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December 2014 – Mission Field Notes

To our BCBI Friends: Here we present the field notes that Dr. Gay Reinartz sent to us just before leaving the field in mid-December 2014. Many of you have asked for an update and wondered how our crew was doing on our most recent mission. These notes will give you an idea about what you were missing and also let you know the conditions that challenged the team.

As background, the major objectives of this mission were to gather the last six months of patrol and survey data, replenish stocks of food and fuel for anti-poaching patrols and the survey team, pay guards their merit and medical benefits, set up a new survey in the Mondjoku Sector, deliver fresh supplies to village schools and adult literacy classes, and evaluate the feasibility of constructing a second house at Etate – this one for the guards.

Kinshasa – Arrival

Stepping from the super cooled, air-conditioned jet, the warm night mist feels like a heavy wet blanket. It’s 80 degrees tonight in Kinshasa according to the pilot. Passengers crowd on the bus at Ndjili International Airport to be taken to immigration. The bus has no handholds, but packed like sardines on end, the closeness of fellow passengers keeps me more or less upright. Upon reaching immigration, a customs inspector takes a stern view of my passport and visa, eyes me suspiciously, asks for my address in Kinshasa and my profession, and decides after a few minutes that I’m worth allowing access. Our airport “protocol man” authoritatively waves me through immigration and on to the baggage claim. He’s only about 5 feet tall, but he’s a lean, mean fighting machine. We load my four large duffle bags, and he clears the way for me to pass through the line of baggage inspectors. Without him, I would likely be required to have each bag opened and checked by greedy hands and pay a price for allowing “suspect” items to pass. Out in the dimly lit parking, reliable Ntuntani greets me with a warm, customary three touches of our foreheads, a soft bump, one side to the other. It’s November 4. It’s hard to believe I’ve come half-way around the globe to land in a world squarely opposite to the one I left only 30 hours ago.

Leaving Ndjili, we crawl along the major road of this giant city of 9 million people, passing trucks heaped with produce from the interior and derelict taxi-buses overfilled with passengers (including the guys standing on the bumper) while dodging random pedestrians as they hop over the concrete median. “What’s new, Ntuntani?” We talk about his family, our friends, has he seen this person or that one? He points out places along our route where major traffic accidents have recently occurred. Accidents are no wonder as cars and taxi-buses zoom around in a dizzying chaos, respecting neither laws nor pedestrians. I tighten my seatbelt, and Ntuntani laughs. Finally, we reach Poids Lourds (meaning heavy weight), Kingabwa (probably big wood), a district of Kinshasa known for its massive lumber yards and once productive industry. Here, only 50 yards from the Congo River, I open the door to our tiny apartment, essentially a four-room, wooden box built on top of metal shipping containers stacked into what was once an industrial workshop. Although quite simple, it serves as Ntuntani’s office and our maison de passage. Considering Kinshasa hotel and rent prices, we are lucky to have it. Our back windows overlook a lagoon of the Congo River that harbors an expansive barge repair operation. Here rusty hulks come to life again, bit by back-breaking bit, under the hard hands of manual labor. The river is rising, I note, and more rain is expected.

Carved wooden crocodileWe drag the bulky duffle bags up the flight of stairs. The carved wooden crocodile, named Dr. Croxton (after my childhood orthodontist), stands on my desk in smiley greeting (photo). (Years ago, I rescued Dr. Croxton, a badly mistreated piece of Congolese antiquity, from a trash heap. Someone had tried to saw him up and possibly use him for firewood, but I found him, homeless, tailless and his head nearly severed from his body. Gouve, our good-hearted maintenance man, patched him up with a bit of wood filler and painted his teeth into a gleaming white grin. Now Doctor Croxton fearlessly guards our apartment.) Despite our summer-long absence, everything seems in order – fridge humming, beds made, clean towels and electricity. Patrick arrives from Belgium a couple of hours later. He and I enjoy a late-night reunion with beer and pizza that Ntuntani stocked earlier in the day.

Kinshasa

The week in Kinshasa gallops by. We attend meetings, obtain travel documents, report to authorities, and monitor the Ebola quarantine that has been in effect since August. The quarantine zone borders the Salonga National Park and the portion of the park we must reach as soon as officials declare it Ebola free.

George's courtyardWe buy supplies and food for our eventual trip into the interior. We sort through the cargo and repack it to send up-country to Mbandaka. Bumping down a narrow, one-lane, mud-slick alley lined with stalls selling everything from bras to motor parts, we take our cargo to George’s Business Service Agency. George rarely fails to get his clients’ cargo to destinations all over the Congo. In George’s courtyard (photo), we deposit our load: solar panels, 12-volt batteries, 50 pairs of boots, and trunks of supplies ranging from medicines to machetes. Ntuntani weighs our trunks and checks the scale while I perch on some boxes and watch as a lady packs frozen fish and hair pieces into the same Styrofoam cooler. The contents pour over the edge, and sprouting hair pieces refuse to cooperate. With a final shove, she smacks down the lid, sits on it and tapes it shut. Good enough.

During meetings, we attempt to follow up on a plan to construct three prefabricated houses in the Salonga National Park. The houses are nearly identical to the research house we built last April at Etate. These buildings were destined to become guard houses at three patrol posts on the Salonga River – one being Etate, our base camp. Built on a flood plain, Etate needs an elevated guard house – one that can withstand the occasional high water that seems to visit at least every seven years. These houses were purchased last year by RAPAC [Central African Protected Areas Network], a partner NGO that has since suspended its activities in the Congo. RAPAC shipped the house parts and building materials as far as Mbandaka to await eventual transport upriver to the park. However, since the closure of RAPAC, there seems to be no concrete financial plan to cover transport to the park or construction of the houses. We try all week to meet with various officials and representatives to discuss how to salvage the houses, but no one seems to know anything.

Mbandaka

Good news. The Ebola quarantine, which has been in effect since August, has officially been lifted. We can go to Etate. However, having been delayed by the quarantine for more than two months, we are really pressed for time, and Bunda says that the river at Etate is rising. “We need you to come soon.”

Mbandaka is a large town and the capital of la Province d’Equateur. The town lies smack on the equator. It is also a place where several major rivers converge with the Congo, and thus it is the jumping off point for most travel into Equateur. Aside from the rare cases of chartered bush flights and occasional road trips, it is here that the masses of Congolese convene and pack onto treacherous, over-crowded barges, boats and canoes to depart for points east into the rural heart of the country. One such traveler, coincidentally, is an old friend, Salonga’s Chef de Site, Gerard Bofeko. He happens to be in Mbandaka when we arrive, searching for transportation back to the national park.

Bofeko visits our Mbandaka office. We talk about the Ebola outbreak and the increased poaching that has resulted from the quarantine, which for months has blocked patrols even in the Ebola-free areas. Bunda and his team from Etate just arrested 28 poachers on the Yenge River, an all-time high even for this area. Talk turns to the houses, what will become of them and what we can do to save the buildings. Bofeko confirms that ICCN, the national park authority in the DR Congo, now owns the three houses and that as far as he knows, there is no specific financing to construct them. “If you can find the means, Madame, this will be good.” Patrick and I think we can salvage one house perhaps, as long as we can keep the logistics and labor within our normal work plan. It is not our business to rescue houses, but the waste otherwise is unforgivable.

The next day Bofeko officially informs the ICCN of our offer to transport and build one house at the Etate Patrol Post.

We could potentially build the house during our spring mission if Jean Mbangi, our trusted Mbandaka builder, agrees to head up the construction. Jean agrees but warns that if we are going to build another house in Etate this spring, then the cement pilings have to be built now in order for them to set up firmly before the actual construction. This means that Jean and his crew have to join us on this mission. We have to move fast.

By the end of Day Two in Mbandaka, we have the logistics for House #2 underway.

Fast Forward – Salonga River

Redo shouts, “Salonga!” It is our second night in the pirogue. I sit up and lift the tarp draped over our heads to peek outside. It is pitch black, no moon. I sense more than see the tall forest as we hug the shoreline and motor our way upriver. We just peeled off the Busira River and entered the mouth of the Salonga River. In the back, the men talk and rock the boat moving barrels of fuel around. It will take at least 10 barrels for us to reach Etate. We have two large pirogues lashed together this time. One carries cement, planks and rebar for the house; the other carries rice, rations and heavy trunks filled with supplies. Jean and Didier make a sleeping room for themselves in the front of one pirogue; Patrick, José, Bobo and I occupy the other. Jean’s crew sleeps under tarps in the back with the pilots. The pilots take turns driving night and day. This trip will take us four days.

Around midnight, CRACK, swish, rake, boof! Up like a shot. Beams from headlamps rake across the scene. We’re not only off course, but stuck, really stuck deep in a tangle of vines, marsh grass, and unyielding thorns of liana. Two giant pirogues -- stuck. Total confusion as sleepy heads try to sort out what has happened. Redo thought he was taking the right turn around a place called Kusé, but, Redo, obviously this is not Kusé! I stab at the grass with a long paddle trying to find something solid underneath us to push against. Nothing. The paddle sinks in all the way to its end. Only deep water. “Didier, you feel anything over there?” “No, Madame, only water.” I wait to see what they are discussing in the back. It is all in worried Lingala, and I’m not following it -- everyone talking over everyone else. Scanning with the headlamp, I watch a frog land on the tarp. He looks at me with a silly grin. Then another arrives and brings his friends. After all, we’re in their swamp. I yell to Didier, “Can we pull against the grass?” “No, Madame, we tried, but it’s too deep, and we’re too heavy!” I won’t believe it. A little surge of anger is good; it nudges against the fear and makes room to think. We must be stuck on a log we can’t see. “Do we have rope back there?” (I know we have rope buried somewhere in all this cargo!) “Yes,” the answer is relayed back to me. “Check! Is it twice the distance to those trees over there?” “Yes, we think so.” “Then someone has to swim over and pass the rope around those trees and bring it back to the pirogue so we can pull ourselves out of this mess.” There is total silence, even among the frogs. No one wants to go into that black water at night. It is the only way, though, and everyone knows the rope is our best hope. Redo and Limbondo strip down to their skivvies. They lower themselves into the black water, rope in hand. All headlamps light their passage as they swim together, parting the swamp grass as they cross a distance of 15 meters to an island of trees. They pass the rope around the largest trunk and swim back. The men seize the rope end and pull hand over hand. Immediately the pirogues obey and loosen their grip on whatever underwater snag they’ve joined to. Eventually we drift back into the main current.

Watsi Kengo

Another day of voyage passes. Patrick has a bad cold that has worked its way into an excruciating backache. It hurts to sit still for three days in the pirogue.

We pass camp after camp, flooded, some up to the rooftops. The river grows more narrow and the trees higher. As evening approaches, we sail by a solid standof Pandanus and watch in awe as thousands of fruit bats leave their roost.

Travel weary, we arrive in Watsi Kengo (park headquarters) around midnight. The river reaches to the top of the headland or Watsi Kengo’s port! We trade greetings with a few guards and stragglers guarding the port. We decide to tie up there and stay the night in the pirogue to allow the pilots some sleep. At some point it rains hard, and I can feel the mounting river currents underneath tug at our pirogues.

At first light we unload some cargo, mainly rations for the military stationed at Watsi Kengo (there to strengthen ICCN’s anti-poaching forces). I get out long enough to greet a few guards and the Chef de Secteur, Ewaula, who have come to the port to greet us. Bobo heats water for our coffee on the communal fire. We can’t stay long, I tell them. We must reach Etate early in the day. I fear the high water might complicate our landing.

On route, the skies clear. We watch birds, eagles and monkeys as we approach the park. I spot what is likely a De Brazza’s monkey. Later a lone unidentified stork appears high in the canopy. Groups of African Gray Parrots cavort overhead, and hornbills swoosh across the river and dive among the trees. A rare fishermen paddles over, clasps onto the pirogue (as Mbos continues full-throttle), and sells us smoked fish. With coffee and a morning snack, moods pick up, and any casual observer from outer space might wonder at the unusual merriment of 11 tired people on a raft, putt-putting along on a black river in the middle of nowhere. We’re getting close to Etate, of course, and the growing excitement is irrepressible.Yenge River Junction

Four hours after leaving Watsi Kengo, we pass the Yenge River junction (photo). Following tradition, I snap a thousand more useless pictures of my favorite landmark – the boundary of the Salonga National Park. We pass more fishing camps – flooded and deserted. We pass the river shortcut, but the water is too high for us to enter. We pass the market port of Patmos – under water. And holding our breath, we round the last curve to enter Etate. The fence is gone, but we can still see grass!! We can still make this work! The water covers only half of Etate’s courtyard (photo).

Guards cheeringThe guards heard our motor approaching long before, and now they gather and cheer. Is it the Ebola crisis and near loss of hope? Is it the menacing high water? Is it the long absence since we have seen each other? What makes this homecoming more than usually joyous? I film our approach into Etate, the guards dancing and singing and acting completely crazy, but video can’t capture the long, heartfelt and grateful embraces of Bunda and his men as they grab us and literally lift us from the pirogue.

By the end of Day One at Etate, we have installed our tents and solar power and set up camp. Patrick can get some needed reprieve from the pirogue. Jean Mbangi wastes no time. He dons his rubber boots, sets up shop, and saws rebar into lengths as his men beat and bend them to form the frameworks of pylons for House #2. Bobo prepares red beans and smoked fish for the whole camp. That night I sleep the sleep of a winter bear.

Etate Continued

Thus far, the worst of the flooding is in Bobo’s kitchen. I visit Bobo first every morning. Like all mornings, he is in his apron (the one decorated with red peppers) frying slivers of sweet potato over the open fire in his kitchen. He sloshes around in rubber boots and admires his handiwork: “Hidrissa and I built this fire this morning. It works just fine, Madame.” He has built a platform of logs and heaped on dry earth to raise the fireplace above water level. On top of this he arranges logs for his fire. “Whatever makes you happy, Bobo, but soon we might have to move the whole kitchen.” Bobo tends to be sensitive about his kitchen, so I leave it for another day.

Jean Mbangi needs sand and gravel in order to make the cement pilings. Etate is built on seasonally inundated soils (sand), so we have neither gravel nor good quality sand. Before our departure from Mbandaka, we asked Bunda to try to hire men from our neighbor village Tompoco to dig 3 cubic meters of sand and gravel from their lands. They have our order ready, but they want to negotiate. A “delegation” from Tompoco arrives, and Didier goes out to haggle over prices. Two hours later, he comes into our camp “office” frazzled. They want $150 for 1 cubic meter of gravel – the going price is $30. I know they won’t settle until they have run the entire gamut and dragged me into the arena. Eventually I go out to meet with them. I hate this job. No one is ever happy. We are clearly at a disadvantage because we have no time to spare. I start low at $30. They hold firm at $150. “It’s hard work, Madame.” “Of course it is hard work,” I reply, “but consider that the product is still gravel, not diamonds.” They hold firm. My final offer is $40. They break off into a private powwow. Jean Mbangi comes in and tells them under no uncertain terms how we can get gravel from Bofuku Mai or even use palm nuts if we have to! To my dismay, they hold firm at $150! “Well, I’m sorry,” I say, “I wanted you to go home with something in your pockets, but unfortunately, now you will have to return home empty-handed and explain how you turned down a very good price. How sad: We have no gravel, and you have no money. All that work, wasted. Who else are you going to sell it to? What are you going to do, throw it back into the river?” I see a flinch cross one man’s face. He is weakening. “I will make one last effort to see you profit: $50, and that is that.” They go back to their powwow. They hold firm at $150. I laugh and exit. I get half way back to the bureau. “Wait, Madame!” “I regret this very much, my friends!” I call back, acting as if I don’t care anymore. It’s all part of the programmed drama. The negotiation has taken the better part of the afternoon. I hear the hubbub of a debate among the delegation as I wait in the office for Didier to turn in the final verdict. “Madame, they have agreed to sell the gravel to us at $50 per cubic meter.” It is indeed hard work to dig gravel.

Another Day

Jean's team digging and laying cementPatrick is feeling better. We gather all the data sheets from our survey team and Bunda’s patrols. I download the GPS units, and Patrick analyzes the guard sheets. (Despite the Ebola outbreak, Etate guards continued their patrols. Etate was just across the Salonga River from the quarantine zone border.) Didier and I set up pay packets, go over medical stipends, and work out who is owed what merit and medical pay for the past six months. The day seems to zoom by and already it is too dark to see. Pirogues loaded with sand and gravel arrive between bursts of thunderstorms. Jean’s team still works in the fading light. He measures and lays out lines for the pilings and digs large square holes into the soil only to hit water at a depth of 20 cm. “No matter, Madame,” he says, sensing my doubt. “Cement will set in water.”

Before bed, I set out a marker to measure the river’s rise overnight. Floods in this area are normally not raging torrents but calm discreet rises. The edge is now only six feet from our doorstep. That night it pours. I hear and feel a nearby tree crash to the ground – it often happens in the wet season. By the next morning, the marker is gone.

Hedging Our Bets

Water level risingBy Day Seven at Etate, the water has risen to within a centimeter from entering our dormitory (photo). Nevertheless, we decide to stay another day and hedge our bets. However, we have to move Bobo; his floor is a foot deep in murky slime, all the bananas are floating in filthy water, and that’s it. “If you build the fire platform any higher, Bobo, you’re going to burn the kitchen down. It’s already nearly to the roof!” Still he gravely protests and tries to argue a point about sanitation – that in his kitchen he can better monitor the sanitation. Is it sanitary now? Bunda comes to the rescue as usual and shows Bobo a dry place behind our houses where we can string up a tarp, quickly build a thatch lean-to that protects the fire, and get him out of the water. He demurely accepts. In no time, Bobo is happily installed into new digs. Beauty in simplicity. This is what you can do when all you have is a forest, thatch and palm fronds.

Water level risingJean has poured nearly all the pilings, but he needs one more day. Patrick and I need a couple more days to distribute school supplies to the neighboring villages and work with the survey team. Now that we support two patrol posts, Etate and Lotulo, and oversee a survey team, our administrative work has more than doubled. It takes days to get all the data, arrange for future patrols, go over accounts, and map out new survey areas. I spend as much time during these days in front of my laptop as I do in the U.S. – only here we’re harassed by che che flies and have a river licking at our boots. (It’s also MUCH more fun!) Sadly, there will be no time for us to get to the forest. This is what we must do – the mere essentials before the water enters latrines and it truly becomes unhealthy. I feel like we are taking up the only high ground left – the guard houses have a foot of water in them already (photo).

Cement pilingsIt’s nearly dark, and Limbondo comes in and announces that the Mbangi crew has just finished! Fini! All the pilings are in the ground. “Come see, Madame!” I head over to the house site. It looks like a war zone, but rising above the craters of upturned earth are 12 identical forms (photo). Despite the waning light, I snap pictures as Jean stands proudly on top of the first piling and does a little dance to show how solid it is. That night he digs into his tent and produces a bottle of victory wine to share with Patrick and me! We celebrate House #2, Patrick’s healing back, death to the che che, and whatever fool thing we can think of next.

We Must Leave

The water has not crested yet, but it is seeping up through the floors. The floor of my tent is soaked. We have accomplished what we needed to do.

Bunda understands. We will come back earlier than usual, by the end of February. He is ready to go back on his patrols, and he discusses his next strategy. Bunda is rare. I marvel at our great fortune to have him as our Chef de PP. Bunda is Etate, and there is simply no way around it. We have given him means and friendship, but he is the one who makes Etate work. Because our mission has been cut short, we leave Bunda and Hidrissa (our guard literacy teacher and assistant to Bunda) with the mother lode of remaining work: pay the school teachers and deliver the supplies, supervise the rations purchases for Lotulo, support the survey team and provide security as they survey these next two months between the Yenge and Loile (a fairly risky endeavor), and please don’t forget to rebuild Etate after we’ve stomped it into the mud.

Bunda takes it in stride. Courage, Bunda. Courage, Madame.

Men on pirogues