This is a letter home sent from Ape Action Africa in March of 2010.
Greetings from the rain forest of Cameroon!
Tuesday, February 21 I have been in Cameroon 3 weeks today. In some ways it feels like much longer. In most ways it feels like not nearly that long. It is exactly 1/4 of the total time. Not sure when this will get sent. I’ll add to it if indicated. Beyond anything else, I feel privileged to be here with gorillas and chimps and monkeys, in the kind of contact that very few humans get to have. I have no education or training in primatology. I’m not a researcher. And yet here I am taking care of and being of service to these extraordinary beings on a daily basis. Yes, it is hard work and has challenges. And the gifts and my gratitude far outweigh them. I am a blessed woman.
The Place: Ape Action Africa, formerly known as CWAF (Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund), operates this sanctuary in the Mfou National Forest. It is currently home to 94 chimpanzees, 17 gorillas, and an impossible-to-keep-track-of number of baboons, mandrills, and monkeys, totaling somewhere around 200 primates, augmented by 4 cats, 7 dogs, village-owned herds of sheep and goats and gazillions of chickens. Many of the primates come here as babies because their families have been slaughtered for bushmeat. Others show up because they are no longer manageable as the pets they have been. Many of these have been neglected or horribly abused or humanized in ways that prevent them from ever realizing their true nature. Some come from the zoo in Yaounde (the capital of Cameroon) which is also supported, in part, by AAA. Troops of primates usually have a dominant male and when male babies grow up, they are often beat up by the older ones, necessitating their removal. They are brought here and introduced into existing groups which have much larger enclosures than in the zoo and thus a better chance at coexisting.
My first assignment was working with a group of 7 baby chimps, ages 1 1/2 to 3. Each morning Jen, another volunteer, and myself headed to the satellite cage (about 20 feet by 30 feet with sawdust and ginger branches on the floor, rafters to swing on, and a shelf and tires for play) at 8 each morning to feed each chimp a bottle. One of us would then head out to a to sweep out the forest clearing where the chimps play during the day, cleaning it of yesterday’s poop and fruit peels. Then back to the satellite cage for “Allez! Allez!”, the call for the chimps to accompany us the couple of hundred yards out to the clearing where we spent the morning with them. Trees, vines, a wooden ‘slide’, hanging net and tires provide a playground fully utilized by these little ones. Little and strong!
Once they were a bit settled one of us would head back to clean out the satellite cage, leaving the other and a keeper to be with the chimps. Cleaning the cage is about chimp poop and rotted banana peels and pineapple and pee-sodden sawdust. Yup, not exactly pleasant and with a pair of good rubber gloves, a pitchfork for moving ginger branches, and African broom and dustbin (not like our American versions!), not so awful. Hard and sweaty work as much as anything. I return to the clearing drenched as if I had been swimming.
The chimps often come to us for hugs or for tickles or to be swung around or for a banana or some sugar cane. Or even a lap in which to nap. Then back into the trees to chatter and swing and climb and hoot and just be chimps. The play and hugs are wonderful, and we need always remember they are chimps and not humans. Play can become very rough very easily, and even baby chimp jaws are amazingly strong with very big teeth.
Back into the satellite cage at noon for our lunch break. Another bottle at 2 and out into the forest once again. Every afternoon I’d have one or two babies in my lap, napping against my chest, restoring their energy for more play. My Grandmother Spirit is alive and well and loving it here. We’d return with the babies to the satellite cage around 4:45 and say our goodbyes until the next morning, leaving them in the caring hands of their Cameroonian keepers.
Never have I been this dirty! It is very hot and very humid, and I sweat virtually all day long. The chimps play in the dirt, come jump and hug on me, and their dirt and my sweat combine to form a daily coat of mud on my clothes. The heat and constant state of dampness is my biggest challenge so far, requiring a minimum of 4 liters of fluid a day for me to stay really hydrated. I am more successful at this some days than others!
Laundry is a small handful of soap powder and a capful of bleach poured into a bucket of brown river water, agitated by hand power, adding clothes and scrub energy as needed. Anything white becomes beige after a wash or two. We wash our bodies in the same manner. Being here requires many compromises one of which is a whole new definition of clean and dirty.
Drinking water comes from a well in the village several hundred yards away and is saved for drinking and cooking as we have to go pump it ourselves into 5 gallon containers and bring it down to our site in a wheelbarrow. Hence the use of river water for washing which is delivered into 50-gallon containers behind each building and piped into sink and shower and toilet. I use the term ‘shower’ loosely as the drip of water which emanates from the shower head is much more conducive to half filling a bucket over a several minute period than it would be to taking an actual shower.
There is a daily routine. Bread is delivered for breakfast a bit before 7 am, and we volunteers gather in “The Hilton” – dining room and makeshift kitchen – before heading to our assignments around 8. Lunch, cooked by a CWAF employee who lives in the village, arrives at noon: rice with either peanut sauce, beans, or choux (a tomato based cabbage sauce which I actually quite like) and more bread. We go back to ‘work’ at 1, with most assignments ending a bit before 5.
Showers are generally the activity of choice at that point, the cool water being most welcome in the heat of the afternoon, after a day of work and sweat. Then a rest, reading or journaling and back to The Hilton for a bit of conversation before dinner arrives at 7. We’re all in bed, under mosquito netting before 9, sleeping, reading, listening to music. The generator, which usually comes on around 6:30 is off around 9:30 so the lights go out. It’s a convenient time to end the day and close our eyes.
Monday dinner is: chips (French Fries) and salad (lettuce, avacado, tomato, cukes, onion, to which I add Balsamic Vinegar bought from a mahima (store) in Yaounde); Tuesday: potatoes and beans; Wednesday: chips and salad; Thursday: spaghetti and choux; Friday: chips and salad (can you tell which is the favorite meal??); Saturday: plantain and choux; Sunday: spaghetti and choux; and always 3 loaves of French bread. We all supplement with condiments or favorites goodies. I have beef jerky and trail mix for protein, Parmesan cheese for flavor. There is a little ‘bar’ in the village with beer, wine, soft drinks, biscuits (cookies in the US), sardines, and other little goodies. When the generator has been on during the day for some construction reason, the drinks are cold which is incredibly welcome.
On Tuesday, 2/16, I was given the new assignment of taking over the hand raising of a 5 month old chimp named Boubalay. Her current ‘mum’, Donna, was heading home at the end of the month so she needed to turn over the care of her baby.
I spent the next five or so days sitting with the 2 of them during the day, allowing Boubalay to get used to me. Then Donna was out of sight when Boubalay woke from a nap, and I stayed alone with her for an hour or so. A couple of hours the next day, then a full morning, then a day, and finally an overnight. And another.
When Donna extended her stay another five weeks, we began a schedule on which I had Boubalay, Sunday night through Friday dinner and Donna had her Friday night through Sunday dinner. I’d spend the weekends with the babies. It was my dream schedule, being able to be with the babies in the forest and also handraise a really little one.
Saturday, March 13 We began that schedule on Wednesday, February 24, and I relished being the caretaker of this gorgeous little being, so alike and yet so very different from a human baby and also being with the wonderful group of older babies in the forest. It is a challenge for me to remember that they are chimps and need to be treated as such: much more harshly in the sense of disciplining them in the way their mums would in the wild: a very loud ‘Ooo’ in their face, a fairly sharp one-finger whack on the nose, picking them up if necessary to move them away from whatever they’re into. All with a fierce face and voice. Then watch their either mad or sad face and determine the appropriate amount of time to wait before cuddling them closely. It’s a big challenge for me to be this harsh, and it is what is necessary. Chimps are by nature cheeky and naughty and aggressive with one another. And if we are not harsh as they are growing up, they will be beaten up when they get put into the group of babies who are older and bigger.
Boubalay is by nature quite sweet, and I have concern about how she will fare when she enters the baby troops. They are at least 1½ years older than her and that much bigger as well. She needs to stand up for herself in a way she does not yet have.
And on Wednesday, March 3, it all changed again with the completely unexpected arrival of a 4 month old baby with no name. She had been literally dropped off with a minister in the Cameroonian government somehow who brought her to the zoo in Yaounde which CWAF is a part of. Rachael, the CWAF director, was there for a meeting with other ministers and promptly cut the meeting short and brought the baby to the forest, an hour’s drive away. Rescued baby chimps are far more important than government officials!
She was given to Donna who is a vet tech and a returning volunteer with lots of hand raising experience. She was a handful: had a number of wounds and pretty much what she knew was anger and how to bite. She was named Mboke from the village where we believe she came from. Her mom was shot, and she was taken to sell or as a ‘pet’ and was obviously kept in pretty horrible conditions. She had pressure sores on her back indicating she had been kept in a small space with little ability to move and on her hips and arms where it appears she had been tied. Scars on her head, abscessed toes, a big wound on her hand tell other stories which we are unable to decipher. I’d want to bite people, too, if they had treated me this way.
Donna’s understanding and firm way of being worked wonders in the space of a few days, and this starved, wounded, angry little being was eating and drinking and sleeping and beginning to feel safe. She would not leave Donna’s touch, sleeping in bed with her and resting on her lap or chest during the day. I now have Boubalay full time, 24/7.
Wednesday, March 17 Mboke has settled in well, and I am now her day care as well as Boubalay’s full time care, having both chimps from 7:30 am to about 5 pm. Oh, my! Having never been a mom, taking care of 2 little ones feels very challenging at times, overwhelming at times, and extraordinarily beautiful at times. Mboke needs to be on my body except when she is napping, and Boubalay is a jealous older sister who is also teething and very clingy. We spend the days outside, and just the logistics of getting mats and baskets and bottles and milk mix and water and etc., etc., etc. from inside to outside, with 2 chimps to be carried is an interesting undertaking. As is peeing with 2 chimps who want to be held!
It has been a very challenging several days as I move toward having both chimps 24/7. And I do mean 24/7. We leave our human babies asleep with a monitor in the room. Not so with these beauties. Someone is with them all the time, and that someone is Donna or me. Donna is working with the older nursery chimps during the day, so it’s me.
I have felt emotionally overwhelmed a couple of times, tired and teary, and wondering if I can do this. Yes, I can do this. It gets a bit easier each day, although my diaper changing abilities are still hiding somewhere. Nappie changes tend to create the biggest upsets of the day as my clumsiness translates to frustration which transmits to the babies and they get squirmy and I struggle more, and they get mad and squirm and scream. And man, can they scream. It all works out eventually, and will get better and better as time goes by. I am getting changing lessons from Donna.
So I am learning how to be a mom of at age 62 of a 5- and a 6-month old chimp, pretty much twins, who are meeting one another for the first time. That will be my full time role for several weeks. A new volunteer is arriving some time in early April. The plan is to begin introducing her to the babies as soon as possible. Slowly, the way I got to know Boubalay. She’ll sit with us during the day. I’ll her with them for an hour or so, increasing the time until she has days and me nights, and then she’ll have them full time, well before I leave at the end of April. Hopefully I will then be able to spend some time with the older babies in the forest before leaving. And what I know more than anything is that we do things one day at a time here at CWAF because things are always changing.
The short rain season has begun, and we have some rain pretty much every day, sometimes all day. Clothes don’t dry very well. My room next to the nursery is very old and I find new leaks in the roof fairly often. The water tanks for washing get leaves in them from the roof, and the water begins to smell quite like old fish. CWAF is a shoestring organization with things always needing fixing. The funds that come in go to the care of the animals more than the care of the volunteers. We are reasonably comfortable and well fed, and we are here to take care of the animals. They are everyone’s prime concern.
And then there are the ants – soldier ants which the rain brings out. They’re the ones that devour animals and people in the old 50’s movies about Africa. They have been seen carrying a small monkey away. And they bite – hard. They are organized and swarm an area with clear lines going to and from. We have had them in the kitchen/dining room 4 times since I’ve been here, once in the nursery food storage area, and once in our bedroom. They appear after it stops raining at random times. Options are to simply go somewhere else and wait for them to leave – having no idea how long that will take – or using gasoline to kill them and make them leave. I am allergic to gasoline, and one of my biggest challenges here has been dealing with the aftereffects of ant removal. The other volunteers are most accommodating when it is necessary for me to sleep in a bed other than mine or eat somewhere other than the kitchen. We all HATE the ants!!! I will know I have perfected my gratitude skills when I can be grateful for them!
Yesterday I crossed the halfway point of my stay. I now have fewer days remaining than I have spent here. There have been a couple of sleepless nights with the 3 am wide awake, ‘Ohmigod what am I doing here. I can’t handle this,’ thoughts that leave an emotional hangover in the morning. Some tears, some doubts, some thoughts of being home, a few dark hours. And then the return of energy and gratitude and amazement at being in the heart of the Cameroon forest, taking care of baby chimpanzees.
So all in all, I am thriving and challenged; grateful and sleep deprived; joy-filled and sweaty; blessed and tested. I am glad to have the Love Notes that folks sent before I left. They are especially helpful at those 3 am times. This is unlike any adventure I have ever undertaken. I am changed already, in ways I cannot yet specify.
As I’ve written above, this sanctuary is about the animals, and they are desperately in need of donations to create new facilities for the ever-growing number of primates and monkeys that arrive here needing care and sanctuary. If you feel at all moved to help support this most worthwhile endeavor, please visit ApeActionAfrica.org and donate what you can. It goes straight to the rescue and care of primates who have been treated so badly by humans here in Africa.