To Find the Real Zambia, It Took a Village

By Bill Brubake

The Washington Post

The traditional healer, a dark-skinned woman with intense brown eyes, wasted little time introducing herself when we walked into her thatched hut in Kawaza, a village of 48 people from the Kunda tribe in eastern Zambia.

“Right now, my name is Fanny,” she said. “But when I am possessed I am no longer Fanny. My name becomes Hetina.”

Fanny was wearing a long white dress decorated with bright red crosses, signifying her status as the village shaman. She was gripping a well-thumbed Bible that she soon would be reading to us while describing how she tackles her village’s health-care issues – from the common cold to HIV/AIDS.

But first Fanny had a question for her three foreign visitors.

“Is there anything you’d like to ask me?” she said, speaking in her native language, Senga, through our English-speaking guide.

Yes, we had a few questions. Quite a few, as a matter of fact. We had traveled to this corner of central Africa to view some of the most abundant wildlife on the continent. Lions, zebras, giraffes, elephants – all can be found in nearby South Luangwa National Park, an eco-tourism jewel famed for its walking safaris.

On this day, though, my wife, Freddi, our 13-year-old daughter, Gabriela, and I were in search of something more – a glimpse, if only a fleeting one, into the lives of the people who inhabit this region. So with an assist from our safari lodge – a bumpy, 45-minute drive away on a rutted dirt road – we arranged to spend a leisurely afternoon in Kawaza.

“And how did you become a traditional doctor?” Freddi, a nurse who manages a hospital emergency department, asked Fanny.

She smiled broadly, seemingly delighted to tell her story. “I was sick as a child, and my parents took me to a regular hospital, which couldn’t find anything wrong with me,” she said. “Then they took me to a traditional doctor, who found I was suffering from a hidden spirit.”

Fanny said she was cured by the traditional doctor, which inspired her to become one herself, in the early 1970s. And today, guided by the Bible and what she calls “the spirit,” she often heads into the bush to collect plant roots, tree bark and other traditional remedies to treat her patients.

“This is not magic,” Fanny assured us.

For us, the encounter with Fanny was pure magic. Not that I was surprised. During three decades of traveling around Africa, Asia and Latin America, I rarely have been disappointed with the side trips I have taken to villages off the tourist circuit.

We had headed to Zambia, a financially struggling former British colony of 11.5 million people that gained its independence in 1964, to gauge how the wildlife there compared to better-known safari destinations, such as Kenya and Tanzania. We were mightily impressed. We spent one night in Lusaka, Zambia’s gritty capital, before taking a flight to Mfuwe, gateway to South Luangwa National Park.

The trip to Kawaza village was easy enough to arrange, thanks to culturally enlightened safari lodge operators in the region who recognize that an African safari need not be limited to viewing animals. We had learned of Kawaza several months before we arrived in Zambia, while perusing the website for Flatdogs Camp, the lodge where we ended up staying, just outside the national park.

“Unlike most Traditional Village projects, this one really is a living, working, typical African village where the local people have decided to invite visitors into their lives with no tourism hype at all,” the website told us. That sounded promising because some so-called native villages we have visited were little more than tourist traps.

At Kawaza, we learned that villagers had formed a tourism committee about 10 years ago, assisted by Robin Pope, a well-established Zambian safari guide and lodge operator. Some of the villagers already had a connection to tourism, working as guides, drivers, cooks and housekeepers at nearby lodges. But the project would give them a chance to run their own enterprise and earn some badly needed money.

“At first it was hard. We had only 68 visitors the first year,” Obby Banda, the Kawaza villager who heads the project, told us in the tidy thatched hut he uses to greet visitors. “But now we have many more. We have even built six huts where visitors can spend the night. No doubt, this tourism project has raised our standard of living.”

The project isn’t about squeezing every last dollar out of foreign tourists. Overnight visitors to the village each pay US$40 a night, meals and activities included, Banda told us. Day trippers pay $20 for a village tour. Transportation to Kawaza is usually provided by the lodges. (We arrived from Flatdogs in the back of an open-air safari truck; yes, we were a bit conspicuous, if not comical.) Banda said he expects more than 800 visitors this year, contributing about $2,500 to the village economy – a tidy sum in a country where the average annual per-capita income is $1,000. Money not used on community projects, such as upgrading the local school, is split among the villagers.

In the welcoming hut, Banda showed us a promotional flier he uses to entice prospective visitors. “We don’t have electricity in our village,” the flier reads in English. “But don’t fear that the dark evenings will be boring.” Among the activities offered are traditional dances and storytelling, bush walks and the chance to take part in daily-life activities such as sweeping, grinding grain, weeding and harvesting in the fields.

We passed on the weeding and grinding. But Banda arranged a dance performance in which we were expected to participate. (We did, and the villagers were laughing with us, not at us, I kept telling myself.)

Banda then took us to the aptly named Kawaza Basic School, which serves neighboring communities as well. “Before the tourism project, this school was almost falling down,” Banda said, as head teacher David Mwewa nodded in agreement. “Pupils were sitting on the floors because there were no seats. There were not enough teachers. But, now, things are a lot better.”

Mwewa told us that revenue from the tourism project also supports students whose parents have died of AIDS – a horrifyingly common occurrence in this part of the world. About 16.5 percent of adults in Zambia have HIV/AIDS, and the life expectancy at birth is 40 years, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.

From the school, we walked across the road to the traditional healer’s hut, furnished with a small table, reed mat and eight simple wooden chairs – one occupied by a hen guarding her eggs. After introductions and a reading from the New Testament, Fanny offered us a glimpse into how she works. I say a glimpse because she didn’t seem keen on explaining how she and her patients get “possessed” – a prerequisite, it seems, for treatment of a serious illness.

“I see patients here almost every day, just like a clinic does,” Fanny said. “When the patient comes into the hut, there is usually somebody here who acts like a secretary, recording the name. The patient sings a hymn and says a verse from the Bible. The verse will guide me and I’ll look at my cross” – she pointed to a cross on her dress – “and know what the patient is suffering from.”

We asked Fanny if she could show us some traditional medicines.

“This will help a man’s sex problem,” she said quickly, picking up a gin bottle and pouring a few drops on a spoon. She paused to gauge our reaction.

Was she joking? Should we dare crack a smile? We did. And so did Fanny.

“And these,” she continued, turning serious, and grasping a handful of roots, “help patients who are having seizures.”

She also spoke of a special bark she boils to treat patients who need blood. “I don’t want my patients to use the blood that hospitals want to give them,” Fanny said, lowering her voice. “The hospitals get their blood from people whose mother or father may have the deadly AIDS disease.”

Rashes, infertility, diarrhea – Fanny has remedies for these, too.

“This is not magic,” Fanny said, repeating herself.

After a half-hour, we said our goodbyes. But as we were leaving her hut, Fanny told Gabriela that she really liked the cowry-shell necklace she was wearing.

“I’ve been looking for these types of shells. I use them to help people with bad luck,” Fanny said. “I put the shells in a white dish with roots and a liquid, then wash the patient’s face, while we are both facing the east. That brings the patient good luck.”

Fanny kept staring at the necklace, which Gabriela had bought on a trip to the beach a few summers back.

“Would you like me to give you the necklace?” Gabriela asked after a few thoughtful moments.

Fanny’s eyes glistened.

“God bless you,” she said, grasping Gabriela’s hands. “Because you gave me these shells, I guarantee that you’ll have a lot of luck in your life.”

Then we were off, ready to resume our safari. As we walked to our vehicle with Banda, several children emerged from their huts, waving and yelling, “Zikomo! Zikomo!”

“Zikomo means thank you,” Banda told us. “These children were telling you: ‘Thank you for visiting our village.’”

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