Bees and Bonobos

Less then half a day after hiking into Iyema with barely any sleep, I found myself up at 320AM and speed walking in the dark after the Congolese pisteurs and The PhD to arrive at the bonobo nest sites before dawn. Half awake and filled with a mixture of exhaustion and excitement, we settled in below them as the sun slowly peaked through the dense canopy.

Movement above us, we talked in hushed voices as part of the habituation process and ripped lokokoloko leaves to pretend we were foraging as well. Catching shadows and glimpses, they were gone within an hour and we were left behind to collect nest information along with fecal and urine samples.

My first (fleeting) encounter with bonobos in the wild!

Over the last few weeks, we have been getting bonobos about three times a week. This means getting up around 320AM, following them rain or shine for as long as possible, collecting data and then taking a break before I dive right into sifting through poo. On non-follow days, I enjoy slow days at camp entering data and scanning for them in the afternoons until dark.

Surrounded by green, everything at camp is practically made from the forest using vines or splintered fibers to tie everything together. For power, our solarium allows us to charge batteries and computers one by one. In the middle of camp, our garden grows with aubergines, sweat potatoes and peppers. To the north, my tent hides between the bureau and the shallow stream where we shower. Without electricity and no way to keep food cold, the fish is kept constantly over coals and smoked.

Chickens and ducks (until we ate the ducks—they were delicious) waddle and flap around peeping and clucking. The bees swarm us upon return, drawn by our sweat, and giving me my first (and second, and third and…etc) stings. Constantly annoyed by these little bastards, the thwap upon hitting them gives one a sense of complete satisfaction. The no see-ums are a constant threat, polka dotting my arms and labeling me with a tramp stamp on my lower back telling every other goddamn insect I’m apparently open for business. Malaria seems to be going around the camp as I had to administer my first malaria test to one of the guides by pricking his finger and mixing his blood with some kind of solution. Armed with insect repellant and doxy, so far I’ve been healthy (knock on wood).

As Tim Butcher noted in Blood River, the Soldier Ants (or bafumba), are terribly annoying but not that dangerous or bad. Going on raids through our camp, I’ve wandered aimlessly into them in the dark. Yelping and pinching them off my legs. Ah, just another day (or night) in the bush.

With such busy days, my emotions have been a constant up-and-down between amazement at where I am and complete and utter homesickness and loneliness. Kept up at night with itching and with clothes and bags that are beginning to mold from the humidity, I ache for the comforts of Lajuma nights. Lack of variety makes me dream of hamburgers, pizzas, sushi and other food spent dining maybe in a bustling city. Instead, days are spent in forests or swamps eating the same things day after day (peanuts, pineapple, fufu, fish, pondu, spinach and porridge).

Luckily, after such long days, I’m so tired and hungry that any type of substance is welcome—although a nice cold beer would be heaven. But after spending some time with the bonobos, these feelings are pushed back when I hear their cries and whoops. And as my French and Lingala slowly improve, the loneliness has begun to subside bit and bit—little victories such as these keep my sanity.

Two more months.

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