When we first arrive in Niassa Reserve in 2002 it is considered one of the “Last of the Wild” places on earth. The Portuguese often refer to Northern Mozambique as “Fim do Mundo”… the end of the world. Covering more than 16,000 square miles, the reserve is the size of a small country with a 1000 lions and 14,000 elephants living here in one of Africa’s least known wildernesses.
We are attracted to Niassa because there are still people and carnivores living together as they were generations ago. But there is little known about how these carnivores are doing? Honey badgers have been our favorite carnivore for many years, but while we find lots of evidence of all the the other predators, we fail to catch a single honey badger in the five months of our surveys. Alberto, a local honey hunter who has been helping us in our search, insists that we need to ask his ancestors for help. Here at Chief Nantusi’s grave we witness our first “Chonde chonde” ancestral ceremony and within the week a badger is successfully caught and released. Alberto is unsurprised. This is our first introduction to the importance of the spiritual realm to Niassa’s people.
Our neighbors, the local Cyao people who live inside the protected area both revere and struggle against wildlife on a daily basis. They face the universal challenges of all people living so close to nature. To help them cope they regularly call on the help of their ancestors. These spirits, called “Majini” influence so many aspects of their lives. The spirits live in the highest mountains, largest trees and deepest pools, but may also be embodied within animals like the lions, baboons and other creatures. These same animals raid their fields and even threaten their lives.
At the same time Niassa is changing fast. Land mines are removed, bridges and roads rebuilt and mobile phone towers installed. With all this progress comes the inevitable pressure on Niassa’s wildlife and its resources. From our initial interest in just surveys, our efforts turn to conservation as so much of the Niassa wilderness hangs in the balance. Many of the lions we study are being caught in traps set for wild meat and the old elephant bulls around our camp are systematically being shot for their ivory. We need to gain a deeper understanding of the community in which we work if we are to ever be successful in conservation. The belief in the spirit world greatly influences how people think and act in Niassa. It seems to be connected to just about everything… even elephant poaching and man-eating lions.
We hear about an old shaman called MweNandi who dives into a sacred pool to commune with the spirits. This pool, called CheMambo is protected by baboons and crocodiles who are believed to be the ancestors. Tons of food are painstakingly gathered and then offered to these ancestors, despite the fact that baboons are considered crop raiding pests back in the village. It takes us four years to gradually win MweNandi’s confidence but eventually we are allowed to document for the first time some of Niassa’s most sacred and intimate ceremonies. All the plants and animals here are considered to be sacred, a place of reverence, music and hope. Pilgrims from different religions travel from all over Africa to visit the pool during the dry season.
We gain an understanding of the important role these spiritual beliefs play an in conservation. As life in Niassa changes these beliefs remain strong and relevant. They need to be respected and reaffirmed in this fight to save a spectacular wilderness.