The other night I was one of several guests at a small dinner party in Rwanda. It had rained all day–and most of the previous night–but the skies had cleared about an hour before dark. It was the first time in weeks I’d driven up the road to park headquarters, having been on a break in the USA to promote RHINO, Ted’s and my new book. I drove slowly, swerving to avoid bicycles, pedestrians, goats, mini-buses, and the occasional pollution-belching truck.
The road to Kinigi is always crowded just after dawn and before dusk, especially when the rain has just stopped, so I’d left early, anticipating the congestion. In relative terms, the traffic was nothing like my recent adventure in Los Angeles, where it took me two-and-a-half-hours to drive thirty miles in rush-hour traffic to a book signing. I was a nervous wreck when I arrived, after wasting even more precious minutes looking for parking.
I took a deep breath and tried to enjoy the drive. In contrast to the colors of urban southern California–gray roads, glassy buildings, and hazy skies–the landscape around me glowed with greens and blues. The late afternoon light created a series of gorgeous shadows high up along the forested ridges of Sabinyo Volcano. The gorillas might be grabbing one more meal now after hunkering down during the rain before what I guessed would be a cold, clear night. Fields of corn and potatoes covered the lower slopes of the Virungas. It was clear enough to see Mikeno, too, one of the still-active volcanoes in DR Congo. A puff of clouds encircled its squared-off top. That was where the fighting was taking place.
As I drove up to the lodge, enjoying the peaceful greenery, the events of the day swirled in my head. Just a week ago I’d listened to the start of the presidential debate during my nightmare drive across LA, checked the traffic on my iPhone, and, even glanced at the New York Times or my email when the traffic slowed to a c r a w l. Here my main driving hazard was a sheep that nearly ran into my truck. For most of the day, my cell phone had no signal, and the Internet had been down. The radio in the truck doesn’t work, either, not that I can understand the garbled French voices. The political scenery was different, too. I had the news of the day only at second hand. Tensions in Goma were building as rebels took over Rumangabo, the ranger station on the Mikeno side of the gorilla park, and headed toward the border city.
My job of course is to ensure the safety of our staff first and foremost, and secondly do all I can for the gorillas. We (MGVP, Inc.) have three staff that live in Goma, DR Congo–and three orphaned gorillas. We’ve all been wary of the fighting in and around the park. Our Congolese field vets, Jacques and Eddy, haven’t been able to check the mountain gorillas with the park rangers on any sort of regular basis for years. Our Congolese lab manager, Jean Paul, had been able to monitor employee health for park staff last year, but we’d had to suspend the program for 2008. I haven’t felt very safe in Goma, but then, I’m a white ex-pat woman. The guys haven’t worried until now.
From what I understood from my conversations today, Goma may soon be overrun with looters as well as with refugees running away from their camps. All I can do to help is make sure the guys have some cash on hand. That way, if someone breaks in, they’ll have money to give. As for the orphans, all we can do is support their caretakers. If the situation deteriorates, human safety comes first. We’ll of course try to take care of the gorillas, but there’s not much point in making any grand plan right now. Plans don’t work in a chaotic place.
Recent photo of the orphaned mountain gorilla, Ndeze, in Goma, DR Congo. Photo by Dr. Eddy Kambale, MGVP, Inc.
The dinner party proved a good distraction. I met some wonderfully supportive people who promised to help our project with donated funds. They quickly understood my message about “one-health” and the importance of taking care of the people who live near the gorillas, as well as the animals themselves. The big challenge is that the three countries, Uganda, Congo, and Rwanda, need to work together to ensure the survival of the mountain gorillas and to improve human lives. That’s not happening now, at least not today.
Here are a few recent news links about the ongoing insecurity in DR Congo: