By Claire Martin, Disney Conservation Programs Manager & Rachel Daneault, Primate Zoological Manager, Disney’s Animal Kingdom
“Are you taking guns in with you?” was one of the more matter-of-fact questions we were asked when we told people that we were heading to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to work with GRACE. Some of the other reactions were more colorful and seemed to take into question our mental state. Yes we were a group of four women, yes we were headed to Congo, and no we were not armed.
Perception is not often reality. It is shaped by the information available to us and often—especially where the DRC is concerned—the available news is negative and scary. Many of those awful stories are unfortunately true, and there is indeed much suffering in this part of the world. But what we don’t get a chance to hear as much is the good news out of DRC; the stories of the communities and people in this beautiful country who just want the same things that we all do when it comes down to it. We experienced such kindness and a deep sense of community while at GRACE that it made us reflect on how our culture can sometimes get it wrong. If you have ever gone shopping on Black Friday you may have an idea of what we’re talking about.
GRACE is located in the North Kivu province of eastern DRC, but it is specifically part of the Katoyo community. It is located at the top of a mountain, on land that was contributed by the community as a way for them to support conservation and help provide a haven for orphaned Grauer’s gorillas. The facility is adjacent to the Tayna Nature Reserve, a community protected reserve established in 2006. You can see when you walk through the Katoyo community that conservation is just a part of who they are.
While at GRACE, we had conversations with the Bami (plural for “Mwami”, a traditional king) where we learned about the history of their commitment to GRACE. We also met with Pierre Kakule, another conservation leader who led the Tayna Nature Reserve initiative, and he shared his vision for the future of the program. Through each conversation it was evident that GRACE has been so much more than a conservation program; it’s also been a positive force in people’s lives.
We toured the local health clinic, a complex with several buildings, including a maternity ward, operation suite, and recovery area. We met the nurse on duty and some of his patients, including a newborn baby. Several years ago Disney sent a shipping container full of supplies for GRACE, including medical equipment and supplies for this clinic that were donated by Florida Hospital and Banfield Pet Hospitals. The supplies are still being used today. There is still much more that could be done to help support this center, from support for medical staff to basic things like sheets for the recovery beds.
We also visited the schools in the community, and although it was school holidays there was no shortage of smiling children to accompany us on our tour. We saw the Muyisa Primary School with classrooms for each grade and the secondary school that is currently under construction. We also visited the local college, Tayna Center for Conservation Biology (TCCB), where future Congolese conservationists are trained and many of the GRACE staff got their education and start in conservation. We even identified a TCCB classroom that we hope will become GRACE’s Education Center, after some sprucing up with furniture, resources, and a little paint. Here we hope to host school groups, adult-education classes, and other programs to benefit both the Katoyo people and the gorillas.
We also checked out the radio station, which is located at the top of another mountain. This is also the only place in the community where you can pick up cell phone service (appropriately named “telephone hill”). The radio station broadcasts all kinds of content, but several times a week the content is specific to gorilla conservation and GRACE, organized by GRACE’s current Education Manager, Jonathan Kambere Katsongo.
One of our favorite experiences was the morning we spent with the local women’s cooperative. It is a group of leaders from all the various women’s associations in town. In this group, there is representation from students, single women, married women, widows, rich women, poor women and even someone to represent the women who are not represented! Jeanny Kahindu Misave, the Animal Manager at GRACE, helped pull together this group and organized our tour one morning so we could learn more about women’s lives in Katoyo. We saw things like a local church, the market where goods are sold each day, and several women-run businesses, including a banana beer brewery, a seamstress shop, and agricultural projects.
But it was the stories they shared that were most impressive. These women are amazingly strong and resourceful. They take being working moms to the next level and are truly the caretakers of their community. Most women not only care for their own families, but have extended family members living with them and often orphaned children as well. They even have an association that many of them pay into that provides rotating micro-loans to other women in their community to help them succeed. All of that and they make sure dinner is on the table each night, nothing short of impressive.
Another thing we found so inspiring is that the community spends one day each week helping each other and their village. What we in the U.S. may call a “volunteer day,” they just take as a responsibility to each other. We could learn a lot from such kindness and strive to be a little more like the Congolese.
As a token of solidarity with the women, we presented them with a female goat to be used for reproduction in order to generate funds for their women’s group. They, in turn, surprised us with traditional Congolese dresses. The dresses were delivered to us along with the following message: “The women of Katoyo think that you must be very strong women because you came on such a long journey by yourselves. You have shown us that we can be strong too.” It’s incredible that women who work so hard could possibly think we are stronger than they are. Perception is definitely not always reality.
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