A tale of forest scrambles and sitting with chimpanzees…

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Set against the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the far west of Tanzania, Mahale Mountains National Park is one of Tanzania’s most remote and isolated parks, accessible only by small aircraft and by boat, and deep in the jungle of the Mahale Mountains live over 800 wild chimpanzees.

Having spent the previous day trekking for 7 hours through the jungle with no luck in finding these fascinating creatures, we were keen to try again that morning.

TIMG_5978he paths through the jungle crisscrossed through thick bush, muddy patches of swamp, and across the numerous small rivers that rushed towards the lake. Overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and sensory experience of being back in the jungle, I found myself forgetting our main objective, until our guide stopped suddenly to listen closely to the cacophony of sounds the creatures of the jungle were making.

“Did you hear it?” He pointed up into the dense forest ahead of us. We listened closely for a few minutes until we heard the unmistakable cry of the chimpanzee.

We scrambled and climbed through the thick trees and bushes with our guide masterfully hacking a path ahead of us with his machete, hop, skip and jumping across the boulders of the rivers, getting our feet wet as would be expected, clambering up steep ravines, grabbing branches and rocks to keep our balance.

Stopping again to listen for the call of the chimpanzees, and our guide went ahead and scrambled up the next steep climb, telling us to wait and he will call on us if there were any further signs of the chimps. We sat on thick tree roots in the midst of the jungle, listening to the the screeches of the baboons and vervet monkeys up in the trees around us, the rattling of the termites and ants that we had disturbed under our feet, the musical warbling of the huge variety of birds in the trees.

IMG_5965“Come!” Our guide yelled from the top of the hill and we hurried up the steepest climb yet, scratching and bruising our legs and arms on the branches and we pushed them out of the way or climbed over them.

Our guide pointed up into the tree and we saw a dark shape swinging across the very top branches – we had found a chimpanzee. Our guide told us to put on our protective face masks before we got any closer, ensuring these wild creatures would not be exposed to any of our germs. We climbed down through the base of the tree, trying to get a better view. IMG_6012Suddenly, we heard the loud shriek of another chimpanzee and the bushes ahead of us shook as the alpha male swooped through the trees towards us. We froze as our guide hurried towards us to make sure he was not in an aggressive mood but our fears were quickly allayed as the alpha male sat down across the ravine from us, keeping us in his sight but seemingly quite comfortable with our presence.

We could not believe our luck – sitting under the trees just metres away from an alpha male chimpanzee. But our luck was just about to get even better as some researchers arrived and told us to come towards them.

As the guides hacked a path down the side of the steep ravine for us, we came across a IMG_6171group of young males grooming themselves, content with the presence of humans merely a metre away from them.

Chimpanzee DNA is 98.3% the same as human DNA. As we watched them, it wasn’t hard to tell the similarities and those essential differences. Their clever hands and feet, while almost the same as our own, were acutely adapted for their environment and needs, perfect for gripping onto trees and reaching into anthills. Their ears shaped just like ours but larger and more defined for helping protect their tribe against those almost silent predators.

“If we look straight and deep into a chimpanzee’s eyes, an intelligent self-assured personality looks back at us. If they are animals, what must we be?”
Frans de Waal

What I found most intriguing was their wise faces. IMG_6329With folds and wrinkles around their eyes, their furrowed brows suggested continual thoughts racing through their minds. Their deep, dark eyes seemed to gaze off into the distance at times. They studied us and studied each other – it wasn’t hard to believe that there were questions running through their minds about these strange creatures with the blue and white surgical masks snapping photographs only feet away.

We were only allowed to spend an hour with the chimps – a rule that is kept strictly to protect these creatures and their habitat.

As we returned to our camp, elated after our close encounter with these wild and beautiful creatures, I felt so privileged to have spent that precious hour with them.

“There is a surrendering to your story and then a knowing that you don’t have to stay in your story.” – Colette Baron Reid

I’ve held off on publishing this post for a long time. It has sat in my drafts folder, waiting to be put out there in the world, waiting for the day I feel brave enough for my story to be told.

You see, the thing is, I applaud and admire other women who tell their story yet keep my own held back and share it only with those who get close enough to uncover that deeply held part of me.

Then this video appeared on my Facebook feed and resonated so loudly within my heart that I knew that it was time.

“I didn’t think I was important enough to draw boundaries around what people could or couldn’t do with my body.”

When I heard those words, it was like someone had switched on a light and given me the words that I could never find before. The words to explain why, 11 years after it happened, I still struggle and blame myself. The words to explain why, 11 years ago, I refused to go to the police. I refused to report what had happened to me. I told my flatmate and my best friend that I just wanted to erase what had happened from my head, my heart and my broken soul.

I didn’t believe that I was important enough to draw boundaries around what people could or couldn’t do with my body. I believed that somehow people would say that I had brought this on myself because I flirted and drank and danced with the stranger. Because I accepted the offer of a drink from him in a dark, smoky nightclub. Because I asked him to walk me home when I started to feel dizzy and unwell.

He walked me home and then, within what should have been the safety of my own bedroom, he took advantage of the effects of the drug he had spiked my drink with, the drug that was now flooding my system.

I didn’t fight back as I couldn’t lift my arms. I asked him to stop in the midst of my drugged and confused state and he ignored me and carried on. It hurt and I cried in pain, feeling frustrated that I had no control. I couldn’t get any control of the situation as I blacked out and came to then blacked out over and over again.

When I woke in the morning to him still in my house, sitting on the edge of my bed, tying his shoes as if it was the most normal morning in the world, I felt such doubt and fear and confusion. Was what had taken place the night before okay? Why is he still here? Did I allow that to happen? Was what he did something I should just accept and let be?

He left and I pulled my aching body out of the blood-soaked sheets of the bed and curled up in the corner of the bathroom. I could smell him on my skin and I could feel the bruises and aching between my legs. I turned on the shower to the highest heat I could cope with and sat on the floor of the shower for what must have been an hour, allowing the scalding water to burn my skin and allow me to feel a different kind of pain. Any other kind of pain.

I called my best friend and cried down the phone the moment I heard her voice. She immediately got on a train and was at my door within a few hours. No matter what was said, I refused to report it. I couldn’t even consider it. I believed, and still do at times, that it was somehow my fault. That what happened could be explained away. That I was not important enough to draw boundaries around what could happen with my body.

11 years later and after 2 years of face-to-face counselling, learning how to cope with my PTSD and learning what my triggers are, I still struggle at times. It still affects everything. My relationships, my social life, my coping mechanisms – every aspect of my life has been impacted by this one night in September 2005.

But I never once wish that I had reported it. Reliving the experience is hard enough when it happens in flashbacks and nightmares – I can’t imagine reliving it under interrogation from a judge and jury with his face looking back at me. I don’t know that I made the right choice. Sometimes I wonder if he went on to do the same to other women and if reporting him to the police would have prevented it. Unfortunately we do not live in a world where a rape victim is treated with the same amount of empathy as a mugging victim. In these past 11 years I have discovered inner strength that I would never have imagined. But that inner strength would be destroyed by a legal system that victim-blames and sympathises with the perpetrator.

Instead, I did what many sexual assault survivors choose to do – I tried to move on with my life. There’s no single thing all assault survivors should do after their attack — we all respond differently, and we all heal differently. And, as the survivors in the video make clear, we need to be trusted to choose the response that is right for us

As for me, I fight in my own way. I found an inner strength and purpose that kept me focused and motivated. I involve myself heavily in the V-Day movement. I talk to people about victim blaming and rape culture. I almost never tell my own story but I findways to influence and talk. I get proudly labelled a feminist and call people out on their hypocrisies. I educate myself and I listen and support and care when another woman tells her story – it has taken me so long to tell my own, they are my heroes .

I used my pain and brokenness as a catalyst for making change and a difference in my own tiny corner of the world because my story is one of millions. One of millions.

Most importantly, I now know just how I important I am and how completely in control I am of what happens with my body.

Live In The Question…

“You can’t write a script in your mind and then force yourself to follow it. You have to let yourself be.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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I’ve never been the kind of person to have a life plan. At least, not since life threw enough curve balls for me to give up on the idea of a plan. Plans are different from dreams and goals and bucket lists. Plans involve specific expectations and inevitable disappointment should the plan not come to fruition. They don’t allow for questions. They pretend to have all the answers and expect your heart to already know what to do next.

I often get asked by friends and family what my ‘plan’ is. To quote a friend: “How long are you going to be away? You can’t do what you’re doing forever. You need to make a plan.”

The problem is, I can’t identify one person in my life who has followed their plan. I don’t know anyone who’s life has worked out exactly how they wanted. And, when it doesn’t work out, they panic and swiftly re-evaluate and create another alternative, adjusted plan, desperately finding temporary answers to the questions in their lives.

img_0104I’ve learned a lot about letting things be. I’ve learned that letting things be allows for spontaneous moments that I could never predict and people I could never have planned on.

I’m also learning to live in the questions. I’m not meant to have all the answers and sometimes the ‘not knowing’ leads to better places and people and experiences.  I never expected or planned to be in Tanzania. I do not know how long I will be here or where I will find myself next.

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

 I’d rather live in the question and live out my curiosity than plan out what my life will be.