It’s past midnight when the small wooden boat we have been travelling on for 12 hours, carrying 20 of us, is stopped. Except for the pilot, everyone is sleeping, amassed between dozen of piled luggage. We are travelling from Kalemie to Kasombe, first stop of the expedition and base of the field laboratory. For two days the journey has been postponed hour to hour, putting our nerves to the test. Coming to an agreement here takes days, even when the plans had already been fixed. In Africa time flows in a different manner: it accelerates and slows at an incomprehensible rhythm. The only certainty you have is that these discontinuities will not fall in line with your necessities. In our case Africa turns what should have been a three day journey in a voyage of eight.
Five days ago we left Uvira, our halfway stop, with a civilian boat. “What time are we leaving?” “At one” we are told. Half an hour later it changes to “at three” and in the end we start out at six p.m. “How long will it take?” “eighteen hours” they say, that turn into twenty-one. And so the hours stretch into days and schedules dissolve in the tropical tranquility. We take advantage of the long journey and of the boat’s deck to test the Thuraya modem, that will allow us to relate the expedition in real time.
Twenty-four hours later we find ourselves in the old Albertville, ruins of a city with a refined past. “We will leave tomorrow” we agree. We are still there two days later, awaiting a departure postponed hour to hour. We must negotiate with the authorities, with the soldiers that will escort us, ask for permits, buy the last few things. Each of these tasks requires an amount of time that, in our side of the world, would be unconceivable. Finally we succeed in leaving Kalemie and reach Kasombe, a remote village on the lakeshore, headquarters of our field laboratory: the first real stopover of the Kabobo expedition. Estimated time: 10 hours; African time: 2 days. The teams is restless: everyone can’t wait to get started. On the boat the generator works nonstop to maintain the correct temperature for the reagents that will be used for the extraction and sequencing of the DNA. Massimo and Anita check on it continuously: each shift in temperature could compromise the entire analysis process.
Over 10 hours later we stop in one of the villages along the shore.
Dried fish and fufu, the corn and cassava polenta typical of this area, and after dinner an unexpected occurrence repays us of the tiring journey. Almost as if it were a ceremony, the villagers bring out as a gift to Anita the pelt of one of the most extraordinary mammals alive, nowadays in CITES’ black list, intensely hunted and protected by the same standard of the panda, the tree pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis). “It will be one of the first things we will sequence” says Anita. “How?” I ask myself, observing the keratotic scales of the shell, devoid of any DNA. “Look here” she says pointing at a small tuft of fur “we can extract the DNA from the hair bulb”.
It’s past midnight when our boat is stopped. We can’t proceed without the military authorization. We disembark still half asleep and follow our armed guide among the huts of the village. Michele slips away behind a gigantic black figure, wrapped in a white tunic: the commander in chief. Head bowed Michele presents the expedition and asks permission to pass through. The next morning a new armed guard gets in the boat with us: we’ve gained the last authorization and the protection of the local militia for the expedition. Towards Kasombe, camp 1.