Zambia 1993: Hunting shoebill with camera

 

 

Zambia 1993
This 12-year-old boy, who lived in a fishing camp at the southern end of Ncheta Island, was punting my canoe into the swamps during our search for shoebill (Balaeniceps rex). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Samfya is a small town in northern Zambia, situated at the western shore of the great Bangweulu Lake. I have been sent here by Verdensnaturfonden – the Danish section of WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) – to document the efforts of the foundation to save the rich wildlife of the great Bangweulu Swamps, which, including Lake Bangweulu, covers about 9,800 square kilometres.

In several villages in and around these swamps, WWF has founded so-called Community Development Units. Each of these units co-operates with units in other villages, and with local authorities, to increase the standard of living of the local tribes. Simultaneously, WWF is trying to persuade the locals to harvest the natural resources in a sustainable way, so that these resources will also be available for future generations.

Together with Danish sociologist Peter Gregersen, who is working for WWF, I participate in a CDU meeting in the village of Kalasa Mukoso, which is inhabited by people of the Bena Kabende tribe. Local issues are discussed, such as the burning of forest to create more farmland, how to protect crops against pests, such as bush pigs (Potamochaerus larvatus), and hunting bans of different game species, such as antelope. I also participate in a merry meeting in the local Women’s Group, with much singing and dancing taking place.

 

 

Zambia 1993
Bena Kabende tribals in the village of Kalasa Mukoso, near Samfya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Afraid of wild animals
In Samfya, I stay with David, who is working as a clerk in the WWF office. His family has not yet arrived in Samfya, and he is happy to have company. One evening, we are seated in front of his house, talking. David confides in me that he is afraid of all wild animals, including lizards and frogs, and of course snakes. A couple of days ago he was a bit hysterical, when a frog was jumping about in his house, and I had to carry it out and release it some distance from the house. Now I say, jokingly: “Maybe there’ll be a snake inside the house tomorrow!”

At this very moment, a thin, dark snake enters the veranda, just in front of David. He jumps up and runs into the house, shouting: Kill it! Kill it!” However, I am more interested to find out, what kind of snake it is. It turns out to be a so-called shovel-snout (Prosymna sp.), which has a very flat snout – a completely harmless species. I manage to shoo it into a flowerbed, but David shouts excitedly: It is hidden in there! Tomorrow, I’ll have these flowers removed!”

I am convinced that he is joking, but the following morning he persuades the watchman to remove the flowers.

 

Boat trip to Ncheta Island
A few days later, WWF-boatman Alex arrives at Samfya to take me into the heart of the swamps, where I am going to stay among Unga people in the village of Bwalya Mponda, on Ncheta Island. The boat is equipped with an outboard engine, so we zoom across the lake, heading for a large island, Mbabala.

Arriving at the opposite shore, we follow a narrow, twisting channel through high vegetation of papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) and reed (Phragmites australis) – one of numerous tributaries to the great Luapula River. Several temporary fishing camps are situated along the shores of this river. The huts in these camps are very simple, built of reed and grass, which allows the wind to pass through the walls, keeping the interior wonderfully cool. Many Unga families move to fishing camps for a period of three to four months each year, during which period they catch and dry as many fish as possible. Later, the dried fish are sold on markets in nearby towns.

Finally, we arrive at Bwalya Mponda. Black clouds are looming on the horizon, but only a few drops of rain fall. Alex guides me to a house, owned by WWF, where I settle for the night. In the west, the sun disappears behind the clouds in a blaze of orange and red. After dark, a nightjar is calling, and numerous fireflies fly about, flashing.

 

 

Zambia 1993
On our way to Ncheta Island, we passed several temporary fishing camps. The huts in these camps are quite simple, built of reed and grass, which allows the wind to pass through the walls, keeping the interior wonderfully cool. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Zambia 1993 
Black clouds were looming on the horizon, when we arrived at the village of Bwalya Mponda, on Ncheta Island, in the heart of the Bangweulu Swamps. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Daily life in Bwalya Mponda
George, a local village scout who works for WWF, is my guide on a tour around the village. I am presented to the local chief, teachers, shop keepers, and numerous other villagers. Everybody is very friendly.

Unga men have adopted the European dress. The women wear a frock and a multi-coloured chitenge, a piece of cloth which is about two metres long and one metre wide. Unga babies spend almost all their time wrapped in a chitenge on the back of their mother (or sister, or grandmother), no matter what task she is performing.

A group of women and girls are busy pounding tubers of cassava (Manihot esculentus), the staple food of the Unga. This is hard and tedious work. After several days of pounding, washing, and drying, the cassava flour is ready to be cooked to a porridge-like substance, called nshima. This porridge is eaten with fried fish and a bit of green leaves, sometimes from wild plants, harvested in the swamps. Another woman is weaving a mat from split reed stems, tying them together with fiber strings, while a woman and some children are trying to catch small fish, using large baskets.

I pay a visit to the local school, which is in a very poor condition. Most Unga boys go to school for a longer or shorter period of time, but the girls must help their mother with her numerous tasks, so their education is often quite erratic. Unga people are of the opinion that education is not very important, as the children are just going to become fishermen or house wives. Education is also very expensive, and most Unga cannot afford to pay school fees. This is why the school building is not maintained, and there are very few tables and chairs for the children.

 

 

Zambia 1993
Still today, most houses in the Bangweulu Swamps are constructed of a frame of branches, to which a layer of clay is applied, and the roof is made of straw. Other houses are constructed of sun-dried bricks, with a roof of corrugated iron. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Zambia 1993 
Most Unga men and women wear European-style clothes. The women, however, usually also wrap a colourful piece of cloth, a chitenge, around their waist. The smallest baby is always carried in a chitenge. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Zambia 1993
Cassava (Manihot utilissima) is the staple food of the Unga. Pounding cassava tubers to flour is a long and hard process. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Zambia 1993
This Unga woman is weaving a mat from split reed stems, tying them together with fiber strings. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Zambia 1993 
Most Unga boys go to school for a longer or shorter period of time, but the girls must help their mother with her numerous tasks, so their education is often quite erratic. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Searching for shoebill
George shows me the mummified head of a shoebill (Balaeniceps rex), which was found dead. This strange bird, which looks like a cross between a stork and a pelican, only lives in East African papyrus swamps, from the Sudan in the north to Zambia in the south. The peculiar name of this bird stems from the shape of its bill, which is large and boat-shaped, with a hook on the upper mandible – it does indeed look like an old-fashioned wooden shoe. The Arabic name of this bird is Abu Markub (‘Father of the Shoe’). Its main diet is fish, but it is also able to eat turtles, crushing their carapace with its enormous bill. George and a local tracker are willing to guide me to a place, where it should be possible to see this enigmatic bird.

The following morning, we walk five kilometres to the southern end of Ncheta Island, where one of George’s uncles lives in a fishing camp. We borrow a couple of canoes. A 12-year-old boy joins us to punt the canoe, in which I am a passenger, while George is punting the other. Deeper into the swamps, the water becomes very shallow, and finally we must give up punting, continuing our journey on foot. I am wearing an old pair of sneakers, while my companions are wading barefoot. Here and there, the bottom is very soft, and we often sink in mud up to our knees. It is very hot, but we can quench our thirst in small pools with crystal-clear water.

Finally, the papyrus stands become less dense, with swampy pools scattered here and there. George informs me that this is ideal habitat for the shoebill. We surprise a grazing Zambezi sitatunga (Tragelaphus selousi), which flees, sprinting across the swampy ground. This antelope is well adapted to a life in swampy areas, its very long hooves being able to spread out widely, when the animal is running, preventing it from getting stuck in mud. Later, George spots two shoebill, feeding at the edge of a pool. They are quite shy and take off at a distance of more than a hundred metres. We also see a pair of wattled cranes (Grus carunculatus), a rare African species, which is declining everywhere because of draining of marshlands and construction of dams across rivers. The total population may be less than 10,000 individuals. In the Bangweulu Swamps, however, it is still fairly common.

We now commence our return journey. How my companions are able to find their way in this featureless landscape is a mystery to me, but we arrive at the exact same spot, where we left our canoes. Back at the fishing camp, we are served nshima, fried fish, and a few vegetables for lunch.

 

 

Zambia 1993
George (right) and my other companion, showing the mummified head of a shoebill (Balaeniceps rex), which was found dead. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Zambia 1993 
We had to wade the last part to the whereabouts of the shoebill, as the water was to shallow for our boats. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Zambia 1993
After returning to the fishing camp, we were served nshima, fried fish, and a few vegetables for lunch. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Read more about the Bangweulu Swamps on this website, see Countries and places: Bangweulu – where water meets the sky.

 

 

(Uploaded February 2016)

 

(Revised October 2017)