Monkeys along the riverside: four days on the Lokoro

Sunday the tenth of August was departure day for a ten-day trip to Lokolama, the city everyone talks about around here. The plan was to go four days downstream on the Lokoro River together with Systebole, one of the camp cooks and fishermen. In Lokolama we would meet up with Lambert, my Congolese colleague in the forest. Together, Lambert and I would take five days to bike back through the villages, searching for monkeys on the way, maybe even getting some fecal samples.

From my few short river trips I knew you can’t avoid tsetse flies on the water. Thanks to the tsetse-proof gear of a former Finnish colleague, I only had to guard my hands and face, still a constant attention-demanding task. Four days on the Lokoro is maybe not the  lovely boat trip you think about at first. A dug-out canoe is never 100% waterproof, but Systebole had arranged a piece of hardwood so I could  sit dry. After about five kilometers my buttock muscle started to feel it was really hard wood. Still 55 kilometers to go. The river is about fifty meters wide and forms a lot of meanders with beautiful curves. The vegetation on the shore is mostly swamp forest, sometimes grassy. Where the forest is dominated by palm trees, I could easily imagine I was flowing through a prehistoric landscape. On some  places the river is quite narrow, but most of the time the sun was blazing. Now and then a tree fall across, almost blocking the whole  river. Zigzagging between these tree logs is a risky business, but Systebole is an experienced boatman and managed to peddle us safely  passed all obstacles but one (only the barrel with the tents fell in the water as we had to dunk under an unexpectedly low branch). I was  wondering whether monkeys would have been able to cross this river at one point in time. This is one of the questions I would like to answer by collecting fecal samples for genetic analyses.

On the river I was constantly on the lookout for birds and monkeys. We saw loads of Hartlaub’s ducks (Pteronetta hartlaibii) in pairs or small groups, a single woolly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus), several African darters (Anhinga rufa), palm-nut vultures (Gypohierax  angolensis) and different kinds of kingfishers. I planned this trip specifically to search for kelo monkeys (see my post of July 24th), so I  told Systebole to slow down as soon as we noticed monkeys around. On the first day we heard monkeys alarm calling from the riverside on three occasions. Systebole said these were keskes, redtailed guenons (Ceropithecus ascanius), but I noticed a slight difference in frequency and after listening to the recordings of swamp monkey alarm calls, I concluded and convinced Systebole this must have been Allen’s swamp monkeys (Allenopithecus nigroviridis). The next day I briefly saw a male and a female on two occasions and I got fecal samples from three locations. Swamp monkeys are very elusive, so I never had a chance to take a picture. We also came across de Brazza guenons (Cercopithecus neglectus) and Angolan black-and-white colobus monkeys (Colobus angolensis), two more riverine species, as well as Wolf’s guenons (Cercopithecus wolfi) and Thollon’s red colobus (Piliocolobus tholloni).

June to August is the peak of the dry season when the water level is at its lowest. It is also the fishing season: the villagers temporarily go to live in a nganda or fishing camp along the river. Each village has several of these camps with names of cities like Kinshasa, Kisangani, Kikwit, or names of trees like Boele or Boseki. The huts are very basic and made of sticks and leaves from the forest. We regularly stopped in these fishing camps for a small chat to get more information about where to find kelo monkeys. Systebole often tried to make a little bit of money with his photo minute business. 1500 francs for a picture printed on the spot. Each time the same happened: the husband and his wife would quickly put on their newest cloths, sometimes picking up the backpack of Systebole or the sun glasses of someone nearby to look as cool as possible in the picture. All children around would try to get in the background of the picture. The husband would get angry and chase them away, but as soon as he turned around to pose in front of the camera, the children would sneak in again.

I will not forget some of my encounters with people along the river. In Lokeli camp we met Benjamin, a relatively wealthy-looking man in his forties with a big belly. Usually these Big Men in Africa are very dominant and lazy so I was surprised that he wanted to show us a good spot himself. He joined us in the canoe and led us to a small tributary where we found two kelo samples at the edge of a muddy pool. On the way back I thanked him in Lingala and took a picture which I promised to send with one of the next planes. In fact, Benjamin seemed to have acompletely different character than what I expected from his outer appearance. He smiled timidly and said: merci mingi.

The second night we stopped at Liema, one of the fishing camps of Iyoko village. Systebole’s family was staying in Liema, so I put up my tentnext to his hut. In the evening he asked if I wanted to shower with hot water. Yes, I would appreciate hot water, I replied. There was one problem. There was not really a shower in this camp. People just wash themselves in the river. I had to wait until sunset and showered ten meters from the forest edge in the dark. I put my torch on a log and poured the steaming hot water over my body.

The next morning we went out early to look for more monkeys along the river. We left at the same time as the fishermen went out to check their nets. Most of them are young adolescents who elegantly maneuver their small canoes between the submerged logs to get to their nets, the water five to ten centimeters from the edge of their canoe. Iyoko is known for its excellent fishermen. That’s why you”ll see a lot of metal roofs on the houses in Iyoko village, Systebole said. The river stretch belonging to Iyoko is also known for its hippopotamus. Some fishermen showed us footprints and old dung, and told us where the ngubo was seen just before. At one point Systebole pointed at a low overhanging tree, but apparently the hippo dunked under as soon as it saw the white person. I would have liked to see a hippo, although it would probably have felt a bit scary to see one from a simple dug-out canoe. I felt safe though. The local people don’t kill nor anxiously fear these huge animals and they have a good reason. To them, these hippos are not real hippos, but a kind of half-hippos. As Lambert would later explain me in Lokolama, a person can be a human being in the village and at the same time an elephant, leopard or hippo in the forest. A lot of workers in camp would actually be half-elephants, Lambert confessed. If an elephant gets killed in the forest, the person immediately dies in the village. The soul of both creatures is permanently connected. See what happened to Innocent’s finger (in February he had a severe infection and his little finger had to be amputated): that’s because a poacher injured an elephant in the forest. Or Djaman who was furious at the camp manager one day: someone scared off elephants and that’s why Djaman reacted in such an angry way. Lambert is a relatively well-educated man reaching his fifties who is used to work with Western people and understands well how we think. He said we as Westerners will never be able to understand this, but it is true, half-elephants, half-hippos and half-leopards do really exist. I just nodded: magic really is a crucial part of African society, I thought.

In general the people in the fishing camps don’t often see Western people, especially not in a dug-out canoe on the river. A lot of them were surprised, little children sometimes frightened. We were always warmly welcomed. Hospitality was remarkable. On day four we stopped in Beke to prepare our first meal of the day: kwanga and dried fish, the same as every meal on this trip to Lokolama. Beke consists of two huts on a high shore where a man called Benseme was staying with some of his sons and other relatives. He was fishing to sell salted fish to traders who pass by in Lokolama. While Systebole was preparing the fish on the fire, Benseme came over and slowly kneeled down in front of me holding his back straight. He explained he was suffering from a hernia. I thought he was feigning and expected a request for money. No, he heard that the mindele in LuiKotale study animals and plants and he was just wondering whether I could tell him which tree he could use the bark of to relieve his back pain. I explained to him that the Congolese master the real knowledge of the trees and gave him some leftover painkillers as we went. He was very grateful.

Soon after noon the fourth day we arrived at Bamponde, another fishing camp, where we left our canoe and a tent with someone we could trust. From here we walked two hours and arrived at Lokolama in the late afternoon. More about the second part of this trip in the next post.

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Lieven in congo

At the moment Lieven Devreese is staying at LuiKotale, a bonobo research site of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in the vicinity of Salonga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. Lieven is a research assistant working on habituation of a second group of bonobos and he hopes to get to see some golden-bellied mangabeys as well. Here you can read more about his 10-month adventure.