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Return to Zambia
SEPTEMBER 2005
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Return to Zambia @ National Geographic Magazine
By Alexandra Fuller
Photographs by Lynn Johnson
On a visit home, an African writer travels from remote valley to village to city, contemplating the relationship between people and wildlife.

The Walk
I had already bought a pair of hiking shoes at the secondhand store in Serenje. Now Rolf Shenton—conservationist, mechanic, popular local politician, and occasional guide—bought me a nylon backpack at the cheap-cheap store. The next morning, in the knifing predawn cold, he drove me to the brink of Zambia's vast undulating plateau, as far as his pickup would go. This is where the edge of the world disappeared in a shawl of mist. Here, written in singing Bemba on the trunk of a large msasa tree, we found the words: "BA POCHA BONSEISENI TWIPAYEIANAMA SHONSE APO TABALALESHA—Poachers come together and kill all the animals here before they stop it."

Rolf introduced me to my new companions: Jonathan Mvula (a Zambia Wildlife Authority, or ZAWA, scout whose name translates like the beginning of a poem: "Jonathan Rain"), Pelete Nsofwa (a village scout whose AK-47 hung off his shoulder like a broken wing), and Sunday Finkansa (a toughened former poacher).

I followed them, hurrying in a half trot to keep up—which seems an apt metaphor for trying, as I was, to get a grip on the relationship that Zambians have with their wildlife. This was a single idea with a hydra head. A man's idea of an elephant, for example, is bound to change depending on whether he experiences the animal at the end of a telephoto lens, the end of his millet plot, or as a weekly stew. Walking into the Luangwa Valley with men who knew game from opposite ends of the law seemed as good a place as any for me to begin.

Roughly 450 miles (730 kilometers) long and 60 miles (100 kilometers) across at its broadest point, Luangwa is the tail end of Africa's Great Rift Valley, rich in wildlife and scenically remarkable. The place feels more mysterious and remote than it really is, in part because it is difficult to navigate by vehicle in the dry season and virtually impassable by any means in the rains. Four national parks—North Luangwa, South Luangwa, Lukusuzi, and Luambe—and several game management areas (GMAs) exist in the valley and its immediate surrounds. (GMAs are buffer zones between the parks and the rest of Zambia; here hunting, habitation, and farming are permitted.)

Just before we dropped off the edge of the escarpment to begin our descent into the valley, I turned back for one last look at the plateau that has an umbilical pull for me, being the place where I spent the happiest years of my childhood. I could hear the disappearing whine of Rolf's pickup engine. Then the silence was such that I couldn't tell if the buzzing noise in my head was the ubiquitous hum of insects or the bees in my head left over from my last dose of malaria.

Sunday Finkansa Was a Born Poacher
Sunday led our party down the escarpment into the valley, and he walked without watching his feet because he has hunted (illegally) every inch of this basin, and he knows it the way the rest of us know our way to the bathroom at night. He is 44 years old, with a face like granite—as if you might reach below it and find some direct connection to the earth—and a short, square body hardened by deadly exercise. He is deaf in his right ear from where a game scout kicked him in the head ten years ago, but he has made up for his impaired hearing by employing at least one other sense that the rest of us don't even know we have.

We stopped for lunch, and I asked him questions, with Jonathan's and Pelete's help since they speak several languages well, including Bemba (which is Sunday's mother tongue) and English (which is my only tongue).

Sunday was recruited into the poaching business in 1981 by his uncle, a Mr. Saili of Salamo village, he said, as if I should know who that was. So I nodded, pretending. Sunday isn't sure, exactly, how many animals he killed during his 20-year-long career as poacher. "Thousands and thousands," he conceded at last, which may have been a translation glitch, but I wouldn't count on it.

In 1982 Sunday, who was along to help his brother hunt, was arrested for killing a rhino. "The scouts found us," he explained. "My brother absconded. Me? I was left in the sun." Sunday stayed in Mpika jail for three years. "Three years hard labor. Three years sleeping one man on top of another. Three years no fun. To start, they tell you, 'Greet the house!' You have to fall on the ground and roll in the dust and call them with respectful names. After three days of beating and starving, they ask me why I am in jail, and I tell them, I am a poacher. Then they say, 'good milile' [good food] and after that they call me Bwana, and they treat me with respect because I am a strong man who does not fear the government. But it is not an easy life."

"Did you stop poaching then?" I asked. 

"No. Poaching is something like a family disease with me."

When Sunday killed another rhino in 1986 and sold the horns in Ndola to a man from Senegal for the equivalent of $800, the cash was split among the family members with whom he hunted. Sunday used his share to buy a few goats, some pigs, a bicycle, and a pair of gum boots. With what was left, he got very drunk for a fortnight.

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