Africa: part 4 of 4
Evans Muyeye is 28 and a sixth-year guide at Shackleton’s Tiger Fishing Lodge near Mwandi, Zambia. Prior to becoming a fishing guide Evans spent two years working in a bakery.
When I asked what he did at the bakery he replied, “I baked.”
Cha-ching! I apologized for such a dumb question and turned my attention back to fishing.
The bakery was Evans’ first job after school and school is where he dreams of returning.
“I want to be a doctor,” he said. Med school demands time and money — seven years and a bundle — and is a lofty ambition for a devoted husband and father of a 9-month-old baby girl. His wife hopes to become a nurse, which requires a three-year program of its own.
Doctors are vital in Zambia, as the nearby Mwandi Christian Hospital attests. The country has three kinds of hospitals — government, private, and church-sponsored — and all do a booming business. Many are able to operate only because of the kindness of donors and volunteers. Lifespans in rural Zambia are very short, HIV is very high, and poverty reigns. Zambia is one of the world’s poorest countries, a place where life is hard and death comes easy.
In the inset photo at left, two fishermen stand paddling their mekoro along the Zambezi shoreline. Mekoros are hollowed out logs that last 3-to-15 years and cost between USD $50 and $150, depending on the mekoro’s size and type of wood.
Fishermen navigate the Zambezi in mekoros during the dry season, tending nets daily (or nightly) and selling their catch for desperately needed cash.
Most days the fishermen make between USD $15-and-$30. Once each season they might get lucky, hit the jackpot, and earn $500. When this happens, instead of saving the money, the fishermen typically celebrate. They quit fishing and start drinking and return to fishing only when the money runs out.
While the Zambezi is a gentle river with an easy, steady current, it is a dangerous place for fishermen in mekoros because hippos and crocodiles share the river too. Each fishing season the area’s hippos will kill between 5-and-20 people and maim as many more.
While hippos are vegetarians, they attack the mekoros and destroy them with a mighty thunderclap of splintering destruction that the crocodiles hear and race to join from more than a mile away. If the hippo strikes from behind or beneath, the fishermen never sees it. If it hits from the side or the fisherman sees it coming, he can jump and swim or crawl for his life. If injured and the crocs get him, the fisherman will die. A hippo will not eat a man — it can kill him with a single bite — but they don’t like meat and will spit him out. But the crocodiles are meat eaters. A croc will devour the injured and eat a man alive.
Unlike alligators, crocodiles eat fresh meat. They will grab an injured man’s limb and spin in the water as fast as possible until the limb rips off. Then they eat it, bones and all, since their body acid will quickly digest the bones, leaving no passing trace. The croc will grab one appendage after the next, spinning each time until the arm or leg rips away. When feeding, a crocodile will pull apart and devour a human very quickly. They often eat him entirely, never leaving a trace.
A hippo will strike a mekoro for one of two reasons: Either the fisherman is perceived to be a threat to the hippo’s baby or the hippo simply feels like it. Males protect territories and a rogue will attack to kill simply because he doesn’t want the mekoro floating through his domain.
The Zambezi fishermen build temporary grass huts built along the river’s edge and fish throughout the four to six months of dry season, dealing with this threat every day. Once the rainy season comes, the fishermen and their families pack up and return to their villages to farm. Whatever money they were able to save fishing buys staples to stock their village home. But while fishing, these are sustenance anglers who support their families with what they catch. Nothing is brought from home in the village to the riverbank.
A fisherman’s ambition is larger than his fish, since most fish netted are smaller than palm-sized and half get tossed away as wasted by-catch. Since the value of the keepers depends upon the species and weight in kilograms, it takes a whole lot of little fish to create a significant payday.
Evans told me a story of two local fishermen who caught five big bream — prized eating fish worth top dollar (USD $3 each). Ecstatic, they were paddling back to the village when a hippo attacked their mekoro, rising beneath it to throw the canoe in the air and the men out of the boat. One swam to safety. The other was not so lucky. The hippo smashed him hard, severely injuring the man and rendering one arm useless.
When the hippo left the uninjured fisherman hurried to save the five bream. Then he helped load his partner over the side and into their mekoro. They made their way back to their village, where the uninjured fisherman insisted on selling the bream while his pal, whose dangling arm did not work and desperately needed emergency hospital care, was forced to wait. No one would buy the fish, which angered the man trying to sell them.
The villagers said, “These fish fish are cursed. You must throw them back in the river.” The fisherman hoping to make fifteen bucks was really upset when the villagers made him throw the bad luck bream into the Zambezi.
Reluctantly he did. After watching them float away downstream, he finally took his partner to the hospital.
Hippos being hippos, local officials are powerless to stop the random attacks. After a rogue male killed several fishermen, the villagers wanted blood. The officials came to the village and said, “Avoid the hippos.”
Some, believe it or not, refuse to follow such simple advice. One villager watched two hippos fight on land for two exhausting hours. The massive animals finally took a break, one submerging in the river to cool down and the other staying on shore apparently sleeping.
The villager snuck up with a hand-held spear and tried to stick the one that was sleeping. The second hippo saw the man, raced out of the river, and flattened the fellow. With its tusks the hippo gored the meat of the man’s bottom and shoved it down into the man’s hamstring. A savage, grotesque injury — but at least the man survived. Since a hippo’s neck prevents it from reaching down to bite a man shore, the man lay flat and under its chin, where all it could do is beat the hell out of him.
The Zambezi is a relatively clean river, the the sustainer of life for all those nearby, a place where villagers come to water’s edge to fill their containers for daily use. At the lodge we were advised to drink only bottled water. Whenever someone dies in the river, no one talks about it. When you are drinking the water that carries dead bodies, no one needs to be reminded.
Evans and I spent four days fishing together and talk turned in a lot of directions. I have traveled the world and he was curious to hear about it, especially China and India.
I was curious about life in Zambia and he was happy to tell me.
By the end of my visit we had become close. His father is deceased and his older brother recently ended his life at 31 after falling ill. I did not ask the illness. The cause remained unspoken and unnecessary.
The night before I was to return to the USA Evans was summoned home for an emergency family meeting that would involve his other brother and two sisters. The four needed to make some decisions related to support logistics for the late brother’s two young children, who now are school-aged. In one of the world’s poorest countries — Zambia’s Gross Domestic Product is ranked #106 in the world at just $1400 per person — every dollar is hard to come by. Absorbing the needs of two innocent children is extremely difficult.
Picking up the pieces of a heartbroken family comes at a cost, and that cost runs way beyond the dollars. Dreams are threatened — and dreams are what keeps a man going.
The last thing I told Evans that evening when saying goodbye was that since the right thing and the easy thing aren’t always the same thing, if and when the time comes to make a tough decision — do the right thing. And then I told him regardless the outcome of the family summit, it was vital for him to chase his dream and never give up.
“Become a doctor,” I said. “Do not quit. Achieve what you set out to achieve.”
He nodded, looked at me, and asked a question I could tell he’d been thinking of asking.
“Will you ever come back?” he asked. “Here, I mean.”
I am not big on deception and tend to be rather direct. So I thought about his question before deciding on the answer.
“If I have a reason, Evans. I will if I have a reason.”
I hope some day that Dr. Evans Muyeye gives me that reason.
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