|Tulilenji Shita, the lion-slayer.|
|Hunger is perennial in Nabwalya.|
|Many residents depend on the Munyamadzi River for water.|
|Startled impala in flight near the Luangwa River.|
THE South Luangwa National Park is a real paradise teeming with wildlife.
One of the most noticeable things driving around in this torrid land are heaps and heaps of elephant dung – some fresh, some dry and some semi-dry.
It makes one think a recent report about dwindling elephant populations across Africa was a hoax.
Drive down to the Luangwa River and you will see a rich biodiversity within a few hundred square kilometres.
A group of hippos enjoys a bath in the remaining pools before all the water is finally licked up by the scorching sun, leaving behind a dry river bed resembling a sandy desert. In the surrounding bushes, there is the impala in their countless numbers, baboons, kudu, puku, waterbuck and giraffe, while large herds of wildebeest and zebra roam the nearby plains. There are also large populations of the fearsome buffalo.
The night belongs to the ravenous beasts – packs of lions, and the elusive and solitary leopard – and its silence is broken by the occasional whooping of hyenas.
But while the animals thrive here, the villagers of Nabwalya, which lies between the South Luangwa and the North Luangwa national parks, go through a grueling life fraught with many challenges.
It seems the Muchinga Escarpment, the geographical divide that separates the valley people from the rest of Mpika district, has also created a social divide.
And the valley people, who belong to the Bisa tribe, are usually looked down upon whenever they travel to the highland - Mpika town or Lundazi.
“They look at us as backward, and really we are backward. Some of the people laugh at us and say a lot of bad things,” says Bwalya Chanda, who works for the Community Resource Board (CRB) in Nabwalya.
The CRB manages wildlife resources and revenue on behalf of the community.
“It’s hard life and we feel abandoned,” says Mr Chanda.
With an impossible road, no electricity and poor mobile phone signal, the people here have little contact with the outside world.
There is only one communication tower near the chief’s palace, part of a project by the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority, but the signal dies just about 10 kilometres from the tower.
Locals call this place a prison, and many have never seen what lies beyond the escarpment.
Many civil servants, teachers especially, find life here unbearable and leave.
Elvis Kampamba is head teacher at Nabwalya Secondary School, and the longest serving civil servant in the area – he has worked here for 24 years.
“We have a very big problem of retention for civil servants,” he says.
The school, which is the only secondary school in Nabwalya, currently has 13 teachers, seven of them female.
But Mr Kampamba fears the teachers will soon leave due to the unbearable living conditions.
The head teacher’s fears are not without basis.
In the past few years, he has seen eight female teachers leave the school, unable to cope.
“So why don’t you leave yourself?” I ask him.
“The people here really need help and it will be sad for them to see me leave for better places, leaving them unchanged. I was brought up in the village and I appreciate suffering,” he tells me.
Adding to the harsh life, the school does not have enough staff houses, and so the teachers are forced to share.
Water is also usually a challenge here. In the dry season, when the wells and boreholes dry up, the residents have to walk down to Munyamadzi River to share the little remaining water with the wild animals.
And when the river is full, after the rains, it brings danger closer to the villages – crocodiles.
“Who can like here?” asks Weldemar Potrapeluk, the parish priest at the small Catholic mission.
Father Potrapeluk has been working in Nabwalya since 2008 when the mission opened.
“This is a paradise for the animals, but it is hell for the people,” he says, sitting in the shed to escape the scorching heat.
Living with the wild animals has its own challenges. Here, stories abound of people who survived attacks from wild animals, and those who did not.
The survivors have scars inflicted by lions, crocs and buffaloes.
But the biggest problem in as far as human wildlife conflict is concerned is the biggest land animal – the elephant. It also poses the biggest danger to human life, killing more people than even lions do.
Ask anybody here, they would rather face a pack of lions than a lone elephant.
Many say the population of elephants has increased around here over the years. It is believed that more elephants have crossed into this sanctuary because of reduced poaching. And more elephants spell more trouble for the locals. The elephants regularly raid their fields.
Chanda Kunda, who is headman of Solo village, told me the villagers have to regularly wake up in the night to fend off the elephants, lest they destroy their houses or steal the harvest from their barns. The villagers bang metals or bottles or shout to scare the jumbos away.
But chasing away elephants is a huge risk, and many have been hurt in the process.
On June 15 this year around 01:00 hours, Precious Phiri woke up to fend off three elephants from her cotton field when one of them charged at her, and pinned her to the ground.
Precious’ mother, Tulilenji Shita, driven by motherly instinct and rare guts, rushed to the rescue, shouting and flashing a torch light at the elephant until it relented.
The young woman’s abdomen was reaped open, but she survived. She has big scars on her belly and left thigh from the injuries.
It was not the first time that Ms Shita was showing such bravery.
In 2013, she made headlines when she killed a lion with a hoe.
While working in the field one morning, Ms Shita noticed a female lion about to attack her three-year-old daughter.
She put herself between the lioness and her child and charged at it, striking it with a hoe. Whether by sheer luck or by the hand of God, the lion died.
Some here now think Ms Shita is possessed.
Last season, most of the people here experienced crop failure due to poor rains. But they still had to share even the little crop that survived the drought with elephants.
Many households have already run out of food, and are on the verge of starvation.
In Solo village near Luangwa River, Patricia Chileshe prepares a pot of porridge – maize meal mixed with mwembe, a wild sourly pod-like fruit.
She adds ash to the mixture to reduce its sourly taste, and to make it less harmful. It is said the porridge can cause serious diarrheoa if not well prepared.
Ms Chileshe cooks the porridge for lunch and the family only eats nshima in the evening.
But the wild fruit is fast running out. The women now have to trek across the Luangwa River to gather it.
Currently, many of the villagers also rely on the unripe mangoes, which they boil and mash into a paste.
Hunger has become a perennial occurrence in Nabwalya, and successive governments have usually airlifted food aid to the area.
Mr Kunda, the headman of Solo village, says if the villagers are not helped soon, they will starve to death.
Last season, many villagers decided to grow cotton, hoping to make a fortune from the cash crop, but most of them had a poor harvest, and that has only made the situation here worse.
Some people from Lundazi and Mambwe districts in Eastern Province have seen opportunity in this situation, bringing mealie-meal on motorbikes, which they exchange for fish.
Sadly, many of the fishermen found on the river were using illegal nets in order to maximise their catches.
So what are the benefits of living in this wildlife sanctuary?
There are two safari companies operating in Nabwalya and employing a few locals.
When the hunting season is opened, safari companies pay government for the hunting rights, and government in turn pays 50 percent to the CRB, which manages the funds on behalf of the community.
The money has been used to build houses for community scouts and pay their salaries. The money has also been used to build schools.
Nabwalya has four government schools and 10 that are run by the CRB.
But the community schools are manned by unqualified teachers, in some cases there is only one teacher for all grades. At one of such schools in Solo village, we found the place deserted because the only teacher at the school had gone to fish.
The CRB also sponsors about 10 students in various colleges.
But the money is not enough, says Mr Chanda. And since the hunting ban was lifted two years ago, government has not remitted funds to the CRB.
Many of the scouts have now gone for months without pay, and some reportedly resort to illegal killing of animals to raise money.
One scout was recently found selling hippo meat in Mpika and is currently awaiting prosecution.
The CRB is also involved in the sensitisation of communities on conservation, and last year it bought fireworks to help scare away the elephants from crop fields.
A few years ago, the community was handed a camp near Mutinondo River by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, but the project was a huge failure, and the site now lies in dereliction – a blotch on the beautiful river.
Mr Chanda thinks the project was handed to the community prematurely by the Society.
“They were not ready to run it,” he tells me.
But many others do not see any benefits from this abundant wildlife, and with so much poverty around, it is not hard to understand why.
And Fr Potrapeluk thinks many people here have lost hope and have low esteem of themselves.
“They need a mind change, and that will take time,” says the priest.