Re-imagining Travel: The UFC’s Justin Wren, Saving Lives and Fighting for the Pygmies Deep in the Congolese Jungle

By Clint Stewart and Vivian Farmer

Imagine you’re a healthy male athlete in your early 20’s, at the peak of your physical capabilities. You’re a professional mixed martial artist, and you’ve fought in the UFC on the biggest combat sports stage in the world. You’ve won several big fights. You were a star on the UFC’s hit reality show The Ultimate Fighter, and you’re officially dubbed a “man to watch” in the heavyweight division.

What would you do with this opportunity? What would you be imagining for yourself?

As a combat sports fighter on the precipice of national and international fame and fortune, a lot of us are dreaming up material gains – cars and houses and hanging with A-list celebrities. We’re picturing our face on a wall and hearing conversations in bars about the “best pound for pound fighter…” Someone drops our name, and people nod in agreement.

“He’s legit,” they say.

Perhaps you’re more cultured. You’re interested in art and travel, fine wine. You’re dreaming of vacations in the Seychelles, summertime in Telluride. You’re prospecting a vineyard in the Russian River Valley, buying a local tavern where all your closest friends hang (your jukebox is a classic). You’re building your parents a home.

Justin Wren in the Congo.
Courtesy of Justin Wren.

What you’re not dreaming of is a trip into the jungle. And by trip, we don’t mean an entertaining excursion with a guide into the African rainforest for a day or two. A safari tour, or a trip up the Congo river to see a few crocodiles and big snakes; maybe a monkey or, if you’re really adventurous, sitting up at night with spotlights to catch a glimpse of a panther.

You might do all those things, and be dreaming of those and other adventure-travel trips. But you’re not thinking about dropping everything, giving up your career just when it’s set to take off, jumping on a plane and, over the course of the next several years, taking up residence with one of the most remote tribal groups on the planet, going off the grid and living as they do, experiencing their struggle and finding a way to help them – not merely giving money or sending food or taking a two-week habitat mission and building a house, mind you. But dedicating yourself to their plight, to fundamentally change their lives and set in motion something permanent, a long-term change to help them for generations.

Who would dream up such a thing? What kind of person, staring at fame and fortune, would whip an about-face and walk off into the jungle?

Luckily, we don’t have to imagine who. Though it seems like a movie script, we found the guy who actually did all this. He’s Justin Wren, former UFC standout turned eco-hero. We recently sat down with Wren and peeled back the layers of his story to find what’s behind one of the most interesting and unusual travel stories, and one of the most inspiring travelers, we’ve ever come across.

We had to know why. We had to know his story, in depth, and find out what drove this man from the mixed martial arts mat into the farthest reaches of the Congolese jungles. What was he in search of? Is he Kurtz on a journey into the Heart of Darkness? Is he running from something? What started this travel story, and where has it taken him? What’s changed and how?

Examining these questions and discussing them with Wren has led us to wonder: what can we learn about travel and the experiences we, as travelers, all yearn for and take pleasure in? Can we re-imagine what modern-day travel is, and can be? Are we truly travelers, or are we just traveling? 

Craning his neck to see out the fuselage’s small window, 6-foot-4, 275 pound MMA heavyweight Justin Wren sat cramped in the cabin of a single prop Cessna, circling above the dense Congo rainforest while, below him, a hoard of local tribesmen and women with machetes slashed the jungle into a makeshift runway. After a rough landing, Wren had hours of grueling travel, trekking through the world’s second largest rainforest in cars and on foot. He went deep into some of the roughest terrain on the planet on a mission to help the Mbuti tribe, a small band of forest-dwelling Pygmy natives.

The rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has a dense and high, tightly woven canopy of trees and shoots some 40 feet above ground, a structure borne of the competition upwards for light. Below it, the forest floor is a graveyard of all the vegetation that failed the climb – a thick layer of decomposing plants and deadfall which supplies the canopy with the needed nutrients to extend so high. The floor is also a breeding and living space for the diverse Congolese animal life. It’s a massive self-sustaining ecosystem, producing over 11,000 species of plants. There are also 450 species of mammals, 300 different reptiles, 200 amphibian species, and over 1,000 bird species. It’s known for its giant insects – beetles, ants and spiders, mosquitoes and the famous tsetse fly among them. Pretty much all of it can kill you.

Days into the challenging voyage, Wren finally met the Mbuti Pygmy tribes, but the people fled from him in horror. Mothers scooped up their screaming children and vanished into the jungle. It occurred to Wren: they’d never seen a white person.

This was Wren’s initial mission trip to the DRC, one of a number of ventures, in various countries, he’d been on during that time. His travels, while mission-oriented, were part of a deeper search – a path that began when he’d left the fight game in the grips of a drug and alcohol addiction, mired in a deep depression that had been a constant since his adolescence. There were suicide attempts. Betrayals of friends and family. He’d been kicked off his professional fight team and was ready to give up everything when a friend somehow convinced him to attend a men’s retreat in the Texas hill country. It would prove to be the start of something new for Wren. Soon, he’d confront his addiction, develop a mature faith for the first time in his life, and set out on a walk to reclaim himself, for himself.

The Congo, however, would change all that. It would change everything. Beneath the high canopy, working and living on the forest floor, Wren not only found the Mbuti; over the next 6 years, he’d spend 2 years back and forth out of the jungle with this and other tribes, living (and suffering) with them, and he’d become, in the end, one of them. He’s been adopted by the Mbuti, given his tribal name “Efeosa” (which, roughly translated, means “He who loves us”) and is considered a tribal member now. He is family. He’s worked alongside them. Sacrificed and lived with them. And he’s earned his place among them.

Pygmy village

The Pygmies are hunter-gatherers, and day-to-day life in a Pygmy village follows the patterns of the rainforest. Their huts are small and made from branches bent and affixed together, with broadleaves stretched over them. These structures are quick to set but are scant protection from the harsh elements. In the rainy season, the camps flood during intense rainstorms and then steep in high humidity, the heat and moisture trapped beneath the canopy. It’s dark, and wet, with the constant screams of cicadas. Mosquitoes are everywhere always and with them, deadly parasites. Food is scarce. The Pygmies forage and hunt wild game, but the rain forest’s resources are dwindling and for a day’s wage, local farmers give Pygmies a handful of food, barely enough to survive on to the next day after a full day of hard labor. It’s a vicious, abusive cycle of exhaustive work and slow starvation. Traveling with the Pygmies is not a getaway: it’s survival.

For those that haven’t had it, a few quick stats on malaria:

  • Some researchers believe malaria has killed more than half of humans that have ever died…as in, ever.
  • Malaria kills more than 425,000 annually across the globe.
  • Malaria kills 1 child every 30 seconds, about 3000 children every day.

Wren was misdiagnosed on 4 separate exams by different doctors when he’d contracted malaria. Due to the original diagnosis (negative for malaria), Wren was instructed to let the “bug” run its course and he’d be better in a few days. For several days thereafter then, he suffered – unknowingly, with a deadly parasite attacking his liver and vital organs. His temperature reached 105°F. He was told to eat (again, because they believed he had the flu), and he tried repeatedly, each time retching out what he’d swallowed. Unable to keep water down, Wren was desperate enough to keep trying (though his trust in water wasn’t exactly high at this point).

“You’re too weak to even puke at that point,” Wren said.

Eventually, a week later, he was flown by a friend back to the hospital and treated, successfully, for malaria.

The result? Wren lost 35lbs in less than a week. Recovery was a long, grueling trek back to health. Years later, he still feels the effects.

Wren has experienced their struggle firsthand. In addition to the day to day toils, he’s contracted malaria twice. He had it concurrently with typhoid fever – a deadly combination without intensive medical care.

Worse, he’s witnessed the brutality of the disease on children, and he’s buried them with his own hands. Wren tells of one particular child, Andibo, a 9-year old boy in what has become Wren’s adopted family – in other words, Wren’s little brother – who died in Wren’s arms.

Almost 2 years aggregate he’s spent there to date. Years of his time now. Which, in and of itself is not record-breaking travel, but what is particularly interesting about the extent of his time spent there is the sacrifice and struggle, the heartbreak of seeing innocent children suffer and die, the constant frustration in the face of corruption and bribery at every level of the Congolese government as he’s tried to help the Pygmy; the risk to his life, and his health; the jettisoning of a blossoming career – you can’t help but wonder why Wren continues to return.

Literally speaking, Wren set up a non-profit called Fight for the Forgotten, and he returns to help the enslaved Pygmy tribes. He’s partnered with another group, Water4, and the team’s mission is to bring clean water and farming technology to the tribes. They work to set these tribes on a path out of enslavement and the horrific suffering and struggle they’ve lived.

They’re accomplishing their mission, notably (and ironically) through helping both the oppressed, as well as their oppressors. To date, Wren’s team has drilled 67 successful water wells across the DRC, brought modern farming technology and techniques, and created the ability for all people across the region to produce fresh water and food – resulting in a reduced need to enslave others into backbreaking labor. For the first time, there is access to clean water, and that is increasing. But moreover, Wren’s team is not simply doing the work for the tribes. The approach is to introduce better practices so the natives can farm for themselves. 

One of the 66 fresh water wells that Fight for the Forgotten has drilled. Photo courtesy of Justin Wren.
One of the 67 fresh water wells that Fight for the Forgotten has drilled. Photo courtesy of Justin Wren.

“I don’t want to be the hero of this thing….I want to be the sparkplug,” Wren said, speaking about empowering the locals.

And it’s working. They are growing corn and maize, potatoes and other vegetables. And through these capabilities, and the efforts of Fight for the Forgotten, the Pygmy are gaining freedom from the tribes who enslaved them.

 Slavery and Fame

It’s hard to imagine, in 2017, that we still have open and overt slavery, isn’t’ it? It seems improbable, if not impossible that today there are more slaves on the earth (27 million, approximately) than ever before. It seems far-fetched to hear statistics like 3,000 children, most of them under the age of 5, die every day due to the lack of access to clean water and the associated waterborne pathogens they contract from it.

That’s 3,000. Per day.

It’s perhaps equally difficult to accurately imagine Justin Wren, all 6 and a half feet of him, nearly 300 pounds, in the middle of the worst of it. You can still see the chubby, shy pre-pubescent teen hiding in his smile, and behind a beard that would get a nod from Billy Gibbons, there’s soft white, sensitive and plush skin. You can imagine it welping up like a toddler’s from a mosquito bite. And despite the fact that this brute of a man is a former national Greco-Roman wrestling champion and an accomplished professional fighter, it’s difficult to imagine him surviving in the jungle. It feels more like a Hollywood comedy script, seeing him next to a tribe of 4-foot tall Pygmies in the middle of a rainforest, than it does an actual story of an actual guy, who is actually freeing slaves and actually for-real saving lives and doing some of the most impressive and effective humanitarian work on the globe.

Surely this is made up or, at least exaggerated, right? It can’t just be a guy who gave up everything and walked off into the jungle? Is this a publicity stunt? It can feel like it.

He has a book out now, co-written by a New York Times bestselling author and Sports Illustrated staff writer. He’s a sought-after guest speaker nationally and internationally. He’s done TedTalks and he’s a regular on Joe Rogan’s podcast. He has a fan club, and he’s back in the fight game and doing well, making money and is, by anyone’s measure, famous. (Rogan talks about how, during an actual MMA fight, Wren’s opponent is full-on trading punches while exclaiming what a fan he is (there’s actual recording of this)).

“Wren was even on TMZ in a time slot between Lindsay Lohan and Honey BooBoo.” 

It’s difficult to make this all add up. At the end of the day, it’s tempting to ask, and easy to wonder: is this guy, in the end, really just about himself? His “charity” a performance art he’s now famous for and he’s parlayed all this into notoriety (he was, after all on a reality show)? There’s no debating this popularity has benefitted him on all sides, and so it’s no sin to wonder about the motives. We’ve been ruined by countless Hollywood celebrities parading their African charities across the media, and there’s something about it all that just doesn’t sit right with us.

You can ask those questions. You may be asking them now as you read. We did. But the moment you meet Justin Wren, all burly, bearded and long-haired 6-foot-4, 265 pounds of him, that skepticism disappears, and you’re taken by the undeniable authenticity and genuineness of this guy, the unique blend of a mature, humble and thankful man and an innocent, excitable child.

It’s hard to imagine him as anything else. As anyone else, once you’re talking to him about his work, his belief in and deep love for, his Congolese family. But he was someone else. He was a world away from where he is now. What has emerged on this side of his travel to, and time and work spent in the DRC is a much different man than the one who, more than 6 years ago, dropped down onto that makeshift runway and stepped off the plane and walked into the jungle, scattering frightened villagers everywhere he went.

When asked about this change, Wren points to a specific event. He describes Andibo’s death and burial as a watershed moment in his life.

“That was a turning point for me,” he said in an interview with Joe Rogan, “I knew, then, I had to help. I had to do something, I didn’t know what…just something”

Travel, Family and Change

The word “travel” has its origins in early 14th century middle English / north and Scots and has the same etymology as the word travail, which is to toil or labor. Travail became “to make a laborious journey” – i.e., to travel. And the connection makes sense: to “travel” any considerable distance in the 14th century was, of course, a laborious task. One didn’t set out on a journey without purpose – exploration, commerce and trade, war / conquest, hunting and gathering, migratory patterns, following the seasons…these were “travels.”

One didn’t travel far away and simply return after the weekend, as we do now with ease. We can hop a flight and be virtually anywhere in the world in the time it takes the earth to make a single spin – a paradise for the adventure seeker in us. No doubt the most exotic locales and even the planet’s most dangerous places are accessible with relative ease.

Travel: to go from one place to another, as by car, train, plane, or ship; take a trip; journey:

Origin: 1325-75; Middle English (north and Scots), orig. the same word as travail (by shift “to toil, labor” > “to make a laborious journey”) 

Why is this important?

It’s important because Wren’s story, for us, exposes something about modern travel. Today we think of travel as a luxury, or an escape. A quest, even: like Wren on a men’s retreat, we’re travelling to broaden our minds, find ourselves for the first time, or recover something we lost along the way.

Few of us do, if we’re honest. If we’re straight about it, many of us spend our travel time anywhere but the place we are actually visiting. Our minds are tethered to what’s going on at home, our hands and eyes to our phones, our attention focused on the perfect set of pictures to post to Instagram so our friends get jealous and comment on how much fun we are having.

The travel industry itself is a massive, consumer-driven culture and it’s difficult to escape its solicitations, even in the hard-to-find places (there are publications solely dedicated to, ironically, showing you how to get to the world’s “hidden” locales).

Moreover, it can be exhausting, and exhaustive, to travel. Often, by the time we are home, we need another vacation – a vacation from my vacation, we say, because we’re behind at work now, the air conditioner went out while we were gone, and that glimpse of ourselves free and happy we had the last night of our trip seems like some faraway dream we had as a child. (“Post vacation depression” is now a bona-fide clinical condition).

Justin Wren, we assure you, is not struggling from post-vacation blues. Why? Because he keeps returning? Because he’s found a mission? Perhaps. But that’s not what stands out when talking to Wren. Perhaps he is tapping into something atavistic and essential to travel itself. Is it a coincidence that the fundamental change Wren has experienced is tied to considerable toil and labor, a product of his travails with a remote tribe of Congolese Pygmy slaves – malnourished and diseased and impoverished beyond imagination, beaten and abused and starved nearly out of existence? What does this tell us about traveling? What does the traveler seek or hope to find, and what are we missing when we don’t find it?

Justin Wren with Pygmy children.
Courtesy of Justin Wren

Are we suggesting the only meaningful way to travel is to pursue humanitarian work in the harshest environments and locales in the world? Of course not. But what we take from Wren’s long and laborious journey is that traveling can be life changing. It does hold within itself the potential of comingling widely different worlds, communities, and people, and through common, shared experiences, connecting us all in lasting, impactful ways – opportunities we all too often miss in the ways we travel.

What is undeniable about Wren’s travel experience is the depth and quality of his transformation through it. He truly has been changed, and we can learn from what he’s done – there is an entire world of oppressed, enslaved, and dying people out there who we can help. And through that help, perhaps we can help ourselves, see ourselves in a different light. But also, short of saving lives in the jungle, maybe there are life-changing moments accessible for all travelers, if we know where and how to search for them.

“[It stuck with me that] People who lived in such poverty were so comfortable and had so much more joy than people I know who live in mansions,” Wren said.

It was in an impoverished community on the opposite side of the globe that he found a family. And within it, he’s developed lasting, meaningful relationships unlike he’s ever experienced. He’s tapped into a world where all things and all activities are infused with life-affirming energy, despite the life-threatening conditions within which they exist.

After Wren’s most recent MMA fight (he won), he called out to his Pygmy family and spoke to them in Swahili:

“I am here to fight for you. I am not “White Man,” I am Efeosa. We are not different, we are one.”

And no doubt he believes this. The happiness and fulfillment he is experiencing is palpable, and contagious – envious even, for those of us searching for such things.

See this for yourself. Go check out Justin’s team and the ongoing story of their travails in the Congo. And, next time you plan a trip, jump off the well worn paths. Spend time away from the common tourist traps. Find the people and break bread with them. Find the place and the struggles within it. Find the stories that weave the whole history there and find yourself in those stories. Your travels and your travails inside theirs. Find a place you love and continue to go back there. Contribute and help that community in some way. Lean into it and let it change you, while you change it.

Stop just travelling. Be a traveler…