First for Lomami, First for DR Congo

The Lomami National Park has a new head warden: The first woman head warden ever for DR Congo. Welcome, Chantal Shalukoma.

Loidjo bridge_park border
The new Head Warden, Chantal, standing on the Loidjo Bridge. The Loidjo river is the eastern border of the park through most of Maniema Province.

She was barely a month in her office and she told the TL2 team that she wanted to accompany us on our dugout trip down the Lomami River in October. Congratulations Chantal, you definitely have the right priorities! She closed the door on the political games and administrative demands of Kindu, in order to see first hand the Park that depends on her.

Lunch in the dugout
Eating lunch on the Lomami River with the Head Warden (bottom right), myself (bottom left), Matthieu (grey shirt) and the general (blue arm patch).

What’s more she insisted that she not go alone, but lobbied hard to get a General to accompany us from the new PPN, Protection for National Parks, a division of the DRCongo Conservation Institute (ICCN). She wanted him to make the Lomami National Park a priority. The PPN is a melding of the army with park guards into an elite corps to specifically suppress armed crises in the parks: criminal militias, poaching bands, etc…. She succeeded. General Kitenge came to Kindu to join our trip down the Lomami. Congratulations again, Chantal.

The general, the colonel and the head warden_before the accident
Head Warden Chantal, General Kitenge and his “body guard” colonel as we started out on motorbike.

But the real test was after the first day out. It takes real grit to face the worst of Congo’s roads and keep going. Chantal has real grit.

The first 120km are by motorbike, often over a path so narrow and uneven it would not even qualify as a walking path in a USA National Park. Chantal had our best chauffeur, but still the motorbike went over and the foot-rest landed on her foot with the full weight of bike and load. I was ahead and arrived at the end of the road more than an hour before Matthieu (our program manager), the General and the head warden.

map of trip
Map of our itinerary.

It was well after dark when they pulled into the Chombe Kilima patrol post. Two people had to nearly carry her under the thatch roof of the barazza. She smiled, explained what happened and then insisted that we continue to Katopa the next day. BUT there are 37 km between Chombe Kilima and Katopa! All has to be crossed on foot, including flooded savannas, tussock-y tropical moors and many streams. It is not just open forest paths and it is a long way. The head warden could not put any weight on one foot; it looked impossible. Perhaps something was broken, or twisted or pulled.

Three of us got out of our tents in the morning with the same idea. The General, Matthieu and I all suggested “tipoy” or litter. The head warden was willing. Being carried that 37 km to Katopa is not at all preferable to walking it – but she did it – with six singing porters taking turns hoisting her over the path.

Crossing DjoDjo in Tipoy
Crossing the first flooded stream, Djodjo, and trying to be very quiet as we balance on hidden logs because there is an overhanging wasp nest.

a flooded stream after dark
We continued for two hours after dark before camping, including a stream crossing that the head warden did on foot with lots of help.

We made the Chombe Kilima-Katopa trek with one overnight. Along the way we could judge the morale and strength of her porters by the volume of their song and the originality of its harmonies.

Tipoy departure from KK/4
Picking up the tipoy in full song after a night’s sleep and a very large meal at our K-4 campsite.

Admiring the orchids on Brazza
Appreciating the orchids in the last savanna as we neared our destination of Katopa.

Chantal was well aware that both park guards and TL2 staff viewed her with curiosity and expectation as she entered Katopa camp.

Head Warden of Lomami National Park arrives at Katopa
Chantal hobbling into Katopa camp.

Before even taking a bucket bath, she reviewed the park guards.

Head Warden treated by Colin with American marine medical kit
A volunteer and ex-marine in Katopa re-bandaged her foot.

Later that day we had several presentations to allow different staff from ICCN and our TL2 project to discuss history, problems and discoveries in the southern part of the park.

Presentations in Katopa
Katopa introductions, presentations, and discussions.

The next day from early morning until after dark we were in the dugout, moving downriver to the post at Kakonga.

Balancing act to get in the dugout
A balancing act to get into the dugout using only one foot.

Tigerfish_enough lunch for all of us
We bought a tigerfish from a local fisherman. It was our evening meal, enough for all of us.

The head warden stopped in PolePole and BeneKamba, villages on the west bank of the river to talk about the park on the east bank and to hear the villagers’ views and problems.

Ancient village of BeneKamba
Bene Kamba in October 2018. This village appeared on colonial maps of the 1890s.

A welcome with song in Kakongo
A singing, dancing welcome the next morning in Kakongo where we slept.

Head warden speaks to school chilidren in Kakongo
The head warden, Chantal, adresses school children in Kakongo before we again head north in the dugout.

The next day at sunset we stopped briefly at the “tongo” or old village site, now abandoned, of Obenge. Then we continued on to Bangaliwa the northern post on the Lomami River and just outside the park. We didn’t arrive until 2 AM. Baba Bolenge our dugout pilot for the northern park knows the Lomami like the back of his hand and guides the boat with confidence in the dead of night.

Women greet head warden with dance and song Bangaliwa
Women of Obenge and park guards’ wives greet the new head warden.

There was no sleeping in the next morning. The women from the relocated village of Obenge as well as the wives of guards were singing greetings to the new head warden before 6AM.

Head warden Chantal and assistant Didier address guards in Bangaliwa
Warden Chantal reveiws the guards in Bangaliwa with assistant warden, Didier.

That day and the next we listened to guards, TL2 patrollers and villagers.

Deep in discussion at Bangaliwa
Discussions at Bangaliwa.

Introduction in Bangaliwa
The head warden articulates her vision for the park.

The head warden now has perspectives from the south and from the north matched with the vision and physical experience of the field.

Village of Obenge welcomes new head warden at Bangaliwa
The whole village of Obenge (now relocated in the same clearing as the Bangaliwa patrol post) sings and dances for us before we reenter the dugout to continue north.

And we, the partners and staff, not only saw her grit but also her candor: no false promises, but rather clear reprimands and forceful encouragement. We saw her readiness to share and partake of it all. “If they suffer in the sun and floods, I too shall suffer in the sun and floods. If they dance, I too will dance.”

Everyone joins at Kakongo
The head warden, and the rest of us, dance with the community.

One Comment

  1. Daniel Alempijevic
    Posted 2018-11-12 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    How exciting to have a new head warden that seems passionate about the park. I hope to meet her on my next trip!

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