Stories of Hope and Humanity – Corneille Ewango, Congo
“When I am studying plants, I feel like I am talking with some kind of supernatural life, like I am talking with someone who does not speak.” – Corneille Ewango
The Society of African Missions has been committed to the development and wellbeing of the continent of Africa ever since our first missionaries, inspired by our founder, Melchior de Marion Brésillac, first set foot on the continent in 1858, and for which Bishop deBrésillac gave his own life, on 25 June 1859 in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Over the coming months we will publish stories about many of the inspirational daughters and sons of Africa, from a country where we serve, who have become champions of Humanity. Some are fuelled by faith, others by hope in humanity. All, however, embody the best in the human condition and desire to see Africa and the Earth prosper and heal for the benefit of all.
Today we have chosen to highlight the heroic work of a Congolese Environmentalist. The earliest SMA missionaries in this country were from the Lyons Province, France though most of them were of Belgian origin. Today there are no longer European SMAs there but they have been replaced by SMA priests from DR Congo and other African countries.
Corneille Ewango was born into a family and community of hunters and poachers who lived close to Congo’s Okapi Faunal Reserve. He hunted elephants for their tusks and monkeys for their meat. His hunting skills, he realized, could help him pay his way through school.
Education, however, introduced him to the miracle of nature, especially the supernatural wonder of biodiversity. Very quickly he rejected illegal poaching of animals. After college he joined the staff of the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, fearlessly committing himself to saving the very animals he once unlawfully hunted, and preserving the flora and fauna in the Okapi Faunal Reserve.
The reserve is the only habitat for Okapi, a mammal that resembles a cross between a zebra and a giraffe, after which it takes its name. During the Congolese civil war (1996-2002) Corneille Ewango, having been abandoned by many of his colleagues, chose to stay at the reserve. However, for a period, fearing for his life, he was forced to hide in the forest, where he was befriended by Pygmies. He later wrote: “The Pygmies rely on the forest for their very life. They know everything about finding and using plants, animal behaviour, and forest survival. Working with these wonderful people has been incredibly valuable.”
During the Civil War, militias arrived to poach the animals. Ewango rallied a group of 1,500 residents to protect the reserve. He was one of the few who stood up to the militias and thanks, in no small part to his work, the reserve was saved.
In a 2015 interview with Michelle Nijhuis for grist magazine, Corneille Ewango, in response to being asked what first drew him to the natural world said:
“Congo, my country, has the largest forest in Africa, maybe the second-largest in the world. I was born in a forest area, and when I was growing up I assisted my uncle, who was a poacher. That was good, because it grew my passion for protecting the forest and plants. When I went to university, I decided that I would like to do something related to plant ecology, because I felt that plants were so beautiful. When I am studying plants, I feel like I am talking with some kind of supernatural life, like I am talking with someone who does not speak.” The full interview can be read here
In June 2007 Ewango spoke about his work at the Okapi Faunal Reserve in the Congo Basin – and his work protecting it from poachers, miners and raging civil wars. You can view the TEDTalk here
As SMAs we give thanks to Corneille Ewango, a champion of Climate Justice and a proud son of Africa.