I found The Chimpanzee Whisperer: A Life of Love and Loss, Compassion and Conservation (2022) by Stany Nyandwi with David Blissett when I was browsing available audiobooks at my library to listen to on my commute. I was very lucky to stumble on a book that was perfect for me. I’m a huge admirer of Jane Goodall, and I’ve read at least one long biography of her life. I’m very familiar with her early research on chimpanzees in Tanzania, her efforts to improve the lives of chimps around the world, and her life-long focus on conservation. I was lucky enough to visit Tanzania back in 2018, and I thought it was a beautiful and fascinating country.
This book is a memoir by Stany Nyandwi and his time spent with chimps in different countries throughout Africa. Stany worked at a number of chimpanzee sanctuaries that were a part of the Jane Goodall Institute. His ability to communicate with, take care of, and relate to the chimps was extraordinary.
But there is even more to this story. Stany grew up in a hut in a village in the small African country of Burundi. Although I was familiar with Rwanda and the genocide and ethnic tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis, I did not know that this same dynamic was in Burundi as well. Stany is Hutu, and he went to work in Bujumbura as a “house boy” in rich, Tutsi households as soon as he was old enough. The work was indentured servitude at best, and was nothing like what Stany had been led to believe the work was like.
Finally, Stany was able to get a job cleaning cages at a chimp sanctuary in the city. The sanctuary had very limited means, but it was better than nothing. Stany eventually learned enough that he began to care for the chimps himself. Stany loved this job, but it wasn’t without its struggles. He spent at least 6-7 hours walking to and from his village every day. And as the country got more violent, every commute became more treacherous. They were held at gunpoint and at least two sanctuary workers were murdered. Eventually it became too dangerous: the chimps were evacuated and Stany went with them. For years, he had no communication or knowledge of how his wife and children were doing. He was lonely and alone in a foreign country with only his work with the chimps as consolation. Stany later learned that his wife and children survived and he was reunited with them, but many members of his family had been brutally murdered.
Despite this tremendous trauma that could have understandably broken him, Stany continued to be a very gracious and loving person. Crediting religion for getting him away from alcohol, Stany continued to help chimps and the people around him. It really comes across in this book what a giving and forgiving person he is.
In the end, the book shifts its focus back onto conservation, and what we can do to protect the chimpanzees and their habitats. This kind of thing always makes me feel powerless and frantic when I imagine the beauty of the world disappearing before our eyes as the billions of humans take over the last wild places. But you can give up or do the best you can with what you have. Both Stany Nyandwi and Jane Goodall are examples of people who have managed to be impactful against all odds. I’m very impressed by both of them.
Also, so many conservation books that I read are from the point of view of Americans or Europeans. It was a nice change to see a book written by an African–to learn about his childhood, his country, and his struggles. It’s impossible (and immoral) to save a country’s animals, but ignore its people. This book was a fascinating glimpse into the extraordinary life of an amazing person, as well as a glimpse into a country that I had known nothing about.
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