South Luangwa is lovely because it is so unspoiled and natural. There are a handful of lodges inside the Park’s 9,000 square kilometres, but most tourist accommodation is located outside, in the Game Management Zone, across the Luangwa River. It is not geared up for mass tourism, so it remains quite exclusive.
Earlier this week, I was following a safari vehicle carrying local non-African tourists. I was shocked to see an empty plastic water bottle thrown out into the park. I stopped, picked up the bottle and continued to follow them. The vehicle stopped for morning tea, so I drove alongside and handed back the empty water bottle, saying, “I think you dropped this.”
The tourists didn’t really understand the message which I was trying to convey. They just looked blankly back at me. I was furious, but concealed my anger and drove off.
When I told the story to another guide, he said that some local clients had been eating a packet of biscuits during the game drive. They tossed the empty packet out into the Park. The driver saw this in his wing mirror, stopped and reversed. He picked up the packaging and handed it back to the client, who said, “You didn’t need to do that. The packet was empty!”
This prompted another guide to tell a story of local guests on a game drive who brought with them a large bag of chicken bones which they threw at sleeping lions “to see some action.” When the guide protested that this was not permitted, the guests couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It beggars belief.
I can understand that on a four hour game drive in the cold morning air, some people do need to empty their bladders. The guide normally stops at a safe area, checks out the nearby trees and shrubs, suggesting that tourists could relieve themselves in the bush. So it is inevitable that one occasionally sees a square of toilet paper, but this should easily degrade within a few weeks. However, I have seen used toilet paper in the middle of a vast open plain, with no shelter for hundred of metres. When I asked why people would do this, a guide replied, “Maybe they wanted a room with a view.”
Yes, the smallest room with a view – across a languid bend in the Luangwa and on to the purple-tinged hills of the escarpment in the distance.
Just as I was considering this, I remembered one of my patients in Leicester who used to crap al fresco on the grass verge outside Subway. That’s one way of countering the odours of freshly baked bread which set your gastric juices churning.
When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go, I suppose.
This magnificent bird came in to land in a tree about thirty metres away. I could see that it looked large, and that it was a bird of prey, but it was only when I trained the binoculars on it that I saw its characteristic feature. Pink eyeshadow.
I eased Phyllis a bit closer to the tree and started taking photographs. Warning: Photo techie bit starts here. Unfortunately, it was late in the afternoon and the bird was in shadow. Using the 100-400mm zoom lens at full stretch, with maximum aperture, at 1/500th of a second, I had to push the ISO to 3200. When I blew up the image to be able to see the owl, the photograph was too grainy. So being without a tripod, I wedged myself into the side window, put a bit of foam rubber over the door mirror and tried shooting at 1/40th of a second, ISO 400, again with the lens fully open. Techie bit finished.
The pictures are not spectacular, but give a good impression of what a marvellous bird this is. I have seen an adolescent eagle owl on a night drive. It was caught in the spotlight and didn’t know which way to turn. My video shows its head doing a 360. It ran off into the long grass, almost on tiptoe, angled forward. It reminded me of the French film star, Jacques Tati, playing Monsieur Hulot, striding against the wind (“Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday”). Again apologies for not including the video footage because of a ban on uploading to YouTube.
I was hoping to hear the call of the owl, which supposedly sounds like a pig grunting, but another safari vehicle came bouncing down the track and the owl flew off.
The last time I had a bit of bother with the law was over 40 years ago, when I was arrested for cycling down a one-way street in Cambridge. I was a medical student and should have known better, the policeman told me. So I was rather taken aback when a stern police officer sought me out in Kakumbi Health Centre one afternoon earlier this month. I had signed a document I should not have signed, and this was very serious.
A young man had attended the clinic with his face covered in dark, dried blood. He told me that he had been hit with a bottle the previous evening. He gave me a piece of paper which was an official request by the police for information. What were his injuries, were these consistent with his version of events and what were my reasons for corroborating (or not) his story.
I had filled in the form, patched the young man up and arranged follow up for another injury which I had detected (traumatic perforation of the eardrum). I signed and franked it with the health centre stamp, and gave him the form. But health centres in Zambia don’t have medical officers (Kakumbi is the only one in the country which does), so a health centre stamp is not permitted.
“All your colleagues working here before have made the same mistake,” said the very large, khaki-dressed policeman. “It is against the law for you to sign this paper.”
“But I am a legally registered doctor in Zambia,” I unwisely replied. “I have my Practicing* Certificate, too. Surely I can sign where it says ‘Signature of Medical Officer’?”
“Don’t argue with me about this!” he insisted. His moustache bristled with indignation.
“So what do you want me to do when you send me patients with this form, asking for a medical report for the police?” I asked him, politely.”Why do you not refer them to Kamoto Hospital directly?”
“I can’t! They have to be seen at the health centre first. Then it is your job to refer them to Kamoto Hospital so the doctor there can sign the form legally, verifying his findings with a hospital stamp.”
“Do you want me to examine and treat them before I refer them?” I asked. It is 55 kilometres to Kamoto Mission Hospital, and some might not make it alive. I saw one man a few days ago who had been almost scalped by an assault with a grass-cutting sword. He had lost over a litre of blood. Although I sutured the laceration to halt the bleeding, he was almost in shock when I packed him off to hospital in a public bus.
“Of course you must treat them. But don’t stamp the medical report with a health centre stamp. If you can get a stamp from Kamoto Hospital, you can use that if you like. That would be legal. But if the medical evidence is contested in court, you will be required to return as a witness, to ensure that justice is done.”
Getting a Kamoto Hospital stamp for me to use on police reports sounded like a typical Zambian way to circumnavigate the bureaucracy. However, he had made a fair point about being requested to appear as a witness in court. But thinking about it, I would be happy to return to Zambia to give evidence if the court were paying my travel expenses. Since I qualified in 1977, I have only been requested to attend a court to give evidence about a medical report I had done once. And that was in 1979, so I reckon it would be pretty unlikely.
I am only too glad the officer hasn’t seen the other report I wrote for the police earlier this month. This concerned an altercation between a female witch and a male witchdoctor. She said she had been slapped in the face and had become blind in one eye as a result. Her left eyelids were a bit swollen, but the eyeball looked normal, the pupil was reacting to light, and when I moved my finger quickly close to her eye, she blinked. She would not allow me to look into her eye with my ophthalmoscope because it was too uncomfortable.
Only once in my career I have seen a patient with hysterical blindness, but it is really very strange to have just one eye affected. She insisted on a referral to hospital, which one of the nurses arranged. Waste of time and resources, I thought to myself, but what the nurse had done was legal and proper, following the official protocol.
In the clinic last week, Daillies remarked that the old man I was examining was the husband of the witch. I couldn’t resist it. I had to ask him what it was like being married to a witch. He denied she was a witch but he did tell me that the “evil eye” spell had worn off, and she could now see out of both eyes.
She returned today to tell me that she was still blind in her left eye. “But your husband told me that your sight had recovered,” I said.
She glowered at him with both her good eye and her bad eye. “I must have made a mistake. I don’t understand the doctor’s English accent,” said the husband.
So I repeated the examination. And this time there was a clear corneal ulcer. I have found a stack of fluorescein paper tests which have gone out of date (but do they ever actually go out of date?). This showed up an impressive central scar. She could still see, of course, but her central vision had been affected. Her cornea had probably been injured when the male witchdoctor hit her. I wonder if he was trying ward off the gaze of her evil eye.
Luckily for me, she had decided not to take the matter further with the police, so my original report had not been submitted. I hope she isn’t able to read and understand the bit where I wrote about “hysterical monocular blindness”. Or I might be on the receiving end of some sorcery.
* Yes, I know, it should be practising, but it says practicing on the certificate.
Have you ever arrived at work and realised you can’t remember a thing about the journey? It’s as though you have been on “autopilot”, with the route etched in your cerebral cortex. For the first few weeks in Mfuwe, I spent most of the drive to work looking for (and attempting to avoid) potholes. There are also some curious dips across the road, a bit like the M6 just west of Coventry. I have gradually built up a mental road map of the journey from the lodge to Kakumbi rural health centre, which is about five miles. The driving part of the journey has become normalised. I know the best route through the potholes, I know when to brake before the dips, I know the best place for getting onto the bridges and I know the best line to take in the rollercoaster dirt road through the village.
This means I can spend more time scanning for wildlife. Check the power lines, are there any raptors or bee-eaters? Look in the trees for signs of a leopard kill hanging from a branch, check the edges of muddy pools to see if any animals have come to drink, check in the shade of bushes for sleeping lions, listen for baboon alarm calls, for the screech of a fish eagle or the grunt of a hippo. It is not unusual for me to see a dozen different types of wild animal on my way to work.
Animals have right of way. Last week, I was held up by a group of giraffes on the laterite road, an elephant on the dirt track leading out of the lodge, a horde of baboons on the tarmac outside the park and a bewildered hippo caught in my headlights inside the park. Giraffes might look cute and gangly, but their back legs can deliver a fatal kick to your radiator. Angry baboons can snap off your windscreen wipers. Elephants have the power to lift up your vehicle with their tusks. You just have to sit back and wait.
A flock of guinea fowl in the road scatters in panic at the last minute. Impala often congregate on the road early and late in the day, but they trot away calmly when you approach. I have learned that when one animal crosses the road in front of you, it is likely that more will follow. And never rule out a rogue beast which decides to cross in the opposite direction, as well.
There is a 40kph speed limit in the Park. Unless you are a rally driver, it is quite difficult to exceed this and drive safely. You never know what is around the next bend. I have been surprised by a hippo on the road, and I meet elephants coming towards me on a narrow road a couple of times a week. I give them a wide berth.
The laterite roads in the Park have old-fashioned road signs, reminiscent of Britain in the 1960s. Black and white striped poles, with a red-edged triangle on top, saying “Warning, tight curve ahead”.
Outside the park, the villagers place leafy branches in the road to indicate that someone has died and a funeral is taking place. Out of respect, vehicles slow down to first gear and flash their hazard warning lights.
Most of the local people get around by walking or bicycle. Each Sunday morning there are families walking to church in their best clothes, occasionally carrying their Bible on top of their heads. I try to give bicycles a wide berth as they usually don’t have any brakes. When they want to stop, the riders apply their bare heels either side of the front tyre. “Wasn’t this risky?” I asked Chanda, the health centre odd job man/health care assistant/volunteer. “Yes, my heels heat up, even the hard skin. And if I miss the tyre, my heels touch the rim or the spokes and that is more painful,” he replied.
The road edges are uneven and steep, so when bicycles move off the tarmac to avoid motor vehicles, the riders often lose control. As the cyclists are usually carrying a passenger or two, perched on the crossbar or the rack over the rear wheel, this is even more dangerous. They carry wide baskets, filled with produce to take to market. Sometimes they have a load of branches for firewood attached to the rear rack, or bamboo mats. I have seen a sofa being carried by bicycle, although it was not being ridden. And there is a photograph published on the internet of a man cycling with a live cow draped over the handlebars.
On an early morning game drive today, there were slim pickings. Nothing really attracted my attention. I took the road less well travelled, a spur of the 040, and bumped my way across some parched black-cotton soil to a dusty track. After a kilometre or so, I came across a red-billed hornbill. He was picking up ants and termites, flicking them up and catching them in his bill. This is an amazing skill, but how many termites would made up his RDA (recommended daily allowance) of protein? A thousand? That is a morning’s work.
On my laptop screen, I can just see the creatures between the jaws as he is about to catch them. I hope they show up on the blog photographs.
These are tough cookies. They look prehistoric. The staff at the lodge witnessed a fight between one of these lizards and a cobra, last year in the car park. The lizard won easily and dragged the dead cobra back to its lair.
This series of photographs was taken at Luangwa Wafwa, an ox-bow lake. Remember your geography? The Luangwa River used to flow in a big loop but the course changed one rainy season, and the Wafwa was left high and wet. The name Wafwa apparently means “dead” in Kunda language. But it is overflowing with bird life, ducks, geese, herons, storks, waders and ibis. But there are lots of reptiles here too. And the good thing about water monitor lizards is that they eat crocodile eggs. They sniff out the nest sites with their forked tongues and gorge themselves. Perahps that is why this lizard looks like it’s smiling.
The claws on their feet are scalpel sharp. Their tough skin is patterned, beaded and resistant to snake bite. I don’t think their eyesight is very good. Three water monitors pottered around my vehicle, Phyllis, while I took photographs. Occasionally they would perk up when the shutter clicked, but it was as though I was invisible.
How many water monitors can you see in this image of grass covering a small pond just outside the park?
Mfuwe is a straggling town, a series of villages really, strung out along the road between South Luangwa National Park and the International Airport. The commercial centre is called Cropping. It takes its name from the elephant culling activities which went on there over 50 years ago. It has the only filling station in the area. The South Luangwa Conservation Society is based there.
There are a wide variety of shops selling everything tinned food, simple medicines, clothes, beverages, hardware, ironmongery and the paraphernalia of mobile phone accessories. Scattered among the shops are bars and restaurants. I have counted five barber shops. There are roadside stalls selling second hand clothes and shoes, fruit and vegetables. There are several “off licence” stalls offering booze and fags. There is also an open air bicycle repair shop with an attached car wash (bucket and sponge job).
Uncle Petty’s shop used to have a cat sleeping on the counter, but now it has all mod cons. You can pay your electricity meter bill here over the internet.
To the east of Cropping and across the bridge over the Matizye River is SLAMU, South Luangwa Area Management Unit. This is the administration centre, with the police post, most of the churches and Kakumbi rural health centre.
The shortcut from the tarmac to the health centre is a bit of a rat-run. Literally. The track is deeply grooved with tyre tracks made in the mud during the rainy season. The women sweep rubbish, fallen leaves and litter into the crevasses and occasionally set them on fire. This makes for an interesting journey to work. All the kids in compounds either side of the track shout out, “Dak-Ta” when I drive slowly past.
At the turn off to the health centre, there is a food stall, selling “fahreetas” (= fritters) from a plastic bin, with fruit and vegetables on a stall. Usually the shopkeeper sits back in the shade in a locally-made chair, with the seat and back made from strands of rope. Yesterday, the chair must have been in for repair at the local Wesley Barrell upholstery store, because she was sitting in a wheelbarrow instead. Needs must, I suppose. This morning her hair was being styled using a preparation called “Superblack”. I asked for any remnants so I could reverse my grey hair.
Around the back of the Las Vegas Bar, not more than a hundred metres from the health centre, a famous witchdoctor used to do a roaring trade in potions. His speciality was sex therapy, especially fertility. One childless couple went to see him several times without a successful outcome. One day, he arrived at their house when the husband was at work. He told the wife that the husband had asked him to do some special treatment. The guide who told me this story quaintly said, “After he had done A, B, C, D, the wife became suspicious and phoned her husband.” (Don’t you love that expression: “ABCD”?) The witchdoctor was arrested (not sure of the charge) and sentenced to five years imprisonment. The wife did not get pregnant as a result of the “therapy”, but the guide said the witchdoctor might have received a more lenient punishment if his treatment had been successful.
Giraffa Camelopardalis. Five hundred years ago, we thought that giraffes were a hybrid animal: part camel, part leopard. This supposition probably came from observing their long neck and legs, coupled with the reticulated pattern of their skin. The name giraffe is derived from the Arabic word meaning, “walks swiftly”. And they do, with a kind of awkward grace. Pity I can’t upload YouTube footage. When they are on the move, they have a rocking motion, like a boat ploughing through a heavy swell. I am intrigued by the way they move their legs. It looks as though they move the right front and back leg together, then the other side. That can’t be right; they should fall over between strides. But they are remarkably stable.
The French philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, thought that acquired characteristics could be passed on to offspring. He thought that when the giraffe stretched its neck to reach the highest, juiciest leaves on a tree, its young would be born with longer necks. This was popular with the Soviet socialist theory that any social advancement is based on the efforts of past generations. It is contrary to the Darwinian theory of evolution, the survival of the fittest, which suggests that the upper classes have an inherited, genetic advantage not related to striving. Lamarck was discredited in the 1960s.
I see giraffes every day, usually in the bush, but sometimes they come to drink at the rivulet which is all that is left of the lagoon in front of the lodge. They wander about in family groups, sometimes as many as a dozen. When they cross the road, it can take 15 minutes. But that gives me time to sit in my car and watch. There is a high mortality among their young, as the adults can’t hold off determined predators like lions and wild dogs. They can give a hefty kick with their back legs, enough to wreck a car radiator. And there is an anecdote of a tourist being knocked out of an open safari truck by a giraffe swinging its neck up.
Young males joust to establish dominance. This is like slow motion wrestling. One giraffe leans onto the other, tries to get its head under the other’s neck and lift it up. It looks bizarre, especially when they agree to take time out, nibble a few leaves, then get back to wrestling.
Giraffes are browsers. They like to eat leaves from particular trees. They use a prehensile dark grey tongue to strip the leaves off the branches. I have been trying to catch the perfect photograph of a giraffe cleaning its nostrils with its 45 cm long tongue, but I am never quick enough.
The males have knobs on their foreheads which grow more prominent with age. Their skin markings get darker, too. The tufts of black hair on their horns look like shaving brushes.
When my eldest daughters were toddlers, they used to watch a old Merrie Melodies cartoon called “Nelly’s Folly”. It is about a singing giraffe, pronounced “gy-raf” in an American accent, who entertains her animal pals in the darkest African jungle. She is discovered by a hunter, who signs her up to sing in New York City. She sings a jingle for “Algonquin Rutabaga Tonic”, advertises long-necked sweaters and sings on stage. But she gets lonely and falls in love with a male giraffe in a zoo, but he is already married. The scandal ruins her career and she is reduced to singing in foreign films. She leaves show business, but her lover rejects her and she goes back to Africa.
Back in the bush, she cries as she sings a romantic song, and all her animal friends sob along with her. But then, a male giraffe joins in the song and they fall in love and live happily ever after. I used to well up with tears watching this with the children, but they didn’t.
This little girl is called Miracle. What a wonderful name, but perhaps it wouldn’t go down very well in a school playground in UK.
Last weekend, I met a domestic worker in Lion Camp whose name was Five Kwacha (50 pence). He was too old for this to be a Zambian take on “Fiddy Cen”. I had to ask why and he told me that during pregnancy, his mother bet his father that the baby would be a boy. She won. I suppose you could say she got ten kwacha in total.
Some years ago, there was a complete solar eclipse here in Zambia. There was a spate of children called “Damaged Retina”.
Today in clinic, I saw a lady whose name in Kunda translated as “Going to die soon”. She was the only survivor of 13 children born to her mother, all the others had died after birth or in early childhood. To make up for it, she has seven children of her own. And malaria today, unfortunately.
I haven’t met a child called Superman yet.
Most Zambians have old fashioned names. The clinic nurses are called Regina, Grace, Marvis (Mavis spelled the Zambian way) and Daillies (Dilys). The Old Testament of the Bible is another inspiration for names. One of the Park guards is called Samson (I honestly thought was called “Samsung” for the first week). Shadrach is a very popular name, but I haven’t met a Misach nor an Abednigo yet. One of the best guides is called Josephat.
I have to write the patient’s name on their school exercise book and one man’s Kunda name was very difficult to turn into English letters. L and R are often interchangeable and most words spoken in English have an “o” or an “i” added to the end. I asked him what was the meaning of his name and he told me it was “water monitor lizard”. With typical cultural sensitivity, I said that he must have been a really ugly baby for his mother to name him that. He just laughed and said it was better than being called Baboon.
I could see that there was something wrong with the child’s eye as she peered over her mother’s shoulder. She was wrapped onto her mother’s back with a colourful piece of cloth. The story was pretty typical – hot body, headache, cough, abdominal pain. However, the rapid test for malaria was negative. I asked the mother to unhitch the child so I could examine her properly.
She was 18 months of age, with normal build. Apart from a problem with her left eye, I could not detect any signs of disease. I looked through her medical notes and saw that she had been treated on numerous occasions for eye infections until my predecessor, Dr Ted, referred her to the local district hospital for a second opinion. Now it was obvious that she was almost blind in the left eye.
“What’s wrong with her eye?” I asked. “Did they find anything at the hospital?”
Mother explained that they had been sent up the referral chain, from Kamoto Mission Hospital to Chipata Regional Hospital, and finally to University Teaching Hospital in the capital, Lusaka. There, the specialists informed her that the child had a retinoblastoma, one of the commoner cancers occurring in children.* The parents had initially declined any treatment for their daughter, so the specialists sent them away to reconsider their decision.
In UK, one would expect about 90% of children with this cancer to be treated successfully. I am not sure of the figures for Zambia, but the specialists clearly felt the child could be cured. I asked her mother why they had rejected the offer of treatment. “We are praying to God,” she replied. “The Lord will answer our prayers and the child will be cured.”
My heart sank. There is no law in Zambia which protects the child, making its interests paramount. I could not call upon social workers to get a court order and whisk the child off to have surgery with chemotherapy in the capital. I felt powerless, but I tried to persuade her.
“I know that you feel that God will intervene and cure your child, but it is important to do all you can to help her here on earth,” I said.
“God does not need our help or your help,” she replied. “If she survives, it is God’s will.”
I was lost for words. I couldn’t find an argument which would get her to change her mind. I said that I would be very happy to see her at any time in the future, whatever her decision was about specialist treatment. That was a month ago, and she hasn’t been back to the health centre since.
* Catherine Ahern, of “Mrs Merton” and “The Royle Family” fame, had retinoblastoma as a child. She has since developed related tumours in her bladder and lungs.