Timing is everything… On the same day as our meeting with Bill Sr at the Edgewater, a Congolese army major broadcast the following message from a radio station in eastern Congo: “People must bring a machete, a spear, an arrow, a hoe, spades, rakes, nails, truncheons, electric irons, barbed wire, stones, and the like, in order, dear listeners, to kill the Rwandan Tutsis.”
All hell had broken loose, again. The Second Congo War, a.k.a. the Great War of Africa had begun. It was to become the deadliest war in modern African history, directly involving 8 African nations, and 25 armed groups. Who would invest in such a place? We could not have picked a worse time to appeal to the Gates Foundation.
War wasn’t the only thing working against us. That month the US Justice Department summoned Bill Jr to the United States vs Microsoft anti-trust trial. News broadcasts throughout August, when not saturated by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, showed images of the grizzly massacres in the Congo and Bill Jr under visible duress, rocking back and forth in his chair as he gave his deposition to the Justice Department.
Barely a week after Jillian and I returned home from California, we got the news we’d been waiting for. It was a letter from Bill Gates Sr, citing the political uncertainty of the region combined with the “multiplicity of the agencies working in this area,” (I never did figure out what he meant by that) as the foundation’s reasons not to support this effort at this time.
I conveyed the sad news to a stone-faced gathering of our field staff, who’d come to London for a week of strategy meetings. “We did our best,” I said, swallowing hard, “gave this appeal its best possible chance of success. It couldn’t have helped that civil war broke out in Congo just as Gates was making his decision, but this is the very nature of the beast and the reason why a privately funded endowment is the only way to ensure mountain gorillas survive.”
It was late afternoon on the last day our meetings. My African colleagues were ready to fly home. We were drinking pints of lager at a long wooden table at the Pembroke Castle in Primrose Hill. No one was saying much. It was a dark day for the gorillas. Just then a gleaming blue Porsche 911 pulled up outside, engines roaring, and a giant man emerged, strode through the pub door. It was Douglas Adams. He had come to join us for a farewell drink.
We embraced. “Thank you for all your help in trying to make this work for the gorillas,” I said. “We’ve not yet given up hope.”
Douglas, determined to put a positive slant on things, suggested we might have to break the endowment down into more manageable chunks of money. I introduced him to my African colleagues. For the next hour he entertained them with anecdotes of when he was traveling the world in search of endangered species, writing Last Chance To See. Evident by their hysterics, they all knew the story of the obfuscating Zairian border official.
|Douglas trying to figure out a trick with corks|
Douglas wore his heart on his sleeve and when an idea struck him, he could get quite animated about it. Often he would call me up at the office to relate some new notion he had about gorillas. One time he called to ask what I thought of the aquatic ape theory, the idea that the ancestors of modern humans were more inclined to wade in water than other great apes. I told him I thought it was a distraction from the real issues. That was me, a one-topic dilettante who only felt confident discussing subjects I had previously researched. At least I knew my gorilla shit.
“What about a celebrity car boot sale?” asked Douglas. “I’ll invite my friends to donate some eclectic junk, and we’ll auction it to the highest bidder, online, for the gorillas, get e-Bay to feature the auction.”