During the spring of 2015 I started following Into the Okavango 15 on their website, Twitter and Instagram accounts. A Botswana based scientific survey, they were gearing up for a four month, ten-member, 1300 kilometer scientific transect of the Cuito River/Okavango Delta catchment in Angola and Botswana. The route would wind through the Southwestern Angolan Highlands where a three decades long war had accidentally protected a prize ecological niche from development and resource despoliation. For me, with a crew of a documentary photographer and filmmaker, an ichthyologist, botanists, ornithologists, an instrument and tech designer, and a hydrologist, this was a modern day voyage of the HMS Beagle, except they were poling their way in traditional dugouts with Angolan guides and magical Okavango watermen. With daily dispatches from the bush, photos, drone shots, blogs, and solar panels powering the streaming scientific data it was a ringside seat to a grand adventure.
The sanctuary is dedicated to rescuing orphaned and abused animals….
Stumbling onto the Okavango Delta expedition eventually led to two year’s worth of Africa books and whole Africa story for me. The expedition crossed paths with many other environmental and activist NGOs like the iconic demining operation HALO, as well as others dedicated to humanitarian action, animal rescue, anti-poaching, and interdiction. I followed them all, dozens of them on social media. It was a window onto a world that reached into every corner of Africa.
I began planning some kind of African deployment, but from the beginning I wanted to avoid the usual tourist and safari models. I was determined it was going to be some other kind of thing, but exactly what wasn’t clear. Late last year I made a try for a job with HALO in Africa working on the organizing end for their community based demining projects. I didn’t get it but I continued to look at other volunteer and intern situations. Nearly all of them were short term, expensive propositions, and seemed more about raising money than accomplishing actual, lasting work.
In the process of talking with people about my interests, a longtime friend who works as Executive Director of Sustainable Finance at JPMorgan Chase offered a possibility. “I know someone in Africa who runs a great apes sanctuary, maybe I can hook you up.” In December I made a trip to Portland, Oregon to meet Dr. Sheri Speede, founder of the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center located in Southeast Cameroon. The sanctuary has a two decade history of rescuing abused animals as well as orphans from the bush meat trade. They operate in collaboration and under military supervision with the Cameroonian government. The final goal is the resettling social groups in safe zones beyond the pressures of human populations and the growing mining and logging interests that threaten forest habitat.
It was a productive meeting and I finally had a sense that volunteering for a long stay there using my building and improvising skills working on some larger infrastructure projects was not only possible but could be the kind of Africa experience I was looking for . In anticipation I enrolled in BLS and CPR courses, lined up some instruction in basic stick arc welding, and started to put together a larger, more permanent goal for improving the building resources of the sanctuary.
The idea of setting up a permanent shop there seemed doable…..
If I was going to build there I would need better , functioning power tools, come-along winches, rebar cutters, new chains for the chain saw, welding gear (they already had a generator and a small new welding unit), and lots of other hand tools. The idea of setting up a permanent, high quality shop there that others could use seemed doable as well as an important initial investment in returning for ongoing work at the sanctuary.
For a planned March departure to Cameroon I have set up a month long funding effort for $1500 to cover the cost and transport of tools and equipment. Getting gear to Cameroon via air travel is complicated and expensive but it is really the only option other than long term shipping via container. I hope you will want to contribute to this effort. If you are moved to help you can contribute directly through my PayPal account by clicking here. If you prefer, you can also donate through the sanctuary website though it is less convenient for me organizing the purchases.
As a final footnote, the political scene in Cameroon has recently gotten much worse. Separatist violence in the English speaking part of the country bordering Nigeria has created a population of refugees and activists in the cross hairs of Nigerian and Cameroonian security forces. A failed coup two weeks ago in neighboring Equatorial Guinea has forced closure of the southern border with Cameroon to block fleeing militias. Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea remain saddled with corrosive government and Africa’s two longest-serving dictators. The sanctuary is in a mostly safe and remote corner of the country but keeping it open and moving ahead always remains a struggle, and things will not be getting easier in Central Africa anytime soon. I hope you can contribute to the effort. Thanks!