“Each smallest act of kindness reverberates across great distances and spans of time, affecting lives unknown to the one whose generous spirit was the source of this good echo…” ― Dean Koontz
Before we got to spend any substantial time together, it was apparent that Tina Aponte, Managing Director of Zambia’s Royal Chundu, was one such spirit; that she was at the centre of something much larger than the lodge itself. There was a Butterfly Effect at play and the more I learnt about her the more I began to realise that she was the butterfly, at least one of the good ones.
It was apparent in the words and faces of the people of Mushewka, the local community I met on my first visit to her family’s lodge on a private stretch of the Zambezi River. “Mamma Tina,” they called her. They spoke of her constantly, with adoration and gratitude, giving me insight into a side of Tina that she, as the humble sort, would never communicate.
The Mothers of Mushekwa spoke of how much their lives had changed since Tina took over the lodge. How things had improved through Tina’s generosity and the community projects she initiated on their riverbank – such as the Royal Chundu school, the guided community tour for guests, the employment and training of locals at the lodge, the financing of the community vegetable garden by providing seeds and purchasing produce, and the support of local fishermen.
The more time I spend with Mamma Tina the more I can discern the effect in my own life. Her Butterfly Effect cannot be stopped, each kind act has taken on a life of its own. Her belief in the goodness of individuals impels those she meets to prove her right. (She’ll attribute it to the calm of the Zambezi River.) But it’s the simple art of compassion at work here and it’s what fuels everything she touches – including Royal Chundu.
For Women’s Month – celebrated this August in South Africa – we’re featuring Mamma Tina, to offer you insight into the inspiration we’ve been lucky enough to encounter. Discover more in our short Q&A below.
Happy Women’s Month from us at Relais & Chateaux Africa. What does being a woman mean to you?
Living and working in rural Africa, the role of women in the community is awe-inspiring. Women are the nurturers, gatherers, water-carriers, educators, disciplinarians, housekeepers, babysitters, farmers, and so the list goes on and always with a smile and never with a complaint of any kind. Women hold the communities together and that is the lesson I’ve learnt, in that the sense of community is set and nurtured by the women wholly – they weave the fabric of family and community together and always with grace and joy. I aspire to do the same through their example.
“It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world – Chaos Theory.” – The Butterfly Effect
As someone who travels a lot for work and play, name 5 things travel has taught you about yourself, life and love?
I adore the saying, “Who lives sees much, who travels sees more.” Never a truer word spoken! Travelling opens your mind to new scenery, new cultures, new cuisines, new mindsets. If the limits of our language are the limits of our mind then the same must hold true to our environments and situations limiting us too. Travelling teaches us to expand all that we know and gives us a new language to view the world by, in my opinion. I’ve been so fortunate to travel as part of my job but my best travelling is always done with my two boys, as seeing the world through their eyes ensures that I keep looking at the world with new eyes too.
“It used to be thought that the events that changed the world were things like big bombs, maniac politicians, huge earthquakes, or vast population movements, but it has now been realized that this is a very old-fashioned view held by people totally out of touch with modern thought. The things that really change the world, according to Chaos theory, are the tiny things. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.” ― Neil Gaiman
Where are you most at home/at peace? And why?
I try to find peace wherever I am – I know that sounds trite but it’s true. However, I am also very lucky to usually find myself most of the time on a boat in the middle of the Zambezi watching the sun set, elephants drinking on the banks, hippos snorting in the water in front of me and a fresh, cold Gin & Tonic in my hand! Who couldn’t find peace or feel at home there?
Final wise words you’d share with the younger you if you could?
Have babies younger and have lots more! Family is everything to me and my biggest love affair has been my children – who knew that the heart could expand so much? Imagine having even more!
In the book, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path To Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron guides us on the path to artisthood. The idea of “The Artist” goes beyond the concept of a man with a paintbrush, a woman before an easel. It is any person who expresses creativity – in whichever way they choose. It is also a person of great courage. For the artist’s way is not an easy one. Particularly not for the artist in (and of) the wild.
Cameron explains the predicament well in her book – read an excerpt below – but it is the unique being who continues in spite of the difficulties that we are most interested in. Someone like photographer, and co-founder of the Great Plains Conservation, Beverly Joubert, who goes lens-first into the wild, dangerous spaces of Africa, along with husband, Dereck Joubert, to shed light on the beauty, the joy and the creativity of nature itself.
In honour of Women’s Month this August, Beverly honours us with a closer look at her own path as an artist – one that led to her being featured alongside other incredible female artists in National Geographic’s ‘Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment’ exhibition. Discover more in our 10 Questions below.
“Most of us are not raised to actively encounter our destiny. We may not know that we have one. As children, we are seldom told we have a place in life that is uniquely ours alone. Instead, we are encouraged to believe that our life should somehow fulfill the expectations of others, that we will (or should) find our satisfactions as they have found theirs. Rather than being taught to ask ourselves who we are, we are schooled to ask others. We are, in effect, trained to listen to others’ versions of ourselves. We are brought up in our life as told to us by someone else! When we survey our lives, seeking to fulfill our creativity, we often see we had a dream that went glimmering because we believed, and those around us believed, that the dream was beyond our reach. Many of us would have been, or at least might have been, done, tried something, if… If we had known who we really were.”
― Julia Cameron
10 Questions with Beverly Joubert
1. Five important things to remember when living in the wilderness?
1) Always be aware of your surroundings. You can walk into dangerous things if you are not aware, even in camp.
2) Always think ahead; where will the food come from in a week? The water, firewood, batteries, raincoats… It’s not all about living in the moment.
3) Live in the moment!
4) Only be in the wilderness with someone you love. Spending time with people you don’t like is dangerous and a waste of time.
5) 99% of the time it’s not the lions or elephants that get you, it’s stupidity. If an animal attacks you, it is more than likely it is something that you have done. Rarely will animals attack if unprovoked.
2. Five things being a photographer has taught you about yourself, life and love?
1) Enjoy taking pictures. If you miss a great one, don’t ruin your day worrying about what you didn’t get, or what you messed up. This has taught me to live life without regrets.
2) Think about every shot, or you will mess up more than one frame. You will mess up the whole batch if you aren’t thinking. This has taught me to be precise. Messing up in life makes me unhappy but I know that when I focus and really consider a shot, I can achieve great things.
3) Get the easy shots first, then work it again, and again, for the unusual. The lesson has been to do the homework, get it right and then get better at it. Marriage is like that; I’ve gotten better at it over time.
4) Don’t get stuck doing the same kind of shots your whole life. Take risks with your photographic style and experiment. There is a danger that you try something that you like the results of, and then you keep doing versions of that one style or image. Re-invent. Going to the same vacation spot, year on end would drive me crazy. Be an explorer, be alive and challenge yourself. Sometimes the experiments don’t work out, but when they do, it is often all the more special.
5) Soak it up. Being a photographer makes me look around and search for the beauty in everything.
Above: A two-week-old blue-eyed lion cub
Above: Giraffes and blue wildebeests, Kenya
3. How did you get involved in photography and conservation – what drove you and continues to drive you?
I got involved as a kid as I was always wanting to take pictures. I became the family record-keeper through the photographs I captured. Later, when I met Dereck, I discovered he was also a photographer, and when he turned to filmmaking, I took over his stills cameras as well as recording all of the sound for the films we made together. Through this I developed a niche for myself – our husband and wife filmmaking team. I am driven by storytelling through the lens, and specifically stories that will save wildlife today. Hopefully, before I become too old to hold a camera, the extinction of species will be universally solved and I will then take pictures of that success and celebrate it through my work.
Above: A mother antelope grooming her baby
4. Favourite part about living in the bush and your wilderness home in Botswana?
Being alone with Dereck, being remote, living our daily life without pressures of needing to interact with people, with e-mails, with petty stuff. When we are out there it’s a challenge to live, a challenge to capture something unique, but also a personal and intellectual challenge to be a part of two people surviving together in the bush. It takes a real adjustment for many people to make the collective decisions over the selfish ones. And yet, we both embrace these challenges and it draws us closer together. Removed from the modern world, we can reconnect with nature which is a hunger or need you sometimes don’t even realise is there until you experience it. It is food for the soul and that reconnection with the wilderness and all its living wonders brings me peace, happiness and inspiration.
5. Getting your camera up close to wild animals must have led to a few daunting close calls. What races through your mind in those moments? Are you more fight, fright or flight?
We really try not to interfere with wildlife and be in the animals’ faces. It is not our style and runs against our beliefs. We have a non-interference policy which we have developed over our 30 years in the field and we stick to it. What races through my mind? Probably how to get out of the problem, fast. Sometimes I may be in survival mode and want to run but we try and judge each and every situation and read the body language of the animals. Sometimes standing still is the safest thing to do, even if your mind tells you otherwise. I have more adrenaline spikes than Dereck does, so it’s good to be calm and then you can think clearly, even in times of danger. I have definitely developed a deeper understanding and love for wildlife. Protecting animals and giving them total respect is first and foremost in everything I do. When you have this mindset you are less likely to find yourself in dangerous situations.
6. Scariest moment encountered in the wilderness? And most memorable?
Scariest – maybe running into poachers and having shots come over our heads. We then gave chase out of anger and out of a desire to catch and confront them, but I’m glad we did not catch up with them as they were armed and dangerous. And most memorable? Saving a baby elephant who was stuck in the mud. We worked at rescuing him for hours while his mother attacked us, but finally we got him out and suddenly the mother relaxed and came to us almost as if to say, “Thank you”. Our policy is to never interfere unless it is a man-made situation.
7.How has your relationship with the African wild and her creatures changed over the years?
I think I was innocent and wide-eyed 30 years ago; Africa was a scary place for me at that point. I, like many, thought that it was dangerous, even threatening. Fortunately I had Dereck with me so there was always a rational and comforting voice nearby and we would explore the unknown together. People who leave civilization for the wilderness should always do it in pairs. It is also a good test of a relationship! Today I am totally comfortable (perhaps too much so sometimes), around lions in particular. Is the fear factor still there? No. One has to be careful not to let that healthy grasp of fear disappear. History is littered with the early deaths of those who lost fear.
Above: A herd of migrating African buffalo, Mara Plains, Kenya
8.There is a beautiful quote by Lord Byron that goes, “There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, There is a rapture on the lonely shore, There is society, where none intrudes, By the deep sea, and music in its roar: I love not man the less, but Nature more.”
How do you find alternating between the stillness and isolation of the pathless woods and the hubbub of crowded cities, airports and conference halls?
It is very stressful for me to leave the bush, especially if I know I have to perform in some way, for example if there is an important talk to prepare or live interview to give. I like to be prepared. Dereck prefers to wing it. I am also more susceptible to other people’s energies, so I get tired, exhausted after a bombardment of senses, noise, talking, not getting the food I prefer, late nights, closed spaces, air conditioners. I do prefer Byron’s lonely shores. I tend to do what I can to take it with me. So I always travel with some of my special food, or things I like from our real lives in the wilderness, partly for health and comfort but also as a reminder of who I am.
9. Favourite time of day in the bush and how do you to tend to start such days in the wilderness? Up at dawn to film or slow coffee and rusks on the deck?
We are up early, 4-5 am if we are working on a project. The light is better then and the air is crisp. Often by 9 am it is stifling hot and so we tend to use the early and late hours to better effect. We prefer a cup of herbal tea while enjoying nature’s soundtrack in the soft dawn light and the stirrings of the wildlife that is so active in the cool morning air. We don’t need or use coffee at all by the way, it’s a false stimulant and the dawn in Africa is stimulation enough for me.
The photographic safari – featuring Beverly and husband Dereck Joubert.
10. The best adventure so far has been…
a life lived with all the big cats we had the privilege to get to know, from individual lions to the incredible experiences with Legadema while making “Eye of the Leopard” and then “Living with Big Cats”, and now our latest experience on the Selinda spillway, filming elephants for the new film, “Soul of the Elephant”. These adventures were all magical and euphoric in every way .
And the next adventure will be…
filled with as much passion and commitment as the last 30 years of our filmmaking and conservation work has been. For each and every project we take on, we look to be the voice for wild animals and wild iconic places. These adventures are wild and bold, focused on saving certain threatened species and doing what we can to change the world for the better.
The Sour Milk Cheesecake with Musika (Tamarind) Jelly
“This is, dare I say, Zambia’s first official dessert,” Royal Chundu’s Executive Chef, Sungani Phiri tells me on the sixth course of our tasting menu.
We’re dining at Royal Chundu’s Island Lodge, on Katombora Island, on the banks of the Zambezi – the river that separates Zambia from Zimbabwe, the river that defines, quite literally, a nation.
With his sour milk cheesecake with tamarind jelly, Chef Sungani has created a dessert to do just the same.
“I say ‘first official dessert’,” he continues, “because, well, there simply wasn’t one before now. Normally, Zambians will eat leftover nshima cold instead of hot with sugar and sour milk – as a form of a dessert if they want something sweet. Sometimes it actually substitutes as a main course.”
Nshima, he explains, is a staple in most homes across the country. Made from maize meal, it’s used for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
“Because there was no dessert type approach in Zambia when I started at Royal Chundu, I wanted to create something to introduce the idea to the country’s cuisine-scape. I made a sour milk cheesecake using sour milk to replace the cheese. This makes the dessert much smoother. We use a tennis biscuit base to complement it. For the sour element I added tamarind jelly above the cake and a tamarind sorbet with cayenne pepper. Tamarind is rather dear to me… my mother used to drink tamarind with a dash of cayenne as a digestif when I was growing up. And considering that you’ve gone through the tasting menu’s six courses, it’s a nice way to speed up your metabolism after eating so much – despite the fact that it’s a dessert.”
And so Zambia’s first dessert was born…
As for the man behind it, both Executive Chef and Food and Beverage Manager at Royal Chundu, we asked him our 10 questions. Meet Zambia’s Dessert Pioneer below.
10 Questions with Sungani Phiri
1. Five important things to remember when living and working in a remote and rural setting like the banks of the Zambezi?
Don’t be fooled into thinking town is close by. You’re basically on an island. You don’t have the luxuries of the city and can’t always get what you want.
Don’t expect to keep your social life, but remember that what you’re creating makes it worth it.
Engage the community as much as possible – without them the job is impossible. Besides the practical side, involve the community environmentally and culturally. Go to the community leaders if you have a problem; you need the leader, you need to understand their ways, not to impose your own. And remember that English is not everyone’s first language.
Be more compassionate toward the community – don’t expect others to naturally understand things the way you do. And I’ve had to remember that for every one person whose life I affect here, I affect eight more, since most of them are supporting their whole families. You need to be very concerned about that.
You need a good support system to cope with the remoteness and isolation… so you don’t lose the plot. We support each other – Aggie and Hessah, the other managers, Tina, our Mama of Royal Chundu, the MD. You learn to reach out when you need to.
2. Five things being a chef has taught you about yourself, life and love?
Before you set expectations you need to correctly train. I trained with a 2-Michelin starred Chef, Sven Niederbremer from Germany, at the The Westcliff and The Monarch hotels in Johannesburg. My standards are much higher as a result, but working in Zambia, my expectations had to change. I had to devote more time to training people up – it was a humbling experience. Most of the people in the kitchen had no culinary background but four years down the road we have a very competent team.
My love for the industry is the pursuit of culinary perfection but my love for Zambian cuisine extends to trying to put it on the map. I have developed a love for a culture I didn’t know growing up. My family are Zambian but growing up we moved around a lot. I lived in so many different African countries – Zambia, Botswana, South Africa. My dad was a diplomat with a Bachelor degree in English and a Masters in International Development and we basically only spoke English at home. But the more I get to know the culture here the more deeply bonded I feel to it.
Every day you learn from everyone you work with. There are so many interesting characters and personalities. It is a good lesson in consideration for others.
Working in Zambia and as a chef here with other people has made me less hot tempered. I had to tone it down!
I’ve developed a greater respect for nature. You can learn so many life lessons from living so closely with Mother Nature here on the river, from the animals living out their daily lives here.
3. what would you say makes you unique?
I’m really trying to pioneer a new era for Zambian cuisine. No one is really doing that right now. Most of the cuisine you see here is either ‘colonial’, inherited from the colonial time, or isn’t really from Zambia. There is so much potential here. I also play with more unique styles of plating – I have the Jackson Pollock concept of plating – as in when placing the sauce, the spoon can never touch the plate. Pollock is my favourite painter.
Above Top: Chibwantu Cocktail
4. what are your challenges as a chef in zambia?
Challenges? Availability of stock and consistency of produce, but it drives us to find other ways – ways that end up being more sustainable and that support the local community. I can always get fresh bream fish from the local fishermen who live alongside us and vegetables and herbs from the garden at Mushekwa or in the local market. We’re also working on our own veggie garden which is thriving – we’ve planted beetroot, carrot, eggplant, mustard spinach, lettuce, radish, watercress and a variety of herbs. I’m busy working on a new menu right now, using produce from our garden.
5. What drives you?
Zambia is one of the most fertile countries in the southern hemisphere. I really believe we can be on par with the culinary scene internationally – it just requires some work, and I have made that my task, starting with simple things like community awareness – teaching locals how to make bread, which isn’t part of traditional gastronomy. The job never finishes but I hope to leave a legacy and empower people from the community.
Above Right: Impwa Tart with Peri Peri Sauce | Above Left: Trio of Fish with Mundambi Jelly
6. What is your favourite part about living on the Zambezi?
That there’s no cellphone network. (mostly). You have to actually plan to get a hold of me. It’s so beautiful and peaceful – no noise.
7. Favourite dish to make?
Pasta. It’s so “zenny” – it makes me so calm. If I want to relax it’s what I make. It’s what my mentor made me do constantly when he was training me and since then I fell in love with it. He always made me make open raviolis, lasagna, tagliatelle and fettuccine. It was such fun.
Above Top: Organic “Village” Chicken Ravioli with Rape Salad | Above Bottom: Protein Happiness with Nshima & Spinach Puree
8. How do you unwind on a day off?
I love getting to stay in and having the odd braai.
9. You recently got engaged… how did you propose?
In Zambian culture I can’t actually propose. You have to tell a senior family member that you want to marry and they will approach the family of the woman you’re interested in, to tell them about your intentions. The senior will put a bowl on the table at the meeting, with a certain amount of money, or something to show they want to start “talks”. It’s a sign of respect. Then the family will call the woman of the moment and ask her if she knows the family. For me they called us out together. In Zambian culture it is the mother who is the most involved; the mother gives you away because she’s the one who carried the woman in her womb. With me, my fiance and I both just decided we wanted to get married. It was mutual…
10. Most memorable adventure so far? And the next one for the bucket list?
Most memorable – once on safari in Botswana when we got caught between a lioness and her cub and she decided to charge the vehicle… And at Royal Chundu on the river in a canoe. We were on a wide bend and came across a hippo. We didn’t see it and went right over it. It charged at us and stopped about five metres away. My heart was in my mouth the entire experience. But I went canoeing on the river again the next day.
What’s next? Marriage! And I’d like to go white water rafting on the Zambezi and sky diving – perhaps over the Victoria Falls.