Nazali koyekola Lingala with the commander of the forest

Three days ago I had to stay in camp because my stomach was struggling with an overload of bacteria which it is not accustomed to, which made me go to the toilet every hour or two. Just that day something extraordinary happened on the east. Kimya, an adult female, caught a juvenile black crested mangabey (Lophocebus aterrimus). All individuals present in the party gathered around her as she climbed in a tree and tried to get a piece of her prey. LuiKotale is the only field site where bonobos have been observed capturing and eating the meat of several species of monkeys. Ten years ago no one knew this type of hunting is part of the behavioural repertoire of bonobos. I hope there will be another opportunity for me to observe this spectacular behaviour.

After two days of confinement in camp, I craved going out in the forest again. Although it was our fixed rotational day off, and although we had an interesting visitor in camp, I decided to accompany Lovis, one of the local workers, on the afternoon shift in search of the bonobos’ nest site. When applying for this position, I had a lot of questions. What I particularly wanted to know, was how the teams that go into the forest are formed. This may seem strange, but there is a huge difference between going into the forest with another researcher or assistant and going into the forest accompanied only by local people. The cultural differences and the limited communication may sometimes provoke frustration, among both parties. For the Congolese the forest is the backyard in which they grew up. The workers like the work, they like the forest, but for most of them it is just their work, as their daily way of life. Of course, all western people come here with a different attitude and consider every hour as an opportunity to discover more about this magnificent forest.


However, the best way to get to know the culture and to learn the language of the local people is to go into the forest with one of them.So yesterday I agreed with Lovis to leave camp at 2 pm. Lovis is one of the two longest employed workers. One night during a party after too much Lotoko (the local brewed beer) he declared himself the commander of the forest, the man who knows the forest. And he certainly knows the forest.

On the swampy Kossiwa trail less than a kilometer from camp he spotted a fresh footprint track of a leopard (Panthera pardus). The next kilometer he picked out some bonobo food trees to teach me their local names. After we entered the home range of our bonobo community he stopped a first time to listen. I heard nothing but the familiar background forest sounds. Lovis whispered: “mbengene”. We stayed put and thirty seconds later a Weyns’ duiker (Cephalophus weynsi) wanted to cross the trail twenty meters from us. As soon as it saw us through the undergrowth vegetation the duiker flashed away. I commented what happened and whispered: “Njama akimi”.

A few kilometers further we sat down, tofanda, to listen for bonobos. In silence we went through the bird guide and every few pages I asked him: “Oyebi ndeke oyo?” If he knew the bird, Lovis would answer with its local name.

Another aim of our shift together was to do some gps training. The workers always take a gps with them in the forest, but not all of them know how to work with it. Last year I did training of bonobo trackers of the Congolese ngo Mbou-Mon-Tour, so it’s not the first time I do this. Teaching African people how to use a gps is not always an easy task and requires a lot of repetition, checking if they really understood it and, most of all, you need a lot of patience. But Lovis picked up very fast how the track log function of a gps works. I congratulated him and told him he is a smart guy, ozali mayele mingi, and the sometimes grumpy worker put up a big smile. While walking further south Lovis thanked me for showing him how to use the gps, matongo mingi. I replied he was a good Lingala teacher.

By the end of our shift Lovis started to ask the typical questions. I answered I have two brothers and two sisters. Lovis is also part of a family of five, but he is the “grand frère” while I’m the mwana ya samba. He continued his questions. No, like most mindele at LuiKotale I’m not married. I explained him that in Mpoto people often marry at a later age. Also, for mindele coming here it is not always easy to combine field work with normal social life at home. Lovis replied: “Nayoki”, I understand. He told me that in the past he spent several years at Maluku, a city port near the Congo River, and in Kikwit, a big city in the south. If you travel and come across a place with good opportunities to work, you should stay a bit longer to earn money so you can have a good future for your family. “Mpo na sima malamu.” Eventually Lovis decided to go back to his village to live with his mother, brothers and sisters again, and the villagers he grew up with. Sometimes you have to sacrifice things, “mais azali mabe te”, because these sacrifices are needed to benefit your life later on. “C’est la vie!”

Although our cultural attitudes are quite different and although I came here for another reason than money, I felt Lovis understood what I meant by saying it is not always easy to be more than 6000km away from friends, family and the normal, comfortable world we are so familiar to. The commander of the forest was not successful in finding bonobos that day, but I didn’t mind. I spent an afternoon in the forest and got some good advice from my new Congolese moninga. On our way back to camp I realized how privileged I am to get to know the true Congolese people and their culture and it made me forget the sacrifices.


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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.