Going Ape

Four out of the 12 Israelis residing in Cameroon are devoting their lives to saving the country's endangered monkeys and apes.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Yaounde, Cameroon - The cellular phone of Eran Moas, the most advanced Nokia on the market, a personal import from Dubai whose ring tone is a line from a popular Israeli film, doesn?t stop chirping. Its sound is heard now in a jeep of the Cameroon army, chauffeured by a member of the Presidential Guard, who wears Israeli Paratroop wings and has on red Paratrooper boots. He?s the personal driver of the Israeli communications technician and is now transporting him through the destitute streets of Yaounde, the capital.

Ofir Drori's mobile phone, scratched and banged up, is also constantly ringing. Grandma Saida is on the line from Haifa, his mother Kati reports on the jahnoun (a Yemenite fried dough dish) she has prepared for Shabbat, and a white hunter of elephants calls from the depths of the jungle on a satellite phone to say that he has found an orphan gorilla baby. He heard about Drori and the organization he founded to fight against monkey hunters and now he wants to save the small ape whose parents were killed in a hunt. If he's lucky, the orphan will be transferred to the shelter established by Talila and Avi Sivan. Avi is a former military attache, colonel in the reserves and the first commander of the Israel Defense Forces' undercover Duvdevan unit, Talila is an avowed lover of apes. They stayed on after the completion of his tour of duty to do business and save monkeys and apes.

Most of them have Hebrew names. The gorilla Avishag is an expert at throwing soft avocados which splatter on visitors, the chimpanzee Eran is looking for love, and the monkey Talila is trying to escape through a hole in the fence of her shelter. But there's a rift between the Sivans and Drori, the three monkey-rights activists in the black city, who constitute about a quarter of the Israeli community in Cameroon - which includes an incoming and outgoing security officer, who have just celebrated their rotation in the city's Lebanese restaurant - perhaps the most colorful and most unlikely of the Jewish Diasporas.

The local whites eat at the Cafe de Yaounde. Their numbers are few and the atmosphere is colonial. Diplomats, representatives of aid organizations and a handful of businessmen are feasting on spaghetti Bolognese and gnocchi - the owner of the place is an Italian woman. Tourists are rare, and every white person immediately sparks an outcry of "le blanc," a comment whose underlying connotation is not entirely clear. But young women from the city come to the adjacent nightclub, The Safari, in search of white men who maybe, just maybe, will take them away from here, from their beautiful but downtrodden land, which at the end of the 1990s was named the world's most corrupt country, and hasn't changed much since then.

At the first checkpoint, on the way out of the capital's international airport, where only five flights a week land, all from Europe, the soldiers asked to see papers and didn't demand a bribe. This is considered anomalous behavior on the part of the soldiers, a case that calls for investigation. The police here are dubbed "mange mille," eaters of the thousand, referring to the 1,000 CFA notes, the local currency of the countries of Central Africa, which they routinely demand as a bribe. A few weeks ago tens of thousands of cab drivers went on strike here and life in the cities came to a virtual standstill - there are no municipal buses in Yaounde and Douala, the two major cities - in protest at the bribes they have to pay the police, at checkpoint after checkpoint. Similarly, Yunis, who is active in Drori's organization, relates that she was compelled to drop out of university, even though she was a top student, because she could not meet the bribery payments to the lecturers - and bribes are the ticket to passing exams here.

At the Cafe de Yaounde, the security officers of the Israeli embassy and their partners are getting acquainted. Nir and Rina arrived today, to replace Shlomit and Avishai. All four have an unmistakable Israeli look. "I came straight from 730," says the new man, his head of course shaved, in a self-important tone of voice reserved only for those who came straight from 730, the super-secret special unit. They live in the embassy neighborhood of Bastos, the local Herzliya Pituah, except for the fact that there is no street lighting there or even one road that is not scarred and potholed. Outside the cafe, in the dark of night, the prostitutes wait, longing for a whiter future.

The next morning, in the Manadong neighborhood at the edge of the city, Ofir Drori touches a mimosa, the sensitive plant, whose leaves respond by quickly closing, as though frightened. The plant is known as "the war is coming" in neighboring Ivory Coast, which was a symbol of stability in Africa, like Cameroon, until a vicious civil war, which has yet to abate, erupted two years ago. But Cameroon is still quiet, and Drori walks confidently toward the tangled forest on the border of which he lives in his monkish home together with his partner in the struggle, Galit Zangwill, a young woman who grew up in the West Bank settlement of Givon, north of Jerusalem, and now is here, fighting the monkey and elephant hunters alongside Drori.

Drori and Zangwill have electricity, but the neighbors in the thick of the forest, the family of the soldier Lucas Juna, live on the car battery. A drainpipe channels the rainwater into a plastic container and from there to the family faucet. The family is busy preparing the next meal; they live from one meal to the next. The children are grinding nuts in a meat grinder, creating a dark brown dough, while the mother lights a fire with twigs on which she cooks a huge pot of rice. The father, too, on leave from the army, helps. "Whites, whites!" the children shout. "They are Chinese," the father says knowingly.

On the trails leading into the forest Drori is a local celebrity: the only white man in the neighborhood. "Ofir, Ofir," his neighbors call out. "Mama," he addresses Augustine Awauo, an elderly woman - a few months ago he removed a swarm of maggots from under her skin, saving her life. "What are you doing here?" he asks a sweaty group of workers who are digging on the banks of the river we have reached, the Mafundi, as though they were digging up his backyard. "They'll wreck the river for me," he mutters.

The kid from the Maoz Aviv neighborhood now has long black hair done up in a ponytail, almost always dresses in black, is thin and pale and has an earring in each ear. A figure emerges from the darkness of the forest: drenched in perspiration, a heavy bag on his head, a local cab driver comes down from the heights of the hill on which the forest stands, from the small corn patch he has up there, his entire harvest on his head. On weekends the driver picks corn to supplement his income. He places the bag, which weighs dozens of kilograms on his head, resting it on a skullcap made of sprigs, and hacks his way through the thick brush with a machete. A brief conversation with Drori and he's on his way again, descending the forest trails to his home in the city suburbs.

The daughter of the old woman with the maggots also emerges from the dense growth and stops to speak to her mother's savior. She went out this morning to gather herbs in the forest - no, this is not the opening of a fairy tale - and Drori tells her about the chronic malaria he is suffering from after his six years in the Dark Continent. The woman invites him into her house for treatment against malaria. Drori and the other Israelis we have met here do not take anti-malarial medicines and some of them have come down with the disease. Until the advent of AIDS, malaria was the national illness, but now AIDS is the greater killer.

Augustine Awauo is in front of her house, whose walls are made of mud inside wooden squares. Plainly, she feels love, or at least gratitude, for the person who rid her flesh of the maggots. This is the happy home of the Awauo family, consisting of Augustine, her young daughter, her sister and the lean house cat. In the center of the yard is the grave of the husband and father, covered, as is the custom, in blue ceramic tiles. The sisters hurry to put on colorful holiday dresses over their rags in order to have their photograph taken for the first - and probably last - time in their lives. Great excitement. In Cameroon a camera sometimes sparks aggressiveness, but Awauo yields to it easily. "Mom, what a scene, I'm in the forest," Drori shouts into his mobile from the yard of Augustine's small house.

A mud path ascends to the home of Drori and Zangwill, on the slopes of Manadong, a few meters from the edge of the jungle. Glass fragments are glued to the top of the wall that surrounds the house on both sides. Antoinette, their neighbor, is a nurse; she saved Galit when the Israeli woman came down with malaria. It's a tiny place. There is no refrigerator and no hot water, only an old computer that is not connected to anywhere and plays techno music in the late morning as a background to the tiny financial reports of Drori's organization, which shimmer on the monitor. Masks that Zangwill brought back from her recent visit to Congo lie on the floor. The Israeli duo knows no fear: from Givon to Kinshasa and from Maoz Aviv to Yaounde. Zangwill returns home late at night along the dark roads of Manadong, while her partner in the struggle lodges at cheap and dangerous inns in the port city of Douala. Two knives are plunged into the door jamb of their minuscule kitchen, next to the entrance to the house, and Galit carries tear gas in her purse, just to be on the safe side. In the late evening, when she returns from shopping at the neighborhood market, which keeps long hours, the only light that illuminates her way is the flickering of fireflies. On the wall is a photograph of Future, Drori's first baby chimpanzee, along with family pictures.

Galit Zangwill, 29, did her army service as an information officer in Central Command and afterward was a guide on challenge treks, until she tired of the routine, heard about Drori and joined his organization. Her mother is a tax consultant, her father is a lighting man on Channel 1. She will spend the Rosh Hashanah-Sukkot holidays in Israel - possibly a vacation, perhaps the end of her African mission.

Drori already has a new volunteer, from Singapore. His organization is called LAGA, for "Last Great Ape." Its goal is to prevent the killing of apes, whose meat is considered a delicacy in the cities of Cameroon. At the present rate, they will be extinct within 15 years. The prime targets are chimpanzees and gorillas. Drori and Zangwill are so busy hunting the hunters from morning to night that they hardly have time to breathe. To date, 23 Cameroon residents have been brought to trial thanks to the organization; 12 were convicted, six of whom were sentenced to prison terms. Drori and his partner pursue the hunters relentlessly, lobby and cajole the Ministry of Forests, police stations, the prisons and the courts, inform and report, fight against bribery and indifference, and try to arouse public opinion in favor of animals in a country whose human residents are mostly downtrodden themselves.

Drori is stubborn, devoted, determined, single-minded. He and Zangwill begin their battle anew every day from the crack of dawn, rushing about in cheap taxis between the local Internet cafe, from where they send out calls for support to the world, and the offices of the authorities. LAGA does not have an office or an online computer. The organization has saved three gorillas and two chimpanzees. In the middle of July LAGA chalked up a major achievement: 116 kilos of ivory, which had been wrenched from the jaws of about 30 elephants - another of Drori's battles - were seized in Douala by one of their agents.

They have created a network of agents, a self-styled policeman and an official in the forest office, and a few fieldworkers or collaborators - depending on how you look at it - who visit the markets looking for forbidden meat and prohibited ivory.

The meeting of the organization's executive takes place in a ramshackle cafe, under a straw roof, in the center of town. At the entrance peddlers sell bat heads and bottles of urine for ritual worship. Inside they're celebrating the coup by the agent Limason, who was responsible for uncovering the ivory. Not long ago he also seized the palms of the hands of several gorillas. Yunis, who is Limason's sister, is the brains behind both operations. She recently persuaded two traders, who had two baby chimps in their possession, to accompany her to the city, where she laid a trap for them and called the police. The ivory traders her brother caught are also in jail, thank you. Francis Tamboue is the good person in the Ministry of Forests who is assisting the organization. Marius is the legal adviser, even though he doesn't yet have a license to practice law. Orlinne, who is articling, will soon replace him. Soon Julius will arrive in his brown police uniform, gilded ranks on his shoulders, a pistol in a holster at his side, the good cop from the intervention unit. Each of them had a very good week. Photographs of the elephants' tusks are passed around, to a chorus of astonishment. We celebrate with tiny peanuts from a Black Label whiskey bottle - that's how the peanuts are known here - and toast the successes with Castel or 33, the Cameroon beers. "Two ivory dealers arrested in Douala," the local Herald newspaper reports, and it too is passed around the table. "General Bulldozer," the paper calls the Israeli prime minister in a different context.

A torrential downpour of rain drums on the roof of twigs and branches. An hour after it ends there will no longer be a trace of it on the steamy streets. LAGA was established in 2003 with a modest budget which comes mainly from donations. Just yesterday Drori and Zangwill marked the first anniversary of the submission of the first suit in the wake of the seizure of the first chimpanzee by the agent Christopher, who has since died of lung cancer. The chimp has since been a resident of the zoo in the town of Limbe, in southwest Cameroon. Such orphans cannot be returned to the wild.

Drori's father is an electronic engineer, his mother teaches Arabic. Drori attended the Nature School in Jaffa and dreamed of Africa. Even before his military service he spent a month in Kenya. Two months after completing his service he returned to his beloved continent. While his friends traveled in Tierra del Fuego and Goa, he began his long journey into the Dark Continent, and was enthralled. Since then he has been to 17 countries in Africa. Almost always alone. He made occasional forays back to Israel and felt that he had to go back to Africa. Two years ago he arrived in Cameroon, was captivated by the shelter of the Sivans, saw gorilla meat being sold in the markets and launched his struggle. He has been here ever since.

Drori describes himself as an internationalist, a citizen of the world, but he does not disavow his Israeli identity, even though he doesn't take a great deal of interest in developments in Israel. "Sababa ogalak," an expression he uses a lot, mainly on the phone, is taken from a song by a Jerusalem rock band. For Drori, the resemblance between apes and humans, and the highly developed emotional world of apes, justifies the battle for their right to exist, over and above that of the right of other animals. "This is my way to find my effective contribution to the world," he says. "A whole world was opened up for me in Africa. I see the world as a broad place. I am not escaping from Israel as a place where it's bad to live, I am looking for the place where I will be effective, a place where I will truly be a world healer."

Perched on the back seat of a motorcycle taxi, behind a local driver, who speeds through the narrow, muddy forest trails, crossing small-beam bridges and threatening to topple over and crash at any moment, Drori watches bored as the familiar landscape goes by. But in a village where a wedding is taking place, when a drunken policeman in a tattered sweat suit suddenly lurches at us and threatens, on the brink of violence, to kick us out, Drori tenses up, ready for another brief confrontation.

A dozen Israelis

"This is my country as much as yours," the Israeli Eran Moas hisses at a woman who is peddling roasted fish who warns him not to photograph her country, at a checkpoint on the way to Douala, the port city. This turns out to be even a shorter confrontation than the one Drori had with the drunk cop: Moas's driver steps on the gas in the military Toyota 4x4 and the fuming peddler is left behind. Moas and Drori served together in an IDF communications officers course, bed over bed. They have common memories that send them into gales of laughter. Now they are both in Cameroon, meeting here totally by chance. Cameroon has been Moas's country for the past six years, since he completed his army service and was appointed by the electronics firm Tadiran to maintain the communications system the company established for the Cameroon army. He quickly learned French and absorbed the local customs. He has two servants at home and an army chauffeur.

The flags of Britain, Cameroon and Israel and an IDF tent greet the visitors to Sawaf, the shelter for apes established here by Talila and Avi Sivan. The Sivans happened to be in Israel, on vacation, and gave Eran Moas telephone authorization to show their project. The director of the site, Rachel Hogan, from Birmingham, is upset: during the night a tree trunk fell on the fence of the compound and this morning the chimps are nervous. Prince Philip visited here not long ago and made a donation; the Sivans were the hosts.

Living at the shelter contentedly are 30 chimpanzees, 11 gorillas, seven baboons and five other monkeys in a broad, natural area in the forest which is encircled by an Israeli-made electric fence. "There is no future without Hebrew agriculture and industry," read the signs of the Reuven Yaffe Ltd. company, manufacturers of industrial and agricultural machinery and equipment in Kfar Gidon, in the Jezre'el Valley, which has built solar systems for monkeys here. Another Israeli company, Soltam, built the water tower. Sivan does business in Cameroon and raises money from Israeli firms. The gorilla Avishag hurls a soft avocado that splatters on the clothes of her visitors from Israel. Standing by the grave of Shemesh, Talila's mythological chimpanzee, may she rest in peace, is a group of youngsters from Britain. There's a memorial plaque and a photograph of the late Shemesh sitting on the toilet and relieving herself, like one of us. Talila and Avi, Moas relates, rushed in a doctor from England, but Shemesh died on the makeshift operating table in the kitchen of their home. The date was May 12, 2001, and Shemesh was three years old.

The Sivans actually have two houses in Cameroon, one in the Bastos neighborhood of Yaounde, the other on the Atlantic coast, in the colorful town of Kribi, where Colonel (res.) Sivan is president of the local fishing club. Sivan is the West Africa sport fishing champion, Moas says. On their Israeli vacations the Sivans stay in their home in Mitzpeh Hila, in Western Galilee.

Close to Shemesh's grave is another memorial sign: a hand pump that is dedicated to the memory of Nissim Mor, from Soltam. The chimpanzee Talila tries to approach the terrifying tree trunk that fell during the night and the shelter's employees scare her off with the noisy saw they are using to cut the fallen tree. There is no connection with the outside world here, not by phone and not by computer, so Talila and Avi don't yet know what happened at their shelter overnight. Eran Moas pretends to pick fleas from the head of Eran, a monkey named after him. This is a sign of friendship toward an ape, which is combined with feigning noises of crunching the fleas. Eran clings to his human namesake and begs for a little warmth. A diapered gorilla infant in the clinic nestles in the arms of Hogan, the director. His whole family perished in a hunt in southern Cameroon and a French couple brought the survivor to the shelter. (The hunters don't kill the gorilla pups because they have too little meat on them.) Melissa, another chimpanzee, has already learned how to open a bottle of mineral water and drink from it.

The pop singer Rita emotes on the tape recorder of Moas's military jeep while he is on the mobile phone, ordering lunch at a chicken restaurant he likes. "Tell me a little about the moments of happiness," Rita sings. "Hello, man," Moas replies on the phone. When night falls, Africa becomes truly dark. Even the few street lights no longer work. In the dark of night hundreds of peddlers offer prepared food. The street is suffused with smoke and pungent with aromas. These are the city's restaurants: small booths offering grilled fish, chicken, corn, pork chops or the abominable food known as manioc, the local name for cassava, a boiled root, wrapped in leaves and flagrantly inedible. Today the results of the high-school matriculation exams were published in town, and the fish seller Carol, the neighbor of Zangwill and Drori, is overjoyed: she passed.

Sitting in the Lebanese restaurant Times is a group of young Lebanese men, Eli from Baalbek and some of his pals. Drinking Bez, the breezer made in their country whose price here is outrageous, like the exorbitant price of the mediocre shawarma, they greet their friend Moas. The party to mark the rotation of the Israeli security officers was held here yesterday. Working upstairs, in the offices of the local cable television company, is Ravit Agassi, from Kibbutz Shoval in the Negev, who is preoccupied reading the cultural news from Israel on the Walla! Web site. She's been here for the past two years, living with her partner, a Cameroon veterinarian, and she will soon be opening a creche for children from affluent families.

There are a dozen Israelis in Cameroon. In addition to the embassy staff - the ambassador, the first secretary and the security officer - and the animal rights activists, the cable television woman and the Tadiran representative, there are also the almost mythological Motti Morano and Natan Shahar. Shahar was a traffic police officer until he came here and joined Morano, who has lived in Cameroon for 10 years. Their home is in the city of Ngaoundere, in central Cameroon, 600 kilometers from the capital, and they are in the perfume business. They have an old factory that manufactures the flagship perfume Binat al-Soudan, Daughter of Sudan, which sells very well in the malls of neighboring Chad. One day the perfume maker Shahar called the technician Moas and asked him for advice from a distance of 600 kilometers about how to fix the company computer, which had crashed. Is he a communications officer or not?

The strictly kosher add to the list of Israelis the owner of the Vietnamese restaurant in Yaounde, Philip, who adores the legendary Israeli film "Givat Halfon Doesn't Answer" and can quote whole sentences from it. "What's with Yaeli and how is Mister Hasson?" he asks with a smile. Lately he has come down with malaria and Moas brings him hummus he made himself, the only food Philip, who is from Vietnam, is willing to eat when malaria strikes him in Yaounde.

A well-groomed man, dark curls cascading carelessly to his shoulders, strides onto the porch of Philip's restaurant and embraces Moas. He is the father of the former great tennis player Yannick Noah, who is from this country. Sitting at the next table are two of the city's rich young women. They're 19 and cousins. One is studying at a college in Buffalo, New York, the other in Paris, France. Moas, who is known as captain or general in these parts, gives them each a kiss on the cheek. In the Senate jazz club in Douala, which is four hours fast drive from Yaounde, a blind Cameroon pianist plays splendid black American jazz in a highly mannered style to a handful of whites and blacks. Dinner for five in the Lebanese restaurant Pasha, in Douala - those Lebanese again - costs twice the average monthly salary in Cameroon.

The landscape is spangled with Orange signs, advertising one of the two cellular phone companies in the country. The advent of the mobile phone fomented a true revolution in Africa. At every corner is a "telephone booth" - a booth at which peddlers offer the use of their mobile phone for a local call in return for the equivalent of less than NIS 2. On intercity roads other peddlers take the place of gas stations and sell bottles of fuel. Plants ripped from the ground on the roadside are used as caution triangles by drivers who are stuck.

On a private beach on the Atlantic Ocean, on the main road to Equatorial Guinea, the village chef throws live shrimps into a pan of boiling oil and then fries fresh sole on twigs, to order. First drink: milk of young coconut from the shell. Until recently, Diet Coke was sold only in the drugstores of Yaounde and Douala, as a drink for diabetics, and its price was like that of an expensive medicine. The director of the Yaounde hospital, Prof. Magloire Biwole Sida, says that people in his country work less than people in Israel and have more sex, and therefore are ill with AIDS. In the village of Abogo, on the Nyong River, two snakes are kept in a pail for lunch. The canoeist, who plies his vessel along the spectacular river, which crosses the entire country, says that his grandmother would have been delighted to learn that Jerusalem is a real city. All her life, he says, she was convinced that Israel is in the sky.n