Thursday 8 October 2009

Bonobo Health Clinic- Saving Lives, New Life

KokoloporiCongo DRC, 8/10/09
Martin Bendeler, Bonobo Conservation Initiative Australia, Director and Founder

I have returned to Kokolopori, Congo, after four years. The last time, I came as an ecotourist wanting to see wild bonobos before I turned 30. Now I come as a Director of Bonobo Conservation Initiative Australia (BCIA) and as a representative of Indigo Foundation (IF) and Kokolopori Falls Church Sister City Program (KFCSCP) to evaluate the health program they have established since I was last here, and to get a better idea of the needs, challenges and priorities of the communities who protect the bonobo habitat. Publish Post

This region, deep in the green heart of the Congo Basin and peopled by some of the world’s poorest, is rich in bonobos. BCI found that the most effective and efficient means of conserving bonobos was to work in cooperation with the forest people who shared and controlled their habitat. Medical assistance had been part of this approach, but on a relatively small and ad-hoc scale until my fellow directors of BCIA- Philip Strickland, Dr Luke Bennett and Angus Gemmell made their own long voyage to Kokolopori with BCI to establish a medicine dispensary and anti-malarial program, generously funded by Indigo Foundation.

The momentum generated by the program engaged the substantial hearts and minds of the people of Falls Church, Virginia, who established the KFCSCP and significantly expanded the scope and capacity of the bonobo clinic. Three years on, from nothing, I find there is now a doctor, four nurses, 10 midwives and a pharmacy, saving lives and winning hearts and making a tangible connection between the welfare of the community and the welfare of the bonobos and their forests. All this in perhaps the most isolated place in the world, far from electricity, running water, mobile phones (or even beer and Coca Cola!), where the roads out have been destroyed by years of war and criminal neglect and where the river journey to urban markets can take weeks.

My arrival has been made possible by Aviation Sans Frontieres France, who have recently recommenced heavily subsidized flights for NGOs between Kisangani and a basic airfield in Djolu (70kms by 4WD from Kokolopori). I have flown in with Albert Lotana Lokasola, the President of Vie Sauvage, the NGO managing the conservation and community development program here, and with nearly 600kgs of medical supplies, mosquito nets, educational materials, a large solar generator and a satellite phone/modem, generously donated by IF and KFCSCP and coordinated by BCI and Vie Sauvage.

After a delicious breakfast of Kokolopori coffee, freshly squeezed pineapple juice, an omelette and avocado (all local), I stroll over from the Vie Sauvage guest house to the Bonobo Clinic. What I remembered as an empty field now has three large buildings- one containing consulting rooms and a delivery ward, another for longer-term patients and their families, and an extension of this still under construction.

I sit in the consulting room with Dr Saidi and find we have arrived just in time. 18 year old Nadine Bawambo has walked here from the nearby village of Yaliseko because her 8 month old son, Ntoto, has malaria, bronchitis and anemia. The pharmacy had run out of quinine, antibiotics and iron pills but we had brought fresh supplies on our flight. And a mosquito net for the bubba. In the Delivery Room stood Marie Bochi Bolamba, 32 years old, mother of six, leaning against the wall with contractions and working hard on her seventh. There was also a delivery table with stirrups, four midwives gossiping with each other, and not much else.

The hospital was an 8-roomed building with a thatched roof and a central corridor. On one side were the patients and on the other were their families, with their cooking fires and utensils. In the first room was little 6 year old Alexandra Eyan Mbula with severe diarrhea.

Next was 77 year old Papa Otto Bokongi, who’d had a huge cyst removed from his prostate. Unable to urinate for five days, he had searched desperately for help, including from local shamans, before walking the 35 kilometers along jungle tracks to the Bonobo Clinic. Dr Saidi had operated to drain the cyst and old Papa Otto’s relief was palpable.

Another who’s excruciating pain had been relieved was Jolie Ngochuka Mbongi, 22, who’d had her appendix removed and had been there for a week, recuperating with her baby and grandmother by her side. Everyone’s recovery was slowed by malaria and malnutrition.

In the last room was sad 18 year old Ruine Bayamba, who had walked 15 kilometeres (7 hours) from her village of Lopori with labour complications, had had a caesarean section, but her baby had died. She sat quiet and sad, comforted by her mother.

As we walked out of the dark hut into the tropical glare, Nurse Nestor rushed over with news that Marie’s baby was peeking out from behind the stage curtains. We arrived in the Delivery Room to find the midwives, aged between Brigitte Bombolo Bolimo’s 32 and old Mama Gertrude Kolobaka’s “about 50 to you, young whippersnapper!”, had sprung into choregraphed action.

Dr Saidi explained that it had been a difficult birth because Marie was malnourished but her baby girl was healthy and beautiful and named Martine in my honour. He said, “I have been a doctor for 31 years and worked here for the past 2, far from my children, because I love my country and the people need me here. People would definitely die if we weren’t here. We do great things with the little we have, but we need your continued support.”

Tax-deductible donations can be made in America at this address-

Tax-deductible donations can be made in Australia at this address- 


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