The People of Mfuwe

by Ilona Kauremszky
Special to mycompass

ZAMBIA, South Luangwa National Park - Amid tall grass and scorched red earth wild buffalo, giraffes, and lions roam across this sacred animal sanctuary. By a muddy pool sunning hippos bathe belching out baritone grunts that reverberates my core. I can see, hear, smell and feel Africa.

Life starts early at the Mfuwe Lodge. At sunrise I’ve already encountered elephants traversing across the water-lily choked waters beyond our cabin porch. The family decides to trek through the shallow lagoon leaving the baby trailing behind the mother just like in the movies.

I knew then that I met my moment of awesome on this trip of a lifetime. We’d been looking forward to watching endangered animals in their natural habitat and learning about the indigenous people in the area.

In a remote paradise of Zambia, this hidden hinterland is known as the South Luangwa National Park. Flying in from neighboring Malawi we were aboard a 19-seater called Swift Air. Only months earlier, a Malawian Louise Hahn-Perepeczko started this company.

So secluded is the area that tour operators are not the norm.

Shouldered by the lofty Muchinga Escarpment in the west and the Luangwa River in the east, the valley’s lifeline is the river. Wild stretches of wilderness paint the bush valley in deep greens and gold grasses exposing in parts a parched coppery soil beneath. Zambia, "the Real Africa", is regarded by many as the continent's greatest secret. The country’s strength they say is its people, but it’s also the remote beauty.

It was on this trip last spring when I witnessed how one community, the people of Mfuwe, were on a quest to keep Zambia’s sacred valley unspoiled and pure, which is always a delicate balance and struggle between man and nature.

The father of Zambia’s modern conservation movement was Norman Carr who worked to develop this 9050 sq. km as a national park. Carr pioneered the walking safari in 1961 as a backlash to the bus-ridden parks of other African nations.

Void of big buses tourism is the bush camp experience. Zambia is covered in 1/3 protected parks. The only safari operator allowed to set up camps in the southern section, the Bushcamp Company promises an eco-trip worthy of movies and epic novels.

It operates one lodge, the only one inside the park remaining open year round, and six bush camps. Many are eco-tents on stilts hidden among ebony or mahogany groves by ox-bow lagoons. The Kuyenda bush camp is run by renowned safari guide Phil Berry, a giraffe expert, and legend in these parts.

We stayed at the newly renovated Mfuwe Lodge. Our digs, a massive two-story thatched roof hut had all the modern conveniences. The interior mirrored the natural surroundings using indigenous stone, wood décor, local organic textiles and artwork. Like its camps, the lodge is run on sun power with hot water charged by solar too.

Responsible tourism is at the company’s core. Andy Hogg, a Zambian who used to work at Save the Rhino Trust’s Chinzombo Lodge in Luangwa, is the visionary whose passion is the people and the land.

As a kid, Andy’s family and relatives made annual vacation pilgrimages leaving their home in Northern Zambia with everyone piling inside the car for a two-day trek to spend an “incredible two weeks in the bush.” “This place stuck with me. We’d fish, camp and it was the most incredible freedom for us at the camps, no one around,” he smirks recalling his Huckleberry Finn school days.

Since 1999 Andy’s been heading this small bush camp company and propelling local community projects, many of which are supported by generous guest donations. He says, “We don’t want to get bigger. Our six bush camps hold six to eight people each.”

A vermiculture project is one of the initiatives. “We have 15 worm projects in different villages plus at the lodge. We use the compost, give it to local gardeners and they grow vegetables and sell it to the lodge. There’s a school (Chiwawatala school) we work closely with them and they have a big garden too,” he says.

The one mission closest to Andy’s heart he tells me over lunch by the banks of the Mushilashi River involves education. “Even though the government funds education, kids in rural areas have difficulty accessing schools so many go to boarding schools. It costs on average $400-$500 a year which could require anything from soap to books to transport,” he says explaining that the Bushcamp Company has a pupil sponsorship program now sponsoring 250 students.

“If we continue this education of assisting let’s say three-hundred kids a year in ten years that’s three-thousand kids that wouldn’t have been educated without our help. With sponsorship they will be able to continue their studies seriously, and with education comes employment,” he notes.

Another project is Charity Begins at Home, a company-funded program Andy set up to help educate staff or their family members. Currently Emelda Newa, the wife of an assistant chef, is in a business and secretarial course due to this program. He adds, “She has excelled in her first term and is determined to pass with flying colours. This will put her in a great position to be employed in tourism within the valley.” Andy says, “Guests are 100 percent able to help,” adding, “We’re busy building all the time. Generous donations from our guests and supporters have allowed us to get three new classrooms, two dormitories and nice new desks.”

Education is tied to the environment too.

Earlier in the morning my guide, Manda Chisanga, a walking-talking Google, explained the local legends and statistics on flora and fauna. As we passed a tamarind tree atop a termite mound, we moved onto a vast plain as far as the eye could see to encounter a surreal Salvador Dali-like canvas studded with black acacia tree stumps. An elephant herd kicked and licked the dusty ground in search of salt while a harem of zebras whizzed in front of us, their majestic heads crowned by a mane of bold black and white stripes. The whole scene was so intoxicatingly dizzy. I had to pinch myself.

The South Luangwa Valley is among the world’s greatest wildlife sanctuaries. It has a huge concentration of bird species, playful pukus, and Zambia’s largest elephant population. The resident lions and leopards fuel the adrenaline during night safaris.

This animal kingdom is blessed by a happy accident. Eons ago like the ancient Great Rift Valley a plate collided creating this earth bowl now bordered by a dramatic escarpment in the park’s west end with a meandering river in the east that slowly shifts creating new tributaries nourishing the park’s fertile ground.

As Manda describes the area, he stops suddenly. Before us in the bush stands an elephant clearly in distress. “Look at its leg, it’s been injured,” he says, grabbing his radio instantly.

“We are at the far end of the abandoned air strip and have spotted an injured elephant, his foot has been caught in a snare,” he radios the lodge. “The lodge is now calling the South Luangwa Conservation Society. This donor funded organization patrols for poachers and are the only ones equipped to immobilize and rehabilitate snared wildlife. We work with them. A team will be there immediately to monitor the animal’s condition.”

While the park is home to animals, it is also home to bordering farm villages. The local farmers I learn protect their crops from incoming animals by mounting electric fences but when the fences no longer work, the thin wires remain enclosed around the farm and sadly become a device poachers use to set up traps in the night. Illegal poaching is a constant threat. It’s estimated since the seventies 75 percent of the elephant population has disappeared due to illegal poaching. More traumatic is the extinction of the black rhino that occurred in the eighties.

Later I learned of another elephant encounter but it wasn’t until dinner when I saw a new side to our affable Manda, a modest man concerned about the future of his community.

Several years ago during a safari he had a eureka moment when one of his guests, an American relayed the benefits of solar cooking. You save the environment from deforestation and extend mortality rates. Elephant-human conflicts arise when women walk upwards of 30km in search of firewood only to be charged and stampeded. “The women are the gatherers and most at risk,” he explains.

In 2006, Manda, then 32, was designated the best guide in the world by Wanderlust magazine which awarded this passionate man from the Kunda village the inaugural Paul Morrison World Guide award. With his bursary Manda realized his dream and bought his village a solar cooker.

“I made a solar panel,” he smiled. “Our women won’t have to risk their lives again.”

The next morning, we ventured to the village. He introduces me to Rhoda Banga who is in declining health yet still manages to affectionately hold his hand smiling into his eyes, the whole time he relays her story.

“She was attacked by an elephant when she was getting firewood. It kicked her around and broke her ribs, which has penetrated into her lungs and she’s been ill ever since,” he says of the incident.

Rhoda’s healthcare has been minimal, a few trips to the hospital with a badly needed operation unattainable due to limited funds.

But out of this sad story comes a silver lining. Her 37-year-old daughter Zer has been using the solar stove. She likes cooking beans on it. “Beans take longer to cook so it shows how they use this stove for slower cooking food,” he smiles.

Still Manda worries. “Some people thought it was the devil, magic – they were waiting for the smoke. When I brought it many looked at me in disbelief.”

Somehow I hope the strong African sun will shine new life on these people of Mfuwe giving them new hope. Zer points to her two daughters each giggling as they shyly approach to get a better look at me. All of us standing in a circle beside the solar stove watched the fresh catch of the day cook by the sunlight.

It was another moment of awesome.

-30-

photos & video: Stephen Smith


If You Go:

The climate from June through August averages 23-25Celsius
(June July is their winter)

Mfuwe Lodge

The South Luangwa Conservation Society

Students from the Chiwawatala Basic School

Night soundscape from South Luangwa Park


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