Schools in Cameroon Join Koko’s Family

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Article by Penny Fraser, Cameroon Country Director for the Gorilla Foundation’s Wildlife Protectors Fund.(WPF) in Africa; and assistant to Dr. Anthony Rose, Conservation Director.

Since January 2003, the WPF’s Conservation Values Program (CVP) has worked with 930 young people from the Yaoundé area in Cameroon, ranging from primary pupils to mature high school students and their teachers. The program is increasingly popular and has not only brought the subject of wildlife and environment to the attention of both teachers and students, it has also shown them that this is interesting and relevant to their lives. It has also catalyzed the development of opinion and debate about primates. After they had worked with us, the young children of La Noblesse primary school wrote a poem to Koko and sent it to us. It is printed below.

Poem written by the children of Ecole prive La Noblesse primary, Yaoundé, May 2003, translated from French into English:

Gorilla family!
Friend of man!
A hideous and frightening figure,
with a comportment similar to man’s.
Kind, intelligent, and emotional!
Why do people massacre you?
Firearms, brush fires are the causes.
Oh! What a shame if you should disappear because of us.
Koko, we understood your message.
You loved and protected a little cat!
We will love and protect your brothers,
for they remind us of our origins and our history.
All the gorillas in the world are Kokos.

The Gorilla Foundation established the Wildlife Protectors Fund (WPF) in 1999 in response to the slaughter of great apes for the illegal commercial trade in their meat. Today, under the direction of Dr. Tony Rose, the Fund promotes conservation values education in Africa, where Koko’s Kitten continues to be used to evoke a sense of kinship to turn consumers and poachers into protectors of wildlife. There is no doubt that these programs are working – but there is an urgent need to expand them, as ape populations continue to plummet drastically.

Donations to the Fund will go directly to support our work in Africa — please contact Lorraine Slater, Development Director, at [email protected], for more information on how you can help.

Over the past six months, our program has evolved somewhat–workshops have become an exchange of animal stories in which we tell the stories of Koko and Michael, stories that have come from America, and youngsters here tell their own stories. Sometimes they have personal experiences they want to share, or myths and legends about wildlife, sometimes traditions about how one should value animals and behave toward animals. These sessions always involve lively debate, but the format varies. The village kids know and love traditional tales–this is what excites them–so that is how we start the workshops, following up with the presentation of stories from America, another perspective, with parallel messages.

When we open workshops in the city by asking participants if they know any wildlife stories or legends, or have personal experiences of wildlife, there is never a response–participants say they don’t know any. However, they love to hear and read about Koko and Michael and they love to watch videos about them. They feel that the stories are real and provide evidence about the intelligence, social nature, and capacity of gorillas. Urban kids have grown up with television–they believe photographs and films more than something passed on from generation to generation.

In these situations we have found that Gorilla Foundation materials are most effective in catching the kids’ interest and generating discussion about many wider issues. However, once the kids have engaged the subject, we have seen that introducing traditional myths and stories, whether thrown in by a facilitator, or referred to by one of the participants, provides a way of transferring the momentum of the debate to the theme of conservation values in a local context. Why did these stories evolve, what message were they conveying, and why? Religious values are often strong and influence the opinion that youngsters have toward wildlife and the natural environment.

Arsen, a CVP teacher, wrote this report:

“At the opening of a workshop with members of the Environment Club of Lycee de
Biyem-Assi, somebody asked the question, ‘Do you believe in conservation?’ We received a variety of responses. Those who did environmental studies said yes, they had a strong belief in conservation because God created everything to have its one life and we cannot stop the living condition of anything. Furthermore, they said that each of God’s creations has a soul, as mankind does. The others said we cannot live together with these species because, first of all, they are a nuisance. They destroy our crops, therefore they are to be consumed. God sent us these foods to be eaten.”

After reading and talking about Koko’s Kitten, the students contributed stories, the most interesting of which was from 22-year-old Fofou Armet. He said he was a hunter living in the southern province of Cameroon.

One day he decided to go hunting with his arrows. But before going to hunt he had doubts, which made him go into the deep forest where he found the spoor of gorillas and suddenly he heard the cry of gorillas. He approached near to the noise and saw gorillas lining up. He shot at the leader of the group and it died. He cut off the gorilla’s ears and returned to the village to rally people to help carry the food out of the forest–the ears being evidence that he had really killed.

However, when the villagers returned to the forest, the dead gorilla had disappeared. When
they got back to the village there was a rumor that someone called Edou was dead. The hunter went to see Edou’s corpse. The ears were cut off. He then went directly to the chief and told him about how he had killed a gorilla in the forest and cut off its ears, but when he returned to the site to collect the meat, together with people from the village, the animal had disappeared. Now he supposed that it had in fact been Edou he had killed.

The conclusion to his story was that after this experience, he never hunted again and that five years afterward he noticed that all these gorillas were reincarnated.

The conviction with which Armet told his story made it seem very real, but some of the
other students did not believe it. They were the ones who had lived all their lives in Yaoundé
and they said that such things were impossible and old-fashioned myths.

As a simple thank you to our supporters in America, we would like to share the appreciation of the principal of Etoug-Ege Baptist School, who has been working with the Conservation Values Program. We would also like to applaud his teachers who have found innovative ways of using our materials, simultaneously developing awareness and interest in wildlife, and supporting general science and language education. The ideas of the Etoug-Ege Baptist School teachers will be included in the next CVP education pack, to help educators throughout the Congo Basin region.

Our friends here have translated the story of Koko’s Kitten into Pidgin English, which makes a fun and interesting read. It will be available to you in the States very soon. Here is a thank you letter from the school:

To: The Director of the Gorilla Foundation, Yaoundé
A letter of appreciation:

On behalf of the EBS family, I wish to express appreciation to you for copies of the Koko’s Kitten you gave us. I am appreciating more especially just that intention you had to give, and more so, to EBS. It is not out of my wish
that God should bless you bountifully. These books have been helpful to us in many
ways, especially for the children of classes 3, 4, 5, and 6 where we have used them:
• In Nature Study and Environmental Education lessons, the children were opportune to talk about and see some of the animals they study.
• In Reading lessons, the pictures alone in the books are of interest, arousing, making the children want to read what is written and know what the book is all about, especially children who are still learning how to read.
• In Comprehension, the children read collectively and at the end of the book answer questions about the content.

Above all, just for the fact that the books have been brought to us by the Gorilla
Foundation, they developed interest, given that the children now like everything in connection with your foundation. So, thank you sirs for the gesture and since one good turn deserves another, we remain always at your mercy.

Headmaster, Etoug-ege Baptist School,
Yaoundé 10-06-03