The Heart of Africa “unfiltered”: A Lac Ndjale case study

This title is immediately misleading, so I immediately set to clarify it.

Unlike many other countries, it is not possible to live in an “American bubble,” in DRC: to select my accommodation, food, and activities to avoid real inundation into Congolese culture and avoid actually being somewhere different. By and large, the difficulties of living here do not discriminate, and there are no “get out of jail free” cards (it is well understood that “get out of jail” cards are for sale, only). Still, to whatever extent I can access the DRC “cheat codes,” I have, because of the internal support provided by John and Terese Hart. It would be remarkably difficult to operate at all in DRC without significant internal support (at the most basic level, foreigners need a letter of invitation from a Congolese institution to even obtain a visa), and it would be impossible for me to be productive without the TL2 framework John and Terese Hart have been building since 2007.

Setting up a program in DRC from scratch is an enormous task, and I will do a poor job of putting it into context because it is still completely over my head, but at the very least: they needed to establish a network of local connections, evaluate and hire staff who can actually operate somewhat reliably, set up base camps, establish partnerships with provincial and national administrations, and somehow wade their way through the endlessly frustrating and nonsensical, comprehensively corrupt, inept, inefficient, and overall debilitating DRC paradigm. I have been the beneficiary of their trailblazing ever since I started work in DRC, and by rights things are easier for me here than they should be. Do not misconstrue this to mean my exposure thus far has been particularly “filtered,” and I certainly do not imply that living and working here is easy! But the complexities have been somewhat watered-down, and I am fortunate enough to see much of what’s best in Congo without being exposed to the worst.

Lac Ndjale was different because is not connected to the Lomami Park at all, and TL2 has no infrastructure or contacts in place there. My visit to Lac Ndjale was not my first experience working outside the Lomami Park (indeed, there are no villages inside the park) and breaching the “filter effect” it produces, but to-date it was my most significant non-park trip, and most exhausting. I relate a small number of the events of this 5-day trip below (believe me, this post is only the tip of the iceberg). I will also note that John and Terese would never send me to a location that they considered a threat to my personal safety, and I did travel with a TL2 staff member who had been to the site before. Perhaps this case-study, then, is more accurately characterized as “80% unfiltered,” but I’ve taken artistic license with the title.

Lac Ndjale is about 60km south of Kindu, where the Kasuku River dumps into a shallow basin (the lake) before continuing its serpentine flow northward. Although quite distant from the Lomami Park, it was important place for me to go in the scope of my African Grey Parrot (AGP) research: TL2 received reports early in 2015 that the lake was a significant nesting site for AGPs, and a site where parrot captures were perhaps incredible and escalating. I needed to document the site and assess the parrot capture activities there as accurately as possible. This trip was also important because it was TL2’s first attempt to coordinate with the Maniema Provincial Administration (Kindu is the capital of Maniema province, therefore where the office of the Maniema Ministry of the Environment is located). Maniema province does have its own legislature to regulate the legal AGP capture season, and then there are the national AGP export regulations imposed by CITES. But can the provincial government really enforce its own AGP capture and trade regulations? Up until now the answer is no, and TL2 hopes to improve that—or at the very least evaluate the Ministry’s potential to enforce restrictions in the future.

I was accompanied to Lac Ndjale by a ministry official named Lambert, but my difficulties with the Ministry started before I even met Lambert. Initially the Minister delegated an official named Tambwe to accompany the trip. He had several meetings with John while I was away from Kindu, and I met him personally on a Thursday (I wanted to leave the following Sunday). We had a nice meeting: I outlined the trip to Lac Ndjale, and I described a subsequent trip he would take to another parrot trapping site near the village Shopo. We parted amicably, and he said he would return the next day to continue our logistics planning. No word from him on Friday or Saturday morning, until finally Salumu (TL2 Kindu programs manager) reached the Minister who relayed that Tambwe had decided not to go. He never wanted to spend five days outside of Kindu in a more remote village, and certainly did not want to continue onto Shopo. Why didn’t he tell me this, or John even earlier, instead of fabricating interest and watch us chase his Ministry windmill over a few unnecessary days of meetings? Because a recurring Congolese instinct is to avoid dealing with a problem until you are actually, physically, confronted with it. It makes complete sense that Tambwe would not tell anyone he had no intention of going, until it was actually time to leave. Regardless, after much more difficulty, this other official Lambert was identified. We could still not leave on Sunday, however, as I had hoped…why? Because no one told me Lambert lived 40km outside Kindu across the river, and had no dependable capacity to arrive in Kindu on his own. I sent someone to get him, met him at the TL2 office briefly, and we were ready to leave for Lake Ndjale on Monday morning.

On Monday morning, we were not ready to leave for Lake Ndjale. Lambert lacked his Ordre de Mission (see my description below) from the Minister. When Lambert finally arrived at the TL2 office at 11am, Ordre de Mission in hand and ready to go, he was not ready to go. As I mounted my motorbike, he rubbed his stomach and explained very slowly, in patronizingly-simple Swahili, that he had not eaten anything yet that day. This was the first of several occasions I was completely taken aback by Lambert’s ineptitude, and reminded him that he was a grown man who needed to display some ability to take care of himself. I will spare everyone the laundry list of Lambert’s numerous complications during our trip, but to summarize: he is a government official of the Ministry of the Environment and Tourism who has not worked in “the environment,” and this is very apparent after he walks in the sun for fifteen minutes. This speaks to the Ministry’s limited capacity to train staff as much as it speaks to Lambert personally.

Anyway, at about 11:30am, Mustafa, Lambert and I departed Kindu for Lac Ndjale. After a very uncomfortable 2 hour motorbike ride (it should have been 3), we arrived at one of the villages on the lake. DRC is not a country that has any sort of social infrastructure to accommodate foreigners; indeed, it is difficult enough for Congolese to move around, because almost any sort of “system” for local movements will be ill-managed, unpredictable, and unreliable. Most people here do not move around at all, and are often surprised to see someone from the outside come in—even a Congolese they don’t know. There will always be questions asked about why they are there. This complication is magnified tenfold for me as a white person (mzungu).

One manifestation of this “infrastructure” for internal DRC travel is the Mission Order, or Ordre de Mission (OdM). The OdM is a document that every person, Congolese or not, needs to travel outside of their home territories (essentially, anywhere). The origins of this document trace back to Congo under Belgian rule, when some Congolese would migrate among territories to evade tax payments. The Belgians instated this OdM as a way to restrict local movements, and that’s exactly what this vestigial, synthetic certificate continues to do today. Any local authority can demand that you present your OdM, and there is almost always something “wrong” with it. A predictable argument ensues about the “protocol” we’ve avoided to obtain the “correct authorization,” and this will usually continue until the authority figure is bribed. In truth, I always travel with my OdM but avoid showing it whenever possible. It’s easier just to skip to the bribe.

All of this I knew before I left the TL2 office in Kindu, and we had to deal with it continually throughout our trip. We spent hours discussing our mission with local authorities, most of whom have no real respect for the Provincial administration that has no real impact on their day-to-day lives. They could not actually prohibit us from passing through, but they could publicly proclaim their disapproval by not signing Lambert’s OdM. The chief of the village where the AGP nesting site was, on the other hand, presented a more significant barrier. To some extent, I anticipated this as well: local village chiefs ostensibly own the forest around their villages (not actually), and it is common to spend some in discussion with the chief (i.e. negotiating how much $$ to give him) before we are allowed to access “his” forest.

I did not anticipate the extent of this challenge at Losoma, the village that “owns” the AGP nesting site.

Crossing a savannah en route to Losoma. Lambert is behind me, somewhere.

Crossing a savannah en route to Losoma. Lambert is behind me, somewhere.

Village chiefs are like spoiled toddlers: they know how to ask for what they want, and do not recognize any limit for what is reasonable to get. The difference is that there is no responsible parent around to tell the chief that they can’t get what they ask for. As I’ve mentioned, if traveling with the “sufficient” authority is a problem for Congolese, it is magnified tenfold for mzungus. Everything I do will be scrutinized, each step I take judged, and everyone assumes I have an endless supply of money. Indeed, I put particular emphasis this trip on telling people not to just call me mzungu, which is what usually happens. Often mzungu is not meant to be derogatory (sometimes it is), but regardless the word carries a certain weight and implication—a remarkable relevant implication on this trip, as I later found out. A “mzungu” in the implicit sense, is necessarily out of place in DRC and has only come to buy something. On this trip, and ever since I have been in DRC, I am not this ubiquitous mzungu. I have a name, and I expect people who interact with to ask for it. I’m happy to say that now I’m well known around Lac Ndjale as Papa André.

Lac Ndjale. Water lilies all the way across = shallow lake.

Lac Ndjale. Water lilies all the way across = shallow lake.

We had to cross part of the lake via small dugout canoe. It looks small in the picture, I agree, but the perspective does not do its size justice...this dugout was not designed for three people and gear.

We had to cross part of the lake via small dugout canoe. It looks small in the picture, I agree, but the perspective does not do its size justice…this dugout was not designed for three people and gear.

When I arrive in the more remote villages, I am usually surrounded with a group of gaping, disbelieving children. In Mopa, my small welcome party was much more energetic and social.

When I arrive in the more remote villages, I am usually surrounded with a group of gaping, disbelieving children. In Mopa, a village on the shores of Lac Ndjale, my small welcome party was much more energetic and social.

Our initial discussions the first evening with the Losoma chief went almost as usual: why are you here, you can’t be here, give me money, that’s not enough so you can’t go into the forest. Why can’t we go? Not enough money again. Why can’t we go? Not enough money, and you will bring death to our people because those who climb trees will now fall from them. Why can’t we go? Not enough money. OK. Meeting adjourned. Of course I still planned to go the nesting site the next day, because having the chief “prohibit” access at first is expected. I would just give him something the next morning, and we’d be all set. Congolese business as usual. Still, I say this discussion went almost as usual. There were two notable distinctions I discerned (and remember, I always have to deal with the language complication—I am in no means fluent in Swahili): first, the chief’s demanded sum for us to visit the nesting site was $50,000. This is astronomical, even by ridiculous mzungu standards. Five hundred dollars would be a more common ridiculous asking-price, which we’d negotiate down to maybe $20. The second big difference was a comment the chief made about wazungus (more than one mzungu) who came in 1936, and that the people in the village were afraid.

I did not completely understand what the chief meant by this until right before we left Losoma, two days later. Throughout my three days in Losoma, we solicited the help of Materieaux, one of the prominent AGP trappers there. As I’ve mentioned, this is a AGP nesting site, and rather unique for parrot trapping sites because trappers are climbers who simply collect chicks from the nest before they can fly. Most AGP trapping locations congregation points but not nesting sites, and the adults are targeted with other trapping techniques. At Losoma, climbers leave the adults alone because they are necessary to produce the chicks, which are more valuable on the AGP market. Materieaux ended up guiding me in a dugout canoe along a portion of the nesting site, and even installed a camera trap about 50 feet up a tree. This guided nesting site visit lasted about one hour: save for a few cumulative hours of AGP observations from the village itself in the early morning and evening, all other time in Losoma was spent arguing with the chief, arguing with other villagers, resting, waiting, eating, and waiting.

Materieaux was in fact one of the nicest people I’ve met in DRC outside the TL2 organization, and almost everyone in the village was opposed to Materieaux showing me the nesting site except Materieaux himself! Still, during day-and-a-half after he did guide me through a portion of the nesting site, he continued to ask me not to leave him in Losoma. I heard this plea often from a woman who identified herself as Materieaux’s sister, as well. He elaborated quite a bit on his reasons, but all I understood was that he did not want to stay in Losoma when I left, and he was afraid to go to prison in Kindu. I assumed he thought I would bring military with me to enforce parrot regulations he was breaking (he was not aware of any regulations, in fact), and at the same time go to Kindu and look for better work there. This was the wrong assumption.

I did eventually understand the actual reason he was afraid, right before I left Losoma, but to relate this I rewind to our first discussion with the Losoma chief when he asked for $50,000. The chief—and other villagers—incorrectly assumed the objectives of our mission from the get-go: they feared I had come to buy the forest and the Kasuku River. The chief’s reference to 1936 was to the Belgian colonization, when taking the forest was exactly what they did. So serious was this fear, that soon after my team arrived in Losoma a party traveled to the sector chief (a sort of Territory chief, a chief of chiefs), several days’ distant, to round up a posse of local police. These local police were summoned not to arrest our team members, but to arrest Materieaux. Although completely irrational, I had to assume this put Materieaux in very real danger. Terese confirmed this later, who said the local police would have very likely tortured Materieaux until he paid them off (with money he did not have). It has happened to TL2 staff in the past. For his safety, Materieaux traveled with us when we left Losoma. I made it clear to the Losoma chief that we were not hiding Materieaux: the chief was to tell the police, when they arrived, that we took Materieaux because there had been a serious misunderstanding. We were traveling to the sector chief to relate these events, and inform him that our only intention this visit was to observe the nesting site. When we did arrive at the locality where the sector chief resides, he was not present, nor were any acting intermediates. We were forced to leave Materieaux at this village after a big argument with his older brother, without ever clearing up the situation with the sector chief. I hope we left Materieaux in a better position than if he had remained in Losoma, however I have no way to confirm his current situation. He is someone I think TL2 should strive to cultivate a strong relationship with, and his well-being is something that has weighed heavily on me ever since.

As we left Losoma, Lambert was anxious for a TL2-Ministry cooperative handshake, proof of our outstanding field partnership. I was less enthusiastic.

As we left Losoma, Lambert was anxious for a TL2-Ministry cooperative handshake, proof of our outstanding field partnership. I was less enthusiastic. Others pictured are the Kinshasa chief (next to Lambert), our guide/porters, and Materieaux on the bottom right.

All I’ve related here in brief is not by any means an exceptional set of circumstances. John and Terese didn’t throw up their hands after I told them and say, “That’s it, we give up and leave Congo forever.” They’ve certainly seen far worse than this. There are only a few real criminals here (with some notable exceptions). Most people just live in a constant crisis- mode, and every day struggle to sustain themselves by doing what they know how to do. Materieaux knows how to fish and climb trees to collect parrots. It is not a coincidence that many current conservation crises with charismatic species are in impoverished countries: the people are not as efficient in eradicating them, so some hang on. John and Terese—and me, to some level—are conservation scientists, and DRC is a place that needs conservation scientists. We deal with the accompanying difficulties because we are here, and we have to.

I am write for the first time from Kisangani, Orientale province. It is my first visit to this metropolitan epicenter of DRC (e.g. multi-story buildings look less out-of-place, and the electricity flows perhaps 10 hours on an average day versus 1 in Kindu), and I traveled here by commercial barge up the Congo River. It was a three day trip, and a fantastically genuine experience to see the single most important natural feature of central Africa. The boat itself offered a full brunt of customary Congolese travel: a slow-moving and ill-maintained vehicle, with too many people and continuous delays for no reason at all. I am glad for the experience, but was happy to arrive in Kisangani without any serious issues. And, I am gearing up for my final trip to the forest, which will probably not even take me inside the park. I will leave tomorrow, and when I come back to Kisangani in roughly three weeks’ time, I will have only one week left in DRC before I return to the US.

Old Man (Congo) River has taken quite a toll on our barge, which I lived on for three days while traveling north up the Congo to Kisangani.

Old Man (Congo) River has taken quite a toll on our barge, which I lived on for three days while traveling north up the Congo to Kisangani.

There were other people who had the same idea.

There were other people who had the same idea.

We often had fisherman who paddled up to the barge, and clung to the side as they sold passengers fresh fish.

We often had fisherman who paddled up to the barge, and clung to the side as they sold passengers fresh fish.

The quintessential Congo River sunset.

The quintessential Congo River sunset.

In the meantime, life and work in DRC progress rapidly and I am unable to summarize even half of the events here as they happen, let alone my activities, impressions, other commentary…I will have to write and reminisce about DRC while I prepare to start graduate school in the fall. I do hope to write one final update from Kinshasa in one month’s time.

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