Christmas 2020 on the Lomami River

We wanted the usual Christmas …as always, we planned to head back to family in the States.  We had our air tickets already in early November.

Christmas party 2020

Instead, our Christmas party was at Kakongo Camp on the Lomami River where John shared the smidgen of Johnnie Walker left in his single bottle.

BECAUSE the USA Covid numbers began to climb and kept climbing – in every state…we adjusted our calendar.

What was the point of returning to the States to be quarantined in upstate NY and not see our daughters and families, or possibly not be able to return to Congo?

John and I opted for Christmas along the Lomami River.  We would meet at Kakongo camp that is being rebuilt after destruction by the Mai-Mai leaders, Fidel and Bernard.

John came up river in a dugout after another round of teams left on the elephant census circuits in Tshopo.  I walked across from Bafundo, a 53 km-long trail redolent of history.  

Trail Bafundo-Kakongo

Along the ancient Kakongo trail, this old secondary forest was a village abandoned 80 years ago.

The trail is a patchwork of history… nearly disappeared openings that were hunting camps from the elephant slaughters of the 1970s and far older regrowth from the Bakuti ethnic migration…..

view of the camp Kakongo, Dec 2020

Kakongo camp is still being built, but felt very welcoming.

Kakongo is a new camp…the old camp was burned at the end of 2019 by Bernard’s Mai-Mai, it wasn’t until the second half of 2020 that we could again put a base camp in Balanga West .

Kakongo seat with a view

A lovely place to sit in the evening or any time in Kakongo camp.

The village up the hill welcomed us with a local version of Christmas carolling…. Not much mention of Christmas but lots of WELCOME.

carolling a welcome

Dancers from the tiny village of Kakongo, one of the fewer than 15 villages that make up Balanga West.

And there were other bits of Christmas.  During the night, Santa had hung an old sock stuffed with goodies from a forked stick outside our tent

Examining Santa's surprise

Reading : “For PapaZa from Santa Claus“.

John's Christmas stocking

The goodies inside:  chocolate, dried fruit, and anti-fungal cream.  A resourceful Santa

Taye in captivity at Kakongo

Taye was a top deputy of the Mai-Mai, Bernard.  He is arrested here the day before Christmas.

Unfortunately, there are still reminders of the Mai-Mai insurrection.  One of Bernard’s deputies had fled to relatives in Kakongo.  Taye was arrested and will be tried for atrocities that he committed: rape (including of elder women), murder (beheading), torture, and theft.  

John and I returned to Kindu together where, via What’s App, we too enjoyed the Christmas celebrations of children and grandchildren.

guests arrive for new year's supper

And we had our own New Year’s feast at our Kindu base…including potatoes cooked in tripe.

The advent of 2021 is hardly smooth in terms of public health, democracy, personal and institutional safety.   But we stay optimistic …. All we are able to do is what we are convinced is right and for the common good.  We are all in this year together.  

A Look into the Future

In December, the Lomami National Park is already sodden, breeding and heavy as it roles through its four month rainy season:  flooded rivers, flowing prairies, submerged bridges.  Not the best time to visit.

wet departure from CK

A wet morning start on the path from the post at Chombekilima towards the park.

But there were just two weeks open in otherwise tight schedules for Ed Sayer, FZS Project Leader in North Luangwa, Zambia and for Kurt Steiner, of Wildcat foundation, a foundation that funds security operations in both Luangwa and Lomami.   

Loidjo back water

Here, our visitor Kurt is about 500 meters inside park limits.

Their mission: to assess security issues.  For that purpose, now was a good time to visit.  Bushmeat hunting is particularly high because of increased demand for year-end celebrations.  Also, John is deep into the elephant census (every 4th year), but shadowed by the always present threat from Mai-Mai leaders fleeing into the Park’s wilderness. Over the next few years bushmeat hunting and Mai-Mai insurgencies will continue as principal challenges.

Kurt, CdS and Mungbere at Kakongo

Kurt and the head warden meet with Lt. Mungbere at Kakongo Post. Lt Mungbere has been critical in Western Balanga where he has helped establish peace and disarm Fidel’s Mai-Mai militia.

For John and I, this trip was more than a security review; it was a first effort to peer towards the future.  We rarely consider our age; we do what needs doing and what we love to do.  But there is no denying that John turned 70 this year and I turned 69.  To make sure that what needs doing keeps getting done, and by people who love to do it and do it well, — it is time to plan.

gift goat in Benekamba

John and I receive gifts for the project in the village Benekamba during this trip; obviously, we’re “not spring chickens”, as my Mother-in-law used to candidly refer to herself and her husband. 

Here is the mission in a series of photos:

delegation route end Nov early Dec

Above is the path we followed on motorbike, foot and dugout….

Kurt gives helping hand

On the road: Kurt helps an overloaded bicycle transporter.

Kurt offers a hand to cross flooded log bridge

On the road: Kurt offers a hand, after the motorbikes gunned over the flooded log bridge one by one.

Flooded bridge 1_Nyama tende

On the path: the first bridge was submerged.

crossing Loidjo (stream 3)

On the path: The second bridge was submerged

ED about to step off bridge

On the path: All bridges were submerged.

We meet up with John and some of the rest of the team at Katopa camp and start the dugout trip downstream on the Lomami River.

At a small fishing camp on the west side of the Lomami (in an area that’s not National Park) John makes an impromptu snack for all, from the abundance of fresh first-night smoked fish, lemons shaken from a tree and rock salt.  

John prepares snacks at fishing camp
John's fresh lemon, salt and moto moya

John is excellent at turning a doubtful bare-subsistence trove into an epicurean wilderness feast.

Bit crowded at Biondo

We left the southern team and joined the northern team at the temporary camp of Biondo where we all spent the night together on the banks of the Lomami.

All along the way possible Future Paths for Lomami National Park were discussed, lined up, shaken-out, refolded and then discussed a bit more.   the underlying theme —  When the Harts move out, several more people need to move in:

  1. A security advisor – to build the infrastructure and train guards needed to tame the threats – someone ready to commit  for several years.
  2. A replacement for the Hart couple — Ideally another couple with French language , love of vast forest wilderness, conservation experience and an eagerness to embrace unknowable conservation challenges.

On arrival back in Kinshasa, Karen Laurenson the Africa Regional Director of FZS arrived and got us right down to business.  All sorts of business:  financial management, Job descriptions ….

Karen walking dogs

Kinshasa: Karen accompanied me on the dog walk along the mother river – the Congo – with Argos and Penelope.

After a Long Pause

This blog was silent too long – BUT not because there is no news in and around the Lomami National Park!  

Here are a few of the big events since September:

Ranger’s band came singing to Opala for the surrender.  The white head bands denote surrender. 

White headbands and singing.

Ranger himself came later on a motorbike.

EVENT 1:   RANGER, major elephant poacher, has surrendered.  He, more than any other, was a continual threat to Lomami elephants from the beginning of this project.  This is the second large surrender and amnesty for elephant poachers.   Twenty-four ex-poachers handed in their arms in September 2020.  Five military rifles and three shotguns as well as spears and poisoned arrows were collected.   Ranger has now left the buffer zone and moved to Kisangani.

As part of the surrender, after arms were turned in, Ranger and each of the other ex-poachers, signed an agreement to no longer participate in any way in any elephant poaching :

Ranger signs a final renunciation
Ranger signs renunciation of elephant poaching.

I never saw Ranger smile until, among the photos from the surrender, is a series showing our TL2 agent, Maurice, horsing around with Ranger.  They have a special ethnic connection that makes them “noko” …or uncles:

1_Maurice_TL2_jokes with Ranger

The public presentation of the surrendered poachers happened at the central plaza in Opala and opened with the national anthem.  Note Ranger, not singing, inscrutable as usual in the back row:

All sing the national anthem, but not Ranger in shirt with striped sleeves.

And he remained straight faced through his presentation by the territorial administrator:

Ranger, reformed poacher, presented to the population of Opala.

Kipeleka, a pygmy, was one of the other major poachers who surrendered along with Ranger.  He is local (Ranger is not) and was warmly received by the audience:

Kipeleka and wife presented to enthusiastic population of Opala.

EVENT 2 :  BERNARD,  a ruthless criminal among the Balanga, has been captured by an army hit-squad and transferred to Kinshasa where he is undergoing interrogation.  Meanwhile on the ground three of his gang’s army rifles have been seized by the armed forces and his gang is being pursued.   Villagers now have the courage to come forward with accounts of Bernard’s atrocities.  It was not 8 rapes as we had previously determined, but at least 125 rapes (reported to the local NGO, AIDER).  Not one live burial but at least two live burials, one of which was recorded on telephone video. And at least one case of vengeance killing and dismemberment along with multiple cases of torture and robbery.  Bernard himself is under 25 years of age.  Hard to fathom, but we and the villages thank the army. Whole villages had fled and two of our patrol posts had been destroyed and patrols in part of the park suspended the first 6 months of 2020.  

Oct 2019 Victim of Bernard in local dispensary:

Kelisse, a victim of Bernard in Dingi dispensary
Kelisse in Dingi dispensary.

Kelisse was whipped and tortured by Bernard and his band.  Kelisse’s mother in law and his wife were raped; his wife lost her pregnancy in consequence.  What was Kelisse’s sin in Bernard’s estimation?  He refused to pay a fine that Bernard demanded because, supposedly, Kelisse admitted he was glad the military were pursuing Bernard. 

Bernard captured and tortured three different delegations that the local government sent to negotiate his surrender.  When he did surrender it was more a show of force.  He released the government delegations, turned in a few weapons, and brought an army of men and boys to show his strength in February 2020:

The person in the tall genet skin head dress is Osseon, also being pursued for crimes against humanity. Bernard is the second to speak.

Bernard was finally captured in October 2020.

Bernard captured and in Kindu
Bernard in Kindu after capture

One military was shot and killed by Bernard’s brother during the capture.  

Bernard_climbing in airplane
Bernard boarding plane for Kinshasa

Bernard was sent to Kinshasa where he is currently being questioned.  The military colonel who is his body guard was also responsible for his capture.

EVENT 3:  As to our own activities: John is pushing ahead with the 4-year elephant census.  It has been partially completed, but his dugout and the patrollers were met with gunfire, not once, but 6 times in 2020.  The attackers are the Mai-Mai militia who refused to surrender in MitukuThoms’s gang is among them.  The military are now conducting a sweep.

A "combat patrol" doing a sweep of the park because of MaiMai presence
Military leave for security sweep along the Lomami.

A military sweep in the northern park means using the Lomami. There are no roads in or near the park and the Mai-Mai are using the park as refuge.  This is a sweep through wilderness, not something the military do very often.

map showing where patrols met gunfire in 2020
Map of northern Lomami National Park showing 2020 security problems.

The map above shows attacks during 2020 of militia elements fleeing increased law and order of the buffer zone.  The difficulty in accessibility of the north is clear.  It is critical that the sweeps continue to maintain the safety of the elephants.  Elephant poaching, unlike small mammal poaching, requires a high level of organization and a greater support chain.  The goal of the park patrols is to assure that elephant poachers feel the law on their backs such that they have no time to organize.

Below is a camera trap video that catches the reality of the small groups that associate in the north forming a population of over 750 elephants (assessment of 2016):

Near Losekola camp in the northern Lomami National Park.

EVENT 4:  In Kinshasa we are making progress towards taking a more direct role in management for the Lomami National Park.  This means the ability to train guards and in general a more coordinated FZS- ICCN effort to protect the park thoroughly and to international standards.   .

the proect meets with ICCN to iron out details
Working in Kinshasa, November 2020, to harmonize a near-final draft of the contract.

Hard to find an inspiring picture to put here – because the activities involved are meetings, business dinners, trans-continental zooms. Maybe soon there will be a photo of final signature or of us raising our glasses afterwards.

I will put out more posts in December.  Thank you for checking in on progress.  Although I have been back in Congo for more than a month now, the backlog continues to make itself felt.  More soon.

Leaving during Lock-down


Back in Kinshasa at least 50% of people wear masks, but the best service the masks render is to catch sweat coming off the chin.  The freedom of mouth and nose are unimpaired.

I was in Kindu, in the interior of DR Congo, the province of Maniema.  When I said I needed to travel despite the lock-down – There was a way.  Leon Salumu slipped into his “make things happen” mode.  I could fly as “cargo”.

He got me the papers at DGM in Kindu (an agency that controls immigration …internal and external).  It was a family emergency: Daughter pregnant, 3 weeks from delivery of first child, and her partner just diagnosed with 4th stage cancer.  But all DGM needed to know was “sickness in the family”.

As to Covid-19 in Congo, I had been up-country in Kindu since March and so far there were no known cases in Kindu; out in the villages there was a very vague idea of what Covid-19 might be.  Is it Ebola?  

Looking at the whole of DR Congo, the country has reacted correctly – so far.  Despite the first case detected early in March, on August 7th, in the whole country only 218 deaths are recorded.  Of the 9,355 known cases, 7,734 are in Kinshasa.  But it is spreading. There may still be an approaching crisis as the country will soon open up.

I am now in Kinshasa; I came as “cargo”:  Thank you Leon!

waiting at the airport

Saying good-bye to Leon in Kindu. I too, have pulled my mask below my chin!

cargo on the tarmac

Getting on the GomAir Congo Flight.

The plane started in the wrong direction – east to Goma to get more cargo.

I thought I would get off the plane – GomAir crew said “no”; I was legal in Kindu, but they did not want problems in Goma.  And the stevedores told me and my fellow cargo passenger to get way in the back while they loaded on three cars …

loading underway

First car and filling in with cargo.

full cargo

And then more and more cargo

The stevedores said I could hop into the vehicle for a more comfortable ride, but I preferred staying in reach of the back door. I found myself a comfortable seat for the 3 1/2 hour ride on a collapsed trunk.

IF there was a lavatory it was way up front.  I boarded at 11:30 AM, got off the plane at 7:30 PM and managed to find a bathroom in the abandoned Kinshasa airport. Then I waited, perched on the curb in an empty parking lot, reading my kindle as Matthieu, who came to meet me, advanced meter by meter through gridlock traffic.  

Welcome back to Kinshasa!  It was more than four months since I saw the Kinshasa staff.

I received a delorme (satellite) message from John who is moving down the Lomami: 

“How pandemic evolving? Unrest USA? You travel in dangerous times my love”

I had a covid-19 test in Kinshasa.  I walked in at 9AM, I was tested at 9:20 and I had my results that afternoon.  No Covid. Negative. 

Official air traffic opens on the 15th of the month, but Air France is running a flight through Kinshasa on the 10th.   It mandates a mask at all times, except when eating.  I’ve bought a face shield too.

We know we are in strange times.  Times when the Mom-Grandma in me pushes me forward, masked and shielded, home to what has become a wound on the earth, the USA.  Times when an old lady like me, 69 this November, must beware of the infectious danger I might pose to a young, immunocompromised, loved-one on chemotherapy.  May our choices be right. May we all heal.