to being a friend, so it’s the best of both worlds.

We’re crossing the border in Rwanda this afternoon, and hopefully our problems will be over. There will still be problems in Aketi even after we cross over, but we’ll be in a better position to help remedy them once we’re free of the country.

My phone should still work, and I think we’ll have internet at the Kivu Sun hotel in Gisenyi, Rwanda.

On Thursday or Friday, we’ll start the long trek through southwestern Uganda to Entebbe. And from there it’s cake!

More focussing on the positive

We made the news!

April Fool's Day

My calendar tells me today is April Fool’s Day. My mother and I typically like to make some sort of joke, usually silly or lame, but it’s still in good fun.

This year, however, in thinking of what might be funny, I can’t for the life of me imagine a situation that might happen to us here that I would want to tell my mother -- even as a joke!

“Hey mom, Adam’s in prison!” ... not funny.

“The chimps have been seized by the Congolese government!” ... not funny.

“There was a riot at the prison in Aketi!” ... SO not funny.

We’ll be in Rwanda by later today. Maybe things will feel funnier there!