The Kawaza Village Tourism Project Lets Westerners Experience Village Life
By Victoria Schlesinger
Outside of Lusaka, Zambia, the Luangwa River wends and lolls its way down the vast and verdant Luangwa Valley.
Herds of elephants, buffalo, lions and leopards, antelopes, and the endemic Thornicroft giraffes and Cookson’s wildebeests descend upon the river’s cool waters, protected by South Luangwa National Park, just over 9000 sq.km. of grass plains and woodlands.
By most accounts, the park and its walking safaris are THE reason travelers visit Zambia. A fact that hasn’t escaped the park’s buffer-zone residents of Kawaza village.
In 1997 the Kunda, living 10 km from the park’s entrance, started a community tourism venture to share their culture and village with tourists. The drive to Kawaza village is an experience in and of itself: a view of classic Africa with its deep red earth, mopane woods, open plains, and snaking rivers.
A typical farming village, Kawaza is surrounded by fields of maize, cotton, and sunflowers. Ten to twelve families (40-50 people) live in the village, and upon your arrival, several of the villagers will greet you.
They’ll ask what you’re interested in doing and quickly design an itinerary according to your needs. Take a tour of the village with your assigned host — you’ll walk down to the lagoon and water’s edge (although no swimming — crocs!), learn about the local flora and its medicinal uses, and the layout of the village.
Since Zambia was a British colony, most of the men and many of the women speak English.
Depending on how long you choose to stay — an afternoon, a few nights, a week — you can check out any number of activities. Go net fishing in dugout tree trunk canoes. Learn to cook the local fare — nshema, which is ground maize that sets like polenta.
The Kunda eat it with peanut and spinach relishes, alongside goat or other local meats. If you visit, this is what you’ll be dining on too. Call on the local chief who oversees Kawaza and other villages in the Luangwa Valley and learn about local environmental issues.
Trek into the forests and help collect wild honey and learn how apiculturists make and raise hives. Or visit with one of the local healers who will concoct herbal remedies for your various ailments.
Every evening the village gathers around a campfire and begins a session of storytelling and dancing. Kawaza is a social hub for many of the surrounding smaller villages (5-6 huts versus the 10-12 in Kawaza), and as the smoke of the fire billows into the evening sky tens to hundreds of people from surrounding villages arrive in Kawaza.
The village has two dancing troupes — one of the kids and the other of local women — that perform. No costumes, nothing special for tourists; the village proceeds as they do — with you lucky enough to be included. In fact, they’ll likely egg you on to join in the dancing, drumming, and storytelling of the evening. Traditions and stories are passed down orally; the nightly gatherings are history in the making.
Dr. Cheryl Mvula, who worked with the national park, and has been closely tied to the tourism project in Kawaza, described a visit as similar to gathering with family.
“It’s very laid back. The villagers of Kawaza want to share their culture so that visitors not only see wildlife but come away knowing the people who live here. Repeatedly, tourists who come to Luangwa Park and Kawaza, end up saying the best part of their trip was spending time in the village.”
The Kunda have lived in the Luangwa Valley for thousands of years, first arriving from Zaire. As a traditional farming and hunting community, they face pressing natural resource problems, among them poaching and destruction of habitat.
By undertaking tourism, the village has been able to greatly improve their community. Profits from their first year went directly back into their tourism venture without anyone taking a salary.
In subsequent years the community has bought books and other school supplies, a water pump, and taken care of the communities’ sick and orphaned. All profits go into a community fund and each year the group decides collectively what will be done with the money.
The Kawaza Village Tourism Project came out of a system similar to CAMPFIRE, which has been underway in South Africa since the mid-1980s.
So far, most visitors have come through one of three UK-based tour operators but the village is interested in attracting more independent travelers. The village has built four huts — mud walls and thatched roofs — for tourists. Each has two beds complete with mosquito nets, an open shower surrounded by a reed screen, and toilets.
Victoria Schlesinger is the editor in chief of Bay Nature. She lives in San Francisco.
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