Dr Congo, I presume?

Posted on March 18, 2011


Well it turns out I am definitely in the Congo, which is a pretty strange realization. Seems to have hit home quite quickly though, which is lucky. In fact the strangest thing about it is that it really doesn’t feel strange at all. It feels…well…for lack of a better word, normal. Quite homely and comforting in fact. Although that does of course depend on how you define ‘homely’ and ‘comforting’, and how sane you consider yourself to be:

  1. double bed, double glazing, heating, hot water, split level flat, big room to yourself, great transport links…?
  2. unbuilt showers and toilets, no sinks, no taps or running water, having to wash oneself with buckets of cold water, shared room with four people…?

Maybe the heat’s gotten to me already.

So I’m currently staying in Lubumbashi, the second largest city in the DRC, based right down in the south-east corner, bordering Zambia.

As many of you may know, I have come out here with a new job. I am now working for the Frankfurt Zoological Society as the Communications Officer for a new conservation project – the rehabilitation of Upemba National Park. Through years of mismanagement, poaching and general violence, the park has found itself completely neglected. And not only that, but almost completely devoid of any wildlife as a result. The severe impact that poaching and violence have had on the environment in the Katanga Province (where we, and the park, are based) and elsewhere in the country is, quite frankly, staggering. And criminal.

The project aims to build the park back up to its former glory and make it an important cultural and environmental emblem for the country as a result. At this stage though, unfortunately, we are dealing with a run-down park. So we need to do the following:

  • rebuild infrastructure within the park (our lodgings, kitchen, offices, ranger quarters etc);
  • create park boundaries for the northern sector of the park that we are rehabilitating;
  • train up the rangers in security procedures so they can manage the park properly and protect the park against poaching;
  • and reintroduce wildlife into the park, once the above have been completed.

And my role, in a nutshell, is to raise global awareness of the project. This will (hopefully!) be done through a varied communications platform that includes developing a website, using social media and getting media coverage, while also aiming to raise funds through the website. The project has been funded for two years by the EU and the World Bank, and we are also working very closely with the Congolese government. But the two-year funding is all we have at this stage, hence the need for online funding to keep the money pot ticking over… What happens after the two years is down to us and down to the success of the project. No pressure then. What’s more is that this will be the first time FZS go into a park that is not already established, and with an aim of starting a conservation project from scratch. Success, therefore, can’t really be measured against anything they’ve done before…which can be seen as both positive, and negative, depending upon the result! One thing I can say for certain though is this: we have our work cut out.

Our headquarters for this project are currently in Lubumbashi. And they will serve as a permanent base for FZS down the line. Here with me are Rob (DRC Programs Director), Alan (Upemba Project Leader) and a number of Congolese staff called Urbain (DRC Programs Deputy), Pactole (Finance), Prince (Logistics) and Atamoto (Lead Conservationist for Upemba). This is us having dinner the other night. They’re all lovely guys and good to work with. Around the end of April, Alan and I will then move into the park and set up a permanent base there for this project. We hope. It all depends on how preparations go from this end – there’s still a lot that needs sorting out, and as some of you may have guessed or may already know (from experience), things take their time over here. It seems to be the African way.

Yet despite its frustrations, it’s great to be back in Africa. My first experience was back in 1994, on a school cricket tour to Zimbabwe. That was an unforgettable experience, and I still have my scrapbook project at home somewhere! And then three years ago I spent a few weeks in Zambia and travelled up to Tanzania, where I spent a month and a half volunteering with the Amani Children’s Home, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and seeing other parts of the country. It was a life-changing experience, a truly exceptional time in my life.

And now, a seemingly hair-brained and unrealistic idea back in December (2010) to go for this job has finally turned into reality. Funny how life turns out, isn’t it?

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