Simon Molesi knows the wealth and perils that inhabit the Shire River. Twice, he faced but survived crocodile attacks. While the beasts took away a chunk of his flesh, they left his courage and spirit intact: He is not about to give up fishing. That is the story of Liwonde that Bright Mhango picked up on one of his travels.
â€œThe crocodile grabbed my foot. I clutched at the boatâ€™s edge. I was shouting for my dear life, but my friends were all afraid and just hid in the boat while I battled the beast. I think they thought I was a goner and did not want to risk standing between me and fate.â€
Like reading a picturesque novel passage, the scene that Simon Molesi, 35, of Nsamachi in Balaka described was too unreal to have occurred; but his left leg has no foot and stands like a pestle. On the shin of his right leg are marks of a crocodileâ€™s grip.
There are few places in the world where people on bicycles can collide with hippos standing in the narrow mazy paths in maize fields. It is also very normal for a man to have no grave because his body was eaten by a crocodile. Welcome to the jungle.
On the northern side of Liwonde Barrage, which sits on the Shire River, is a small town that has come into being mainly because the no-nonsense police there demand that every person on a bus disembark so that they give the vehicle and the luggage a good frisk.
The town lives on fish, big fish, fish most Malawians have never tasted, let alone seen: Catfish, fish with mouths elongated like whistles, tilapia and some without English names.
Even at 3am, silhouettes of people in canoes can be spotted on the vast silent river. All sorts of fishing methods are used: nets, traps, hooks both on floats and with weights.
Shire is a provider for those living along it, but under the murky waters and mingling with the fish and sometimes in the overgrown bushes deathly danger lies, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting humans that get too comfortable in and near the waters.
Liwonde National Park is less than 10 kilometres away from Nsamachi and it is full of elephants, hippos and fish.
A fight for life
Simon Molesi knows all too well what it means to live side by side with wild animals. He has escaped death by the whiskers twiceâ€”he has broken loose from two crocodile grips and still lives to tell the tale.
â€œOn January 1, 2010, around 3am, I and my five friends were fishing at Nkalawi, just inside the national park. As the leader, I would get into the water to make sure the net we cast was well placed. I had gone into the water twice and when I was about to get back into the boat on the third occasion, I felt a sudden pang of painâ€¦,â€ said Molesi, a soft-spoken father of two.
He knew he was about to die, but the thought of his wife and children, the thought of disappointing his fishermen and setting a bad example to the upcoming generation of fishermen pushed him on to fight.
He held on to the boat like a vice and if the crocodile wanted to pull him into the deep, it had to take the boat too.
The tug of war between man and beast lasted less than a minute as the crocodile yanked away half his foot and Molesi quickly launched his body into the boat.
He narrated his story quietly and to the last detail; the exact time he was taken to the hospital, the date he was amputated at the ankle and discharged and how, by November, he was back to his fishing ways.
The rest of Shire River has relatively low fish stocks due to overfishing. To get the real fish, one has to go into the national park, illegal but very profitable. At the place where Molesi was attacked, one fishing round can buy one a small car.
â€œNkalawi is a dangerous place. I know of more than eight people that have died there. A guy named Charles from Silika Village, a guy called Kanongâ€™aâ€¦ even the park rangers fear the place. If you are there, they will not follow you, but wait for you to go further on or when you are coming back downstream,
â€œThere is plenty of fish there. You can hear fish making sounds on the water like rain. I remember we did one fishing job there and we got K106 000. I went home with K17 000. The next day, we made about K80 000 and so on,â€ said Molesi.
In the evening of the first anniversary of the 2010 attack, Molesi was back in the water. After getting in and out of the water without any scare, something happened. It was around 3am on January 1, 2011.
â€œFrom the blue, a crocodile boomed out of the water and grabbed my right leg. Again, by the grace of God I yanked away my leg from his grip after a brief struggle,â€ he said.
He described a big crocodile that came out and got its fore legs into the boat trying to grab one of the five fishermen and nearly threatening to capsize the vessel. When the crocodile attacked, Molesi shouted for dear life and in terror, but when he fell back and hid away from the beast, silence reigned.
Again, on this occasion, Molesiâ€™s mates could not help him; they had fallen flat on the boatâ€™s surface as if there had been a bomb blast or lightning.
â€œWe could hear the crocodile scrubbing at the boat at both ends at once and you can imagine how big it was. The boat was taking water and no one dared cup out the water. Everyone was lying flat in the boat,â€ said Molesi.
The crocodile gave up and by then, one person had severed the anchor and the boat was drifting downstream.
Molesi said it took a good hours before someone dared do anything in the boat.
â€œOne of my friends got a bowl and started cupping out the water that had accumulated in the boat. Then someone asked me how badly injured I was and I showed them. My flesh was hanging about in strands and I was bleeding dangerously, such that the nightâ€™s catch was floating in bloody water,â€ he narrated.
Not quitting yet
Molesi went to the hospital again and luckily, his bone had not been severed. The doctor asked him to consider quitting fishing, but he says he is not retiring just yet.
â€œThere is no other occupation I know out there apart from fishing. I didnâ€™t go to school and I have two kids and an orphaned wife. I also have no father, just a mother who also needs my support,â€ he said.
Asked why he has not invested in anything yet, Molesi said before the 2010 attack, he had been keeping some money, but spent the whole lot during the period his amputated leg was healing.
If not for the accident, he wanted to buy some land and build houses to eventually rent out. He said he wants to leave something solid for the children.
Molesi is an expert fisher. That is why he gets the lead role during fishing, but there is something else that he is popular for: Juju.
He claims that he can make crocodiles go away using his charms which he received from his father. He said surviving the crocodile attacks is partly because he is â€˜protected.â€™
â€œMy father gave me this medicine to ward off the beats. Even the people around here know this. That is why they trust and follow me to Nkalawi and so far no one has been attacked on my watch, except me,â€ said Molesi.
Along the Shire River, people believe that some crocodiles are sent by their witchcraft practising enemies. To guard against this, Molesiâ€™s father travelled from Ulongwe just to help the son get â€˜protectedâ€™ against both natural and man-made crocodiles.
He has a black bottle with grease-like substance, a small tea-bag like sachet and pieces of tree bark and a tooth pick container that is sealed shut. He keeps the charms in a dirty paper bag that he tucks somewhere in his bedroom.
â€œWhen we arrive at Nkalawi, I ask my fishermen to eat all their food, smoke if they are smokers, then I pray to God for guidance and protection. Then one by one everyone has to take off their clothes and apply this paste which I dilute in water to their forehead, hands, belly and legs.
â€œThen I ask the crocodiles to leave and when I have to get into the water, I get this [tea-bag like sachet] into my panties and while I am out there, I put a piece of this tree on all four corners of this house so that nobody harms my children and to protect us while we are out,â€ he said.
Molesiâ€™s father died in a car accident this year. The fatherâ€™s demise has left Molesi in a fix: the father never told the son what trees he used to make the paste and the charms, when it would expire and where he can get more when it runs out.
Is this the end of Molesi? Will he ever go to Nkalawi again, where one net cast can rope in a whooping K106 000?
â€œI know doctors, family and friends do not believe why I am still alive and would really not like me to go back to Nkalawi, but look, I have my son Rafiki and my daughter Mervis and a wife who need to eat and I have rentals to pay.
â€œI am planning to go back to Nkalawi, illegal and risky as it is. I am trapped and the only way out is if some well wisher can help me start a small business,â€ he said.