How Working in Kahuzi-Biega National Park Works

Article from the series: Attractions of Rwanda, western Uganda and eastern DR Congo

In yesterday’s photography moment Marcus called my place of work, Kahuzi-Beiga National Park, the most “off-the-beaten-track” place to do gorilla tracking … He is not wrong, and I can think of two reasons for that:

  • To be blunt, the park is not managed by white people. With international management or staff comes publicity and access to funding that we, Congolese government employees, do not have access to. African leaders are not taken seriously enough in global conservation circles
  • We haven’t done enough yet to make Kahuzi-Biega a prime destination for researchers. Knowing more about the richness and ecological impact of our protected area would have boosted its prominence

It is my job to put the park onto the map, so I’m glad to be your Gorilla Highlands Expert on duty for the next Live Q&A on Thursday 9 September 2021 at 6pm Bukavu time (our members will receive an emailed reminder). I will be available for any questions concerning Kahuzi-Biega NP, tourism and conservation in DR Congo, Grauer’s gorillas … or nearly any related topic. Nothing is off-limits. Feel free to join us and learn why my park (and my country) is a totally viable gorilla tourism destination.

For this article, however, I was asked to explain something more about my daily life and work.

Last time I mentioned that I reside in the city of Bukavu (see the photo I took above), but my duties are in the forest. That comes with quite a demanding travel toll. I visit the national park three times a week on average, using the staff bus that leaves at 7am and comes back at 8pm, sometimes even 9pm. God forbid you live somewhere on the western edge of Bukavu! You will be picked up first and delivered home last, spending up to 45 waiting for others to be dealt with first…

The drive itself, the route between Bukavu and Kahuzi-Biega, takes about an hour. Because we are a government organisation and have military people on board, we aren’t delayed at road blocks, and that is a big plus. The downside is that there is no connectivity during this time, no way to do some work on the internet. I normally read books, listen to music and make noise with my colleagues.

When we are at the park headquarters, we have to operate as a team in many ways, including getting something to eat. There is little food available in the area, so we pool our monies, purchase ingredients as a group and have somebody cook something quick and easy. If you are a picky eater, you better express yourself very clearly before the shopping is done, or you will be hungry!

Once at the national park, I often take work related trips. Once a week I visit one of the habituated Grauer’s gorilla groups, usually on Tuesdays. Many call me “Mama Gorilla” and bring any primates’ issues to me, because they know I care so much. I also need to check on communities surrounding the park and make sure they feel some ownership — without their buy-in, our conservation efforts are bound to fail.

Such duties sometimes force me to spend the night at the park’s sleeping quarters. If I am lucky, I get to use the nice guest lodge, but there are also other staff housing options. The problem is lack of facilities, so we all avoid sleeping at Kahuzi if possible.

For me, a mother of two young boys, attempting to be with them as much as possible is the main reason to commute. In the morning I drive them to school before the bus comes, and when I return I still have an hour or two with them. I do my best to make up for my absences by being totally theirs on weekends. I don’t even look at my phone.

To make matters worse, my husband is a mining company employee who is present for one week and then absent for three. It does happen that none of us is with our boys, aged 5 and 9 …

In the eyes of our society that makes me a failed woman. Your role is to be a mother above all else, and when people notice my absence, they talk. Literally. On the streets. I hear them! And the bravest among them even feel the need to personally lecture me. Frankly, occasionally it does cross my mind to just run away.

No, balancing one’s career and motherhood is not easy. It is hectic, challenging. You are judged by women and men who don’t understand why you make sacrifices. But my position is that you can’t be perfect at everything you are doing — you need to admit that you need help. As a leader I have learned to delegate, so there is a lady at home helping with cooking and school pickup. My relatives keep an eye on the kiddos. There’s a teacher who comes to assist with homework. When I am not around, I make sure there is a WhatsApp call every morning and evening.

I want to be a role model for young women, and show them a different perspective. Despite our community’s expectations, you don’t need to automatically become a housewife. You can be both a good mother and an intelligent and successful professional. There is no need to fear getting married, if you can accept that you won’t be perfect at everything. As long as a young woman can adequately meet the demands of both home and workplace, the rewards and fulfilment are a very rich dividend.