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Return to Zambia
SEPTEMBER 2005
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Return to Zambia

By Alexandra Fuller
Photographs by Lynn Johnson

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No Man Should Have to Bury His Son
Four years ago Sunday was persuaded by his conservation-minded chief—Chief Mpumba—to give up illegal hunting, but his sons stayed in the business. Then the elder son was killed by scouts. "They shot him to death in the south park," Sunday said. "My other son was fortunate. He was merely shot in the leg. He walked for three days to find me. He told me, 'Charles is dead.' So I came back into the park to the place where they killed my son. Just a few bones scattered here and there. That was all that remained."

When Sunday had finished telling us about his son, no one spoke or moved for a while because there didn't seem to be anything to say or do about a strong man's dead child. Then Jonathan stood up with a sigh and began to pack away his books (he was teaching himself the Latin names of the valley's flora and fauna). "Come on white person," he said to me, "try walking. So far you have said 15 words for every one step. Walk like a Zambian."

Scorpions and Camping
That evening, after supper, the village scout, Pelete Nsofwa, was stung on the hand twice by a scorpion. The pain of such a sting is enough to make a grown man scream for two days, but Pelete just squeaked a bit and accepted my offer of aspirin. Sunday wanted aspirin too.

"Are you in pain?" I asked.

"No," Sunday said, swallowing the pills.

Then we spread a tarpaulin on the dust to help prevent further scorpion incidents and lay around the fire, smoking and talking under a deep purple-black sky. Jonathan told us that early last season, in long grass, his youngest brother, leading a scout patrol, walked into a black mamba. It says something of the strength of Jonathan's brother that it took him three hours to die from the resulting bite on his face. (I heard once, at a snake farm in Mombasa, that in Kenya a black mamba is known as the two-step snake—the supposed number of steps a bitten person can expect to take before dying.)

"You have seen? There are casualties in this game," Jonathan said lighting a cigarette with the end of a burning log. "Pa-pa-pa," he said softly, blowing smoke into the fire. "Has your heart ever done like that?" he asked me, "pa-pa-pa-pa."

"Yes," I said, meaning it.

That night my dreams were noisier than the reality of the winter-shocked night, and the next morning I awoke early to find that the cold damp of the nearby wetland had insinuated itself over our camp. In the cathedral quiet of that miombo woodland, the crackle of dew-drying grass was interrupted only by a call of a ground hornbill (like a stone dropping into a deep well) and the clear, diminishing tone of a single Jacobin cuckoo. I was not, but felt as if I could be, in the heart of an unpeopled world. We were only two days' walk from the noisy civilization of Mpika town on the valley's western edge (the Fuka Fuka Night Club, the Discipline Restaurant) and two or three days' walk from Mfuwe town on Luangwa's eastern edge ("MAY GOD REVEIVE MY BROTHER IN PEACE," reads the sign above the bar in Friday's Nite Club, where a room costs three dollars a night and a "rub" with one of the local ladies-of-comfort costs one dollar and/or your life).

Tugging free of my sleeping bag, I noticed that Jonathan was already up and enjoying a cigarette with the self-contained attitude of a habitual early riser.

"Kwazizira—It's cold," I whispered to him.

Jonathan patted the log next to him, so I stepped carefully over the three embalmed bodies of our companions and made my way to the fire. We sat together, hands stretched out toward the heat, his blanket thrown over both our shoulders, and waited for water to boil for tea. The smell between us was familiar: fresh tobacco, old sweat, smoke, yesterday's dust, the synthetic, cheap-shop smell of his blanket.

Blindfolded, I would have known where I was.

The Cost of Walking for Days
Through the Middle of Nowhere
The women at the Chifungwe scout camp, seeing me emerge from the bush, sent a child in search of a mirror. Like characters in an 18th-century novel, they deemed it prudent to show me the full horror of myself. Then they fetched me a bucket of hot water, tea, and a comb.

Rolf met me here, having driven down off the escarpment on axle-breaking roads. That night I fell asleep listening to the village breathing. In the morning there was the domestic chatter of women to wake me, as they walked down to the river to fetch water. There was such an explosion of birds I couldn't untangle their song. It was the mopani-leaf turpentine that I smelled and wood smoke and game droppings and the pungent swirl of the river. And the world rocked with life.

On this page I can't smell the burnt-honey scent of bee sting, or feel the smallness of who I really am under the ponderous annoyance of an elephant, or understand that animals share my fright—a leopard is chased by an angry baboon troop. But I have understood that I am only the sum of my biology. And what this grants me is the undeserved gift of connection, usually granted men and women of transcendent and disciplined lives.

Long Words on a Hot Afternoon
I do penance by pretending to read the exhaustive A History of Wildlife Conservation and Management in the Mid-Luangwa Valley, Zambia, by W. L. Astle, published by the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol, August 1999. From the preface: "It is an account of recorded events . . . from the start of European penetration at the end of the 18th century to the early 1970s, the time of the start of a ferocious onslaught by commercial poachers."

The Story That Got Away
Not everything went exactly as written on our itinerary. For example, here we were, stranded on the banks of the Lukusashi River. The water was riotously deep, and the pontoon looked too rickety to support much more than an overladen bicycle. Walking down the beach while we got used to our only option, which was to turn back the way we had come, we found three Indians in torpid sleep across the seats of their car. They knew Rolf (of course) and tried to be helpful: "You'll never get over that river now. Camp with us a couple of days and then try your luck."

The young one (a Rambo look-alike) said that game scouts killed a man-eating crocodile here a few days earlier. Its stomach revealed clothes and human remains.

"It's too bad you weren't here then," said Rambo's uncle. "It would have made a nice story for your magazine."


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