On the Road to Salemata for Chimpanzees
Along the road to Salemata I look for the handmade signboard indicating a turn to the village of Diara Pont. Roughly a kilometer off the road and some 400 meters from the Diara River is a small Fulani village, Gourélingue. Residents make several trips daily to the river, their only source of water. As Friends of Animals began working in Senegal, Gourélingue was noted as a site of competition between chimpanzees and humans over this critical resource.
In the dry season, the river shrinks to small pools, which eventually disappear. Women and children dig ever deeper into the pebbled riverbed for their daily water. A well of clean water would ease the workload for these water collectors.
It’s March, in the scalding sun. In recent years the narrow fringe of forest along the river has become a sliver, less than 10 to 15 meters on either side. The fragile remnant hangs limp and lifeless, providing little shade or shelter for the small family of chimpanzees who depend on it.
Today I’ll hold the last of a series of meetings with the people of Gourélingue, regarding our agreement to construct a well in the village in exchange for the villagers abandoning the river and the forest to the chimpanzees. In March, April and May, before the rains, chimpanzees and humans are in daily conflict. In nearby areas, similar problems have escalated to the point that chimpanzees have been shot.
I’d met Elhadj Cellou Sy, the village chief, in Kedougou, where I live. It’s the closest town with shops, and Elhadj was buying rice. The previous year’s rainfall had not supported rice for his family’s needs. I’ve known Elhadj for more than a year, and throughout that time, we’ve been in discussion over the conflict and the well. I ran into him by coincidence, and now we could go together to his village. Today we’re driving there, with Elhadj, aged between 60 and 65 years, cutting a striking figure in long, flowing robes.
He asks me if I am older than he is. I tell him that in my culture a man doesn’t ask a woman her age. But as we’re alone in the car, I answer him, and tell him with greet glee that I’m younger.
On arrival we look for a place to park. Only one tree, a large baobab, provides enough shade from the blazing sun. Young people appear in single file to carry the bags of rice and other goods the elder has brought from town. I’m invited in and quickly led to the shady area of the compound where mats cover the ground and some more form a roof. I’m offered a hammock and my co-worker Saidou receives a small stool made from raffia palm. Silently, a group of 25 women, men and children appear and settle into their favored positions. As I’d promised, I’d brought the Appel de Detresse (Call for Help) booklets to distribute, full of local pictures and stories. It captures the full attention of every participant. An elder cries out, then covers his mouth, and another woman laughs, recognizing a friend in the photograph of the well at Mbouboura, the second village in which we provided a well to resolve a conflict over water.
Elhadj is deep in thought, his finger on the photo of a chimpanzee swinging in front of a view of the foothills of the Fouta Djallon. We passed through them this morning. I feel ready to start and maintain a discussion of the chimpanzees.
A woman with a child draped across her lap nursing says in Fulani she saw five this very morning, before I arrived: a mother chimpanzee with her baby straddling her hip sticking a small twig into a tree hole, pulling it out, and sticking it into her baby’s mouth.
After living alone near a group of chimpanzees for more than eight years, I have stories to add to this one that demonstrate a mother’s love for her baby. My hosts pry me with question after question. Family and children are of the utmost importance in this African village as well. This similarity is the key to considering the chimpanzees’ rights to continue their lives by reducing the pressures imposed by humans.
After more than an hour of talking we visit the two latrines built since my last visit. These too reflect our efforts to improve the living conditions in the village and spare the small patch of forest on which the chimpanzees completely depend.
Walls are normally made from woven bamboo, but the bamboo nearby died several years ago. Finding other bamboo would require transport and replacing the fence every year or so and would be costly for the village. We need to devise a new plan. We decide to construct a cement wall which will last indefinitely. We also decide to extend the cement floor area to provide private space for bathing; at the moment, everyone waits until nightfall for their baths.
Finally, with great excitement in the women’s eyes, we are discussing the proposed location of the new well, and the date the materials will arrive. By the end of May, when the well is complete, life will change tremendously for chimpanzees and humans.
Back, now, on the narrow, dirt road to Mbouboura where the well we constructed in 2006 is being deepened another four meters to accommodate the severe drop in the water table throughout southern Senegal.
The final stop for today will be Ethiolo, where we hope to see the two new baby chimpanzees born since my last visit there.
The Arcus Foundation Answers Our Call for Help
The southeastern region of Senegal is one of the least developed areas of the country. It is also the only zone supporting chimpanzees. In 2003, Friends of Animals financed a census of chimpanzees in Senegal. The results identified areas of chimpanzee habitation as well as threats to their livelihood and future survival. Competition over water was a major threat to the continued survival of chimpanzees in this zone.
Our 2005 pilot study was the next step in resolving water conflicts in the village of Ethiolo, where more than 85 people and 14 chimpanzees now have independent access to water. Funding from the Arcus Foundation in 2006 allowed us to develop a full program for the construction of both wells and latrines in other areas of need, helped us to identify more chimpanzee groups and villages in need of assistance, and produced the effective educational booklet Call for Help. Arcus has also generously funded our activities for 2008 during which we are assisting the village of Gourélingue, developing our educational programs with non-school youths and producing a new poster and booklet.