By Dr. Dawn Zimmerman

After a few months of preparation, two weeks of sheer packing panic, and the world’s fastest transfer of a life’s worth of possessions from a home to a storage locker, I was finally on my way to Africa for my new job as MGVP’s regional veterinary manager. Thirty hours after leaving my home in Memphis, Tennessee, I arrived at the MGVP headquarters in Musanze, Rwanda.

Africa! A new chapter in my life was starting. Leaving my family, friends, and cat Hanni was not easy, nor was leaving the job I loved as the senior veterinarian at the Memphis Zoo. However, I did it all for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a tangible difference in the conservation of a critically endangered species in the wild. To be a Gorilla Doctor, saving the lives of mountain gorillas in the field: This is where all my aspirations to practice conservation medicine would become a reality. I could not wait to get started.

I knew I’d have a lot to learn my first few months in Africa and I’ve tried to face all of the new situations and physical and cultural challenges with a sense a humor. With that in mind, I thought for my first Gorilla Doctors blog that I would share with you 10 things I learned in the forest: 

Bwindi Forest, Uganda

 “The forest is my friend,” I repeated to myself as a mantra on the steep muddy uphill climb in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. At times, the suction of the deep mud would keep my feet locked in place no matter how hard I pulled. I cursed myself for not ever properly knowing the actual size of my foot. Shoes were never a priority–until just this second. These boots were a bit big, and it appeared the muddy hillside was quite insistent on owning the pair. 

We were trekking to follow up on a report of weak infant mountain gorilla in the Kahunge group. Although this was not my first time in the forest, it was my first time in Bwindi, known for its treacherous terrain. It was on this climb, to avoid focusing on my footwear problem, that I started a mental list of the things I was learning as the new regional veterinary manager of MGVP. Here are just a few:

1. A walking stick is your best friend until it punches you in the eye as you fall in a hole.

I realize that the forest here does not cater to the whims of people. However, while never short of bruises and scratches, and frankly in awe of the unforgiving vines that seem to grow beneath my feet and lasso them to the ground, I feel lucky to walk in a forest that not many have. This is true wilderness, one of the ever-dwindling number of places on earth where Mother Nature calls the shots. And, as the walking stick gets caught up in a tree and I trip again, I would not have it any other way.

2. Scorpions and venomous snakes have nothing on the ants in Congo. 

Many people think the rainforest in Africa must be swarming with nasty bugs and snakes. However, as the region where mountain gorillas live is high altitude and relatively cool, there are very few dangerous insects and reptiles. But there are ants. The ants here must complete a rigorous training program on how to climb up rubber boots and pant legs undetected because many unsuspecting trekkers suddenly find themselves dancing in pain as ants bite their rear ends. The rangers in Congo are some of the most courageous people I have ever met. So, when I see them leap over anthills and run from ant columns marching across a trail, by God, I certainly will follow their lead.

3. Congolese mud could be marketed as a natural adhesive.

Here is our truck stuck in the mud in DRC:

It took a village to get it out:

4. There is a good reason I am not a dancer, yoga instructor, or any type of circus performer.

The forest here has shown me that I have very little sense of balance. At least I am a constant source of amusement to the porters, who tolerate my gracelessness and ease the pain of my many nettle stings by applying the milk from plant stems.

5. Physics does not apply to Uganda. 

Physicists need to come study Bwindi, because I’ve never been to a place where you can trek uphill to get to the gorillas, and then…somehow…trek uphill again to get back to where you started.

6. Chocolate does not keep well on a trip into the forest.
This makes me even sadder than the physics report.

7. No amount of physical training at sea level can prepare you for the altitude.

From someone who has lived at sea level her entire life, let me tell you that the concept of altitude is apparently not a myth. This whole lack of oxygen thing at higher altitudes exists and is very, very real–who knew?!  A gorilla trek in Rwanda can take you up over 3000 m (~10,000 feet) where one breathes in roughly 25% fewer oxygen molecules than at sea level. I am embarrassed to say this effect did not elude me. I was running up to 40 miles a week before moving to Rwanda, but not anymore. It took me awhile to notice that all the people passing me on my runs were actually walking.

8. The rangers and local people here are masters at learning different languages. I am not.

I have only been here for a month, and yet I am absolutely certain that I will never master the beautiful Rwandan language of Kinyarwanda. There are a lot of mw’s, k’s, and z’s and 4-, 5-, and 6- syllable words. And you can’t just memorize and use nouns and adjectives—-the meaning of those words change depending on the adjective-noun combination. I will keep trying to learn new words everyday; meanwhile, the rangers and porters I trek with effortlessly mix 4 or 5 different languages in the same conservation (Kinyarwanda, Swahili, Lingala, English and French) just for fun!

9. Africa can teach you a lot if you’re willing to stay a while and learn.

It’s been said that you either fall in love with Africa or cross it off your list and move on. I’m enchanted by the place. It can be a tough place but if you pay attention to the lessons it has to teach—-you don’t need a lot of material goods to be happy, your problems are not so big or insurmountable, you can make a difference in the lives of other people and animals—-Africa can make you a stronger, better person. I’ve only been here a couple of months, but I’m sure Africa has a lot more to teach me.

10. This is an amazing place.

The most important thing I have learned is that the forest, the people, and the gorillas of Rwanda, Uganda, and DR Congo are more than amazing. The dedication of the rangers, park staff, NGO employees and others here who are protecting the environment and working towards a better life for local people is palpable and inspiring. The people, the forest, and the gorillas are all inextricably linked. I am lucky to be a part of it, for even the briefest moment.