Maize and Ivory, by Barbara Brustlein, pictures by Jörg Böthling.
Barbara and Jörg spent few day at Woodlands at this time of the rainy season in 2014. We are privilege to publish in SAP Blog their article published Missio Mafazin, Jan./Feb. 1/15, 2015
People live in a buffer-zone where humans and wild animals cohabit just outside the Lower Zambezi National Park. The farmers are allegedly profiting from the tourists attraction only to be threaten by elephants and hippos which are destroying their crops.
Every night, while watching their fields in turn, Starfred Chimwanja, 56, and his wife Mebo are paying attention to any sound. It has been like this for weeks. “The corn is ripe. If we go to sleep this evening, our field will be stripped bare”, says Starfred. So, they stay awake, armed with a shot-gun to give warnings against the intruders: elephants, porcupines, hippos and baboons. Those animals are attracted by the ripe corn. Chiawa, their village, is situated just outside the Lower Zambezi National Park. From the point of view of the farmers, the game management authority of the National Park favour the animals rather than assisting the farmers in protecting their crops.
Only few safari-tourists are coming in this rainy season. Roads turn into ponds of mud. Even four wheel drive vehicles cannot pass. Being only at two hours drive from Lusaka in dry season, Chiawa is secluded or cut off at this time of the year.
In a couple of weeks, when the rainy season is over and some roads can be used, the tourists will come and fill the lodges that are located alongside the slow stream of the river Zambezi like pearls on a string. It costs 200 dollars per night in a lodge which are only accessible by speedboat.
The tourists are an important source of income for many people such as Dasmat, a 40-year old man with the AK-47 in his hands. He is usually employed by one of the lodges to escort holiday-guests on their tours. As the luxury lodges are still more or less empty, he is currently busy with his second job: “I protect animals from poachers and I protect people’s fields from the animals.”
Dasmat is paid by the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA). How is he performing in his task is highly controversial. “A wild elephant devastated our field for three days” says Ekrin Mpona, 43, a local farmer. Only when our crops were completely smashed that a ZAWA man shot the elephant down. She stands in the middle of her field pointing at the remains of her crops as well as some huge bones of the elephant. “People cooked the meat of the elephant and celebrated for four days”, says Father Paul Sakala. “That is terrible. Someone has to see the point of view of these people. They have always been here and they have to survive from their land.”
Father Paul, 55, has come from Lusaka. He has been sent as a priest to the surrounding of Chiawa four years ago where humans and wild animals are expected to coexist.
He lives at the shore of the Zambezi in a renting house provided by the Chief of Chiawa, a Lady-Chief called Christine Mambo. A flock of visitors stands waiting in front of her house. The 64 year old lady is sitting on a white plastic chair some metres in front of her house door. Her advisors are on her left and right sides. The people who are waiting are overweight White people in khaki trousers and half open shirts. “Investors from Zimbabwe or South Africa”, guesses Father Paul who is familiar to see crowds around the house of his influential neighbour. “This land belongs to the clan. Nothing is agreed upon without the signature of the Chief.”
Before the investors are allowed to speak, they have to go through the traditional greetings of respect. One of the advisors is showing the correct movements while the visitors try to imitate him. Christine Mambo watches silently without moving a lid. “This is a world of its own”, says Father Paul. “Those who do not respect the traditions are leaving empty hands.” That is obviously not the intention of today’s visitors. Each one performs the exercises according to the procedure. Will the visit pay off? The Chief says: “You all want to build lodges and build them alongside the Zambezi. We have really got enough of them. But the country is lacking infrastructures and people have no jobs. I would still see some possibilities there.”
As a matter of fact, 18,000 people live in and around Chiawa, their ancestors’ land. The National Park is within its boundaries. “Foreigners come to see our elephants. But they don´t see the damage that they cause”, says the Chief. “But without the park, we would be without wildlife anymore. How can you convince people that they should stop poaching when they can make quick and good money doing it?”
The government wants to make money too. In 2010, Zambia wanted a limited opening for ivory trade but did not succeed. If they had been successful, it would have been fatal for the elephant population. Animal rights activists were relieved.
What shall be done to make people and wild animals coexist around the National Parks? Some demand that the government supply them with electric fences. For Father Paul, this is not a solution. “It may be good in some cases but people forget that they will be fenced themselves like in a zoo”. That’s not too implausible as some lodges offer jeep-tours around the village. According to Isaiah Museto “the tourists come to look at us like animals in a zoo”. Museto works at the local court. He is also a member of the village council. “It is annoying but what is really upsetting us is the issue of land property traditionally under the ‘ownership’ of the Chief acting on behalf of the community. The government wants to get rid of this concept. If happening, we would be left unprotected”.
“I am honestly sorry for the local population”, says Davie Visser, 55. “They go nowhere and there is a number of reasons for that.” Visser gaze glides from the terrace behind his house over a vast field covered with ripe corn. Zimbabwe is on the other side of the Zambezi. The view is fabulous. It used to be his family home for three generations until Robert Mugabe confiscated the land and chased them all.
Crossing the river, Visser rented a fertile land and started rebuilding his existence. “I also have the hippos in my fields every night”, he says. “And since the baboons have no natural enemies like leopards and lions anymore, thing have gotten terrible with them.”
There is nothing that the farmers have not tried to keep the animals away: drums, burning chili, plastic or tyres. At the end, animals got used to anything. “They follow ancient routes. One can make them choose another way but it will only be in somebody else’s field. We have to face the fact that we live with animals and will always lose part of our crops”.
Visser adds: “There´s one more thing. What I have achieved so far, a Zambian could never achieved it for a very simple reason. With the first signs of success, his relatives are in front of his door asking for their share.” Father Paul nods while the framer speaks. Four years in these surroundings have taught him to be thankful for the achievement made. “Hopefully, in one or two generations, the people in this surrounding will no longer be poor workers instead of a lucky few who profit from rich tourists. It is also my dream that they will protect wild animals.”
A big challenge for the people of Chief Mambo. Chinese firms are not building roads for nothing. Indeed, copper and gold lie beneath the hills of Zambia. It is the case where Starfred Chimwanja and his wife Mebo cultivate. Some signatures on a possible contract and the night vigils to guard the field would be history. What would it means for wild animals is a different story. “The most terrible predators are humans”, says Davie Visser while looking at the Zimbabwean side of the river Zambezi.