IN THE FIRST SCENE of Delphi Messinger’s big and ambitious memoir, it is September 24th, 1991. In the streets of Kinshasa, Zaire, machine guns ack-ack on the streets as soldiers mutinying against the corrupt Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire’s “president for life,” rampage from door to store, hundreds of others joining them in a frenzy of looting, vandalism and murder.
Messinger, stranded within the compound of the National Institute of Biomedical Research where she both works and lives, is terrified. With the Institute and its multi-million-dollar stock of equipment and supplies “abandoned to fate,” she makes a desperate decision. Still in her white lab coat, she grabs a pistol and rushes to the Institute’s sheep pasture. There she singles out and chases down one animal. She ropes its legs, and she shoots it. Then she uses the animal’s blood to paint the word “SIDA” (AIDS) on the compound’s wall.
It’s the only way she knows to keep the plundering hordes away, and it works. The bloody warning soaks into the concrete and stays for months thereafter, until embarrassed bureaucrats finally decree it whitewashed.
What we learn about Messinger’s fierce and intrepid character in this opening is just the beginning of a story which ultimately settles down to describe how she took on the mission of saving the Institute’s eleven bonobo apes, a rare and endangered species. Ultimately, after literally years of encountering bureaucratic resistance, getting caught up in life-threatening politics of conservation, and even once being kidnapped and interrogated for hours, Messinger succeeds sort of.
It’s a riveting account, yet Messinger’s delivery presents some difficulties to a reader. Beginning with three years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, her fourteen years in Zaire (renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997) obviously were extravagantly intense, and back in the U.S., a reader senses, she wants to tell it all. As any Peace Corps Volunteer can attest, living and working overseas, especially in “war torn Africa,” is an earthshakingly powerful experience, but even understanding that, Messinger’s telling somewhat overwhelms. Swatches of events come at a reader in a narrative zigzag, like the patchworks of fabric design with which she begins each chapter. There are many characters to keep track of and some of the interwoven stories are hard to follow. For example, a staffer named Leo places a key role in the opening scene, yet we don’t get to know him in the overall story, and he’s only briefly mentioned again much later. Perhaps this narrative method reflects the frightening, infuriating and shifting complexity of the Africa to which Messinger devoted a quarter of her life. As she puts it, “Living in Zaire had always given me the feeling that I was permanently lashed to a rickety car on a runaway roller coaster.” In parts the book’s structure reflects that nightmare.
Nonetheless, when Messinger gets to her beloved bonobos, the writing and momentum of the story clarify and electrify. Caught in the midst of human violence and deep corruption, they are a species, Messinger explains, that show “a remarkable pattern of peacemaking based on sexual reconciliation,” evolving “a marvelous strategy” for achieving harmony. They do it by soliciting sexual favors from one another the only species, other than humans, she notes, to have sex outside the species’ procreative needs.
As Messinger tries to save the bonobos, she lays bare her own vulnerabilities, confronting her fears and doubts with humor and self-deprecation. “What had I learned in the last ten years?” she writes in the book’s conclusion. “What had I accomplished for bonobos? Not a whole hallelujah lot . . . Zaire, Zaire, I’d loved you so! And oh, how I’d hated you. You taught me a lifetime of lessons . . . you gave me the human side of myself.”
But she did save six of the bonobos. There’s something poignant about the survival of this little band of peacemakers, and when Messinger finally flies out of the country with what must be one of the sweetest tribes of creatures on earth, the reader is hugely relieved. Yet one also worries on their behalf, hoping that humans and bonobos alike will stay around long enough to learn to keep their world intact.
Jan Worth-Nelson recently published a Peace Corps novel, Night Blind. Her poems, essays, short fiction and reviews have been widely published, and she teaches writing at the University of Michigan Flint. She and her RPCV husband, Ted Nelson, commute between Michigan and Los Angeles.