HELPing Out

I don’t know how or why but I seem to have been given the job of parakeet monitor. Two Gabon Grey’s arrived in a battered cage the other day. The plan was to take them to the forest and release them back into the wild but there was a hitch!

The cage had already been loaded onto the boat when one of the Congolese piped up. He seemed to know about the birds and informed Madame Jamart that their wings were clipped so wouldn’t be able to fly. Of course, this would mean a sure death in the jungle without any method of escape. So handyman Gaston was put to work building a new home for the pair. A day or so later it was ready and I was tasked with photographing the grand event of them being released into their open cage, so at least they were almost free. This would be a temporary measure – probably for several months – until the feathers regrew and flight returned. They couldn’t wait to escape the cramped little cage they’d been sharing and were soon exploring their new home. Within hours they’d made it out and over to the trees on the other side of the track. As the evening started to close in the decision was made to get them back in their home. I was volunteered for the task and given a branch that they’d hopefully hop on then I’d carry them back. Obviously, it wasn’t going to be that straightforward and it took several attempts and a fair amount of squawking and flapping before they were safely tucked up for the night. The second night was more stressful as one of them decided to hide in a pile of logs so had to be dragged out. Today, they’ve stayed in their home all day but I’m not concerned as it looks like they’ve at least had a nibble at some palm nuts.

Two Gabon Grey parakeets arrive at HELP.


Gaston builds a new home for the parakeets.

I’ll let you do your own research on HELP Congo, search Conkouati Chimpanzees and you’ll probably find something. Apparently, there are quite a lot of negative reviews on the web but I haven’t found them but if you do I’d suggest you take them with a pinch of salt as it’s a place you need to experience for yourself. Briefly though, Madame Jamart is quite an amazing person, a member of the French Légion d’Honneur which is something similar to an OBE, created the whole sanctuary from nothing back in the early nineties and was the first to create a semi-wild habitat for chimpanzees which has been imitated many times since. The project has also released back into the wild countless chimpanzees and replanted plenty of habitat too.

I’ve probably got my managerial quotes and infamous incidents confused but there’s an old football theory that states that some players you throw a boot at and others you put your arm around. Madame’s – as she is called by most people including myself – management style is more of the throwing boots kind but as we’re in the middle of the jungle and there’s not many football boots at hand she regularly employs a good tongue lashing. One poor chap felt the full force of her displeasure, bearing in mind she’s a petit 74 year old and he’s a burley Congolese, he got a right good verbal kicking for putting his spade through a water pipe then standing back to admire his work as water poured across the path instead of running to cut the supply. I had some sympathy for him – and her – even though he was the most miserable and work-shy of what is generally a good workforce. I would often watch him skulking about trying to avoid Madame or being caught eating when he was supposed to be working. Most of the time she was content just to rant at whomever was not following her instructions and they’d subserviently accept it with minimal protest.

I was spared the brunt of Madame’s wrath basically because I’m older than the regular volunteer and a man, I guess. She would talk to me for hours complaining about this and that. She has run the complete project for 25 years and at 74 is perhaps, finding the going a tad tough. She has a son but he doesn’t seem interested in taking over the mantle so until she finds someone that can fill her boots she has to continue. Still 100% dedicated to the chimpanzees, her strength is fading but hopefully, the cavalry maybe on the horizon. The introduction of some new blood, new approach and enthusiasm will do wonders for the sanctuary. I immediately saw the huge potential for eco-tourism and it would be a great project to get your teeth stuck into.

My personal experience as an unconventional volunteer – I appeared out of nowhere and was present because of my graphics background rather than any biology qualification – of the organisational set up was mixed. There was nothing to guide me, no information forthcoming, I just had to try and figure out what was going on, what was expected of me and what I should do. The Congolese didn’t know how to take me… was I a boss or a worker? Also, this wasn’t aided by the obvious language difficulty (my fault). Another negative was that no one thought to give me the opportunity to feed the chimpanzees, they need to get used to you before doing so safely and that can take several weeks. So I was greatly disappointed as the interaction with them was the main reason for my volunteering. This is a list of negatives and I did say ‘mixed’ so for the positive side, the location was just fantastic and the animals that I did see fascinating. Everyone was friendly and welcoming and the whole experience was unforgettably special.

Butterflies, Conkouati.

I’m slowly beginning to learn everyone’s names and feel part of the team. I’ve worked out the routines and where to find most things and my confidence is building. It was really nice the other night, one of the Congolese, a talented young man who seems to turn his hand to most jobs, is a dab hand at baking bread too. He does it all by hand and uses a log fire and a large pot as his oven. Madame had already gone to bed and I was sitting in the kitchen reading until it was late enough to go to sleep – the generator is turned off around 10pm (22h00) and everywhere is plunged into darkness so my head torch was close at hand – when Guenole appeared with two warm, fresh loaves and presented them to me. Well, I was over the moon and immediately ran to get the butter that I’d discovered earlier in the day then tucked into my surprise supper, umm!

The generator room was completely over-run with a swarm of ants last night, rivers of them everywhere. Feeling brave I thought I’d attempt some photos while not making the mistake of underestimating their danger. Taking every care before I took a step I placed each foot into clean ground. I began to follow their trail around and across the forest floor yet still, somehow, I ended up back at my own feet and in their way, under attack once more. Instantly, they swarmed over my shoes and started to head north. The biting began almost instantly, they go for your ankles and shins first which keeps you occupied while other members of the assault team run unhindered as high up your body as possible. The attacks continue for anything up to half an hour as the individuals seek a nice juicy bit of flesh to dig their jaws into. When you feel a nip on your calf you roll up your trouser leg to find nothing, of course ants are not stupid, they cling to the inside of your trousers then when you reposition them they continue with the assault.

There’s a thermometer in my room and for information purposes these are the readings; minimum temperature range, 15–25°C; maximum temperature range, 33–42°C. Today, the 22nd January 2017 the temperature is 33°C so I guess it’s winter.

Sunset over Conkouati.

It seems that leaving here may be more difficult than actually getting here. Other than hitching a ride with a tourist the only other method is to jump on the weekly supply truck. It arrives Saturday evening and departs Sunday afternoon. It was loosely decided a week ago that I would return to Pointe-Noire on Sunday, on aforementioned truck, then do a week’s work in the office. This would mean making a change to my flight but I was assured it would be easy and done for me. Basically, my Royal Air Maroc flight starts in Brazzaville, my original point of departure then flies to Pointe-Noire, where I now want to board, then onto Casablanca. The morning of my departure arrived so I thought I’d check before I started to pack that I was indeed to leave. It’s now 1:30pm (13h30) and I’m none the wiser. I’ve been packing bits and bobs throughout the morning so it won’t take me long if I need to go all of a sudden. My greatest concern now though is not if I’m going but if I do where am I to stay.

Eventually, I’m given the green light and I get to jump in a Landcruiser heading back to civiliation. I guess it must have been about 4pm (16h00) when we sped off across the savannah heading for some pretty dark storm clouds. This bloke drives even faster than the lad who drove me here just under three weeks ago but this time, my backpack is in the back so I’ve more room. I’m sharing the vehicle with a group of four friends. Being either French or French Congolese, they all smoke but this lot don’t just smoke Golden Virginia, they go for the hashish. Luckily I’m next to the window and try to suck in as much free air instead of second-hand smoke. Unfortunately, the heavens opened and every window shuts. As you can imagine during a four-hour drive they got through a fair amount of gear between them, and yes, that includes the driver. We made it to Pointe-Noire and dropped off one chap at his hotel then headed to the office. At least, this time, I didn’t stumble out of the car but floated instead.

‘Where are you staying?’ I was asked. ‘I don’t know’ I replied. ‘You can stay here then’, and was then lead inside some metal gates where we woke some poor little chap called Phillippe who gave me the key to a nice studio flat. Result!

I’m staying across the road from the HELP office so it’s convenient. The working week starts at 8:30pm (8h30) then there’s a three-hour lunch break that starts at 12:00pm (12h00) with the day ending at 6pm (18h00). I help to translate a document, produce English and Spanish versions of the newsletter, finish the tourist and volunteer leaflets, knock out a couple of business cards and redraw their logo… not a bad week’s work.

With my last weekend in the Congo to myself I decide to head for the beach. On Saturday it’s full of the locals and really quite busy. Sunday I head out earlier and it’s quieter, the surfer dudes have had the same idea, they ride the waves and I let them lap at my feet. My flight leaves at 2am (2h00) so I’ve got a lot of hanging around to do. It’s been an intense 56 days and I just want to get back to some normality now. The journey makes a slow start and my tiredness means I get conned by a customs official for 20,000cfa (£25.76) but eventually make it back to Heathrow.

It’s fair to say I arrived in Brazzaville with the minimum of preparation and barely any plan but, by pure chance, I’ve had an incredible experience that I shall never forget. Culturally, totally different to anywhere I’ve previously visited. I never felt threatened or in danger in fact, the people couldn’t have been more welcoming. Furthermore, I’ve made it to the end of a thorough and extensive investigation and my conclusion is thus; they do not drink Um Bongo in the Congo. So my advice to all is, ‘don’t believe everything you see on the telly and never believe anything you read on the internet’.