40 – Chimfunshi’s Plaster

40 – Chimfunshi’s Plaster

Chimfunshi, meaning “Place of Water” in Bemba, is situated deep within the bush in Zambia’s Copperbelt. The closest village is over an hour away on a bumpy road, while the bigger cities (Kitwe and Ndola) are close to four hours’ drive away. In the other direction, across the Kafue river, is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Wayne kindly drove us to Lusaka bus station super early before work. Eight hours later, we got off our bus at the turnoff for Chimfunshi. We sat for what felt like forever at the roadside, watching local children playing on a mound and ladies attempting to wave down cars on the highway so they could sell them massive mushrooms or fish with flies. We bought one of their mushrooms, some soy chunks, watermelon and a few bottles of Fanta to accompany our noodle dinners. A 4×4 from Chimfunshi eventually arrived, picked us up (along with half-a-dozen bags of mealie meal) and drove us the remaining 15km.

Chimfunshi is not on a tourist destination. Why did we go out of our way to go off the beaten track this time? Well, Heather had always imagined visiting after discovering that her favourite children’s book author, Elizabeth Laird, went there to research her book “Chimp Escape”.

Chimp Escape tells the story of a girl who rescues an orphaned chimp from being sold on the black-market and takes it to an animal sanctuary. Laird’s books are not fairy tales, the characters do not save the world. They do, however, teach children about important issues such as conservationism, refugees and civil wars. Although the protagonist does not stop chimpanzees from being poached, sold as bushmeat or kept in captivity, she still does what she can for one chimpanzee. In the book, the animal sanctuary is described by its owner as being “like a plaster on a really deep wound, that needs, oh, I don’t know, stitching and operations, and skin grafts and stuff. You can only hope a bit here, just rescue a few of the victims… We’re not solving the problem here. Just picking up a few of the pieces”.

At Chimfunshi we were lucky to meet a real-life person putting plasters on the world’s wounds.

Sheila Siddle grew up on a small farm in Lancashire until her parents decided, after the war, to sell their property and set off for an adventure with their three children and dog, Tim. The six of them drove from Lancashire to Cape town on a truck that Sheila’s Dad built from five ex-army vehicles.

In the 1950s Sheila made Zambia her home and in 1972 she bought a 55-acre plot along the Kafue river with her husband, Dave. In 1974 the Zambian government allocated 10,000 acres and grazing rights to the Siddles; they subsequently became cattle farmers. Ten years later, the Siddles were contemplating retirement when a game ranger arrived at their homestead with a desperately wounded, sick chimp, whose mother had been shot. The Siddles faced a dilemma: let a chimp die or nurse it back to health.

In that moment, they did not think about the long-term, they simply focused on the dying chimp that was in their arms. They took the chimp in, named him Pal and nursed him back to health. Word soon spread that Dave & Sheila had rescued a chimpanzee and before they knew it, they went from Cattle farmers nearing retirement, to managing the largest sanctuary for Chimpanzees in the world. Even Jane Goodall brought them a chimp called Milla who was found in a cage in a Tanzanian bar.

The Siddles with Jane Goodall

Having pitched our tent, we asked a staff member if we could see the grounds. He nodded, said he was off to do his rounds at the enclosures, and offered us a lift on the back of his pickup. We clung to the side of the dusty car, dodging the overhanging branches as the wind blew in our faces. It felt good to have arrived, it was as if a circle was closing.

We pulled into a homestead beneath acacia trees. In the middle was a small brick house. Chickens, ducks, geese and dogs scrambled around our feet. Our driver pointed us towards a couple of guys working. We noticed he was missing a finger. One of the guys showed us around the enclosures that bordered the homestead. We met Baboons, vervet monkeys and chimpanzees: each had their own story, often having suffered severe physical and psychological injuries at the hands of poachers or circuses.

Our guide knocked on the open door of the house, “Sheila, Sheila you have visitors!”. A dog in the entrance struggled to its feet, hobbled towards us, barking enthusiastically. A few minutes passed before an old lady appeared with a Zimmer frame. Sheila had a warm, kind face; the kind that makes you want to reach out and hug her. She asked where we were from and invited us to come back tomorrow to have tea with her.

The next morning, we were dropped back at Sheila’s house. As promised, she invited us in for tea. We were vetted by several African grey parrots and the still enthusiastically-barking-dog on the veranda, before being allowed to sit at Sheila’s dining room table.

Her house felt very homely and reminded Heather of her Grandma and Granddad’s house: photo collages adorned every wall (featuring children in costumes, family pets, men in uniform and family portraits); and kitsch Christmas decorations were strung everywhere. Out the back were enormous fig and avocado trees.

Sheila’s daughter Sylvia wheeled her mother to the table before serving us tea and biscuits. Sheila insisted we eat the biscuits whilst she showed us her photo albums. It was a real treat to spend time with her. We felt privileged that, despite her age (89!) and having met countless others, Sheila still welcomed us into her home.

Sheila’s face lit up as she showed us photos of chimps she had nursed in the past. She especially enjoyed showing us her album of Billy. Billy was not a chimp, but a pet hippopotamus! Yes, that’s right! Billy, at only ten days old, was found hiding under her dead mother who had been killed by poachers. When she arrived at Chimfunshi she was the size of a small dog. Sheila took her in, hoping to release her into the wild once she had grown big enough to defend herself from crocodiles. Billy, however, saw herself as one of Sheila’s watchdogs: Sheila’s home was her home (until she could not fit through the door anymore!).  She weighed over 680kg and swallowed entire cabbages in a single gulp – so it is not surprising that she broke the Siddle’s sofa! Billy wanted milk everyday and would come knocking for it at the door! We were shown photos of her in a pool in the garden, originally built for the Siddle’s grandchildren before Billy adopted it! Down by the river, she preferred to try get in the boats than swim in the water! A few times Billy went off with wild hippos but would always come back. This was a loyal guard-hippo who protected the Siddles from thieves and trespassers (you can imagine their look of horror when they saw her!), until one day, when poor Billy was poisoned by burglars.

Click the arrows below to see a slideshow of Billy

Sheila also showed us a book filled with harrowing photographs of forests being erased for timber and chimpanzees being killed en masse. She told us that Zambia used to be covered with thick forests. When taking the bus from Lusaka, we saw wide open spaces for miles; no forests, just copper and coal mines and enormous trucks transporting goods. Elephants used to wander around Chimfunshi, now there are none left in the surrounding area. The photos were clearly upsetting Sheila. She explained that it was not just Africa’s problem, but also those who invest in the timber.

It is estimated that 5 million chimpanzees roamed through western and central Africa at the start of the 20th century, but now the species is on the brink of extinction. Not only are chimpanzees battling against loggers and poachers, but also pet smugglers, circuses and zoos. All the chimps that arrived in the Siddle’s care were traumatised and in need of intensive care, some even addicted to cigarettes and alcohol.

Chimfunshi is now managed by Innocent Chitalu Mulenga, spans over 10,000 acres and is home to over 130 chimpanzees from all over the world, including Pal, its first inmate. The sanctuary is far from being a zoo: the chimpanzees live in massive enclosures of deciduous tropical forest – it is the next best thing to being in the wild. Here, they can live out the rest of their lives in their new chimp families, in a natural, safe environment. Chimfunshi does not mollycoddle them, but treats them as the wild, aggressive, hierarchal animals that they are. (We now understand the missing fingers on the staff member’s hand!).

The forest where the chimps roam 'free'
Can you see the group huddling in the shade?

Chimfunshi never rejects an animal in need. Over the years, they have rescued many animals including baboons, vervet monkeys, parrots, antelopes, owls, sheep and peacocks.

They also aim to better the lives of those in their local community. All staff members live in housing on site where there is a school and a health centre. We spent quite a bit of time with Dominic, the head keeper, who kindly told us all about the work they do. He told us about how he had travelled to Cameroon to visit another chimp sanctuary in order to share ideas and encourage each other.

When visiting the large enclosures on the other side of the grounds, the keepers invited us to share lunch with them. We sat in a circle, rolled hot balls of Nsima in our fingers, poked our thumbs in them and scooped up the sauce from the saucepan in front of us. We felt so welcome and part of the Chimfunshi family.

The chimps, however, were less generous when the keepers threw bush oranges over the fence like confetti. The group’s hierarchy was revealed: the dominant males got first dibs, the others had to wait, and some did not get any at all and retreated up a tree! Haha.

Click the play button below to play the short video clip:

Chimfunshi may not be saving the world, however they are committed to doing what they can. Dave and Sheila Siddle did not stop to think of all the reasons why they should not help Pal or who should help Pal instead of them; they simply got on with it. They may not have had any experience with chimpanzees, but in the end, the fruit of their work is marvellous. Thanks to them, many chimpanzees have been saved and future generations educated on why looking after our planet and animals is important.

Though the world’s wounds may seem too deep or overwhelming, we should just focus on finding our plasters! As Dr Jane Goodall says, “I like to envision the whole world as a jigsaw puzzle… If you look at the whole picture, it is overwhelming and terrifying, but if you work on your little part of the jigsaw and know that people all over the world are working on their bits, that’s what will give you hope.”

Chimfunshi does not receive any government funding, they rely simply on the small entrance fees and donations from people across the world to survive. As you can imagine, they are struggling to make ends meet at the moment as they have shut the sanctuary to outside visitors. Should you wish to make a donation, please click here: https://www.chimfunshi.de/en/donate/ . We know they will be very grateful!

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Sheila lent us her canoe. We paddled down the river just behind her house. Click the arrows to see the slideshow below:

One Reply to “40 – Chimfunshi’s Plaster”

  1. Well done for outlining the story so well—maybe more folk will be able to read the book as I have–great lock-down escapism!! xxxx

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