Before reading this book, the strongest connotation I had with Kinshasa was its central significance in the co-operative boardgame Pandemic. There are a handful of cities on each continent and players coordinate the strengths of their roles to stop the spread of disease; these days, it’s hardly light entertainment.

Fortunately Deni Béchard’s direct and descriptive style countered my lack of familiarity with Kinshasa and Empty Hands, Open Arms: The Race to Save Bonobos in the Congo and Make Conservation Go Viral was immediately engaging, once I was able “…to make sense of this spot on the map:

“Djolu, mud huts and dusty footpaths, a town harder to reach than the vast majority of places on earth. It lay at the heart of the Congo River basin, an immense territory covering more than 1.4 million square miles, its tributaries draining from Gabon, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic, Congo-Kinshasa, and Congo-Brazzaville. Half of the basin’s territory is rainforest, nourished by the tributaries on their way to the Congo, the fifth largest river on earth carrying the third-largest volume of water.”

All these superlatives: convenient factoids packed into an overarching and urgent narrative, about the Bonobo Conservation Initiative’s work to protect these matriarchal great apes, humans’ closest relatives.

Béchard must work hard to situate a not-so-science-y reader, but he makes his education efforts look effortless. In just a few sentences, for instance, he summarizes the geological shifts that resulted in the continents we see on the map today (and how this impacted climate and habitats). In a single paragraph, he presents a sequence of leadership changes in the DRC, illustrating the shift from tribal to colonial control over a few centuries.

Photo by Madeleine MBuyu on Unsplash

At times, he includes gentler, more reflective commentary, like his description of hiking a nearby trail:

“Dozens more of them pressed together, fluttering in place. I had never seen butterflies like these: a few with white tails, others turquoise or tiger-striped. One had brown wings when they were closed, but the insides were baby blue, visible only when it flew.
As we walked onto the log, they fluttered up from in front of our feet, clouding around us, landing again as soon as we had passed.”

The BCI’s efforts stem back to Japanese primatologist Takayoshi Kano’s efforts in 1973, in Equateur Province, where he began working with the Bongandu. This tribe believes that bonobos walk on four legs only when they are being observed and otherwise move about like humans; the Bongandu view their bonobos as their ancestors and hunting them is forbidden. Over time, conservationists have turned away from the national park model and begun to work with communities like this one, to protect the bonobos.

Conservationists working with communities must work in concert with ancient human relationship with the land, spiritual traditions, and tribal boundaries, all with an acute awareness of how foreigners have consistently exploited these local communities. “The most complicated part of the work wasn’t the bonobos, despite the challenges of habituation, but how to satisfy a starving, traumatized people who had learned form a century of brutalization that outsiders would take what they owned and leave them with nothing.”

In this territory, the reserve is the only source of cash for dozens of miles in every direction. If community members produce goods to sell, they must choose either a 10-13 day walk to Kisangani, where there are markets, or a 3-day walk to Befori, a small town on the river, which has a riverboat that travels to Mbandaka (but the trip could take one month). Most people have one outfit of clothing and it’s not uncommon to eat a single meal every couple of days.

There are several reasons for urgency. If the larger population of Africa’s chimpanzees could be reduced to 5% of what it was a hundred years ago, the bonobos—who may number as few as 5,000 and are spread over 139,000 square miles—will need a concerted human effort to ensure their survival.

One unexpected threat to that is the abundance of disillusioned youths who once worked with NGOs, whether humanitarian or conservation, who have left behind their commitment, “finished with saving the world”, frustrated by the infighting, the power grabs, and the projects that have more to do with the people running them than with what or whom they are trying to protect.

Béchard writes: “Before I’d come here, it was hard to feel the urgency of the problems and how long change takes, the constant attention to detail it requires, the endurance and patience.”

Reading Empty Hands, Open Arms is the closest I can get to understanding that.