Author: Leah Renée Lumeya
Since moving to Cite du Fleuve, Kinshasa last September I had heard rumors that two or three hippopotamuses visit the grassy banks along the river very close to our home. It was difficult for me to image that they would come to an area so heavily populated with people and industry. As a photographer, animal lover, and person concerned about the preservation of wildlife I scanned the waterways daily in hope that the rumors were true. One March evening just at dusk I walked around the building across the road from our home and found myself staring at a huge hippo not 15 meters in front of me.
I have seen, photographed and recorded hippos on five occasions. I have been able to identify two individuals. Through conversations with employees of Cite Du Fleuve, neighbors, and others I have begun gathering stories and information about the hippos. I have come to realize that they hold the status of celebrity in this community and are much loved.
People in the neighborhood often come to get me when the hippos are seen out eating on the bank. On one occasion I arrived at the spot just as the hippo was going down the bank to enter the water. Across the water, on the far bank, people had lined up and were chanting, dancing, and singing. There were many children among those gathered. One of the men standing nearby explained to me that the people are the Mongo people. They are from Equator in Northern Congo. The river is their life. They believe in reincarnation, and that their ancestors come back as hippos. They also believe that they can communicate with the river animals. This particular hippo they called Koko (Grandfather). They were calling him with the chants and songs. They were saying “Grandfather, come out and say hello to your Mongo grandchildren”. Amazingly, the hippo did not seem to be afraid of them. In fact he went closer to them (still in the water) as they called to him and chanted. Though the hippo never left the water it tarried not far off the bank for nearly an hour before moving back into the deeper water of the river. The relationship between the animal and the humans was evident, and beautiful.
Since that day I have heard similar stories about hippos in Bulungu, Kwilu Province, and in other areas. As I continue to observe these animals and the mystery that surrounds them, I have hope that the respectful relationship will continue for many generations.