A Zambian chieftan talks on war, hunting and the fight against malaria
All homes undergo indoor residual spraying before the rains, and everyone uses bednets. Even one death is too many, says Chief Mukuni.columns Updated: Dec 02, 2017 19:17 IST
Chief Mukuni’s thatched home has all the trappings of a palace – lion-skin rug, elephant-leg stools, mounted buffalo heads, giant tusks, even a carved throne.
His chiefdom spreads beyond Mukuni village across the three districts of Zima, Livingstone and Kazungula in southern Zambia. He owns 14 elephants, 14 cheetahs and six lions, a fleet of cars and, rumour has it, an airplane.
Said to be one of the richest men in Zambia, Mukuni is a traditionalist who accepts change only when he’s convinced it’s for the better. His palace has a souvenir shop for tourists, but no television. He has hunting trophies all over his home, but doesn’t hunt.
“Lions are a symbol of my office, elephants are in my DNA. Lion skins go with chiefs to their graves. When we become chief, we go on a hunt to skin a lion for the next generation,” says Chief Mukuni. “We don’t hunt lions any more but have an arrangement with the wildlife authorities so we get skins.”
His war is now against malaria. “Two decades ago, I travelled to Netherlands and developed fever and I went to the doctor and said I had malaria. He said, how do you know without being tested? I said, I come from a place where knowing whether you have malaria or not is like knowing whether you are hungry or not,” says Chief Mukuni, with a chuckle. “We had lots of malaria then; we don’t anymore. I haven’t had malaria in 20 years.”
Though he is a vocal critic of Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu’s politics, Chief Mukuni is a supporter of his “zambitious” plan for a malaria-free Zambia.
“No malaria means fewer people are sick, fewer children die. All homes undergo indoor residual spraying before the rains to kill mosquitoes and everyone uses bednets. I always sleep under one,” he says.
It’s not always smooth sailing. Bednets are being innovatively misused in wedding dresses, as football nets and fishing nets, in thatching, even as hammocks.
“Some people don’t use it because they say it’s hot under the net or that there are not enough mosquitoes. Or they may be sleeping in the open where there is no place to hang them. In such cases, the headmen say you have to use it, and people do,” says CM. “Malaria is curable and stoppable. One death is too many.”
The Mukuni people don’t seek traditional treatment for malaria any more either. “Traditional healers have realised they can treat cough, diarrhoea and other things, but not malaria and are now the first to say, ‘Go to the clinic, malaria is not my problem’,” says the chief.
The village headmen work closely with the environment health officers in the province to ensure all fever cases are screened, tested and treated. “We sometimes get cases of importation – people who go out and come back with malaria – but testing and treating them stops the parasite from spreading to others,” he says.
Apart from malaria, the chief is also focusing on lowering teen pregnancy and HIV infection rates. “When they are poor, young girls look for support outside the family and people exploit it, but we make sure cases of defilement are prosecuted in court to scare predators away. Parents who marry young girls are arrested,” says Chief Mukuni. “In Zambia, where men pay a bride price, the minimum age of marriage for boys and girls is 21, but they can marry at 16 with parental consent.”
The chief’s village is just 7 km from Victoria Falls, which he calls Zambia’s “flagship”. “This chiefdom is doing a lot better than other chiefdoms simply because of five reasons – location, location, location, location, location,” he says.
“My people make carvings, work in the hotel industry, work as guides and rely heavily on tourism. Zambia is doing very badly in marketing itself – it has the lowest budget for marketing in the region – and acts like it’s doing tourists a favour by allowing them to come here! Even South Africa is marketing Victoria Falls water, when they are nowhere near the falls!”
Of all his “wild pets”, he loves his elephants the most. “Elephants are the most elegant. They are like dogs and sit, lie down and shake their heads on command,” says the chief. “They are very peaceful and the only time they attack in groups is when they are with small calves. They do raid crops, but you have to live with that. This is their land too; you have to give them respect.”
If we want to sustain tourism, he rightly adds, Zambia must become malaria-free — and protect its wildlife.