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Monday, June 14, 2010

The Okapi, or Happy Birthday to Me

I (Jennifer) have had a long fascination with the okapi. So I have often said that before I die, I want to see the okapi in Congo, the only country in the world where they are known to exist (though there is evidence that some might be in the border regions of Uganda). They are large, sleek, mysterious, evasive, beautiful animals, elusive in their shyness, improbable in their formation, sometimes referred to as forest giraffe. The size of a large horse, with a rump and legs that are striped with irregular unique black and white patterns like a zebra, a long neck and curving grey agile tongue like their cousins the giraffe, and a shining chocolate coated body. Peacefully vegetarian, gracefully strong. Expressive oversized ears that fold to and fro, cautious, alert, delicately fringed by the vicissitudes of life. But it is the face that strikes me, the grey-white leanness almost skull like with large dark eyes, cheeks shadowed and hollowed, haunting, a visage that speaks of suffering endured. Beauty coupled with pain, the okapi embodies the life of the rainforest.
In the wild okapi live solitary lives, roaming the forest, grazing the foliage, swiftly running from danger. So one could see them as contemplative souls too, those dark eyes and hidden lives, choosing their quiet isolation.
I don't know why I've always been drawn to the okapi, but now that I'm here, I'm blessed to have seen them. And even touched one. A Swiss couple, the Ruf's, collected a few, and an American couple, John and Terese Hart, began to study and advocate for the reserve a couple of decades ago. The okapi are a protected species with a limited habitat, and their survival is tied to that of the rainforest, the Bambuti people, the monkeys and leopards and hornbills and trees, a way of life, a planet. Bambuti people roam the forest gathering data, tracking points with gps, noticing signs of wildlife, marking evidence of poaching. Joel and his colleagues transform the data into maps and policies, working hand in hand with the ICCN (Congo's park service) and the UN. And thirteen of the animals live in pens at the central research station, spacious forested holding areas. About half were captured in the 80's and early 90's, and the other half were born on the station. These animals represent the twenty or thirty thousand that are thought to exist in the reserve, the public face of a species that needs attention. And the occasional school group or Bangladeshi peacekeeping soldier or missionary or reporter or scientist comes to visit, and leaves awed, which is a good thing for all.
This was not a convenient trip. Epulu is not exactly on the way to anywhere we "need" to go from Bundibugyo. Joel's gracious invitation to visit and my family's patience with travel (it is good to have a 12 and 13 year old who can eat antelope and trek forests and ride all day in the car without food and don't mind outhouses or bucket baths) have made it possible for this to be my most memorable birthday (well, this is the right month if not yet the day, and my 16th was pretty great) yet. We know the next four weeks will be a crush of responsibility and grief and these extra few days in Congo feel extravagant right now. But most real gifts are not very practical.
And as I turn 48 (!!), may the okapi remind us of the value of the examined life, the call to contemplation. The life of the herd has its own force, the communal push for survival of the group, defensive, nurturing, continuous, strong. But we are stepping back from the herd and from Bundi for a couple of years, not exactly to wander the forest alone, but hopefully affording some sense of hermitage. God most often reveals Himself in hard, lonely, away-from-the crowd places, from deserts to mountaintops to whale bellies. So let this be the years of the okapi, for us.

1 comment:

Tim Wills said...

Hooray! Wow, that is such an interesting creature! And its looks like it would be really smooth to the touch. I'm glad you finally got to see one!