On a bank run to the airport and the dust seems to settle a little heavier on the roadway. The tarmac is deserted. No tourists mean no flights, and the usually bustling environment is replaced by a stillness, like the calm before a November storm.
I’m sure that South Luangwa is not alone in this feeling of unreality, but for a place that relies on tourism to survive, the feeling of isolation sits on the surface of a sea of worry. No one really knows how long this crisis will endure, and for many the future looks uncertain. Back in town and the doors to Project Luangwa remain firmly closed for the time being. The impressive elephant that usually greets visitors with its upraised trunk, seems subdued in the May sunshine. We’re entering one of the coolest times of year to visit the valley, but with businesses and lodges closed, and staff supporting vulnerable families out of work, there is a palpable insecurity in the air.
The animals seem to feel it too. The park is noticeably quieter, but the lack of visitors has also led to an increase in poaching. The use of snares, those insidiously indiscriminate killers, are on the rise, as some opportunists take advantage of the lower traffic, while others just look for ways to feed their families. There is no black and white in this struggle, only an ever deepening shade of grey.
The start of the crisis saw a frenzy of activity, setting up systems to ensure social distancing for staff, communicating with sponsors, and ensuring that children got home safely with the school closures, but now the rhythms of the everyday anxieties are sinking in. For some children they have been thrust back into high risk environments. Abuse and malnutrition are real struggles for many, and the lack of school has removed a critical safety net. The aftershocks of this virus go far beyond the escalating death tolls. They reach into homes and businesses, seeping a cloud of fear into everyone, but in particular those who are the most vulnerable in our society.
Yet many continue to work tirelessly to disperse those clouds with the light of optimism. Conservation NGOs such as CSL and ZCP continue battling to check the growth of poaching. They are the frontline in the fight, and their tagline of ‘#alwaysoncall’ has never been more appropriate. Likewise, Project Luangwa, Chipemebele, Time and Tide and Raise A Smile are broadening their message and continuing to look for ways to support communities and children who are in the greatest need. BioCarbon Partners have selflessly put together a crisis fund which have benefitted many struggling charities and businesses, Project Luangwa included, and Tribal Textiles are working unerringly to meet the demand for affordable and hygienic face masks. The lodges are all still trying to support their staff, even with no revenue. Everyone is doing their part, and that’s what makes the valley such an unbelievable place to work and live.
For us at Project Luangwa, we have been balancing the need to protect our staff through social distancing, while still continuing to operate our much needed programmes. Despite the school closures we are mobilising ways to get educational material to those who would otherwise have none, and continuing to support young women with menstrual hygiene help and advice, gender clubs, vulnerable workers and clean cooking initiatives. Covid-19 is a global crisis, but we are each affected in varying degrees. For us, and for South Luangwa, it will not defeat us. With the incredible support and generosity of donors, of visitors looking to offset the loss from their cancelled trips, and with the determination and selflessness of NGOs, businesses and the community, we will come out of this even stronger.
Like the Luangwa itself, right now we may only be a trickle, but the rains will come again, and with it the flood.