Ghost in the gorilla mists?

virunga gorillaMost of the time, when I encounter a religious reference in a mainstream news story I can figure out what it is doing there. However, I hit something the other day in Newsweek that really puzzled me and it still does.

The story in question is part of the cover package about exotic species around the world that are in danger of being snuffed out, often by insane human hunting. This leads into a tragic sidebar about those famous gorillas in the Congo, written by reporter Scott Johnson.

It seems that the gorillas are caught in the middle of another round of the hellish wars between the Hutu and Tutsis, with economic interests at stake in the lush jungles of the parklands. Killing the gorillas is one way to lash out at the rangers — many of whom have been killed — who try to enforce the rules of the park. This leads to the following reference that puzzled me:

One of the rangers, Paulin Ngobobo, 43, has been intimately involved in trying to stop the charcoal trade from spreading across Virunga. A devout Christian, with a wry sense of humor, Ngobobo is fiercely protective of the gorillas in his sector of the park. Six months ago he was lecturing villagers about the threat the charcoal industry posed to Virunga when men in military uniforms showed up, stripped him of his shirt and flogged him in front of the audience. Last month he posted a blog item in which he accused the charcoal merchants of being complicit in the destruction of the gorillas’ habitat. Two days later unknown gunmen killed a female gorilla under his care.

Ngobobo says he has received death threats and warnings to stop criticizing the charcoal industry. Then came last week’s killings, which many in his unit have interpreted as political assassinations — a message from the powerful interests that operate in the area. “There are people who are feeding off this conflict,” Ngobobo warns darkly. Last week authorities arrested Ngobobo and accused him of negligence because the recent killings all happened on his watch; his supporters claim that that was part of the assassins’ plan all along. Ngobobo denies any wrongdoing.

Why the reference to the ranger’s faith? Is it a way to undercut the latter claims of negligence? Perhaps, especially due to that word “devout” in front of the word “Christian.”

I also thought it was interesting that the reporter called him a Christian, instead of using the term Catholic. No, I am not bashing Catholicism. I am merely referring to the fact that the Hutu-Tutsi wars not that long ago included many accusations that powerful Catholic leaders in this part of the world should have done more to stop the bloodshed or, at least, not made it worse.

And is there some link to religion in this new conflict? The rest of the story does not tell us. Strange, no?

I, for one, wanted to know more about that strange description of the ranger.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Joel

    I thought it was just a way to invest Ngobobo with a little three-dimensionality. I didn’t see it as a reference to a religion as such, so much as just a personality trait, like the wry sense of humor.

    As for the Catholic/Christian thing, I’ve noticed that in other stories about Africa or Asia. About half the time, in places where Christians of one stripe or another are a minority, their denomination is left aside. It sort of makes sense; to Muslims or animists, such as are more plentiful in Africa, all Christians look alike. Our denominational differences mean a lot more to us than to outsiders.

    I’ve especially seen that in stories about the Christian/Muslim conflicts in Nigeria, where I searched news stories in vain for a while trying to find out what kind of Christians the people were. Looks like the same sort of negligence that you’ve commented on here before about the media not understanding different strains of Islam.

  • Andrew S.

    Maybe it’s the result of editing? Perhaps as submitted, the story said something like,

    A devout Christian, with a wry sense of humor, Ngobobo [said something wry and Christian that demonstrated how fiercely protective he is of the gorillas in his park]

    …and the editor replaced whatever that quotation was with just the descriptive sentence, leaving the seemingly out-of-context bit.

    Or perhaps it was just a little bit of color–the way the reporter might have said, in passing, that someone was “a passionate soccer fan” or “an amateur opera-singer” or any other odd detail about an article’s subject.

  • James

    I tend to agree with Joel’s take.

    It could be possible that it struck the journalist that he was Christian. Christians don’t have the best rep for environmentalist causes (because of poor assumptions and inaccurate stereotyping…and a few folks who give Christians a bad name in that area).