MALAWI: April 2018

Christopher Mvula, known more affectionately as Mr Christopher, is an engaging character. He oozes charisma and has one of those faces that you don’t forget – the sort you know has a thousand stories to tell.

I’ve met him before – in Liwonde National Park on a previous trip to Malawi – but on that occasion I didn’t get the chance to sit and chat; this time I don’t miss the opportunity.

We sit in front of the roaring fire at Chelinda Lodge in the Nyika Plateau, where he is spending a few weeks mentoring the camp’s new management team.

It’s mid-morning, but the chill in the air (the lodge is some 2500m above sea level) necessitates the warming embers.

Hailing from Kasungu in central Malawi, Mr Christopher has been with Central African Wilderness Safaris (CAWS) for 20 years. Starting out at Mvuu Lodge and Camp in Liwonde, he worked his way up to becoming manager before assuming the role of relations manager in 2010.

“This involves being the link between company and community around Liwonde,” he tells me. “I look at how can we help the community that lives around the park, I encourage their involvement in conservation, explain why the lodge is there and how they will benefit [as a result].”

Community engagement is key to the success of any lodge. Not only do the local communities tend to supply the bulk of the workforce to build it in the first place, they can remain involved in its day-to-day running: maintaining the property, supplying food stuffs to the kitchen, working in the lodge itself, becoming a guide or even a scout or park ranger. Several poachers, who previously hunted wildlife to feed his family or to reap the rewards from the sale of bush meat, ivory or rhino horn, now help to protect those animals.

“Poaching was really bad,” Mr Christopher explains. “[As part of my role], I had meetings with the village chiefs so that they could [pass on our message] to the villagers. I explained that once the animals are finished, there will be no camp, no employment for their children and no projects such as schools and clinics [which CAWS has helped to fund and build in the areas around their lodges].”

Anti-poaching coaching

To coin a phrase, the children are our future. Something that Mr C (if I may call him that – not to his face, mind, I have too much respect for him for that) is helping CAWS to champion.

In 2004 the company helped launch a Children in the Wilderness programme in Liwonde. Children in the Wilderness is a not-for-profit organisation that aims, according to its website, to “facilitate sustainable conservation through leadership development and education of rural children in Africa”.

“It started with a few kids under a tree,” Mr Christopher recalls, “with members of Mvuu staff doing the teaching on their days off. We also supplied books and writing materials.

“Then we bought a small shelter [for them to hold lessons in] and we took guests to see the ‘school’. One guest, an American lady, became involved and pumped in quite a lot of money, with which we were able to build three school blocks and some teachers’ houses.”

By contrast, Chelinda’s Children in the Wilderness programme is a fledgling, having only launched last year – but the area is already reaping the benefits. Running the initiative here is a completely different proposition to the set-up around Liwonde.

“The lodge is far from the villages,” explains Mr Christopher, “but we have set up a school at the entrance gate for the children of families that work in the park. We teach them about their environment and conservation, so that in future they will be custodians of the area.”

In addition, the programme helps less well-off families to pay their kids’ secondary school fees (primary school education is free in Malawi) and even to enable them to go onto university to study conservation-related degrees.

The result of these projects, says Mr Christopher, is that it helps curtail poaching. There is also a system in place for villagers to report sightings of poachers to the authorities.

“National Parks want to build more camps to provide employment in areas where poachers come through,” he adds. Not only does a new lodge or camp provide a preferable and less-dangerous source of income for would-be poachers, the fact that it is built on known poaching routes acts as a deterrent in itself, because the chances of being caught are heightened.

This is a move that could be especially important following the relocation of 34 elephants to Nyika National Park, as part of Malawi’s translocation project.

With Mr C having been involved in the safari industry for so long, I wonder what is the best thing he has seen over the years. Angling for an out-of-this world animal sighting story, I am pleasantly surprised by his answer – one that shows the importance Malawi places on preserving its heritage.

“Working in Liwonde a long time, the best thing I have seen is after [the conservation organisation] African Parks came in,” he says.

“The protection of the park and animals has been great. We have fencing, helicopters and boats [to aid the fight against the poachers]. Poaching has been controlled – it is [nowhere near] as bad as before.”

He adds: “The fence around the park has really helped the community around here. It has stopped the elephants demolishing their crops and houses – this, for me, is really great. It has made people’s lives easier.”

For someone who has spent much of his time in Liwonde, I’m curious to discover what he thinks about Nyika.

“When you come to Nyika it is like a different country,” he says. “It’s like somewhere in northern Europe. The landscape is so beautiful: you drive to woodland and then come into grassland. The weather is totally different to the rest of Malawi and it is easier to see game because of the short grass… It’s just beautiful.”

A good spot

But what about that animal sighting? Again, his answer astounds me when I ask him about his funniest experience working in the tourism industry.

“To me it was funny, something I didn’t think of or expect,” he begins. “I was taking the shortcut we use from the camp to the lodge, when a bushbuck ran across in front of me and carried on up the track. I thought that I must have scared him and he was just running away from me.

“I thought no more of it and kept walking. Far behind me was a friend, who then saw a leopard walking behind me. [Luckily] I never saw it.

“My friend was afraid to shout because he thought he might terrify me. So, we kept walking in a line: the bushbuck, then me, then the leopard and then my friend.

“I crossed over the main road [to go straight on] and the leopard turned right and went the other way.

“My friend then clapped his hands to get my attention and whispered that there had been a leopard behind me and he pointed in the direction that it went. I turned and saw it walking away.

“We collapsed with laughter. We laughed and laughed.”

I’m not sure that would have been my reaction.

Sadly, our conversation is over far too quickly – I have a plane to catch. Mr Christopher is the sort of person you can talk to all day… and the next and the next.

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