Back from one crazy world to another one

I write this last blog post sitting at my desk in Belgium. My laptop is plugged in, I will soon switch on the light and if I want a fresh drink on this sunny day, I just have to open the fridge. Before I explain you how I experienced the abrupt change in culture and way of life, let me tell you a bit more about my last days in the forest.
Around the beginning of September the bonobos on the east started eating botende (Pancovia sp.), a delicious orange fruit that usually grows in small trees with good visibility. It was nice to be able to see well these apes that I had been following for almost ten months. Another pleasure was the discovery of a first newborn for the immigrant female Zamu and the big Weyns’ duiker (Cephalophys weynsi) that adult female Soroka managed to catch. It was only by chance that we found Soroka when she was holding the already butchered duiker. There was not so much commotion and the females mostly peacefully shared the meat after rubbing each other’s genital swelling, the typical bonobo way to beg for food. The whole scenery was so different from what I have seen from the duiker hunt on the west. Why this difference? There is still much to learn about the behaviour of one of our closest relatives.

One day the bonobos crossed to the west side. The following day we saw an anomalure, a kind of flying squirrel (although phylogenetically they are not closely related to the real flying squirrels). The big rodent made an impressive glide between two distant trees. We think the bonobos might have eaten this animal. Observation conditions were terrible, but we saw several individuals eating a small mammal some thirty minutes later. That day the group travelled steadily east and finally crossed the Bompusa River. We made some attempts to do the same, but after trying several spots, decided to turn around. The water level was up to our chest when we were not even two meters from the bank, and I was not in a swimming mood that day. I felt a bit guilty about dropping the bonobos, but this feeling disappeared the next day when we crossed the Bompusa River on the regular log. Although it hadn’t rained in the study site, the water level nearly reached the highest point I ever witnessed. Rains can be very localized in the tropics.

One of my last days with the bonobos, they treated me on a lovely resting, grooming and water-playing session. The older juveniles started playing in a shallow stream, turning around in the water. Four-year old Kebo swept the water from side to side with his arms. At one point he was standing half upright in a pool, holding both his arms straight behind him and repeatedly bending down to touch the water with his lips. He swung from left to right, sometimes sucking and spitting out a bit of water. Later Evea and Soso, the two oldest juveniles of about eight years old, joined in, all getting wet with fun. Kebo showed a clear laughing expression on his face. Bonobos are able to laugh just like we do and they really enjoy playing, even as adults. Play is an important mechanism to learn motor and social skills, but we still need a good explanation as to why adult bonobos play much more than their closest relatives, chimpanzees, do.

The day of my byo-party (byo is one of the few Lingala words burrowed from English) we made bean burgers with delicious buns and we got plenty of eggs from the village, a real luxury. The others made a nice cake and everyone got a fried egg to put on the burger together with a spoon of guacamole and tomato sauce. You need some creativity and the necessary skills and ingredients, but it is not that difficult to make a good meal in the forest.

The next day I left camp around noon. Lofombo brought me over in the pirogue, but at the other side I said goodbye. By now I knew the trail to the village well enough to walk on my own. I crossed the Bompindji River, passed through Iyaka camp, the savannah next to it and after crossing the Lomena River (only up to my thighs, luckily; it can be chest-high), I reached the big Bokapo savannah. I brought a tent and was planning to spend the night here. There was still a fire burning at the small camp place in the forest just before entering the savannah, but I wanted to be able to oversee the sloping savannah when opening my tent in the morning. So, I chose one of the higher spots in the middle of the savannah, where the grass had recently been burnt. I pitched up the tent using wooden sticks and pieces of a termite mound to replace the pegs I left in camp. To make a fire I collected dry grass, kindling and bigger chunks of wood from the partly burnt savannah shrubs. I did bring a lighter, but I wanted to test my real fire-making skills. A couple of strokes with my fire steel and, whoof, the fire was burning. For dinner I brought rice mixed with my last portion of dry tomato sauce, and some peanuts. That morning I had picked a couple of big Haumania leaves in camp to make a liboke. You put the food in the leaves, wrap them together and tie it up at the top. I added a bit of water and put the liboke on the smothering coals. Five minutes later my tasty, hot evening meal was ready! I enjoyed it. Last thing to do was roasting the peanuts in my metal cup, so I would have an easy breakfast.

The night fell and there was nothing more to do, so I went to bed. I slept well, until the wind woke me up at ten thirty. It was blowing quite heavily and I noticed lightning from far away. Five minutes later the first drops started to fall and soon I found myself holding the poles of my tent to avoid it getting blown away by the strong wind. Lightning and thunder was coming closer and the wind strokes tore out my tent peg replacements. The inside space of the tent was seriously reduced as the wind bent in at one side. Rain sprinkled through the tarp of the tent. With one hand holding the tent pole I tried to put on my rain jacket and prepared my stuff for a worse-case scenario. I put my sleeping gear close to the middle of the tent so it wouldn’t get too wet. For twenty minutes I was holding the tent and hoping the thunderstorm would not come closer or grow harder. But this was a typical tropical storm so it stopped as sudden as it had started. I stayed awake for another hour to make sure the storm wouldn’t come back, but I got safely through the night. To announce my arrival in the village, I wrote Mara two days before that I wanted to spend a night on my own to have a unique experience. This was definitely one. A crazy night I will not forget, nature showing its power.

The morning was nice. I saw several bird species as the sun rose and I enjoyed the experience of being out there totally on my own. As far as I could see over the savannah and the surrounding forest, I could only see an intact natural landscape. Not a single other human being around me. By noon I got to the village, where I was welcomed at Maras place. The next day I went in the forest with Michokoto and ma’Marie (the short version of mama Marie) to collect young leaves of kfumo trees. ma’Marie later prepared the leaves in a liboke to serve them as a sauce to go with the kwanga. They also explained and showed me the process of making what was my main food supply for ten months: kwanga. Here’s the recipe: submerge the manioc tubers in water for five to seven days, peal the outer layers and drain the water from the tubers by putting them in woven baskets with some weight on it. The next step consists of sieving the loose tuber mass through a woven sieve. Then put water in a barrel with wooden sticks on the bottom. Cover the sticks and the edges of the barrel with big leaves and put all of the manioc on top. Cover with more leaves and let it steam for two hours. The hot sticky paste then has to be kneaded to get rid of lumps. This is done with leaves, used as gloves, covered with a bit of oil to prevent sticking. Finally the kwanga is wrapped in the steamed leaves and ready to be served. The whole process takes several hours and is generally done twice a week.

The 19th of September was the day I would leave Lompole. We walked the five kilometer to the airstrip near the village of Ipope. We got there only after the plane had landed, because of a lively discussion with the elderly people of Ipope about the payment for the metal roofs of the local school. The chaos of unloading the plane, weighing all the luggage and getting ready to leave started, while more than fifty people had gathered around the plane. When I stood on the balance, the arrow stopped at the lowest number I have ever seen for my body: I lost 6.7kg in ten months. Time had come to say goodbye to Mara and the other villagers. Only when the plane finally left the ground and I saw this beautiful forest and the savannahs from the sky, it hit me that I was leaving this place. The flight was nice. A calm moment to sort out my thoughts. We crossed the Lukenie, the Kasai, Kwilu and Kwango Rivers. I kept thinking about the creatures living below me and how the landscape with its rivers and the savannah patches influences their life. I also thought about the people living in the villages we flew over. About the forests they are roaming, the rivers they are fishing and the roads they are taking to get somewhere.

When we stopped at Semendua to pick up two more passengers, a car came to the airstrip. I was not surprised or overwhelmed to see a car, but I have to admit it took me a while to realize what this car made it not an ordinary one for me: it was imported from a country where they drive on the left side of the road. Back in Kinshasa I was also not as much shocked with the chaos and luxury of city life as I expected I would have been. I went to a restaurant, did some shopping for the people in camp and visited the horrible zoo with a new Congolese friend. The zoo has a lot of monkeys, thirteen species in total, in the smallest cages I have ever seen. There is also a group of skinny horses you are not allowed to photograph, even with a permit! These are the presidential horses, so please follow my advice when you go there to avoid major problems. My two days in Kin I walked the streets and asked the people in Lingala where to get bananas, cakes or peanuts. I enjoyed electricity, internet and plenty of food, although I was not really craving all these luxuries, especially not food. After all these months of quite a monotonous diet I had reached a stage in which I didn’t care much anymore. Of course I do like a slice of toasted bread with strawberry jam on it (and I ate a lot of them in the hostel where I was staying!), and I do like soup, omelet with vegetables and a cold milkshake, but I could easily have eaten overcooked rice with milk powder and a single spoon of sugar, or mashed beans with greens and kwanga.

After ten months and more than 24 hours of travel I finally saw my family again. The day before, all my brothers and sisters (even the one living in Spain!) had come together to prepare the list of food items I send them. We had a lovely evening with plenty of food of all kinds. With my luggage I also brought a roll of kwanga for my family to try. Luckily for them it was not a very acidic one. They tasted it and didn’t totally dislike it. I guess the spinach was well spiced.

It’s now almost a week since I got back to this crazy world you are all so familiar with. I am still struggling to adjust. There’s the chaos of cars, people always going everywhere and all those electronic devices screaming to get your attention. There’s the different social setting, the people online expecting immediate reactions. Of course I will give in to most of these things we all take for granted. I do appreciate certain things that make life more pleasant, but this trip has definitely changed me again a little bit more. Do we really need to be online everywhere at any time? Do we really need to eat fruit and vegetables from the other side of the world? Is it so much of a problem to be five minutes too late at an appointment? I sometimes wonder. And I miss the forest. Oh man, how much do I miss the forest! In want to have nature around me, intact, pure nature, and Flanders is maybe not the best place to be with such a strong philosophical desire. That’s why I’m already planning my next adventure. I just submitted a grant proposal to apply for funding for “The elusive red colobus monkey expedition”. You’ll hear more soon, I’ll keep you updated.

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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.