Every mud hut in Songwe Village Lodge is named after a chief. Our hut, for example, is called Shichichele.
Shichichele, incidentally, was poisoned and then buried alive by the villagers after senile dementia began to adversely affect his chiefly duties. It was a botched job. Shichichele’s subterranean screams continued for seven days before the chief finally suffocated.
|Made fresh daily — Songwe Village Lodge offers a taste (literally) of Zambian life.|
Yasin, our guide, is rather matter of fact about the whole thing. But then again, executing chiefs here in southern Zambia is nothing new. It has been customary for at least seven centuries.
“If the chief has not run the affairs of the village correctly, he will be killed whether he likes it or not,” explains Yasin as he shows us into our hut.
“But surely murder in Zambia is illegal,” I suggest.
“It is very illegal,” Yasin confirms with emphasis. “We have what we call laws that pertain to preventing murder.”
“So if the people kill the chief, won’t they be arrested?”
“If they stone witches to death in the village, which is a brutal act and a crime, they will be arrested,” says Yasin. “In the case of killing the chief, though, it’s understood that no one will be taken to task.”
|Fried mopane caterpillars, a popular item in Zambia and neighboring countries.|
“Well, well,” muse I, as Yasin leaves me to my hut and my vertiginous views of the mighty Zambezi River roaring through the Batoka Gorge, “This is going to be educational!”
Songwe Village Lodge sits on the Zambian side of the Zambezi torrent, not far from Victoria Falls and the Zimbabwe border. It’s an eye-opener.
Songwe, which this year won the Ecotourism Society’s coveted Africa Responsible Tourism Award, aims to be a cultural as well as a safari experience. The actual lodge is built along the lines of a local village, complete with scratching chickens, grain bins, women pounding maize to make meal and mud huts.
|The baths at Songwe Village Lodge look directly out over the Batoka Gorge of the Zambia River.|
A couple of concessions to feeble foreign tourists have been made. There are en suite toilets as opposed to communal latrines, the rooms are tastefully decorated, and the baths are the best — yes, the best — in Africa.
They are housed in four mud huts, each perched on the lip of the Batoka Gorge and facing the thundering Zambezi torrent. There’s no front wall at all. Just thin, fresh air and uninterrupted views. Peeping Toms? Not a problem. They’d need to be scale-Everest material or microlight pilots.
Other than these decadent little extras, the management has made considerable effort to reflect authentic Zambian village life. There is no electricity, so it’s firelight, candles and storm lanterns after dusk. Though the main course at dinnertime includes more than just the country’s staple maize porridge, and all the drinks from orange juice to Irish whiskey are free, the hors d’oeuvres are mopane worms (dried, rather leathery caterpillars).
The seating arrangements, too, are authentic: The men get to sit on stools while eating and the women get to be segregated on the floor (though neither have knives or forks).
The lodge offers excursions to virtually every attraction and activity going on in this hyperactive corner of Zambia. You can, for example, white-water raft. If you’ve seen the rapids from your precipice bathroom, however, you might have second thoughts. They’ve all got these disconcerting but apt names: “Gnashing Jaws of Death,” “Commercial Suicide” and so on.
“The Mother” is a large whirlpool visible from one bathroom that collects and retains anything that has fallen over Victoria Falls. If you see locals wearing shoes that don’t match you know they’ve done their “shopping” at The Mother.
Other tourist activities that can be enjoyed out of Songwe include safaris to the rather small national park nearby, where there are very rare white rhinos; horse riding; dining, drinking or breakfasting on the quieter bits of the Zambezi; and of course visiting Victoria Falls.
Archaeology buffs will be drawn by the area’s prehistoric human legacy. Stone scrapers, spheroid hammer stones and hand axes are abundant, pointing to the presence of tool-using Homo habilis (“Handy Man”) in the area possibly as far back as 2 million years ago. Proto-hominid remains dating even further back have been found. There are 11 sites once occupied by Stone Age man near Songwe and plenty of skulls and bones to admire in a field museum reached by bullock cart.
Modern Zambian man can be seen on trips to the local village of Mokuni.
Mokuni’s chief insists that no gifts be given to villagers to prevent mobbing of visitors and “general distressing behavior.” Instead, tourists are politely shown around Mokuni’s principle features: the tree where Dr. Livingstone once met the village chief, the jail, the vegetable plots, the houses and all the other fascinating nuts and bolts that hold a Zambian village together.
Wood carving is big in Songwe and it is tacitly assumed that tourists will visit the carvers’ market. It’d be a mistake to miss it. Check out the charms against wizardry — not only are they aesthetically pleasing but they might come in handy.
Just scan a local paper. The following lines in one of Zambia’s principle newspapers caught my eye:
“Lusaka: More than 30 stark-naked people suspected of being wizards ‘crash-landed’ on the rooftops of houses, institutions and filling stations in Zambia last year, leaving the population puzzled.”
Rodwell Vongo, leader of a guild of 40,000 witch doctors, explained, “They generally crash-land citing lack of fuel . . . interrupting their missions prematurely.”
That’s Zambia. Never dull.