Back home in the DRC after 11 years

It was with great excitement mixed with nervousness that I crossed the border from Rwanda to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), 11 years after I had left the country where I was born.

But as always in the DRC, the people quickly made me feel welcome and at ease. It was with thanks to my colleagues and friends, Sivha Mbake and Altor Musema, that I got through the border very quickly.

However, it wasn’t a completely smooth transition. As soon as we were ready to drive to town a huge truck completely blocked the road. We were stuck for more than half an hour amid complete chaos, with people shouting, 4x4s beeping and local street sellers taking the opportunity to sell their wares – lovely colourful baskets, fruits, peanuts…

Finally home after all these years

Once in town, I was hit by the smell and sight only found in a busy African town, and all the memories of my childhood in eastern DRC flooded back. I felt I was finally home after all these years.

The next day, Mbake and I took a fast boat across Lake Kivu to Bukavu. The three hour journey not only gave us the opportunity to discuss the progress of our projects in Kahuzi-Biega and Maiko National Parks, but also to admire the beauty of the lake and the landscape.

With butterflies in my stomach we docked in the port in Bukavu. I was truly home! I was glad that friends had warned me of how much the town had changed and I was taken aback when we were stuck in a traffic jam! This had never happened when I lived there but soon found out that in my 11 year absence, the population had grown to more than one million.

Making a difference on the ground

That afternoon it was a great pleasure to meet Kahuzi-Biega National Park Chief Warden, Radar Nishuli, to discuss Fauna & Flora International’s on-going support to the park and to the communities living around it, as well as potential future projects.

It was with increasing excitement and interest that I learned from Radar his plans to develop ecotourism in the park including the potential building of an eco-lodge.

This was music to my ears! Our community conservation programme would be the perfect way of involving local communities in the project. Locally made art and crafts could be sold to tourists, but it also an opportunity for local people to sell their produce to the lodge which would go some way in improving their livelihoods.

Many more meetings followed with our partners discussing our collaboration and the work being achieved together. Particularly on the ground work for the benefit of local communities living in the vicinity of the two protected areas – Kahuzi-Biega and Maiko National Parks.

It has been my mission since the DRC Programme was launched in 2007 to forge good and long lasting collaborations with other NGOs working on the ground, and it is so rewarding to see that our joint efforts are finally making a difference on the ground.

Energy and commitment

The last day of my visit to Bukavu, I finally managed to get to the field. Mbake and I visited the Centre de Rehabilitation des Primates de Lwiro and met Andrea Edwards and Carmen Vidal in order to see how Fauna & Flora International (FFI) could support their vital work.

The Centre is the only chimpanzee and monkey sanctuary in the Kivu region. These chimpanzees and monkeys have all been rescued from illegal trade and activities (logging, mining, etc.), and the Centre is now home to more than 100 primates.

photo credit: Thalia Liokatis/ FFI

The hope is that one day they will be returned to the wild. I was truly impressed with the energy and commitment from Andrea and Carmen to saving these primates.

Accomplished work under difficult conditions

My trip was over way too quickly but as always upon leaving the DRC, I am left with a feeling of admiration and respect for the work  the protected areas staff, our partners and the FFI team. They all manage accomplished work on the ground under very difficult conditions as the areas where they work are still occupied by rebel forces.

It is also a privilege for me to be part of the team, working towards saving DRC’s wildlife and helping to improve the livelihood of the local communities. I await future trips with excitement and trepidation!