Through circumstances that I am not fully allowed to discuss (yet), I was given the opportunity this week to visit with the chimpanzees, living in Lwiro Sanctuary, that Adam and I quite literally risked our lives to save in 2009.
It had been a long day of filming, throughout which we had not had much control of our schedules or time, but we knew that it would culminate in a reunion with the Aketi 5 - Aketi Kigoma himself, Bolunga, Django Mayanga, Kathé, and Mangay.
We weren't sure entirely what to expect -- when I had brought the Aketi 5 to Lwiro in 2009, I had had the joy of seeing some of the chimpanzees that I had rescued during my time in Goma in 2005 and 2006-- they had definitely recognized me, coming to the bars of their enclosure without promise of food -- and outstretched their hands, reaching for me. I had been unable to interact with them at all, however, because I could have transmitted diseases from the Aketi 5, who were in quarantine, essentially quarantining me as well.
Seven years had gone by, and honestly, half of my friends seem to barely recognize me when I'm back in the States, so my expectations were low with regard to a lot of fuss about our return.
While I feel like it's easy to rationalize for me, personally, there is obviously a part that is personally hard because, certainly with the chimpanzees that I have rescued and fostered, their faces are emblazoned in my brain and I feel like I could never forget them.
But reality sinks in, and even chimpanzee faces change immensely through the passage of time.
As we approached the enclosures, I worried whether I would be able to pick out the faces of my "kids" among the crowd.
Aketi came right up to the edge of his enclosure -- a cage that separated him, as a juvenile male, from the larger group for his own safety, along with other juveniles who would not be accepted by the alphas of the bigger community.
His face had only darkened slightly, and his eyes seemed smaller as his face had expanded, but there was for certain a familiarity around his eyes and mouth that helped me notice him immediately. Throughout the feeding time, despite the promise of rewards in other locations, he stayed in proximity of wherever we stood, gazing intently at us through the close bars.
Adult chimpanzees are incredibly dangerous, and I did not for a moment forget as the alpha of the juvenile groups continued to display, making himself piloerect and continuing to pound his feet on the ground and throw his weight against the bars.
Maybe the baby chimpanzee that I had rescued and cared for had grown up, and was potentially dangerous, but his eyes felt so familiar, and I let his outstretched hand connect with mine, and we sat, together, sharing the moment.
Mangay, on the other hand, who had been Polycarpe's ward, seemed much less intent on holding our attention, though I will report with delight that, within the juvenile group, he is as normal-acting a chimpanzee as one can be. I cannot begin to describe how that makes me feel, worrying for him for so many nights and weeks, particularly when we were trying to integrate him unsuccessfully in with our DRC group, I feared that he was so traumatized that he would never be normal again.
Django Mayanga had already been integrated into the larger group, as had Kathé, and Bolungwa had even decided to take on the role of nanny, so when we saw her, she was caring for Clara's baby, Clarice. They all seemed so happy, and certainly Django and Bolungwa came right over and solicited for our attention next to the fence despite the potential menace from more higher-ranking individuals within the group.
Django looked just the same, funny and suckling his lower lip, though his bald spot from the top of his head had spread out. He was instantly recognizable. Bolungwa was more difficult from afar, as her face having had darkened. But once she got close to the fence, the shape of her eyes, those big, liquid eyes, was so familiar.
When I watch the videos of these chimps as "children," when I had only a distant hope of getting them a better life, and an even more remote hope of getting them away from the cooking pot of Mister Moibi -- it makes me cry, if only because the things I had hoped for the most fervently that seemed the most out of reach have come true.
Of course I would wish that they could be back in the wild, but, without that as a option, the idea that they're actually safe and well cared for is so far beyond my most secret wishes, particularly during the most trying points of our trip to northern DRC.
I realize sometimes the role I have had to play at Lwiro, as 9 of the chimpanzees in their care (almost a quarter) came from "me," my self-involved way of referring to the various field seasons and impressive colleagues within them who helped to confiscate and care for them.
We spent the morning back at the chimpanzee enclosure, and, though I had promised Adam that we would not have any more 4am mornings, he completely went along with the plan to pack first at 4 and then spend all day with the chimps until it was time for the van to take us back to Bukavu.
During that time, I also got to spend time with Yongesa, Shege, and Kanabiro, several of the female chimpanzees from my time in Goma. They all had gotten so enormous, so dark-faced, and yet, while I stood at the windows of their enclosures, they clustered together, all reaching to be close to me.
My time as their chimpanzee mother is over, though I cherish those memories tremendously. I did not go back to Lwiro to embrace the chimpanzees I once loved, holding them when they got scared, spending the largest part of most days covered in their feces and hands and feet.
But seeing them there, older, happier, safer -- knowing that I had the amazing opportunity to play a role in their survival -- brought tears in the mists of the early Bukavu morning. It makes any suffering I have endured so worth it, and, despite the risk, I would do it all again. As they look so much older, though, I realize that so much time has passed since those years in my 20s where their safety was my everything, even in the most unsafe of places.
I guess we have all come so far.