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Gapping it in Zambia

I was very fortunate to spend my gap year between school and university in Africa working at a game park in Zambia for GAP Activity Projects. Lechwe Lodge is a private reserve, located on the bank of the Kafue River, a tributary to the Zambezi, two hours’ drive from the capital city, Lusaka.

I started at the farm in February 2001 with my gap partners Emily and Claire. We arrived in the height of the rains to find huge tropical storms, ripping trees down and flooding out many of the less sturdy village houses, which were constructed only of mud and straw. Although very destructive, there was a great sense of excitement among the villagers when the rain came. The children would all run outside screaming and dancing with joy until the storm had passed, by which time they were all totally drenched and covered in mud. The excitement stems from traditional belief that the rains were an act of God who was rewarding them for their hard work by providing a fertile environment for their maize to grow.

Typically my day would start at 6am, with a meeting in the farm office at which Di (my hostess) and Phinias (a foreman) would plan the jobs for the day. The farm employed 150 local staff, of whom about 80 lived with their families in two compounds located within the farm’s fences. Jobs included slashing grass, chopping down trees, feeding, guarding and general repairs.

From 7am till 11am, I would make sure that all the staff were at the right place and working well. At first this was very daunting as I was essentially a mbwana (Tongo for “boss”) to these people, some of whom were three times my age and had been doing the same job since the farm was started. The whole attitude towards whites among the villagers is still a very colonial one. No matter what age, as long as you are a white male, the staff listen to you and regard you as their boss. For Emily and Claire, it was a different story. In a totally male-dominated society where many men have two or three wives the staff wouldn’t listen to or respect what they said. I would then go to the lodge, where guests were served bream, caught from the river. There was also a variety of game meat such as warthog, kudu or puku which could be cooked either in a western style, with vegetables, or in the Zambian style with mealie meal – a maize porridge which is the staple diet of most Zambians.

The afternoons were more relaxed, as it was often very hot. Twice a week we held a clinic offering anti-malaria pills, water purifiers and basic medical aid to the villagers. Health is a major problem on the farm. Firstly, being located on the flood plain means the mosquitoes are very bad so there are high rates of malaria. Secondly, there is a huge problem with AIDS. On our farm it was predicted that 70-80% of the staff are HIV positive. During the six months I was there, four staff died, which caused huge problems, not only for the society and family, but also for the farm, because the rest of the workers then take three days off to attend the funeral at the family home. The number of orphans is increasing at an alarming rate, which in the long term ruins any hope of developing Zambia as it continues to have a totally uneducated population.

Officially, work would end at 4:30pm when the day staff would knock off and the nightwatchmen would arrive for their shift. We had about twenty guards around the fence boundary throughout the night. One of my jobs was to walk around the boundary once every few weeks.

Unfortunately, during my time at Lechwe Lodge, poachers did enter, and the police were called to take them away. With the increased security concerns, including the murder of a neighbouring farmer, my host Ferg told us not to go out at night so I missed out on this more exciting side of the placement.

One of the highlights of my time at the farm was the total eclipse that occurred in June. Preparing for this took a lot of effort, not only at the Lodge, but also in trying to educate the villagers. We handed out special glasses that were donated from the eclipse in the UK last year, and also prepared posters and held classes about the possible dangers. Unfortunately, most of the people were very afraid that the world was going to end, so they locked themselves and their families into their homes for the entire day. Most households also took their most valuable possessions such as cattle in with them so it was a total mess afterwards. The actual eclipse was amazing – we climbed a mountain overlooking the farm and watched and listened as the animals and birds were lulled into believing that it was a sunset. In a way, experiencing this was more impressive than the eclipse itself.

In my opinion my time at Lechwe was far more rewarding and enjoyable than the travelling through Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa that I did afterwards. Being part of a community and working through so many events gave far more insight into the country than just going to see the sights with many other tourists.

I worked very hard on the farm, and had to get up early every day for six months, but the rewards that I got in return such as gaining respect and friendship from the Tonga people and experiencing the wonderful wildlife was definitely worth the effort.

[1][bfeat5logo.jpg] Richard Dana travelled with [2]GAP Activity Projects, which organises overseas voluntary work placements for 2200 18 and 19-year-olds each year in 34 countries.

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