By Kerry Stumpe
A lot of people talk about saving the world. Many lament over how climate change is impacting the planet, but rarely do we run across people actually doing something about it. Recently, Best Self Atlanta caught up with two Atlanta businessmen who decided to turn their words into action and made an extraordinary journey to Africa to help save an island full of chimpanzees from devastating floods.
In January, Kerry Stumpe, founder of the Atlanta nonprofit Children of Conservation, and fellow board member, Michael Thomas, left their Buckhead boardrooms to embark on a 12-day working vacation to build a sea wall that will ultimately preserve and rebuild the flooded and shrinking shoreline of Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Ngamba Island is located in Lake Victoria, 45 minutes south off of the coast of Entebbe in Uganda. This 100-acre island is home to 50 orphaned chimpanzees as well as hundreds of species of vulnerable and endangered birds.
Stumpe is no stranger to construction projects in Africa. Through his work with Children of Conservation, whose mission is to partner with local communities in Africa to empower people living in poverty to prosper in ways that also benefit and promote conservation, he has led teams to Zambia and Cameroon to build a middle school, a veterinary facility and an enclosure for orphaned baboons. However, this is the organization’s first project to address the devastating effects of a natural disaster due to climate change. At its peak, Ngamba Island is only 19 feet above the water’s edge. In the past year, Lake Victoria, the world’s second-largest freshwater lake, has risen by a record-breaking 5 feet, claiming around 30% of Ngamba’s shoreline.
For the past nine years, Children of Conservation has run a scholarship program that provides an education for more than 55 children of Ngamba’s staff members. The organization has established a strong relationship with the island staff, so management was aware of Thomas’s construction background and Stumpe’s experience as an architect. “When they called in early December and asked us to lead a team to build a gabion wall that could save the island, we couldn’t say no,” Thomas recounts.
Q: Ngamba Island sounds like an interesting place, can you describe what it’s like to stay there?
Stumpe: It’s actually one of our favorite places to bring donors who want a one-of-a-kind, off-the-beaten-path African experience. The island is 100 acres sectioned into two parts: 98 acres are made up of wild jungle for the chimpanzees to roam, with the remaining two acres, separated by an electric fence, for the workers and guests. There’s no tourism right now due to the flooding and COVID-19, so we stayed in the guest tents. They may not be luxurious, but they are very comfortable with hot water and indoor plumbing. We’re careful to always keep our screen doors closed as open doors are a billboard-sized invitation to any one of the tens of thousands of fruit bats that emerge at dusk, not to mention the friendly 6-foot iguanas that live underneath the lakefront cabanas. As the sun sets, the sky is filled with more stars than you can imagine and the black horizon of the lake becomes alive as the water becomes dotted with hundreds of tiny lights from the rustic incandescent lamps of the night fishermen that remain until daybreak. We’re lulled to sleep by the rhythmic sound of gently lapping waves that meld into the makeshift shoreline and a steady breeze that flutters our tent flaps. Occasionally, we’ll hear the grumblings of a disgruntled chimp who got pushed off a prime bed of hay or squeals of delight when one finds a mango that somehow got overlooked during their pre-bedtime snack session.
Q: How does your typical day start?
Thomas: At 6:30 a.m., we start with coffee and tea in the thatched-roofed dining hall, also at Victoria’s edge. We begin work at 7 a.m. It’s easy to tell the time as that’s also when the chimps start breaking out into excited pant-hoots [calls] in anticipation of their breakfast being served, followed by another day in the forest. Unlike the chimps, our breakfast isn’t served until 9:30 a.m. And, yes, in Uganda, human workers like us work before we eat. So is the life of a laborer in this region.
Q: Tell us about the work you’re doing.
Stumpe: Our crew is a ragtag group of Mike and me, along with five hardworking 20-something Ugandan men from Kampala. They’re dressed in an array of denim jeans and work pants with miscellaneous T-shirts and polos. Some have boots and gloves, while others are without. We’re building a sea wall around crucial areas on the island to rebuild what’s been lost by the flooding. Our wall is created by filling gabion cages with large rocks, some the size of our heads. Our crew assembles galvanized panels in the evenings to make the cages. Each cage is approximately 6 feet long, 3 feet wide and 3 feet tall. We install six cages tied together at one time, running perpendicular to the shore. The cages are filled to create a continuous wall 30 feet from the shore. Eventually, that 30 feet between the shoreline and our new wall will be backfilled and planted to reestablish the washed-out land. But, first things first.
Thomas: For much of the day, we’re working in chest-high water, first positioning the gabions to assure they’re level and secure from the possible undertow. Kerry and I are constantly reminded of our privileged existence as we’re out there donning fishing waders while the rest of the guys simply walk into the lake wearing their jeans and polo shirts.
Stumpe: There is no Home Depot or Lowe’s in these parts. The rock for the project is being hand-mined with pickaxes by a crew of a dozen men from the neighboring island of Koome. They deliver our rock twice a day on two overloaded, beat-up boats and dump it on the shore. Using some very old and leaky canoes as rock caddies, we transport the rock from the shore to the cages, where it’s then packed in. Every 10 to 15 minutes one of the crew members at the gabion cages disappears beneath the water’s surface to install crosswires, which have to be done every 8 inches to stabilize and secure the sides from buckling. Mike and I revel in the securing of the crossties as it allows our 55-year-old backs to rest for a bit.
Q: This seems like a lot of work, why do you do it?
Stumpe: It’s so easy to get caught up in our day-to-day lives. We take so many things for granted and, especially during COVID-19, it’s easy to lament the things we’re missing out on. You come to a place like this, a place where none of those things even exist and you have a chance to be a part of something bigger than yourself. The gift of perspective that it gives is worth so much more than a few aching muscles and sore joints. Every day, we were surrounded by the continuous sounds of nature and harmony. Whether it’s the chirp and chatter of the lapwings, the laughter and sense of community with our crew, the hum of weaver birds flying past our heads, the occasional hoots of the chimpanzees or the water lapping against our legs or tired forearms, we’ve been given a gift of experiencing something amazing. We both agree that this is what it would be like to be laborers in heaven, or at the very least heaven on earth.
Q: How much of the sea wall did you build during your stay?
Stumpe: We built 100 yards! We constructed 52 gabion cages and moved over 200,000 pounds of stone. Keep in mind, this was 100% manual labor in the water.
Q: What’s the next project for Children of Conservation?
Stumpe: Our next big project is the creation of a model conservation community in Uganda (on the very island that is mining the stones and dirt for the gabion wall project at Ngamba) where we’ll be addressing all 17 of the UN’s sustainable development goals, which will include construction of a primary school, vocational education center, health clinic, a regenerative agriculture teaching farm, a recycling facility, and a clean water and energy program.
Photography by Michael Thomas.