Will bonobos survive?

DSC07830 2.jpegI’m not a wildlife expert, and maybe even the experts don’t know what the future holds for bonobos. But what I want to say is: after visiting the Congo, I feel optimistic.

That may be naive. The DRC is one of the most corrupt countries on earth. Its national politics are still in turmoil. Atrocities continue to unfold in the war-torn east, where Ebola has broken out again. And yet… the biggest threat to bonobos isn’t habitat loss, as it is for so many animals in so many places. Congo still has plenty of equatorial rainforest where bonobos can thrive. The bonobo population has plunged because Congolese people eat them.  And even that isn’t as bad as it sounds. People don’t think bonobos are endowed with any magical properties (like rhinos, for example, burdened with their theoretically aphrodisiacal horns.) Bonobos are just meat, for which Africans have a big appetite.

Still, just as most humans (even hungry ones) don’t eat other humans, when people learn how similar bonobos are to humans, they can change their minds about bonobos’ place on the menu. And if protecting bonobos instead of eating them can make communities more prosperous, folks can be marshaled to protect them.

DSC07853.jpegSuzy Kwetuenda at Lola ya Bonobo has spent countless hours talking to Congolese villagers in the rainforest about why bonobos deserve protection. She says some of them bristle at the notion of outsiders trying to stop them from eating their bush meat. But she retorts, “You know, we are lucky to be the only ones in the world to have bonobos! They are very precious. The BIG value of bonobos is not in your stomach! It’s very important to have bonobos for development. If you protect them, this area will have more and more visitors. They will come and help you!”

This has always been a core premise of the Lola team: that the communities surrounding any bonobo release site must see concrete benefits from fighting against the hunters and poachers. Les Amies des Bonobos du Congo and its US-based fundraising arm, Friends of Bonobos, don’t have huge budgets. The money has come mostly from small and medium-sized donors. But a part of those limited resources has been devoted to improving the schools, infrastructure, health care and other services near the Ekola ya Bonobo release site. In the ten years since the Lola team began releasing bonobos back into the wilderness, more and more of the bonobos’ neighbors have become believers.

I’ve seen first-hand how a similar approach has worked in Uganda. There tourists who come from around the world to see mountain gorillas have become an engine of prosperity. Ugandan communities that have benefited now see the animals as a priceless resource. It’s possible to imagine something similar unfolding in the Congo.

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Claudine has led the way.

What Claudine Andre has accomplished in the last 25 years also fills me with admiration and awe. Starting from nothing, she’s built a team that’s adept at saving baby bonobos on the verge of death. These survivors now routinely thrive in the garden that is Lola. The team also now knows what’s required to successfully reintroduce these very special creatures into the wild. (Only one of the 60-odd reintroduced bonobos has died, a youngster who was bitten by a poisonous snake.) And back at Lola more than 30,000 Congolese school kids already have visited Lola and been inspired by these stories.

It saddens me that so many people still don’t know what bonobos are. (I’ve gotten a lot of blank stares when I’ve mentioned our recent travel plans.) But that can change. A hundred years ago no one had heard of pandas. DSC07716.jpeg

A hundred years from now our closest animal relatives could be thriving in the African rainforests, showing us a different model for primate behavior than that demonstrated by chimpanzees and us. If that happens, a lot of things will have made it happen.

Some have already unfolded. Claudine has already dedicated a big chunk of her life to the bonobos’ preservation. Field researchers and veterinarians and the sanctuary crew and others have already learned a lot about what it takes to keep bonobos flourishing. But more will be required. Humans all over the planet will need to recognize bonobos as readily as they do pandas, and many will donate money to help them out. Congolese people will have to learn to treasure them.

That would be the happy ending to the bonobos’ story. Maybe it won’t come to pass, but it should. I’m hoping it will.

 

A tourist in Kinshasa

Fifteen years ago, a close friend and I began keeping (and comparing) lists of all the countries in the world, ranking our priorities for where we most would like to travel. There were only about 30 in which I never wanted to set foot, and two-thirds of those were tiny islands (e.g. Vanuatu, Dominica, Comoros). They don’t interest me. Among the other places to which I was sure I would never go was the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To which I can now say: never say never.

Since then I fell in love with bonobos and learned about the sanctuary for them outside  Kinshasa, all of which led to the trip we just completed. Visiting Lola ya Bonobo was why we went and what we wanted to do with 90% of our time in Congo. But since we were going to be in the neighborhood, Steve and I both yearned to see the mighty Congo River and a bit of Kinshasa (the capital city and home to more than 11 million Congolese). In email, someone at Lola said we might be able to arrange a little city tour, but no details had firmed up by the time we arrived.

What we glimpsed on our ride from the airport to Lola — insane traffic, filthy streets, open sewers — was so bad it almost erased my desire to see any more. IMG_6523.JPG

Still, I couldn’t help noting that almost everyone looked clean and well-fed. Some had a definite sense of style.

DSC08146.jpegThen we heard from Claudine André, Lola’s founder, that the center city, where all the ex-patriots live, was very nice, with some good hotels and many restaurants. She claimed that the cost of living there was the second highest in the world (after Luanda in Angola). When Steve broached the question of whether a little tour might be possible, Claudine  made it possible.

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The Kinshasa home where Claudine has lived for 40 years is beautiful.

So it was that on the final morning of our stay, Lola’s driver, Constant, wound up chauffeuring Claudine, Steve, and me to her house in the city. We dropped her off and got a chance to meet her gigantic manual, Leon, (a dog herding breed originally from Turkey). Then we set off with Constant.

He drove us through a pleasant private housing complex filled with comfortable looking homes…DSC08137.jpeg…and views of Brazzaville, just across the river. DSC08135 2.jpeg

It’s the capital of the Republic of Congo, a separate country that was once a French colony. (The DRC was the domain of the Belgians.) Today there’s almost no commerce between the two, which baffles me.

We drove around the central core for a while, where the streets were wide and the Sunday morning traffic was light. DSC08143.jpg

A few buildings looked inviting…

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The National Library was one of them.
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The American Embassy less so.

We drove on and finally stopped at a cafe by the side of the river where we drank a couple of Cokes.

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The entrance to the cafe.

IMG_6588.jpeg The terrace commanded good views of the river. The rapids begin here, and soon become so violent that boat traffic between Kinshasa and the ocean is impossible. DSC08173.jpg

It wasn’t much of a tour. But it was enough to transform Kinshasa from a scary dark hole in my mental map to a bustling metropolis. It’s not one I yearn to see again. But who knows? Sometimes you wind up in unexpected places.

Hanging out with the bonobo families

Steve and I climbed into a rowboat a couple of times with Suzy Kwetuenda and Stanis, the manager of Lola’s “Enclosure 1.”

The Congolese bonobo sanctuary has three enclosures, a word that to me evokes the image of a cage. But nothing could be more misleading. Lola’s enclosures are wild jungle, ranging in area from 15 to 38 acres. A canopy of trees tower over undergrowth so dense you can’t see more than a few feet into it. The bonobos disappear into this bush every day. Those who have tracked them report that they nap, play, snack on leaves and fruit. But a couple of times daily, the humans appear bearing supplemental rations: starchy balls made fresh every day from corn, flour, and other nutrients, as well as fruit, vegetables, tubers, and sugar cane chunks (a natural toothbrush). At those times, the troupe ambles down to the shore to enjoy the goodies.

Can you spot the bonobos?

On our second day at Lola, Stanis had loaded a plastic bin that held sweet potatoes, cucumbers, and a few bananas. He quietly pulled on the oars and lobbed the food chunks onto the shore.

Nineteen individuals make up the Enclosure 1 family, and all of them (except for Oshwe the previous day’s escapee and another male who was recovering from an accidental injury) had assembled to catch the morsels, then sit and savor them. We saw little to nothing that looked like competition. It felt more like a lazy picnic in the steamy morning heat.

Suzy knows each individual at a glance, just as the bonobos all know and respond to their names. She regaled us with great stories about various individuals. The dominant female Semendwa, for example, can shoot her hand out, through two layers of fencing (one electrified and one chain-link) to snatch a watch or sunglasses. Once she pinched a visitor’s brand-new iPhone and began holding it up to her face, as she’d seen the humans do. Then she somehow hit the music app on it and disappeared into the jungle to the strains of Wagner.

Over the course of our four-day stay, I fell in love with Suzy as much as I did with the bonobos. She was born in the eastern Congo, but her family eventually fled to Kinshasa to escape the grisly warfare in the east. Suzy pursued a biology degree, and as she neared the end of her studies, her father mentioned he’d heard about a recently opened bonobo sanctuary not far outside town. He suggested she look into it. She did. She reenacts her reaction at her first sight of a bonobo: Her eyes bug out; her mouth falls open. A hunger to work with these amazing creatures seized her.

Suzy works mainly at Lola ya Bonobo but has spent a lot of time at the Ekola ya Bonobo release site.

She found Claudine that day and shyly asked if she might do some volunteer work at the sanctuary and write about it for a school report. Claudine welcomed her, and in the months that followed, Suzy’s gutsy character impressed people. Some time later, when an American researcher was coming to Lola and asked if Claudine could help him find a local assistant, Suzy got the job. She’s worked for Lola more or less ever since. In 2009, when the sanctuary released its first bonobos into the remote section of jungle that’s now known as Ekolo ya Bonobo (“The Country of Bonobos”). Suzy spent more than two years there, tracking the primates through the chest-high swamp water; recording their interactions; working with the local villagers. “It’s a patriarchy there,” Claudine says. But the men yielded to Suzy’s steeliness. “I tell them, ‘Don’t look at my breasts! Look at my BRAIN!’” Suzy bellows. If James Earl Jones were smaller and more compact (and had breasts), he could play her in a movie.

I found myself alternately struck by how human the bonobos look, at times.

As when they’re walking upright.

Or cradling a baby.

…and how alien, at others.

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How can females in their prime look so much like wrinkly old men?
And those crazy bonobo genitals! The wildly oversized and swollen vulvas…
I don’t know this guy’s name, but I can tell he’s a boy (if not a particularly excited one.)

We heard loud shrieking that first morning. Suzy scanned the trees and declared the cause of the noise to be “fun.” It took us a few seconds, but then I spotted a couple maybe 50 feet up in the branches of a nearby tree, having sex in the missionary position, shaking the branches with the vigor of their movements. I couldn’t tell if the pair was heterosexual or a couple of females. Bonobos are pretty indiscriminate. Also quick. The couplings we saw rarely lasted more than 15 seconds.

Definitely a couple of ladies engaged in “negotiation” (Suzy’s wry term).
Not sure about this pair, except that they clearly seem to be enjoying themselves.

I have great respect for the field scientists who study animal behavior . It takes such patience, and with bonobos, there are so many complex interactions. Suzy and Claudine filled in some of the blanks for us. But one of my favorite memories of our time in the sanctuary came late on our final afternoon, when Steve and I were on our own.

It was Sunday. Claudine had returned to her home in Kinshasa that morning, and Suzy had taken the day off, spending the time with her husband and four young boys. Steve and I strolled to the spot near the night quarters of the troupe from Enclosure 1. Earlier in the week, we’d been amazed to learn that after hanging out all day in the jungle, the bonobos routinely make their way on their own to their concrete dormitories, where they climb into their plastic hammocks. “They’re bourgeois,” Claudine had told us, with a shrug. In the wild, they build nests every night, high in the trees. But it’s easier (and drier) to climb into a hammock, so they choose that, if it’s an option.

We hoped to witness some of this, but at first we found only a solitary male. He was sitting on the grass picking out fruit from a branch of a palm oil tree.After a while, some movement in one of the nearby trees caught my eye: it was two young males playing high in the branches. Nothing happened for several minutes. Then gradually, other individuals appeared, strolling down the path leading from the jungle. They lay on the grass, some grooming each other.Some scrounged for leftover fruit or palm nut seeds. A few waded into the water and lolled in it like an evening bath.

We saw a little bit of sex, but not much. It seemed like everyone was too relaxed to need it. Bonobos groomed some of the big females. They sprawled out and stretched.

Finally, a man appeared in a little enclosure, and he filled a big bottle of water. The dominant females stood up and walked to the fence and drank deeply from the bottle. One after another of the bigger animals got their drinks, then the biggest females led the way up the hill to the dormitory.I didn’t understand everything I’d just seen, but I got the big picture. Maybe I was projecting my feelings on them, but it looked like the end of another beautiful day in a very special place.

 

 

A barrel of baby bonobos

On this trip, I have learned it’s more fun to watch baby bonobos play than it is to watch many movies. The action is almost nonstop. They sock each other; pounce. One chases another, catches up, and smashes into him. They tickle each other and make a noise that sounds like panting, but it’s not; it’s the sound of bonobo laughter. Sometimes they go too far and someone gets hurt. Ear-piercing shrieks erupt. Others may beat up the bully in retaliation. The smallest ones never stray far from their surrogate mothers. Older ones sometimes mimic copulation. They’re far too young to actually have sex. It’s just instinctive, practice with the tool they will use soon use daily to diffuse social tensions.

Here’s a glimpse:

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I don’t think there’s anywhere else on earth where you can watch a whole pack of young bonobos play, by themselves. Seven little ones were living in Lola’s nursery during Steve’s and my stay. They ranged in age from two to five, and they all had shiny black fur and boundless energy. Most (if not all) had arrived malnourished, ill, and so traumatized they were close to death.

Over the years, Claudine and her team have developed a detailed protocol for caring for the tiny victims, many of whom have seen poachers shoot their mother before their eyes, then hack her into pieces to be sold as meat. After a thorough medical screening and treatment for any critical health problems, the orphan must be quarantined for six weeks to ensure it’s not carrying any disease that could decimate Lola’s entire bonobo population. But you can’t confine a young bonobo to a cage, all alone. It would die from the absence of love and physical contact. Instead at Lola, each newly arrived youngster is assigned a human surrogate mother who rocks and cuddles it, feeding and caring for the little one in a way that’s looks even more challenging than caring for a human toddler.

The Lola team says love is just as important as food.

I can’t imagine what the surrogate moms go through during this quarantine period. Claudine says usually it takes about two weeks before the newcomer begins to accept and trust the human female. The mom has to try everything she can think of to get the orphan to eat. The poacher/trafficker may have fed it beer or tainted water or scraps of offal or handfuls of rice. The Lola staff says Coke is often the thing that will entice a baby into taking its first sips before transitioning to a more nutritious formula. During a quarantine, the mom returns to her own home at night, but then she got back to work each day without any break until the baby at last can be integrated into the larger group.

Being a surrogate mom to one or more bonobos may get easier after that, but it’s still hard work. The youngsters cling to the women. They climb (or pounce) on their backs and arms. They tug at their pant legs. It’s intensely physical and also essential to the youngsters’ survival.

If you don’t like being alone, a job as a bonobo surrogate mother might be just the thing for you!

Day visitors to the sanctuary must view the youngsters through this glass. As resident visitors, Steve and I got to go a bit closer. But to lessen the chances of the youngsters catching some germ, only the surrogate mothers get to hold them.

Steve and I visited the nursery several times. We went early one morning to observe the morning ritual: a daily bath.

Fresh from his bath, this little one hangs on effortlessly, as do all the babies to their human or bonobo moms.

Twice we also returned late in the afternoon to watch the bedtime preparations. (The residents sleep in hammocks in a couple of large cages.)

We heard all their names, but we only memorized one: Balangala, that of a 5-year-old male, the most confident member of the gang. One morning we watched him climb a large bamboo stalk that was growing into the enclosure. His weight bent it over, and he jumped from it onto a trampoline. After a while he lured most of the younger ones up onto it with him. Eventually the stalk broke, and the moms had to call for a staff member to cut and haul it away.

Balangala came right up to the fence where we were observing. He threw dust at us, demanding our attention. He reached through the the bars to grab Steve’s ear. He bullied the little guys.

But when everyone was annoyed with him, he needed a cuddle.

At the end of the day, he swung through the tunnel that leads to the nursery’s night enclosure, then stopped when he reached the place where we were standing. Penis erect, he thrust his hand through the grating: the classic bonobo handshake (the title of Vanessa Woods’ entrancing book).

Balangala was clearly excited to see Claudine.
A gentle smile also signals pleasure.

Staff members say Balangala is probably ready to join one of the troupes outside the nursery. But he’ll do better if he can go with another youngster, and none of the others was quite ready yet. Bonobo societies are complicated. Before we arrived at Lola, Steve and I already knew that. But our time observing the older primates underscored that.

Our welcome to the bonobo paradise

After all the hassles involved in getting a visa for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), our physical journey to Kinshasa was mercifully mundane.The nonstop Rwandair flight lifted off the tarmac about 20 minutes late, but the pilots made up almost all of the time. In the Kinshasa airport, it took only a few minutes for an immigration officer to stamp our passports, then we moved to the baggage-claim area. Before we could proceed to the carousel, a lady officer at the health-screening station demanded our yellow-fever injection records. I froze for a moment, trying to remember where I’d stashed them. But I found them and showed them to her, and she waved us on. Our bags showed up. (We travel with carry-ons but their weight exceeded the Rwandair limit.) Outside the front doors, Lola’s driver, Constant, was waiting with a sign. In short order, we were inching through Kinshasa traffic toward the bonobo sanctuary in a Land Cruiser.

When we signed up for this adventure, Steve and I weren’t sure exactly what would await us upon arrival at Lola Ya Bonobo, (literally Paradise for Bonobos in Lingala, the Congolese language in Kinshasa). The US-based Friends of Bonobos organization has a booklet for would-be visitors, but some things were unclear. Would there be any other guests when we were there? Would any of the staff speak English? We weren’t sure, but we didn’t care. Our goal was to learn as much as possible about the work unfolding there. We’d do our best and come away satisfied, we resolved.

When we got an email in Lake Bunyonyi informing us that after we left the airport, we would stop to pick up Claudine Andre, it felt like we had won the lottery. Claudine may well be the most extraordinary person Steve or I have ever met, anywhere. Brought to Congo as a three-year-old by her mother and father, a Belgian veterinarian, she spent her childhood in eastern and central Congo, then had to leave (with her family) in 1960, when the country achieved independence. But she hated Belgium and loved Congo, and she soon returned as the wife of an older Belgian. They had a couple of kids, and Claudine developed a career as an art dealer. Her first husband died and she remarried. She had a couple more kids, survived a war, and by 1993 she was working frantically to save the pathetic population in the city’s beleaguered zoo. In the course of that adventure, someone gave her an orphaned baby bonobo. Claudine became its surrogate mother, and her life was never the same.

She knew nothing about bonobos at first, but she learned fast. People brought orphans to her, and by 1998 she was raising eleven of them. (Around then she moved her little colony onto the grounds of the American School in Kinshasa, which had closed because of the political turbulence.)

In 2000, through an extraordinary twist of events, Claudine managed to raise more then $200,000 to buy a beautiful piece of property about 20 miles south of Kinshasa. She relocated the primates there, and ten years ago, she and her team released the first group of them into a section of the equatorial jungle about 500 miles northeast of Lola. But the sanctuary today is still home to 64 bonobos.

Claudine’s youngest daughter, Fanny Minesi, took over as executive director of the sanctuary three years ago. Fanny’s husband Raphael is the chief veterinarian. But Claudine, now 73, is still involved with every aspect of trying to save bonobos from extinction. Steve and I briefly met her in 2017, when she was visiting the bonobo colony at the San Diego Zoo and I was writing an article about the zoo group. The prospect of spending any time with Claudine at Lola thrilled both of us.

We collected her at her house in Kinshasa and quickly learned that Fanny and Raphael and their children were vacationing in Uganda. Claudine was filling in for them. She seemed unchanged from our brief earlier meeting. Crowned with a thick mane of glorious copper-colored hair, she’s got a abundant amount of energy and an extraordinary ability to talk heart to heart, even with strangers.

We chatted nonstop on the drive out to the sanctuary, arriving in mid-afternoon.

This lovely arch, studded with flowers, greeted us upon our arrival.

Up at the guest house, we discovered that a minor crisis was in progress. One of the young males, Oshwe, had escaped from the section of jungle where his bonobo family hangs out each day; he was roaming the central (public) area of the property. Several members of the Lola staff had mobilized to find and recapture him.

A cry arose — Oshwe had been spotted near the guest cottage where Steve and Claudine and I would be sleeping. Urgently, Claudine waved us off the porch and inside. She locked the door. I felt a bit surprised. Although they’re a little smaller than humans, adult bonobos are said to be five times as strong as us but also far less dangerous than chimpanzees. Outside the window of the guest cottage’s long front salon, we could see the escapee……with several individuals advancing upon him.Steve started to ask a question, but Claudine signaled for him to keep his voice down. She knew, we later learned, that if Oshwe realized strangers were close at hand, he would want to investigate. He’d be much less willing to follow the keepers and the treats with which they were trying to lure him.

We kept still, and it didn’t take long before we heard that Oshwe had re-entered an enclosure from which he could be safely directed to his sleeping quarters. Over the next few hours, the backstory behind his little drama emerged. He’d been hanging out with his group in the forested area that’s their daytime playground and had had a dust-up with one or more of the dominant females. One of the few mammal species to be matriarchal, bonobos live in social groups in which females form a powerful alliance; under natural circumstances, their sons live with them all their lives, enjoying their mothers’ protection. Oshwe, however, was an orphan, with no maternal guardian. He’d gotten scratched a bit in the altercation (and scared), and had figured out how to slip through the barriers Claudine has erected over the years (a pond too deep for the bonobos to cross and a complex system of electrified fencing.)

Once out, Oshwe had done a bit of exploring and tried to enter the jungle sector occupied by another family group. But he couldn’t get in there. He’d considered crossing the pond to re-enter his own group’s area, but the depth of the water he’d tried to wade through foiled him. “He’s a little lost,” Claudine told us. She sounded both calm and compassionate.

This all happened within the first hour of our arrival. Since then Steve and I have hiked the three-mile perimeter of Lola’s three jungle sectors several times with Claudine and/or one of Lola’s top administrators, Suzy Kwetuenda. We’ve hung out in the nursery, where seven bonobo babies are being cared for at the moment. We’ve watched two of the sanctuary’s three family groups interact at various times. We’ve visited the infirmary and the visitor center and the place where workers prepare about 15 pounds of food per bonobo per day (about 900 pounds of food daily overall). We’ve spent hours talking to Suzy and Claudine.

We’ve done all this in two and a quarter days, trying to gulp in the flood of sights and sounds and information. We have two more full days before we have to leave. I’ll try to write about a few more chunks of it, but whatever I write won’t come close to what we’re seeing and feeling.

How we found sanitary pads on the way to the Congo

Rabson, talking to us on Lake Bunyonyi

As I explained in my last post, Steve and I made this trek to Africa because of the Ugandan grannies. But after flying here via Qatar (and stopping there for three nights), the granny research consumed only four days. It seemed a shame to come halfway around the world, then turn around and go home after such a short time. Also, another adventure called to us.

Several years ago, Steve and I became aware of the plight of the bonobo (along with chimpanzees, Homo sapiens’ closest relative left on earth). There’s a bonobo sanctuary in the heart of Africa that is doing great work for this crucially important but highly threatened species. After visiting the grandmother project, Steve and I wanted to visit that sanctuary.

This isn’t easy. Lola Ya Bonobo (literally “Paradise for Bonobos”) is located outside the city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The second largest country in Africa, the DRC is also one of the most tragic. It’s ridiculously rich in resources, mineral and physical, yet it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, with one of the bloodiest histories. It does not welcome tourists. As far as I could make out, it has no tourist industry. To go there, someone has to invite you, the invitation has to be approved by multiple ministries in the Congolese capital, and you have to send your passport to the DRC’s embassy in Washington DC to receive the crucial stamp.

Here’s the one in my passport, acquired after Lola Ya Bonobo invited us and all the bureaucratic hoops were jumped through.

Transportation options are limited, but the Rwandan airline does fly to Kinshasa nonstop from the capital of Rwanda, Kigali. The flight is only two and a half hours long, and Rwandair has an excellent reputation. The only problem (for us) was that this flight only operates a couple of times of week. Steve and I couldn’t get to Kigali from Nyaka (the Ugandan village where the granny program is based) on Sunday, and the next nonstop wasn’t until Wednesday (i.e. tomorrow).

Happily what initially looked like an irritating delay turned out to be a pleasure. I learned that we could be driven from Nyaka to Kigali via the site of Uganda’s most beautiful lake, Lake Bunyonyi. We planned to hole up there for two nights, review the work we’d done in Nyaka, and write about it. But yesterday morning, we couldn’t resist spending a few hours in a boat on the lake.

For $20 a person, the hotel where we were staying arranged for a motorboat, a guy to drive it, and a soft-spoken 23-year-old guide named Rabson. Rabson looked very young, but he’s been guiding for about three years, and I quickly found him to be quick-witted, conscientious, and knowledgeable.

The morning had started off a little drizzly, but as we putted along, the sky cleared. Lake Bunyonyi is the deepest lake in Uganda, and it’s filled with 29 islands, most uninhabited. It has no dangerous animals like crocodiles or hippos, and almost no fish.

Only tiny ones like these, skewered for sale at the local market.

The islands create a landscape that reminded me a bit of the New Zealand fiordlands. But the steep hillsides surrounding the water are an intense tropical green, dotted with banana groves. People swim in the lake, and it provides drinking water to the local villagers.

As in so much of Africa, kids were gathering it here.

Rabson loves birds, and he pointed out many interesting specimens to us, including these.

A pied kingfisher
Uganda’s national bird, the grey crowned crane

He recounted the history of some of the islands. Then he began talking about something that startled me: namely, how most kids in Uganda reach puberty without knowing anything about menstruation.

When girls suddenly begin to bleed, it shocks and horrifies their classmates. Girls have no access to sanitary pads, so they use torn-up t-shirts or leaves or other crude substitutes for sanitary pads that sometimes trigger infections. But Rabson had met someone who was trying to do something to change that and he wanted to take us to meet her.

Steve and I had seen so many African marketplaces over the past few days, I wasn’t dying to see another, but we held our tongues. We sensed it was important to Rabson to share this.

Our boatman pulled up to a dock on the mainland. We disembarked and walked into the jumble of stalls and food sellers that takes shape there every Monday and Friday. We followed Rabson up the dirt path to a compact wooden shack, where a friendly face beamed at us from a window, welcoming us. Rabson pointed out the poster on the front of the building, explaining the project, then his friend Harriet Rwosa stepped out and invited us inside.

If someone told me Harriet was educated in England, I would have believed them; her English is excellent, an ebullient flood of words. But she’s lived all her life in this village. We learned that she’s 27 and married. But she only went through the local high school. Although she yearned to continue on at a university, her parents lacked the money to send her. Like most girls, in her school years Harriet had experienced menstruation as a curse. Every month it kept her out of class, causing her to to fall behind her male peers, a new experience for her. Time had passed, and somehow she’d gotten the idea to design and market cheap, reusable sanitary pads that would enable girls to continue their education, even while menstruating. About a year and a half ago, she’d made her first pads on a little foot-powered Singer sewing machine, and she had marshaled the funds to create a little craft shop to support the purchase of materials to make more pads. Some were lined with a soft toweling. For others Harriet uses a local fabric that resembles flannel. It costs more, she told us, but it’s also more absorbent.

For $10, you can buy 3 pads for a girl. I gave her $20.

As inspiring as Harriet was, I felt equally moved by Rabson, who believes in what Harriet is doing and is trying to help any way he can. As we walked back to the motorboat, he told us he had been bird-watching on one of the bigger islands when he happened to meet Harriet, there to pass out pads at the island high school. She told him about the project, and Rabson immediately understood its importance. One day when he was in the fifth grade of primary school, he had shared a bench with a 13-year-old girl. When she stood up at the end of class, blood stained her clothing and the bench. Today Rabson mimes the reaction of the other kids; their shock at the sight of this frightening blood. They jeered, hooted, cruelly mocked their classmate. She was so mortified and humiliated, she never came back to school. Rabson says not long after this incident, she was married and had a child, but her husband later left her. Her life was ruined for lack of a sanitary pad, something that Rabson still clearly finds appalling today.

He disapproves of giving out free condoms, without also handing out pads to girls. Having sex is something you choose, he declared. But you don’t have a choice about menstruating.

This is true. Hearing Ugandan 20-somethings testify to it, seeing some moved to action by it, inspired me and touched my heart. It made me wish I could return to make a documentary about passionate, energetic Harriet and the lives she’s already changing.

I almost certainly won’t have a chance to do that; it’s not my talent. But I’m grateful to be able to write about her here. I’m thrilled to be spending the night in a really nice hotel in central Kigali, overlooking the Hotel Mille Collines (the inspiration for the cinematic Hotel Rwanda.) I’m happy to have a good fast internet connection to publish this post. In just a few hours, we’ll take that flight to the Congo, where it’s unlikely we’ll have much in the way of WiFi or phone service. But I plan to write every day about our experience in the bonobo sanctuary, and I’ll post the results as soon as possible.

Ugandan grannies: better than any tourist attraction?

Can you spot the San Diegans amongst the valiant Ugandan grannies?

The world is a big place, and Steve and I hunger to see as much of it as possible before we die. That’s why we rarely go back after an initial visit to most countries outside North America. The list of places we’ve traveled to repeatedly has been short: France, Italy, Japan. I’m thinking, however, that I need to add Uganda.

Before our first trip here, in 2013, I would have bet it would be our only one. That was our first (and I would have predicted only ever) visit to East Africa. In the course of it we also swept through Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya. But just a few months before we went, something extra got tacked on.

We have a close friend, Leigh Fenly, who in 2006 co-founded a San Diego organization called Women’s Empowerment (WE) International. Its goal is to improve the lives of some of the poorest women in the world. In the spring of 2013, WE had been approached by a group with a project in southwestern Uganda that was providing tiny but invaluable loans to older women who were raising grandchildren orphaned by AIDS. Amazingly, Steve’s and my itinerary would be taking us not far from Nyaka (the central village), and we managed to adjust it to allow for a one-day visit. We came away so moved and impressed that WE began a partnership early in 2014 with the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Foundation’s granny-group project.

Steve and I also agreed to be the liaisons between the San Diego folks and the Ugandans, a job we’ve continued to fill ever since. In that role, we returned to Nyaka accompanied by another WE member in 2017, and our current travels (this time with 6 WE leaders in tow) were driven by the desire to go back for another on-the-ground assessment of how the Ugandan “micro finance” project has been playing out.

We’ve been dazzled. In our two days in the field, the 8 of us interviewed more than a dozen individual grandmothers, learning about what they’ve done with the loans they’ve received from their groups. We also met with two large granny groups located near the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (home to some of the last mountain gorillas in the world).

One of the groups we visited has developed a robust business making handicrafts and selling them to the foreigners who come for the gorilla tracking.

Progress that was already starting to be evident three years ago has continued and seems to be accelerating.

For example, the first one-year loan ever granted (back around 2007) to one of the two groups we visited Saturday was for 200,000 Ugandan shillings — about $75. The group then made tiny loans — the equivalent of $5 to $10 — to individual members. Each woman would have the money for three months, then she would have to pay it back, along with about 15% interest. With so little money, a granny might only be able to buy a chicken or two. But she could hatch some of the eggs, sell others, and come away with a bit of extra cash — money that more often than not she would use to pay her grandkids’ school fees.

Over the last six years, as WE has donated money raised in San Diego, the Nyakans’ central revolving fund has grown from just $7,000 to almost $250,000 (including profits from the interest on the group loans and about $175,000 from WE). That’s meant granny groups have been able to receive bigger and bigger annual loans. The group that began with a $75 loan now has a loan of more than $4000.

Virtually all the grannies grow crops that their families eat, as shown here by the hands.

Grannies with bigger ideas have been able to get bigger and bigger loans to help them realize their dreams. Take Meleth, for example. She’s 52, currently raising 6 grandchildren (one disabled).

Meleth at the counter in her salon/beauty product store

She joined her granny group just a few years ago and has since become its treasurer. She’s gotten two substantial loans, first one for the equivalent of about $82, then another for almost $200. She’s used that money to build up a beauty salon that would be respectable even by Kampala standards. She’s installed a hair dryer and a wash basin; has diversified into providing decorations for weddings and other celebrations, as well as catering. She told us she currently serves 25-30 clients during her typical six-day week. (A Seventh-Day Adventist, she closes Saturdays.)

Because of her loan money, 54-year-old Robinah started a restaurant that she estimates feeds 40-50 customers a day. Business is good, but she thinks it would be even better if she could buy a refrigerator and sell cold drinks. (That would cost between 1 and 1.5 million shillings, about $275-$400.)

Robinah

Many grannies still do simpler things: acquire goats or chickens or pigs; hire help to grow more cash crops like coffee. We met 65-year-old Ketty Turiyatunga at the Friday market in the little village of Nyamirama. She was filling baskets with sweet potatoes that she hoped to sell for about a dollar. Her loan was for less than $14, but she seemed happy to have it.

Margaret Tumuhimbise, 67, has a small loan too, but she uses it to buy products like tomatoes to supplement the pineapples, sweet bananas, and maize she grows and sells at a stand in the local market.

Margaret currently cares for 4 grandchildren and a great-grandchild, whom she’s holding in this photo.

Note the uniform Margaret is wearing. On our first visit, no grandmothers had uniforms, but by 2017, one large group had had some made. Since then more and more groups, maybe 60% of the 10,000 grandmothers who are currently Nyaka granny-group members, have used their profits to buy the distinctive outfits. They wear them with pride. Folks respect and admire and even envy them now, whereas just a few years ago, they were despised for being dirty and poor and old and bad-smelling. Now they all have soap and toothbrushes. Now they have hope they won’t ever have to beg again.

The Nyaka group’s leaders are talking about getting another 10,000 grandmothers organized into groups that will receive loan money. They envision doing this within just a few years. Some dream of expanding still further, going country-wide.

I have to confess that Steve and I were skeptical seven years ago. Billions have gone into aid for Africa over the course of our lives, and much of that money has been squandered. But, started by a Ugandan, run by Ugandans, decentralized and shaped by leadership at the village level, this program looks like success to us. Even if Uganda didn’t have any great natural beauty and touristic pleasures, I might be tempted to return some day to see if the human thrills continue.

As in the past, the granny group members greeted us with joyous dancing. This is an electrifying experience.
The village kids look on, curious and somewhat amazed.