Telling Our Story: An Alum’s Experience in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Courtesy visitvirunga.org

By Ken Strange, Guest Writer, ’87

I was happy to be back after several months…happy to return to the winding canyon trails in the Santa Monicas where I could feel the warm California sun on my shoulders. I stopped midway through my run—the hills appeared more like those of Ireland than Agoura Hills—and was comforted by my old friends—the woodpeckers—frenetically chiseling away on the majestic oak trees. It had been an unseasonably wet winter.

Ken with Bakongo and Kalolo, two park rangers he met in the DRC. Courtesy Ken Strange

Ken with Bakongo and Kalolo, two park rangers he met in the DRC. Courtesy Ken Strange

But no matter where I went, no matter how far I ran, it would not be enough to distance myself from Africa, from the crushing cycle of poverty I had seen up close and personal, from the dedicated men and women working in “NGO[1] World” who were trying to make a difference in the developing world of places both unstable and dangerous. It was also in Africa where I would be humbled to tears in witnessing the last herd of wild giraffes in West Africa and the dignified but endangered Eastern Lowland gorillas of the Congo. And there were so many people I had met along the way in West and Central Africa—in the Francophone countries of Senegal, Mali and Congo and the Anglophone countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone. It all seemed like a dream—I could see their faces, like so many flashbacks, the men, women, and children who asked about me and my country. They could only dream of seeing America. And always, imploring me to tell and share their story—their struggles, their dreams, their politics and conflicts.

Their story was poignant and, at times, heart-breaking; it spoke to sacrifice and love and perseverance…and danger. I wanted to tell it, but would I be able to communicate it effectively and do justice to them? I could not bear the thought of letting them down. I had been putting it off, not wanting to disappoint them. But I owed these people that much. I owed them a voice.

I would start toward the end of my trip, in Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo), not far from the lush Rwanda border and dangerously near the still active Nyiragongo Volcano and the deceptively peaceful Lake Kivu. The 11,380-foot volcano erupted in 2002, destroying almost 40% of the city and causing the evacuation of 400,000 people. However, during my two-week stay in Goma, I saw the volcano only twice, when billowing clouds suddenly parted to reveal the steep, imposing slopes.

Lake Kivu. Courtesy of MIT Technology Review

Lake Kivu. Courtesy of MIT Technology Review

Lake Kivu, while breathtakingly beautiful, is one of three African lakes which has huge quantities of dissolved gas held at pressure in its depths. At any time, this lake can experience a catastrophic release of suffocating carbon dioxide. Nearly two million people, including the population of Goma, live near Lake Kivu and are in danger from such an eruption, which can be triggered by seismic activity. I was hoping all this activity would hold off the several weeks I was there.

Goma has been the epicenter of several tragedies, including the Rwandan genocide and two recent civil wars pitting multitudes of warring factions against Congo’s army and the United Nations (UN). As recently as 2012, the M23 guerrilla group seized control of Goma from the government. Goma has also experienced several influxes of Rwandan refugees and “child soldiers.” The UN presence is ubiquitous—armored troop carriers, trucks and Land Cruisers plying the streets and UN aircraft streaming in and out of the small airport every few minutes—or so it seemed. Goma reeked of intrigue and danger; during my brief stay, residents warned that people could be made to disappear for as little as fifty dollars and that “karuho,” a local poison, was the lethal potion of choice for both real or imagined enemies. I found the lava-crusted streets and Goma’s markets chaotic and fascinating.

A baby gorilla in Virunga National Park. Courtesy virunga.org

A baby gorilla in Virunga National Park. Courtesy virunga.org

An hour or so west of Bukavu is the “forgotten” Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site—forgotten because most of the attention is accorded to its more glamorous neighbor in Rwanda, Virunga National Park. And there are many reasons for that: Virunga is a larger park with more ample and varied animal life and features rare mountain gorillas. In addition, Virunga has been in the eye of a political, military and socio-economic hurricane—armed militias too numerous to count, poachers and park rangers, villagers battling environmentalists and big business hovering on the fringes of the park, all waiting to exploit and threaten the fragile equilibrium within.  So much attention has been paid to Virunga that the 2014 British documentary “Virunga” was made, highlighting the troubles and controversy generated by so many greedy actors.

Heather, a British national and French-speaking, no-nonsense Country Director for a renowned NGO, suggested a trip to one of the nearby national parks to see the gorillas. “A shame to come all this way, and not see the gorillas,” she lamented in her Reading accent. She told me that she had taken one of these trips and had actually been brushed up against by a silverback gorilla.

I had my heart set on doing the same in the more renowned Virunga Park—it was closer to Goma and less expensive. In the popular “Bon Pain” restaurant in Goma, I met who I thought was a young American: Patrick wore a baseball cap and jeans and sported a short, straggly beard. He even spoke respectable English. “I am actually Belgian,” he proudly exclaimed. Patrick told me that he was an anti-poaching pilot at Virunga National Park and that because they expected the visit of the Belgian Minister to the Park over the weekend, security would be heightened—there would be several hundred park rangers on duty. The rebels would not be active at this time. I asked Patrick about the recent rumors of Russian helicopters being downed by rebel groups and he smiled widely. “No, I can tell you that the two Russian helicopters went down (and their pilots killed) due to mechanical failure—they are ‘beasts’ to fly.” To my surprise, he covertly showed me several photos of these multi-million-dollar aircraft in various poses of disintegration. It was time to depart the restaurant.

But our NGO security officer was having none of it. Michele (pronounced mee-KAY-lay), the former Italian carabinieri (national police), was adamant—there were still too many security risks to enter Virunga. If I wanted to see gorillas, it would have to be the Kahuzi-Biega Park.

The two-hour ferry boat trip from Goma to Bukavu, the capital of South Kiva Province and city of 800,000, was spectacular. From the deck we could observe the dense foliage from these green mountains and sparsely populated islands. This was no longer coastal Africa; this was the African interior, the land depicted by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan) and Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness). We sped past small bays with ancient villages nestled in peaceful coves; we left small wooden fishing pirogues in our wake as we made our way to our destination. But not before a UN patrol boat buzzed by us—its deck mounted with twin machine guns manned by a soldier wearing a vest and light blue UN helmet—a reminder that we were still in an area infested by armed militias and illegal traffickers of minerals and weapons.

Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Courtesy unesco.org

Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Courtesy unesco.org

“Junior,” a driver from the local travel agency, was in Bukavu waiting for me. We passed the Place de L’Independance roundabout featuring a statue of Congo freedom fighters rising up against their Belgian occupiers. The drive from Bukavu to Kahuzi-Biega National Park took almost two hours. Junior said that we had the Chinese to thank for the modern road construction—they were very busy in these parts, and in all of Africa for that matter. The sun-splashed, verdant countryside overlooked Lake Kivu and featured some of the most spectacular views in the world.

Juvenal, the park spokesperson, as well as the park rangers were on hand to greet me at the park entrance. About a dozen or so park rangers in military uniforms were mustered out in front of the park’s cozy lodge. I noticed that many of these park rangers were small in stature. “They are pygmies,” said Juvenal, “and they have protected the gorillas for many years.  They believe that when they die, they will inhabit the soul of the gorilla.” Juvenal was conversant in French and English—he provided me a personal briefing explaining that I was now in a protected park (with two extinct volcanoes, Kahuzi and Biega) covering 6000 square miles. Kahuzi (windy place)-Biega (rocky place) is the home to 12 families of Grauer’s Eastern Lowland gorillas—the largest primates on earth. On the brink of extinction and hunted down by armed poachers, the gorilla population dwindled to under 200 before the park could get things under control. “Our rangers are not paid very well (they receive funding from international NGOs), and we have lost several (killed) to the poachers, but they are the last line of defense against the extinction of our gorillas.” Juvenal said that in 2008 the park had 125 lowland gorillas, a marked reduction from the figure of 600 gorillas of the pre-1990s conflict period. In 2011, 180 gorillas were recorded in the park. Juvenal said there may be some 300 gorillas in the forests of Kahuzi-Biega at this time.

A park ranger standing in front of Kahuzi-Biega Park's entrance. Courtesy Ken Strange

A park ranger standing in front of Kahuzi-Biega Park’s entrance. Courtesy Ken Strange

Across from this mountain lodge, a striking statue of a silverback gorilla guarded the entrance. I asked a retired pygmy Ranger to pose next to it. He dutifully agreed and then asked for a few dollars. Kahuzi-Biega National Park was established in 1970 by the Belgian photographer and conservationist Adrien Deschryver, who is buried in a nearby cemetery. Lambert was the chief of these rangers, a cool customer, friendly but serious. I asked him where the other tourists were and he told me that I was it. I then asked him about the Kalashnikovs being toted by some of the rangers. “We’ve had some run-ins with armed poachers. They kill the gorillas and make money by selling ‘bush meat.’ Some of our guys (rangers) have been ambushed and killed. If we see any, we will shoot first—just as they do.”  Damn, I thought, what have I gotten myself into?  From that moment on, I began bonding with these park rangers like velcro.

We climbed the hills in a 4X4, with several rangers and Mobutu (named after the former kleptomaniac ruler of Congo), the park driver. Thus began one of the most bone-jarring drives of my life, up the mountain in roads that seemed impassable with mud or deep ruts or both—the rainy season had just commenced. The ubiquitous sight of women in colorful garb balancing baskets on their heads and men wielding machetes seemed a blur as we continued to climb to the trailhead. At the trailhead, we were met by two more park rangers—one of them Bakongo, the park’s oldest ranger and the most gracious. His toothless smile was as wide as the Congo River.

This was not to be a picnic. Mobutu remained behind with the Land Rover playing my Crosby, Stills and Nash CD. It was surreal as we climbed the hill and heard the strains of “Dark Star” behind us. Masumbuko and Kalolo went ahead with their walkie talkies—they would trek the gorillas, who can cover 20 miles in a single day. Bakongo, Lambert and Zairois accompanied me as we made our way up the hill. After a climb that left me gasping for air and with a panoramic view of the park, we entered the rainforest. Everything changed—the light diminished by half, the temperature rose and annoying insects of all kinds buzzed within this unfamiliar canopy. In just minutes we had entered an alien environment—the rainforest floor was matted with several layers of slippery underbrush. We hacked our way through the thick and nettlesome vines and underbrush with sharpened machetes. I was grateful that I had worn a safari suit with long sleeves. However, thorny branches and noose-like vines on the forest floor arrested our movement and scratched our hands and faces. Several thick but rotted branches completely disintegrated from just our touch. On one occasion, I fell several feet through the thick matting of underbrush. I was embarrassed, covered with dirt and leaves, until I saw Lambert tumble down a steep bank. After an hour, with no sight of gorillas, I began to sense that this would not be our day. My heart was pounding from the painstakingly slow and exhausting climb to 7000 feet; my clothing was drenched in sweat and grime. Lambert remained stoic but showed some concern. “We’ll give it 30 more minutes,” he explained.

One of the gorillas in Chimanuka's family. Courtesy Ken Strange

One of the gorillas in Chimanuka’s family. Courtesy Ken Strange

And then it happened. We made contact with Masumbuko and Kalolo, who beckoned us to follow them. And there they were—a small family of gorillas—as if we had strolled into their living room. The vegetation here was less dense, more of a clearing. We welcomed the increased sunlight and chorus of birds. Baby gorillas played in the trees high above us. I remembered Juvenal’s words: “Whatever you do, keep eye contact with the gorillas, do not look away!” The park rangers silently motioned me to approach the gorillas but not to get any closer than 6 feet. We donned masks, which are a precaution from spreading any human disease to the gorillas. The female gorilla, Amy[2], sat quietly chewing leaves but watching us closely. In fact, she would look up at the baby gorillas, away from me, and then turn to me and stare. I laughed inwardly, “Geez, is this gorilla flirting with me?” The rangers smiled to see my child-like reaction and we seemed to bond over the sharing of something so humbling and emotional.

Chimanuka. Courtesy Ken Strange

Chimanuka. Courtesy Ken Strange

And then he appeared: Chimanuka[3], the 30-year-old, 450-pound silverback gorilla and grand patriarch of this family of some 25 gorillas. I was amazed to be so close to Mighty Joe Young, to King Kong himself! Chimanuka was immense and regal, his hands tugging at branches, pulling leaves off the trees and consuming them one after the other. I got very close, so close that Lambert pulled me back a foot or two. Chimanuka seemed unfazed but kept an eye on me. His temperament was calm and he seemed to bear out the story told at the lodge that he was gentle toward his offspring as well as to the rangers, scientists and tourists. He scratched his enormous hirsute hands and then slowly moved away like a swaying freight train. Amy dutifully followed in his steps. Lambert explained, “Chimanuka was the first gorilla to be found (in around 2002) after civil unrest in the region—his name means ‘good fortune just when you need it.’”

For thirty minutes, we watched gorillas in the wild, in their shrinking habitat, on their own terms. It was startling in a way, but some primordial instinct told me that these were not animals as I knew them, they were not people either…rather something in between. Later, I was told that these gorillas share 98% of human DNA.

Ken with Bakongo. Courtesy Ken Strange

Ken with Bakongo. Courtesy Ken Strange

As our time was nearly over, I hugged and thanked each one of the park rangers—they were truly the heroes here, and I would never forget them. And as Chimanuka, Amy and the baby gorillas disappeared into the thicket, into the afternoon shadows of this rainforest, I knew deep down that I would never see them again. I could only hope that they would survive until the next generation. Some of the park rangers parted company at a nearby village, others at the lodge. As I started to climb into the vehicle for the return trip to Bukavu, Lambert placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “Please tell our story, tell them what you have seen here.”

Ken Strange is a T-bird alum from the class of ’87 and previous Das Tor writer. He was previously a consultant for an international NGO based in the UK called Save the Children International. He now works alongside other T-birds for an investigative services company that he recently started called Development Fraud Investigations

[1] Non-governmental organization

[2] Not her real name but taken from the movie “Congo” and suggested by my daughter

[3] Chimanuka’s father appears on a Congo postage stamp

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