Field Notes From Zambia

“Never trust an artist who knows what their work will mean before they begin”. 

I don’t think anything else has pounded me in the gut quite like that before.

Before I embarked on my solo photo expedition in Southeastern Zambia, I wanted to hone down on a particular subject that would fly this project away to a path of justice. I, undoubtedly, wanted to find that meaning before I simply began. Which was my problem. I was stuck. Like 2001-Toyota-Camry-taken-through-a-desert-backroad kind of stuck.

Was my main focus going to be on the natural African landscapes and wildlife? Or would it be about the complexity of Zambia youth’s and education systems? Should it be a photo essay or a only a write-up? Well. It became all of them… all at once.

I had the gracious opportunity to work alongside a local Zambian wildlife education trust by the name of Chipembele. They are the sole reason I had set foot in Africa in the first place. 

Getting in contact with them was a rather interesting find, actually. With hopes of expanding my portfolio with NGO work I perused for organizations on the internet only to grow tired of what I had researched. Many were just the same ole non-profits that didn’t pinch me in the heart while like I had hoped for. Luckily, and strangely enough, I reached out to Photographers Without Borders, a non-profit agency based in Canada that connects photographers and filmmakers to work for non-profits (literally perfect, no?). After weeks of emailing / Skyping with them back and forth talking propositions, they gave me the contact information for Chipemebele— “they just looked like they would love you”, they said. After contacting Anna and Steve, the founders of this amazing non-profit, I knew that this would be my gig. 

8 months later, I found myself traveling over 45+ hours to wind up the crazy small village of Mfuwe positioned just outside the South Luangwa National Park. Alone. Here to photograph the children, the wildlife, the villagers, and ultimately — Chipembele’s story.

Below are first-hand accounts of my time in this wondrous country; big or small, treacherous or peaceful. Buckle up, it’s a longer read this time. Traveling alone with almost zero access to wifi or service during my trip, I had a lot of time to myself to think and practice mindfulness. 

Take a gander if you will.

 
 

Journal Post #1 (June 28th, 2017):

It is exactly 2:43am here in the magnificent land of Mfuwe; a small village town only an hour’s flight away from the nation’s capital of Lusaka. I have been awoken by the intense snuffs and scoffs of hippos roaming the open land surrounding the Marula Lodge and couldn’t help but excitingly awake from the previous days’ long, delirious travel time to write.

I’m roughly 6,700 miles away from Arizona — the farthest I’ve ever been away from home. Previous travels to Europe, India, and Central America have all been a day’s worth of tiresome flights, but nothing in comparison to what I had experienced getting here to the near southern tip of Africa. I can safely say that I’ve endured over 35 hours worth of gut-wrenching wait time over the 5 different flights it took to get where I am now. And I mean gut-wrenching quite literally, as I had been painfully nauseous on my flight from the Addis Ababa airport in Ethiopia to Lusaka. My body grew hot and cold at the same time and over a million different chills caressed my skin at once. I stayed lurched over the seat’s tray table the entire time, nestling my face in my pillow away from the nasty smell of reheated fish provided for lunch (airplane food is always dreadful). My fellow travelers who had taken the seats next to me could tell I rather uncomfortable and thankfully let me be…

Even after traveling to 15 different countries, I had always thought that the Arizona’s sunsets took the #1 place for “best sunsets in the entire universe”. My fellow desert dwellers could surely attest to this theory. Nevertheless, I was wrong. Severely wrong. Last nights’ drive from the Mfuwe’s central airport to Marula Lodge was painted with *quite literally* the most gorgeous sunset I had ever seen in my entire life. The sun shined bright red so crisp and clear I couldn’t help but stare directly into it. “Yeah, that’s how the sun is every night here”, remarks Steven Tolan, one of Chipembele’s owners who so graciously drove me to my accommodation from the airport. 

Looks as though The Lion King wasn’t exaggerating their animation of African sunsets. Good god.

I couldn’t be anymore grateful for where I am staying during my solo photo expedition. Marula’s Lodge is saturated with the world’s best hospitality, I swear. Benugu, one of the lead staff members, offered me a delicious cold iced tea upon arrival and showed me around the surrounding swamps; keenly aware of the monkeys and hippos and crocodiles and elephants that often lurk on the lodge’s grounds. I truly wasn’t expecting the wildlife to by this abundant in such a tight, confined area. But it is — LIKE CRAZY. These very trusting (and very large) animals are just a few feet away from me in search of the most scrumptious tree to scratch their belly on. Benugu had additionally told me that the Luangwa river the Marula sits nearby is home of the most crocodiles and hippos in the entire continent of Africa. 

“So don’t go swimming in the river now, Natalia!”. 

Yeah. No problem, Benugu.

 

Journal Post #2 (June 29th, 2017):

This chocolate fridge cake reminds me of Smoan Girl Scout cookies. So freaking good”, I say.

Anna, James, and Kate look at each other bewilderedly. 

“Wait, I thought Girl Scouts only existed in the movies? We don’t have anything like that in the UK.” Kate says with a cheerful voice. The three fellow weary travelers have been staying at the Marula lodge for over 2 weeks, tomorrow being their last day. I’ve made great friends with this hilarious bunch and am rather sad to see them leave. We’ve had our fair share of deep belly laughed conversations over the past two dinners; a fresh exchange of words from people my age. All other guests staying at the Marula have been a bit stand-offish. Honeymooners, families, elders over the age of 60… that sort of thing.

I wish you three the best of luck, ‘ole chaps.

I can’t help but feel a little sad that no one is here with me to witness everything I’m seeing. I guess that’s why I resort to writing and photography, to bring home these memories and tell everyone about it. But, it just isn’t the same sometimes. Solo travel is a bit strange this way. No matter how independent I know I am, there is always a piece of me that wishes another person were here to laugh or talk with me. I lay down in the middle of the night, aggressively awake (thanks, jetlag), staring deeply at the surface of the bed across the room wishing there’d be a person there to harass. Instead, I’m stuck listening to the baboons behind my window make incessant barking noises. There is beauty, though, in solitude. An open mind with brilliant clarity. 

I’m infinitely grateful to look back on such experiences for myself.

5:02am and I’m awake. A group of 80 students (80?!) from the States come to invade the Marula Lodge for the next two days; keeping the staff very, very busy. One of the girls in the room next to my mine is becoming violently sick, making dreadful noises so unbearable to hear. I loudly play Empire of the Sun’s “Walking on a Dream” from my laptop to drown out her disgusting noises. Luckily she feels better over the next hour, proceeding to gossip to her friend about the other students on the trip. I hear everything between these paper-thin walls. I’m become a professional eavesdropper. Of course, me, I don’t mind that they’re talking at this odd hour in the morning — I quite fancy it. It’s strangely comforting to hear human voices other than your own thoughts racing in your mind due to lack of wifi. Keep talking about “how trash Jack is to Sarah”, ladies. It’s funny.

A few hours later I find myself at the bank of the river, drinking a strong cup of hot coffee, and feeling incredibly satisfied from my two pieces of toast. A dash of butter with loads of peach jam all swirled together on a hot piece of freshly baked bread. My kind of morning. I stare out into the horizon, making note of the hippos bathing themselves in the dirty river water. An older lady comes to sit next to me for a morning read — some sort of romantic thriller I presume. We smile, exchange good mornings, and quietly leave to go about our own business for the day.

Alas — another day of work at Chipembele. Joseph, the kindest stranger I have ever met, picks me up in is ‘ole beat up Toyota to drop me off at the offices just a few short kilometers down the road. I say hello to Issac, Jen, Anna, Eunice, Naomi, and Jacett. Jen and I pack our bags in the rig and set out to meet Dan to hold the gracious opportunity of roaming around his sacred village nestled deep in the savanna. 

Little did I know that I would later be joining an all-women’s group dance, photographing the most beautiful children, and respectfully declining a taste of raw mice that one boy had offered me…. yeah. After we met Dan’s family in Mfuwe, Jen and myself took a tour of a nearby textile shop and ate the most delicious lunch. Vegetarian pizza, anyone? We then set out on an African safari in South Launguwa National Park with children from the conservation club at Chipembele. With hopes of coming across a lion that had be previously sighted at the lagoon — we failed. But, we did manage to see a leopard taking a nap in the shade. He didn’t seem to be bothered by us human invaders, he quite fancied our company. 

I guess I can successfully mark “African safari” off my bucket list. Hell yes. 

What a day.

 

Journal Post #3 (July 1st, 2017)

Thump, thump, thump.

2:28am and horrific sounds are coming from outside my window. I thought for sure it had been one of the lodge’s nightwalkers lurking the grounds. Alas, I pull apart my covers and gander in the dark for my glasses. I take a look outside my window only to find a hippo’s massive head directly facing me as I pull back the curtain. I grow startled and tightly hold my chest in relief. The ugliest damn thing… have you ever seen a hippo’s face up close? Gah, well. He was pretty cute now that I think about it. He then roamed about in the dark in search for fallen nuts. The baboons appropriately made way.

The past couple of days working for Chipembele have really tugged my heartstrings. The organization has done an astonishing amount of work to improve wildlife crime not in just South Luangwa National Park, but for all of Zambia as a whole. They have proven to have a number of successful conservation efforts under their belt, as well. I’ve never been more impressed. Even the children in the primary schools are learning about topics I couldn’t have even have dreamed of when I was their age — their simple use of environmental vocabulary is just extraordinary. 

Yesterday’s other endeavor into the National Park really opened my eyes into the behind the scenes of what Chipembele is all about. I was lucky enough to accompany my new friend, Tandi, a women only a few years older than me, and a handful of secondary students apart of the Carnivore Club conducting research with remote imagery in the park. After surveying the land for unique game animals, we journaled their behavior in their particular habitats. We must always reinforce our hypotheses. Then, after having found two sleeping lions in the beautiful sun-drenched grasslands, we explored nearby areas in search for hidden cameras. These cameras the Carnivore Club have set out all hold a unique sensor to capture an image of wildlife should they walk 15 feet or less in front of it. Every two or three weeks, the club makes their way into the park to download the images for record keeping. What time of day they enter the area, what animals are we most seen, what are their proposed behaviors, how many of them are there, etc.

Fascinating, no?

Tandi was a wonderful woman to have gotten in contact with. It was rather intimidating to talk to her, really. She’s much more accomplished than any one person I know in the conservation field. She has traveled all around Africa conducting research on carnivorous cats, studied her Bachelor’s in Canada, went to the University of Arizona for her Master’s, and has been awarded the National Geographic Young Explorers’ grant. How amazing? Accomplished, knowledgeable, charming, beautiful, and hilarious. A real treat.

The next few days should be interesting. With a half-day today, a full day off tomorrow, and Monday and Tuesday being holidays — who knows what could happen. 

I’m currently sitting in from of the river in my new favorite spot, free from monkeys and all. I sip my hot black tea and listen to the frenchman speak hilarious banter next to me. It’s a beautiful, restful afternoon.

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Journal Post #4 (July 2nd, 2017):

Two pounds of butter on this morning’s toast never tasted so good. Strawberry jam, instead of the peach jam. An extra spoonful of coffee. And more baboons taunting me at the table, of course.

At 9:45 hours, my dear friend and taxi driver, Joseph, picked me up and took me to his church. When he found out that I stopped going to church back in the States, he immediately drew back in shock and warmly invited me to his. “You must go to Church. You must understand who your creator is”.  His concerned remarks seemed so sweet and sincere — I couldn’t help but take him up on his offer.

The building was made of brick and tin. Sturdy, tall walls with an extra long tin-roof made perfect for shielding ourselves from the hot sun. Every single person was up dancing and signing with absolute pride, quite intimidating for myself who has a terrible singing voice. The sermon naturally spoke in the Mufwe’s local language so I clearly had no idea what was going on or what it was they were singing about. Something about “letting Jehovah wipe away our sins”, I presume from Joseph’s synopsis. I then was invited to come up to the front to formally introduce myself and where I was from. The whole crowd leaped with joy and made loud yelling noises as a warm celebration. Man, it felt good.

After mooching off the lodge’s terrible wifi and reading incredibly inspiring Outside magazine articles on the front patio, I embarked on my first true African safari through South Luangwa National Park. I had made arrangements through the Marula Lodge to ride in Duncan’s car with 7 other people to go on a fantastic 4-hour long drive.

Never in my life did I think that I would actually on a safari. If you had told me this time last year that I would be searching for lions in lagoons in Southeastern Zambia, I wouldn’t have believed you. Truth be told, exploring Africa was a bit on the back burner for a number of years. Europe, Maldives, Japan, and Patagonia have always been at the top of the list of places I wanted to visit next; always my first answer when anybody asks where I dream of traveling to. The continent of Africa, while of course a bucket-list item, was never something I had imagined myself going to right away. But it was within these moments — moments like today’s Safari — that truly wiped away all previously imagined connotations. Africa is the BEST. Zambia is full of magic. And I’m here to tell you that spotting elephants, lions, hippos, leopards, and giraffes during sunset in their natural habitat changed me as a woman.

Our group stopped two hours in to enjoy ground nuts and wine at the bank of a lagoon. The sun kissed the horizon goodbye as the sound of hippos snorted across the miles and miles of expansive landscapes. Our white wine tasted of a bitter concoction between bark and fruits, though it paired deliciously with our peanuts. I dip down inside a hill’s crevasse to use the restroom only to stare into the face of a ravaged crocodile. I quickly pull up my pants and pee somewhere else. 

We ended the drive in the nighttime, the watchman’s flashing their big flashlight all throughout the land in search of nocturnal creatures. Many hyenas…

I sleep soundly.

 

Journal Post #5 (July 4th, 2017):

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Yona, a different driver than Joseph this morning, picked me up in the raddest looking Land Cruiser I’ve seen this whole trip. Painted with a deep, rich blue and coated in Zambia’s finest dust top a human has ever seen. My kind of ride.

After a long-winded 30 minute drive down the dirt road, we have finally reached Steve and Anna’s house, also simultaneously where the Chipembele’s centre is located; approximately 16km from Mfuwe in a remote part of the Lower Lupande Game Management Area. Positioned quite literally in the middle of nowhere — only surrounded by the hidden sounds of nearby wild elephants feeding their young. Here you see four or so large buildings made for housing children local to Mfuwe’s primary schools and even a family-owned animal rehabilitation centre by the Tolans themselves. Over the years they have successfully rescued many orphans and injured animals, nursing them to health or adulthood, and releasing them to the wild. Amazing, isn’t it? 

Steve had joyfully invited me to go on what’s called a “bushwalk” with him through the grassy rolling hills just a few kilometers away from their home. I, of course, replied yes since my natural hiking instinct is to join along any sort of adventure such as this.

Little to my knowledge did I ever expect Steven is also a world-renowned fossil collector and science writer. He held exquisite satires of old time canoe trips down the dangerous nile river and proclaimed his near-death experience when a crocodile nearly eat his entire boat. He told stories of crooks in the fossil world and all about how “community is everything in the paleontology universe”. Hours and hours ran by on this dirt trail while his voice continue to strongly linger. 

This exhausting, yet beautiful hike ran 6 miles up and down the fabulous landscapes of Mfuwe. We ran into lethal black mambas, aggressive elephants, a herd of buffalo, leopards, and feeding giraffes. Wildlife is equally breathtaking as they are terrifying when face to face in the hands of Mother Nature. Of course the only photo I had taken during this insanely dangerous expedition was a mediocre selfie on the bank of a dry waterfall. I had been panting and breathing so heavily, I thought my lungs would burst through my burnt ribcage. A salty ridge-line of sweat now boils between the brim of my hat and cold skin — very sweaty, very happy. My heart needs a break from the mad thumps it had made earlier in response to seeing a herd of buffalo stomp pass us in the dense savanna. The animals behaviorin the wild game reserve beamed with such clear, stark contrast in comparison to those in the National Park. Many of the lions, giraffes, and elephants in these parts of the South Lunagwa wilderness are not used to seeing humans; if they are — they’re poachers. Mothers steer clear for their young and will do anything to protect their matriarchal community. 

I’m in love with this place.

 

Journal Post #6 (July 6th, 2017):

My 6th and final journal post on July 6th. Fitting, no?

Today marks the last and final day of this journey. Tomorrow I set out for the dreadful 40 hour travel time home across the 5 flights and many hours of delayed services. I’m not looking forward to it.

I’ll be sad that I’ll no longer be having dinner with Jenny, Mike, Ken, Regina and Su — Marula’s finest managers in all the land. I’d always listen in on their office gossip and we’d have the most fabulous conversations at the dinner table over a glass of red wine… or “red juice” as they call it. Su’s incredible humor masked by her British accent was my favorite and I’ll never forget Regina’s incredibly soft mannerism towards the hilarious banter over spaghetti. And to Jenny and Mike, you sweet souls. I love you all. Thank you for opening your hearts to me this entire trip and making my stay so enjoyable. I’ll have to come back — but, I’ll bring a friend this time!

Zambia’s raging wanderlust felt equal parts fated and haphazard like any good adventure should. This uniquely flavored solo exploration had inspired me in way I couldn’t quite articulate without a proper list. My writing tends to get messy if I use too many adjectives to describe my feelings, as critiqued by a theology professor back at the university. So, here we go:

1.) Let go of social media for a day or ten. My time is always better spent elsewhere.

2.) Say yes to every single opportunity that arises; growth ensues only when we make ourselves feel uncomfortable.

3.) Assume goodwill in every single person. Laugh a lot, love a lot, and smile at every person that walks by even if it isn’t reciprocated.

4.) Work hard and always get the work done early. Truth is, we never “feel like it” so just do it now.

5.) Traveling solo doesn’t mean you’re alone.

6.) Don’t confine yourself to a particular meaning. Let the story unfold and tell itself.

Thank you for this opportunity, Photographers Without Borders and Chipembele. For believing in me, for supporting me, and for making this adventure one worth while. 

Much love, Mfuwe. I’ll see you again.

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