nfant Grauer’s gorillas come to GRACE after being confiscated from poachers or illegal pet traders. They were forcibly taken from their mother and group-mates and, in many cases, witnessed their entire family being killed in front of them. Unsurprisingly, many of the infants are quite traumatized upon arrival. That’s where Aldegonde Saambili comes in. She is one of the GRACE gorilla caregivers who specializes in helping infants heal so they have a chance at normal social, emotional, behavioral, and physical development.
Most gorillas are confiscated before the age of 3. In the wild, gorilla infants are not weaned until they are 3 or 4 years old. Thus, orphaned infants need extensive, around-the-clock care. Though it is impossible to replace a mother’s psychological support and affection, Aldegonde provides the best substitute care possible. She attends to the infant’s every need, including holding, carrying, grooming, feeding, exercising, and playing with the infant. Aldegonde walks her charges into the forest every day where the gorillas begin to re-familiarize themselves with their natural habitat. Aldegonde also stays with the infants through the night, just as their gorilla mother would.
This is very difficult work that requires caregivers to work in 24-hour shifts. But as a mother of three older children, Aldegonde draws on her maternal instinct during the long days and nights with the gorillas. She says, “I am their family, I take care of them like a parent, like my own kids.” Aldegonde has been a surrogate mother for nearly all of the gorillas that arrived to GRACE as infants.
While human care is necessary in this initial period of dependency, gorillas are integrated into a group with other orphans as soon as possible so they can begin the process of relearning social skills. But caregivers like Aldegonde play a crucial role in the critical period between a gorilla’s arrival at GRACE and their integration. The care she provides is especially important for gorillas because they are known to succumb to stress more easily than other great apes.
Born in the village of Maboya, Aldegonde was her parents’ fourth daughter. She has 5 brothers and 3 sisters. She attended secondary school in Butembo, the largest city near GRACE, and also in nearby Beni then began working as a trader selling second-hand clothes. Aldegonde then had the opportunity to go to Goma in 2009 to learn how to care for orphaned gorillas while the GRACE facility was being built. In 2010, Aldegonde accompanied four gorillas she cared for in Goma to GRACE then accepted a job on the GRACE caregiver team.
Aldegonde has made the village of Katoyo near GRACE her family’s new home. There, she is a leader in the women’s association, a group of local women who help each other provide for their families through agricultural initiatives, micro-credit loans, and other projects. Aldegonde also helps organize annual festivities for International Women’s Day, an international occasion that recognizes the many achievements of women and is highly celebrated in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Aldegonde is a hard worker and fast learner. Since arriving at GRACE, she has taught herself French and is now learning English too. Thanks to her job as a caregiver, Aldegonde has been able to send her children to school as well as help provide for other family members.
Working with gorillas at GRACE has given Aldegonde an appreciation for how special these endangered great apes are. She calls them “beautiful” animals. Her experience has also made her a conservation advocate. She says, “I believe that gorillas are very important for the world and would like people to care that they exist and not poach them. I wish that we do everything we can to protect them. For the world to see them and our children to still see them, we have to protect them.”