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Stany Nyandwi of the Jane Goodall Institute: “Change takes time”

Today, if you look at what is going on with the world, it is very sad. We need to teach young people to reclaim the environment. They need patience and understanding and to realize not everything happens quickly. Change takes time. I’ll give an example — there is a craze today with always having to buy the […]

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Today, if you look at what is going on with the world, it is very sad. We need to teach young people to reclaim the environment. They need patience and understanding and to realize not everything happens quickly. Change takes time. I’ll give an example — there is a craze today with always having to buy the newest version of a cell phone. Young people’s lives are intertwined with their devices. I would ask them to stop and think about what damage to the environment all the electronic devices are causing… … mining for minerals and the pollution that comes from this industry, etc. These discarded devices and batteries that end up in landfills could often be used for much longer or even be recycled.


As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stany Nyandwi.

As the world’s chimpanzee population dwindles in the wild, Stany Nyandwi makes it his mission in life to care for mistreated chimpanzees rescued by The Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) throughout Africa. As a survivor of the Burundi genocide, Stany has overcome insurmountable odds to become one of the only humans to master the complicated ‘pant hoot’ chimp language. Recognizing that it’s not just a chimpanzee/human struggle, he’s taken it upon himself to reconnect with our closest relatives on this planet. Working with chimps has given Stany new meaning and purpose. He has overcome battles with addiction as well as the threat of imprisonment and death. In 1995, he fled his war torn country of Burundi and continued his work with orphaned chimps in Kenya, and then, most notably at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda. He has been recognized with multiple global conservation awards for his pioneering chimpanzee work. Today, more than three decades later, Stany continues his work with chimps, at JGI’s Chimp Eden sanctuary in South Africa. Though he has faced much discrimination, injustice and hardship, Stany continues to rise above adversity, living a life of commitment, dedication and sacrifice. On top of caring for the chimpanzees, he works hard to provide for his family including his wife and eight children (four biological and four adopted). He is a man with a heart as large as Africa; a man who understands the redemptive power of forgiveness.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?

I was born on March 21, 1968 in a very deep village in the mountains of Burundi in Central Africa. It was a very long journey to reach town, and there was no road. I had a poor family and my parents had 10 children, with 8 surviving past infancy. My name (Nyandwi) means seven (I was the seventh child). At the age of ten, I attended a mission school and learned to read and write in the Kirundi language, but my education was not very good. I do have some fun childhood memories, like the animals I loved including guinea pigs that I had as pets and rabbits that lived in the bush near my house… I loved to spend time collecting leaves for them to eat. A friend from my village got a job as a houseboy in town and when he came home he had new clothes, a watch and even had shoes — I didn’t own shoes. So I decided to leave home at 15 to work as a houseboy in the Burundian capital city, Bujumbura. It was not as wonderful as I thought it would be. I worked for years in very difficult, slave-like conditions, sometimes not even being paid for my work. At 19 I met a friend who was starting a job at the new Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) and he promised he would get me a job, too. He came through on his promise and that is how I began my work with Dr. Jane Goodall and the chimps.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

When I was working as a houseboy in Bujumbura, I would see rich tourists who bought chimpanzees as souvenirs. In my country, there were not many regulations, or enforcement of those that existed, so this activity was allowed. I felt so terrible for the animals and wondered what would become of them when the vacation was over. Years later, in 1993, there was a terrible civil war that broke out in my country and this war took the lives of my parents, my younger brother, as well as hundreds of thousands of my fellow Burundians. I was able to get out in 1995, but I had to leave my family behind. I couldn’t go back or communicate with them for over four years. There was no way to call or reach them and there were no flights being allowed in at that time. It was a very difficult time for me and the chimps became my family. I truly identified with these animals that had suffered terrible cruelty and loss, just as I had.

Can you tell us about what positive impact you and your organization are trying to make in our world today?

In my time with the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), I have improved the lives of our rescued chimpanzees in many ways. I am proud to say that I am one of the only people in the world who is a master chimpanzee linguist. I can understand their language (pant hoot) and we communicate with each other. It has been my joy in life to develop chimpanzee care and husbandry techniques that have been recognized worldwide. Our rescued chimps have balanced diets, clean drinking water, safe living conditions and are given health checks every year. I also helped improve conditions in the Ugandan Zoo. The chimps were living in very poor conditions, but I helped train the staff how to feed and care for their animals in a way that keeps them healthy and safe. But our true hope is to have no more chimpanzees that need to be rescued and brought to sanctuaries or zoos. To this point, through JGI, I have also been a leader in their Human/Wildlife Conflict program. This program is designed to help protect the animals that are still living in the wild. We go out to rural communities and teach them how to live in harmony with chimpanzees and the importance of conservation and how communities can benefit in protecting the animals and the environment for future generations.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I would say my “Aha Moment” was when I first started working at the Jane Goodall Institute. I didn’t work with the chimpanzees right away. I was brought in as a gardener. My bosses who ran the sanctuary, American Dean Anderson and his Australian wife Susan, started to notice me paying close attention to the chimpanzees. I was fascinated and during my work breaks, I would watch them eat, communicate with each other, play, groom, etc.They gave me my first opportunity to interact with a chimpanzee called Max in a safe and controlled way. I was told to sit calmly with one arm outstretched straight and Max who sat near me also outstretched his arm to touch my finger. It was a magical moment when he touched the tip of my finger, and quickly pulled his back to smell my scent, it was a sign that he was just as intrigued as I was, and that I was being acknowledged and accepted. After that day, Max and I never remained the same, and it was the start of a very good and long friendship. It was that day that the Andersons offered to train me to work with the chimps and I never looked back. The Andersons departed Africa soon afterward, but their powerful impact on my life remained.

Can you share the most interesting story or funniest mistake that happened to you since you began working with the chimpanzees at the Jane Goodall Institute?

I can look back now and say its funny, but at the time it was very dangerous! At the JGI sanctuary in Burundi, I made a big mistake. There are safeguards in the chimp houses to keep both the animals and keepers safe. Before entering, you are supposed to check the rooms to make sure all the chimps have exited. There are doors that lock from the outside to keep the animals from escaping. I didn’t do a good job observing and missed that there was still one chimp sleeping in his hammock. I entered the night room area and was locked in before I realized my mistake. A very large and high- ranking male chimpanzee emerged from his hammock and became very angry that I was in his territory. I knew I had nowhere to escape and he was going to attack. Somehow I managed to stay very calm. I didn’t scream or yell out for help or make any sudden movements that could make him even more aggressive. Luckily, I had a large basket with me which I used it to push him away and distract him every time he attacked me. All I could do is whisper my manager’s name, Debby, over and over in the hope that she would hear me from where she was sitting a few meters away. Debby Cox is an Australian woman who had worked with JGI sanctuaries in Africa for some time and took over the sanctuary oversight duties in Burundi following the Anderson’s departure. Fortunately, at the most opportune time, Debby glanced in my direction and noticed my dilemma. Slowly and quietly, Debby made her way to the sanctuary supply area, loaded a syringe with a mild sedative, returned to the enclosure and administered the injection to the chimp through the bars before he could seriously injure me. A potential crisis was thankfully averted by both of us staying calm. Working with the chimpanzees is truly a gift that you have to earn. I learned how important it is never let your guard down and always follow the safety protocols to keep both you and the animals safe.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I have had help from many wonderful people along the way. From Dean and Susan Anderson who gave me my first job and training with the chimps, to Debby Cox who worked together with me to build the Ngamba Island chimpanzee sanctuary from the ground up, to the incomparable Dr. Jane Goodall. Dr. Goodall has always believed in me and continues to remember me and recommend me for important work with the chimpanzees. She even calls me “the chimp whisperer.” It makes me very proud! I wouldn’t have the life I have today if it wasn’t for all of their kindness and support and so many people along the way who believed in me and inspired me.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Yes, three things are EDUCATION, CONSERVATION, and TEAM WORK. We live in a very challenging time. We need to educate the community about the importance of conservation and how our actions can have either a positive or negative impact on the earth. As a community, even small actions have an impact. In my country, we teach rural villagers how to make clay ovens so that they use less firewood and coal, which helps protect the forests (and animals that live in that habitat). Conservation is a team effort. It takes individuals, societies and governments working together to make the changes that matter. For example, politicians have the power to write and pass regulations that protect the environment and punish corporations for illegal pollution or other harmful activities. Then communities can come together and raise awareness for conservation efforts, and individuals can make a difference by volunteering for animal conservancy groups or donating to reputable charities like Jane Goodall’s Chimp Eden (https://www.chimpeden.com/wishlist.html). For me, my work with the chimpanzees has been a lifelong labor of love. I hope that the docufilm about my work entitled “Pant Hoot” can help spread the word and raise awareness for the plight of the chimpanzees that are facing extinction in the wild.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Today, if you look at what is going on with the world, it is very sad. We need to teach young people to reclaim the environment. They need patience and understanding and to realize not everything happens quickly. Change takes time. I’ll give an example — there is a craze today with always having to buy the newest version of a cell phone. Young people’s lives are intertwined with their devices. I would ask them to stop and think about what damage to the environment all the electronic devices are causing… … mining for minerals and the pollution that comes from this industry, etc. These discarded devices and batteries that end up in landfills could often be used for much longer or even be recycled.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

YES! One of my dreams would be to meet the President of the United States. I’m not political and it doesn’t matter which party or specific person it is. Since I was a young boy, I used to hear wonderful things about America. I never thought I would ever go, but later in life, I was invited by Dr. Jane Goodall and was able to be part of an event at the United Nations. I view America as a mother to the rest of the world. It gives support to other countries and is a beacon of light. I would just love to have the opportunity to meet the President of the United States, take a picture and of course, talk to him about what more America could do in conserving and protecting animals and the environment in Africa, as well as the rest of the world.

How can our readers follow you online?

The best way to follow me is to support my film, Pant Hoot, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @panthootfilm

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