John Kahekwa is the founder of the Pole Pole Foundation, (POPOF) located in Bukavu, in east Democratic Republic of Congo.
POPOF aims to conserve Kahusi-Biega National Park, which was created in 1937 to protect the Graurer’s or the Eastern Lowland gorilla. Two major wars in the area, the First Congo War (Nov. 1996 – May 1997) and the Second Congo War (Aug. 1998 – July 2003) have meant that the park has been put on the list of World Heritage in Danger since 1997, due to the overwhelming threats and danger caused by the political instability; influx of refugees, illegal settlers, poaching, removal and burning of timber, presence of militia groups.
John started as a lead gorilla park tracker. He often came into contact with gorilla poachers and spoke to them about the reasons why they poached. Their reply was ‘Hungry stomach got no ears’ and it soon became evident to him that poaching was a result of these people’s destitution.
Through the profits he received from his small business which sold T-shirts to tourists, John started Pole Pole, which means ‘slowly’ in Kiswahili. The aim is to use small amounts of funding to start projects which grow steadily over time, and which provide sustainable local human security. The approach sees conservation and humanitarian development as intertwined and all projects are designed to benefit both the environment and the people.
POPOF is involved in a variety of projects that helps achieve this. 47 former poachers were recruited and trained as wood carvers. The carvings have been sold in Japan, the USA and the UK, and the profits went back to the carvers. More than 24 Batwa women, also former poachers, were trained as tailors in three different villages surrounding the gorilla habitat. Furthermore, the organisation runs an afforestation project and communities around the park are encouraged to grow trees in their fields, gardens and perimeters of their lands.
At the heart of POPOF’s work is the aim to provide sustainable development that will change the social and ecological landscape in the area over time. John contributions throughout this process have been, and continue to be, outstanding.