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Congo Kinshasa: Bonobos, Sapeurs and the Congo River


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Africa has many great rivers that are legendary:  the Nile, the Zambezi, the Congo, the Niger, the Volta...I've been fortunate enough to visit some of them, but I had always dreamed of seeing the Congo River with my own eyes.  When the Gabon Trip was planned and I had to fly through Kinshasa, I thought I'd take a few days and see it for myself.


This isn't exactly a safari, but it's Africa, and Kinshasa is the home of Lola Ya Bonobo, an amazing sanctuary for orphaned bonobos with the goal of re-releasing them into the wild.  Another great reason to stop in the DRC.


There are three family groups that live in patches of natural forest at the sanctuary and the nursery where human surrogate mothers care for the newly orphaned. .  Eventually, the hope is to release them in a large sanctuary called Ekola Ya Bonobo where they will live wild and free.  The formula is not unlike the Sheldrick Orphanage for elephants in Nairobi. 


Bonobos are considered one of the four Great Apes: Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Orangutans and Bonobos.


My short itinerary was:


Sunday Evening pick up at FIH -- Kinshasa's Int'l Airport


Monday Morning Departure to Lola Ya Bonobo where I would spend two nights (they have limited room for overnight stays in stone chalets on the property.  While I was there, they were housing a Korean TV crew, myself, a researcher, a vet volunteer and three additional tourists.  The accommodations are excellent.  There is a shared bathroom.  The food is also quite good!


Wednesday:  Final day tour of Kinshasa including the national museum, seeing the Stanley Rapids and the Congo River, meeting up with some sapeurs and seeing some notable sights such as the stadium where Ali and Foreman duked it out in "The Rumble in the Jungle", parliament, etc...


Depart FIH in the evening for home...


That first morning I was picked up by a driver that works for the sanctuary at my hotel.  We then picked up the chief veterinarian at his home and made our way to Lola Ya Bonobo.  He was very friendly and happy to explain all about the beginnings of Lola and about Claudine, the founder.  She is Belgium born but moved to Kinshasa at an early age, her father, a veterinarian.  She was an art dealer in her youth when war disrupted life in Kinshasa.  It was discovered the animals at the local zoo were left to their own devices and starving, and street children had taken up residence on the zoo grounds and spent their days harassing the animals. 


Claudine raised money for food and gave half to the animals and half to the children enlisting them in caring for them.  This is one of the reasons that education is such a big part of the mission of the Lola Ya Bonobo.  Eventually she parted ways with the zoo director and an orphaned bonobo changed her life completely.  She founded the sanctuary soon after and the rest is history.   The sanctuary is now located in the suburbs of Kinshasa (formerly the weekend retreat of one of President Mobutu's cabinet members) which used to be on the far margins of town but the population of Kinshasa has grown to more than 18 million  and it's now surrounded by villages.  In fact a chicken farm now sits on a hill behind the sanctuary which leads to potential issues of contamination at the sanctuary. The relationship is tense. 


From Wikipedia:


Founded by Claudine Andre in 1994, Lola ya Bonobo is the world's only sanctuary for orphaned bonobos.  Since 2002, the sanctuary has been located just south of the suburb of Kimwenza at the Petites Chutes de la Lukaya, Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Lola ya Bonobo means 'paradise for bonobos' in Lingala, the main language of Kinshasa. Lola ya Bonobo is home to about 60 bonobos who live in 30 hectares of primary forest.  Lola ya Bonobo is a member of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance.

Typically, bonobos arrive as young infants. The bushmeat trade in the Congo area sees hundreds of bonobos killed each year for meat. The infants are sold as pets. When confiscated, these young bonobos are taken to Lola ya Bonobo. They start a new life at the sanctuary with close care from a substitute human mother, but are usually quickly ready to be integrated into a peer group, and shortly afterwards into one of the large, mixed-age social groups.


Although the bonobos are captive, they live in an environment similar to the wild. They can forage among dozens of edible plants and fruiting trees, compete for mating opportunities, and learn to avoid dangers such as stepping on venomous snakes just as they would in the wild. As a result, the bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary, living in their forested microcosm, show all the naturally occurring behaviors observed in wild bonobos (in fact, they actually display some behaviors such as tool use that have not been observed in the wild).


Because of the living conditions provided, the sanctuary can play a critical role by demonstrating the level of humane treatment that captive apes deserve. The sanctuary also protects wild bonobos since it triggers the enforcement of domestic and international conservation laws aimed at preventing the trade in live bonobos. The sanctuary also acts as a mouthpiece for conservation efforts in DRC by educating thousands of Congolese visitors each year about the value of Congo's natural history, in particular the bonobo – their unique Congolese inheritance.


I would encourage folks to check out the Friends of Bonobos website and consider supporting them.  https://www.lolayabonobo.org/




As for the sapeurs, it is a sub culture unique to Congo Brazzaville and Congo Kinshasa.  The Sapeurs, which stands for the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People), are a band of men who turn the art of dressing into a cultural statement, and abide by a code befitting of the gentlemanly clothes they don so resplendently each morning.


An interesting read on sapeurs:  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/fashion-and-style/10564648/Meet-the-dandies-of-Brazzaville.html?fb



Edited by gatoratlarge
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I'll have to check my notes for names but the staff at Lola is unbelievably dedicated.  The guide that showed me around my first day was in charge of their well being and the delicate introduction of bonobos into the family groups.  As with most things, it's far more complicated than you might at first think.  I mean these sentient, complex apes, each with their own personality and background must eventually meld together into a family group.  There was one fellow that just simply preferred solitude over his fellow bonobos.  This lady spent two years in remote Ekola Ya Bonobo to ensure their integration back into the wild.  That's a supreme sacrifice away from family and friends, pure dedication.


And then there's the surrogate mothers who each have one bonobo to care for...it was exhausting to see these energetic juveniles running, playing, jumping, they never stopped.  I think that for a visitor it looks fun---but day after day?  These little guys are strong, rambunctious and never let up...it's an unbelievably tough job!  And each family group has its own staff.  I was able to paddle out with one of them to watch the feeding of the bonobos twice while I was there.  Incredible to see these Great Apes up close use tools like rocks and sticks.  Many have a special rock they keep to break open the fruit, others use a stick to check the depth of the water as they cannot swim.


I would highly recommend a stay at the sanctuary vs a visit.  You get a much more immersive experience and learn so much about the bonobos and their dedication to protect them.  The DRC is the only home of the bonobo so they also try to instill a patriotism in their protection.  Thousands of school kids visit each year.  There was at least 100 students during one of the days I visited.


This is the head vet, a vet volunteer from France and a researcher.  You share meals with some very interesting people and the food is excellent!


Some shots around the lodging facilties:



This was my guide---I am in awe of this woman.  She showed me around but her job is much more important for what she's done for the bonobos.


An emphasis on education:



The surrogate moms' job is never done---often four or five would be jumping all over the lap, chair, shoulders of these patient saints...



Ever mischievious!




The nursery area has glass panels to view the surrogate moms---you can see some of the reflection in my pics.  Also there's a short bench with just the wire fence where you can observe.  I think it has a low voltage charge.  I could sit and watch them for hours and probably did.  There was only one "jail break" as one of the naughtier bonobos Kwango ran around the opening in the fence and ran right for me.  They love to be tickled and their bellies rubbed so he grabbed my hands and patted his belly with them---just like a little kid would do :D Do me! Do me! :D 


This is Kwango:



The grounds and enclosures (there are three) are semi-natural and quite beautiful---it seems well-funded:





This is the chicken farm that's causing some concerns:





Edited by gatoratlarge
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Awesome Joe, what an absolutely precious experience for you there! Great pictures of the Bonobos, they certainly look different enough from Chimps, and some pictures  are almost uncanny - a bit more like looking at ancestors of humans than at animals.

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Thank you for posting this wonderful report. What fine work they are doing.

Excellent photos of fascinating creatures.

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Got some great photos there Joel - magical stuff...., and what a great idea - bonobos and sapeurs and the Congo River is some combination. 


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Well done for taking the time out to go visit there - somewhere I would love to go.  Fantastic pictures and record of your time there.

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How fascinating! I've long wanted to see bonobos, and probably never will, but your photos are the next best thing. That shot of the mother with a youngster close to the end of your report is uncannily human. Thanks for doing this TR.

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@gatoratlarge, I found this extension to your Gabon expedition absolutely fascinating, the images are great too. I was not familiar with this facility at all, so thank you for raising everyones awareness of this tremendously worthwhile initiative. Bonobo are one species I would really like to observe in the wild but realise it is highly unlikely, the only possibility would be Salongo N.P. and although trips there are possible I am fairly sure it would make your Gabon experiences appear like a walk in the park. Thanks again, wonderful.

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@Galago I thought the same thing---very human---or at least closer to humans.  The fact they are the most bi-pedal of the Great Apes also becomes a bit eerie at times.  At least they look like some of the early versions of Man you see in movies... :D 


@johnweir I considered that as well.  I'd love to see them in the wild but this is a very interesting alternative.  I learned a lot over my two days at Lola.


Here are some of the many videos I took :DThe noises they make are unexpected and fascinating :D 



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so fascinating Joel! I've also always wanted to see bonobos which would complete seeing all four great apes (having now seen gorillas in Gabon) but I too thought it was impossible to do so. The sanctuary is a great alternative and so enterprising of you to find this. the videos are so enjoyable. 


Do you know if when they are released, the sanctuary continues to provide food to them or is it until the pre-release stage? and how many have been released in Ekolo? 



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@gatoratlarge Joel, you have a real knack for these amazing extensions, and the tenacity & attitude to make them happen! What a lovely interlude this turned out to be - with the bonobos, the Sapeurs, the jazz, the Rumble, the river... I am going to simply steal this one as-is as an extension to the 2020 Gabon trip! 😄 

The photos are fantastic, as always, and your vids too!

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2 hours ago, Kitsafari said:

so fascinating Joel! I've also always wanted to see bonobos which would complete seeing all four great apes (having now seen gorillas in Gabon) but I too thought it was impossible to do so. The sanctuary is a great alternative and so enterprising of you to find this. the videos are so enjoyable. 


Do you know if when they are released, the sanctuary continues to provide food to them or is it until the pre-release stage? and how many have been released in Ekolo? 



Thanks @Kitsafari!  My understanding is there is a two stage release at Ekola where they do continue to feed them some each day but over time they become less and less reliant.  Suzie who was my guide at Lola lived with the released group for two years to make certain they were integrating into the new environment properly,  This is what I found on the website:


A World First
Since 2009, we have conducted the world’s only two bonobo releases, where a group of orphan bonobos were returned to the wild. The reserve is double the size of Manhattan or 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) of primary forest in the Equateur province. The reserve is called ‘Ekolo ya Bonobo’ meaning land of the bonobos. Ekolo ya Bonobo Since the release, there have been five wild births, officially making the project a success. Ekolo is right on the river, part of the arterial network of transport routes in Congo. When the bonobos were released, we noticed that thousands of people were travelling from far and wide to see them, many who had never seen a bonobo in their natural habitat. Recognizing a unique opportunity, we began education programs that now reach over 11,000 people a year along the major route that bushmeat traders must travel to market.
14 more are being readied for release: WARNING there are some disturbing sights in this video of the bush meat trade!!!


THank you @Sangeeta that's what ST is for! :D 

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wonderful to hear babies being born in the wild! long may they flourish. :wub:

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I had read articles and watched internet videos about the sapuers of Congo Brazzaville and Kinshasa with quite a bit of fascination.  In the extreme, a devotion to fashion and couture over feeding family and yourself is of course not a good thing.  But from the brief time I spent with a couple sapeurs in Kinshasa and having read further about this subculture, my impression is that this interest gives color and exuberance in often challenging life circumstances.


Better put perhaps in The Telegraph article:




"The Sapeurs sense of style is one of joyous exuberance, flamboyant colour, polished tailoring and impeccable attention to detail; suits in periwinkle pink, buttercup yellow and poison green, fat regatta stripes, Jeeves-esque bowler hats, handsome canes, plump bow-ties, polished brogues and jaunty evening scarves, draped just so. It’s a sartorial DNA that nods to 1920’s jazz age refinement and has its roots in the French colonisation of the Congo in the early part of the 20th century.

Certain pockets of the Congolese took inspiration from this new influx of French elan; Paris sophistication and elegance became the sartorial goal. When Congolese immigrants visited France and returned laden with finery, the Sapeurs evolved into a fully-fledged style tribe, adapting European clothes with vibrant African flair.

What makes their sense of dress all the more remarkable – surreal even – is that it often takes place against a backdrop of poverty and deprivation, the Sapeurs resemble rare exotic birds in the most desperate of surroundings, from bombed buildings to shanty-town slums. But this isn’t about frivolity or conspicuous displays of wealth. There are strict behavioral customs that come with being a Sapeur which are as important, if not more so, than dressing with dash and flair.

"The Sapeur is a model of gentlemanly behaviour and mannerisms; it’s also the language he uses, the way he walks," says Mediavilla. "How you treat people is very important. For a man to be a Sapeur he must be gentle, he must not be aggressive, he must be against war, he must be calm tempered." In a country where many of the population live below the poverty line, the simple act of civility and kindness means a great deal.

The Sapeurs' cultivated code of conduct, gentility and sense of propriety is a rejection of the more brutal aspects of Congolese life. Even the stringent grooming regimes of the Sapeurs is, to Mediavilla, a way of showing that one has the ability to wash and stay clean and hygienic in a country where water is in short supply. And when so much of the West’s idea of Africa comes from what we’ve seen in the media, there’s a sense that the Sapeurs are striking out as rainbow-hued, vibrant individuals in a world that’s been painted in broad brushstrokes.

The Sapeurs look doesn’t have to come at great expense either, says Mediavilla. "Men borrow pieces from one another, and focus on putting it all together in an individual, creative way. They pick pieces up from the fashion boutiques in Brazzaville or have pieces made by local tailors. A lot of the clothes come from Europe and are sold in the Congo."

It’s not a clandestine society either; the focus is on inclusiveness. Initiation into the visual and social codes of the Sapeur society comes through myriad ways too. "Sometimes it’s a father showing his son how it’s done; sometimes its through friends. Sometimes it’s a personal choice. The Sapeurs like to say that it passes through generations, from grandfather to father to son."

Cynics might dismiss it as trivial gloss, but the transformative effect of dressing as a Sapeur - of perfecting the dimple in a half-Windsor knot, tilting that top hat at just the right angle, fine tuning those complimentary colours - is "a way of feeling a sense of pride", says Mediavilla. "The Sapeurs have said to me lots of times that when they get dressed up, when they go out and put on a show, they forget their problems. They feel happy.""

One of the sapeurs I met showed me childhood photos highlighting his interest in clothes.  It was a fun afternoon hanging out in a suburb of Kinshasa with these guys--they were treated as curiosities and even mini-celebrities by the locals:



Other interesting sights in Kinshasa----The "Rumble In The Jungle" Site of the Ali v. Foreman fight: called by some "arguably the greatest sporting event of the 20th century", where Ali introduced his now famous rope-a-dope tactic :D IMG_3695.jpg.94c5c1fd4da6fb148088e9fcf5c1a1a4.jpgIMG_3697.jpg.34818c036e0decc7b98238f87f7c3194.jpg

A traffic robot -- one of a few in a city of 18 million!  These are made in the DRC and from what I was told obeyed by drivers more so than the actual police---for a while....


This young fellow was selling hard boiled eggs that he would cut in half and put hot sauce in the middle---looked good but I'm cautious with street food for good reason :D 


The museum was a bit sad with much of the artifacts on the floor outside the display cases, a few masks and leopard skin chairs from President Mobutu's reign, still  it's an interested spot with a great view of the Congo River and the two closest capitals in the world, Brazzaville on one side and Kinshasa, the other.  Stanley's original boat from his exploration of the Congo is stored out of view down at the riverfront but will be displayed one day -- I would say soon but that would belie everything I know about the Congo...the site itself is historic with a graveyard from Stanley's expedition and an amphitheater that President Mobutu built.  One where the weigh-in for the "Rumble in the Jungle" took place.

A colonial era statue of Stanley:



A view of the Congo River (me and my guide):IMG_3693.jpg.3eab440d8c3727ce6b3ddcf6482aa0fc.jpg69490609_10158028667268488_2266115094301638656_o.jpg.deb045d7842580952a5a75ce05ab3fc2.jpg




Edited by gatoratlarge
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  • 2 weeks later...

The gator gets around, that's for sure!  The bonobos look like they are very content.  That branch as a measuring tool tactic is priceless.  What minds they have!  Your photos and videos captured the bonobos' antics and daily routines so well.


That's one raging river.  Kind of scary even looking at the videos.


The whole sapuer culture is a fascinating element to your side trip.  All I can think of when I look at those photos is "Le Pipe."


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