Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Traffic Jams and Chimpanzees

This weekend, after dropping Cathy to the airport in Ndola, we had two free days to spend around the city of Kitwe. Saturday, we decided to go check out a chimpanzee refuge that we had heard of from Uncle Eddie, where we stay. We planned to drive out early and spend the day there. We headed to Chingola, about 52 km north of Kitwe and thought we’d have lunch there and then head out towards Sowesi and into the bush where the refuge was. We got about halfway to Chingola and arrived at the crossroads to Mufilira and the DRC border when traffic came to a standstill. A few days earlier, we had passed the scene of an accident on the bridge there over a small river where a semi-truck had been hit and overturned into the water. Today, a crane stood on the bridge, attempting to lift the disabled truck and trailer back onto the roadway. Unfortunately, this is the only way north and by the time we thought of turning back, we found ourselves in one of five lanes of traffic jam on a one and a half lane road bottlenecking at a small bridge. I’m not sure what the weight restriction would be on a small cement bridge over little more than a creek but what I was thankful for was that we were not parked on the bridge with the numerous semi trucks on their way to the border, filled with fuel, acid, and copper ore, not to mention the crane, the truck bed that was waiting to receive the disabled truck and about 200 curious bystanders.
After several failed attempts, despite the advice of 200 intervening bystanders, the crane operator decided that his crane was insufficient for the task. As it was blocked in on both sides, the traffic police were called in to restore order. At one point, there were two middle aged women wearing traffic vests, standing in the midst of hundreds of vehicles literally a kilometre in both directions, given the task of moving everyone out in an orderly fashion. Add to the chaos, many men who felt it was their gift to these women to tell them how to do their job. At one point, a man with a very large rifle showed up, stood in front of our van with the women and engaged in loud conversation with everyone around him. I’m not sure if he was protecting the women or threatening them, all I know is I kept my eyes on him and was ready to hit the floor should he swing in our direction. Enter the hero of the situation. A young man in a green and white striped shirt, tall and thin with glasses, he was. He spoke to the women and I assume he told them to keep all traffic still while he went and sorted things out. He walked ahead of our van and about 15 vehicles in front of us, including an ambulance, and motioned for our convoy to follow him. What happened next was amazing. This young man, motioned and cajoled, threatened and reasoned with driver after driver to clear the way for one lane of traffic to be opened. He convinced truck drivers and taxi van drivers alike to pull aside and clear the way for our convoy to move through. It took the better part of an hour to get through but we finally wound our way across to the far side of the traffic jam where the road cleared out in front of us. At the end of the traffic jam, stood the young man in the green and white shirt, we thanked him and continued on towards Chingola. I wished we had had some money or a Coke or a medal of honour to give to the young man. He was bright and assertive and had the capacity to take charge of a chaotic situation. How good would this guy be in the work force? I hope someone other than some foreigners took notice of the young man in their midst. We drove on toward Chingola, whose claim to fame is the world’s largest open pit mine. Can I get a woo hoo, please? Chingola is a mining town through and through. It’s rough and tumble, filled with loud, gregarious miners, Chinese investors and lots of rowdy taverns cranking out the music through crackling speakers. It’s a noisy town and we headed west through the roughest part of it. We passed through the shadows of two large mines, crossing over a road that is only used by the huge Tonka trucks of the mining industry. We crossed as one approached and our little Toyota was dwarfed in its presence. We follow the signs (or sign as truth would have it) to Solwesi. We turn off and begin a climb up a long hill and into the bush. We pass several small cooperative villages where there are roadside stands selling charcoal, sugar cane, beer and whatever else they can. We drive for about 20 kms, the distance we were told that the refuge was from the turn off and finally, stop in to one of the co-ops for some Cokes and cookies (staple diet of the African traveller) and directions. The lady tells me that it is still 19 km to the turn off for the refuge and then it is 15 km into the bush from there. I chat for a little bit with the lady behind the counter, meet her daughter and her mother, also behind the counter on the floor. Once our conversation wanes, I thank her for the help and get back into the hot van. It is now 3:30 and we’re not sure the refuge will even be open when we get there but we’re all in for the chance so we press on. Sure enough, 18 km on the odometer and we see the first and only sign for the refuge telling us we have 1 km to the turnoff. We get to the turnoff and get off the tar road and into the bush. A small sign assures us we’re heading in the right direction and we’ve got 15 km to go. At the 15 km mark, bouncing and jostling along, we are seemingly not any closer to any type of refuge, building or outpost. We continue on, at this point, why would we turn back, and in just a few minutes come upon a gate over the road and a guard shack. We have arrived. We pay our entry fees and then are directed to the office. We joke that it is only another 15 km into the bush. It was only about 3 kms but we were all pretty relieved when we pulled in. We are invited into the office, a sea canister cum office with photos of all the chimps living there on the walls, named. We are directed back to our vehicle and shown the way to the first enclosure – a small acreage enclosed by chain link with signs warning us to be wary of chimps throwing rocks. Very reassuring. We pull into an empty parking lot without much optimism of what we were about to experience but nevertheless, we have arrived. We pile out of the van and are met by a young man named John. He shows us to a cage with two large chimpanzees inside and one smaller chimpanzee outside of the enclosure. He calls to the chimpanzee, named Chris, and beckons her to come sit with us on the bench. She does, cajoled by John and some peanuts, and sits beside Aidan on the bench. We are already impressed and soon begin to really enjoy our time with the chimpanzees.
We cross over the path to a small building with a stairway to the roof. On each side of the building is an enclosure of several acres each. One small chimp family of 14 lives on one side, another chimp family of 12 lives on the other. We visit the first family and are welcomed by several large chimps, the biggest of whom starts throwing dirt and rocks at us and making funny gestures in an effort to win some peanuts. John gives the boys some peanuts to feed the chimps and soon the chimps are going all out making noises and gesturing with their old man hands for the peanuts. The boys are loving this and we’re all laughing. The chimps seem just as fascinated with us as we are with them. We follow John to the stairway leading to the roof and we climb up to call the other family of chimps in from the bush. He calls them by name and they begin to make their way towards us. A small family of three, father, mother and baby, stop just shy of us and begin to groom each other, uninterested in peanuts or us. We watch for awhile and then John sends us on to the next enclosure, 1 km down the road. We arrive there and are met by James, who leads us to another building. Inside is Mila, a grandmother of chimpanzees, in her 50’s and rescued from a life of entertaining her owners by smoking cigarettes and drinking tankards of beer. She’s a hard looking old girl and she is locked in a cage because she’s too smart for her own good. She is an escape artist and made several ladders out of wood and climbed out of the enclosure surrounding the acreage. So, here she sits, still trading cheap tricks for peanuts, which she cleverly spots in Aidan’s hand, though James is treating her to fresh fruit. She claps her hands twice like a Zambian umbuya (grandmother) and holds out her long black hand to Aidan for a treat. He complies, a few times, then James tells her she is finished. Each time he turns away, she claps her hands and holds out her hand to Aidan again. Finally, we leave her with fruit and a large tankard of water and head up to the roof. James calls several chimpanzees from the 60+ acre enclosure. We hear them before we see them, screeching and calling as they make their way in from the bush. First is Mike, a grandfather of a chimpanzee with grey hair and droopy eyes, followed by his females and offspring. There are chimpanzees large and small. We throw down fruit and they race for it, catching much of it midair and eating quickly. More chimpanzees are now coming in from the bush, there are more than 60 in the enclosure, and as more arrive, the louder it becomes. Chimpanzees of all sizes find a small place to sit, careful not to offend the alpha males, but still close enough to catch a rolling fruit or wayward toss. After about 15 mins, the alpha male extraordinaire shows up. His name is Zabu and he is scary looking – scarred and rough skinned, huge hands. All the other males, including Mike, defer to Zabu and even as we toss fruit, he collects most of it and no one objects. Mike slyly sits beside Zabu’s left side and holds out his own left hand in an effort to divert a little fruit his way. There’s Darwin who climbs the side of the building and poses on his back like a model for any attention that may result in food. There’s Marcia, who is shy but sneaks in from the back of the pack and snags fruits that roll into the bushes. There is Debbie and Donna, and other females carrying little ones under their bellies. We stay for a long time, almost an hour, feeding and photographing and enjoying the chimpanzees here. As the sun sets, we realize that we need to begin to retrace our bouncing, jostling path out of the bush and back to the tar road and home to Kitwe. It was a long day but it was also such a good day, where long waits and lengthy travels resulted in a surprisingly satisfying interaction with nature. We arrived home late, after a dinner of orange juice and chocolate bars on the way. Honestly, we’re not going to get any parenting or nutrition awards for our travels – we often find ourselves at the mercy of a roadside stand or empty shelved merchant. I was proud of the fact that I had procured orange juice instead of the standard Coke and recognizable chocolate bars for each of us. At the end of the day, we fell into our beds, too tired to scrounge up a supper out of our dwindling supplies and happy enough not to care.

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