the arrival of jane

During Dr. Jane Goodall’s three day visit to Sierra Leone, she managed to influence environmental action through a number of monumental initiatives. Because of her presence, some of country’s most powerful leaders have now vowed to take action for the betterment of the environment, people, and animals; not only furthering conservation of the forest and chimpanzees, but also helping to make tourism a sustainable industry in Sierra Leone.

… If you didn’t already know Jane Goodall is the world’ leading expert on chimpanzees, an anthropologist, and a UN Messenger of Peace…

Back after 27 years

This was the first time Jane had seen the chimpanzee sanctuary that Bala had decided to build few months after her visit to Sierra Leone 27 years ago. It was really special to witness him showing her all that he had created, as it was her suggestion in the first place that ignited the idea for the sanctuary.

This was also an important media opportunity for Tacugama, helping raise awareness about their work and research. There was press from all over Sierra Leone, as well as our own documentary crew, and even a news outlet from France! Jane was amazed at what Bala and his staff had established.

Jane, Bala, and honorable staff at Tacugama

Many exciting announcements and events took place and were elaborated because of Jane Goodall’s presence. I was lucky enough to attend some of these, and to also meet Jane!

Important Outcomes of Jane Goodall’s Visit

First, Jane was bestowed the country’s highest honor— the order of the Rokel, by President Julius Maada Bio, for her instrumental role in the creation of Tacugama sanctuary, and for her dedicated service to the state. This was especially significant as very few non-Sierra Leoneans, (let alone female conservationists!) have ever received this award before. It also clearly demonstrates the Presidents commitment to conservation, which is more important than ever.

Jane’s visit also came at a crucial time, just as Sierra Leone prepares to reintroduce itself as a legitimate global tourist destination. Her image as world-leading-conservationist thus provides the country with global platform. In addition, the heavy media attention that coincided with her trip helped to show the world that Sierra Leone is serious about wildlife tourism, sustainability, and conservation.

At a state dinner held at the President’s house in honor of Jane’s visit, the Vice President announced the new Evisa system, making it a lot easier for tourists to enter the country.

“We are working towards putting infrastructure in place to declare Sierra Leone a visa-free country which means so many people around the world can just jump on a plane and come to Sierra Leone and get a visa on arrival… “

“[Tourism] means a lot for the future of Sierra Leone, we see it as an entry point for rebranding Sierra Leone. We want to send a strong signal to the world that Sierra Leone is open for business and also for tourism. We see the tourism sector as one of the vehicles to drive diversification of the economy. We see that it is able to stimulate growth and also build an economic base that offers jobs for boys and girls across the country.”  

– Dr. Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh

After her tour of Tacugama sanctuary, our film crew conducted an interview with Dr.Goodall. She also spoke with BBC and did additional interviews. The day after, we attended a ceremony held at Freetown’s Bintumani Conference Centre, and shortly after Jane’s speech, the minister of Agriculture, Dr. Joseph J Ndanema, named the chimpanzee the National Animal of Sierra Leone.

Naming the chimpanzee as the national animal of Sierra Leone hopefully means improvement of their survival and of their habitats. Increasing chimpanzee populations is key for maintaining the health of the ecosystem, as well as for the people of Sierra Leone, as chimps play a critical role in providing direct and indirect benefits to local communities. Overall, this announcement will bring greater awareness of the importance to protect these critically engendered species, but also give incentive for local people to protect chimpanzees, as now they are a national symbol and are tied to Sierra Leone’s identity.

The first-lady of Sierra Leone, Fatima Maada Bio, also displayed her personal commitment to a Tacugama sanctuary by becoming a patron of Tacugama. This announcement further shows the governments improved dedication to conservation and to chimpanzees.

Meeting my personal hero

I was lucky just to be in Jane Goodall’s presence. It wasn’t the first time actually. In 2011, I saw Jane speak at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, she was giving a lecture there. From that night on I have been vegetarian, and soon after vegan, because of her influential words about the suffering of animals. A few years later, on my birthday, which was also the International Day of Peace, I saw Jane again at the United Nations, where she gave a short speech. She also did her classic chimpanzee call. I first met her when Bala was giving her the tour at Tacugama, she definitely noticed me following them around, taking photos, and watching over all of her interviews with intense curiosity. In between interviews, I got my first interaction, to nervous to say anything significant. Later that evening, at the President’s house, I had my first real interaction where I introduced myself as an aspiring wildlife conservationist who had travelled all the way from DC to come see her. “Well that was silly,” said Jane, as she was apparently traveling to DC next!

I told her that I went to George Washington University, but was disappointed that we didn’t yet have a Roots & Shoots club for passionate conservationists. She immediately told me she would help me start one, and asked me for my email address.

After frantically searching for a pen, I asked her where I should write it down, and she pointed to the lavish white box that she had just received the honorary Rokel award in. As I was about to scribble on it with thick black sharpie, I was told to stop immediately by two guards. Bala then handed me a 10,000 bill, which is about $ 1 US dollar, on which I had no choice but to write my email down on, handing it embarrassingly back to Jane, who smiled.

The famous Sierra Leonean designer known as Madam Wokie, had offered to make Jane a custom jacket for the event at Bintumani Conference Centre. A few days prior, I had met Madam Wokie to conduct an interview for the documentary, and she kindly offered to make me something for the event too. On accident, they used the same material for both me and Jane’s pieces, so when we showed up to the event we were both matching! It was totally unintentional, but we both wore the colors of the Sierra Leonean flag proudly, regardless. I was just happy to have another conversation starter.

Breakfast with Jane?

The day after meeting Jane for the first time, I got the chance to stay overnight at Tacugama sanctuary in one of the eco huts. The sounds of the forest were incredible, and we slept with the door open so we could hear them better. Jane was also staying at Tacugama that night, in another hut deep in the forest.

In the early morning, while sitting just outside our hut we begin to hear rustling coming from within the trees. Suddenly, Jane appears, briskly walking up the path to the little outdoor kitchen, where some staff had prepared her breakfast. She didn’t seem to notice us as she passed the hut, focused on her pace. I knew this was my chance to talk to her, one-on-one, but I was so nervous…

I cautiously approached her, and asked if she minded me sitting across from her. She recognized me from the day before. I told her I would really love to ask her this burning question of mine, and she accepted. We ended up talking for 45 minutes! It was really incredible, an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world. She even offered me parts of her breakfast, toast, jam, coconut, apple slices, coffee, as she insisted they had prepared far too much for her to eat.

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