Hello from the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Last I left off, I was on my way home from Santiago with about three weeks to get ready for my trip to Kinshasa, the capital of DRC. And, after a thirteen hour flight from Washington to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and then four hours to Kinshasa, here I am. The reason I’m here is to work for John and Terese Hart, conservation biologists who have been living and researching in DRC for almost thirty years. Their daughter, Jojo, is one of my friends from Tanzania, and it worked out that she could come and work as well. Right now Terese is at home in Kinshasa, and John is in eastern Congo in a town called Kisingani. At the end of the week, it’s likely I’ll be flying to eastern Congo (a town called Kindu), which is where I’ll meet John and start the journey into the forest. I’ll talk more about that later on.
Although I’m somewhat preconditioned to living in less pampered conditions after my time in Tanzania, living in DRC will still take some getting used to. While things like boiling/treating our water and hand-washing clothes are no surprise, the atmosphere of the city is very different. The Harts live in a compound surrounded by a big steel wall with glass shards and barbed wire on top. Driving is a free-for-all, and while I was disappointed I couldn’t drive more in Santiago, I’m happy we have a hired driver that takes us places here. The city itself is crowded, dirty, and sprawling; the tallest building is twenty-four stories, and most are only several stories high. There are lots of military personnel around, and bribing is expected as common (even more than in Tanzania). All that being said, there are a few unexpected amenities at our house in the city, like air conditioning, a family dog, and a cook who makes us most our meals. The compound is also close to a lot of embassies right on the Congo River, and we’ve gone there a couple times to walk the dog along the river. Kinshasa is internationally unique when paired with Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, for being the only two capitals across a river from each other. Hopefully I can get some pictures—I’m not sure how many pictures of Kinshasa I’ll be able to take overall, since it seems like people are pretty hostile about cameras. But I’ll try to sneak in a few here and there. Jojo and I are also planning on visiting The American School of Kinshasa, where she went to high school, and Lola ya Bonobo, the world’s only sanctuary for orphaned bonobos. I read a lot about the sanctuary at Bates, so it’ll be exciting to visit it in person. Seeing and studying bonobos is one of the things I’m most excited about in being in the Congo; the bonobo is one of the least-studied and most endangered great apes, with a range restricted to the DRC. Here’s a little information on Bonobos if you’re interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonobo
and on Lola ya Bonobo: http://www.friendsofbonobos.org/sanctuary.htm
Speaking of bonobos, over the course of my time in Congo, I’ll likely be working directly with three different kinds of animals, including bonobos. Another possibility is forest elephants, smaller than their savannah cousins, and with a significantly smaller distribution and population. I’ll be starting out, however, working with birds, starting at the southern part of the forest and working up. I’ll let you know more about the specifics after I know. So that’s an introduction to my time here. I’ll have a chance to work on my French, which I haven’t used since high school, and augment my foundation in Swahili that I learned in Tanzania. The other common language here is Lingala, technically a dialect of Swahili but really its own thing. It seems like most people in Kinshasa speak both French and Lingala, and Swahili will be more common in eastern Congo. After I leave Kinshasa I’m not sure what internet access will be like, but please write back with questions and comments. I’m looking forward to hearing from everyone!