One of the best and dearest friends I ever had was a lady called Fred. She was tall and wonderfully soft to the touch, and brilliantly white with a yellowish tinge to her down breast and sides, and with pink webbed feet. But it was her eyes that I remember, eyes that would soften – and on special occasions, allow the nictitating membranes to swim completely over, a sign that she trusted me absolutely. At other times her eyes would glint with the murder in her heart for all who approached me or shared my affections. Fred was a Great White Pelican.
She was given to me while still immature by a game catcher friend who had given up his trade and was looking for someone to relieve him of the daily chore of catching her fish. She had been caught in the Luangwa Valley and brought to the outskirts of Lusaka where she shared her pen with an adult Puku ram. This association confused her, for she began to believe she was a Puku and would strut about the pen imitating the rather plodding movements of a Puku antelope.
It was love at first sight – even though at the time I assumed Fred was a male. I took her up to the Bangweulu in a wooden box lashed securely onto the back of the Landrover. She traveled uncomplainingly, and during our frequent stops she stared at me with an expression registering mild indignation. But she trusted me already, that I could tell. It was late at night when we reached Chikuni, and Hobito and Kasongo came sleepily out of the night to greet us and help unload the vehicle. The safest place to keep her for the first night I thought – and perhaps for the rest of the time she was with us, was in a small diamond-meshed, chicken-run built against one side of the laboratory. This chicken-run was the home of our three laying hens who existed under the stern tutelage of the head chicken, Spots. How Spots would take to such a large interloper was difficult to tell. I picked up Fred by grasping her beak firmly in one hand, and clasping her body to my side with the other, placed her inside with the chickens. She complained about this in a guttural honking voice.
In the morning we rushed out to see her. She was happy to see us, though clearly still a little suspicious, and did not give that joyous waggle of tail and honk of joy that was to greet me in the days ahead. Spots, on the other hand, was most indignant at this intrusion and approached Fred in a belligerent manner, only to be sent scurrying in retreat by a few snaps of a long beak. When Spots saw me she ran over to the fence and as I reached my hand through to her, she bent her legs and quivered all over, for she had imprinted on me as a chick and now considered me her parent.
But our morning was now devoted to Fred. As her wings had been clipped, I opening the chicken run and allowed her to follow our chickens out. Taking her by the bill I pulled her gently towards me, and stroked and whispered sweet endearments in her ear. She resisted, but I could see that she enjoyed it. Sitting on the raised cover of our septic tank we watched her preen herself, the amazingly long beak snipping minutely at her feathers. There was not much, I thought, that she could do about her neck, but this too she cleaned by rubbing the back of her neck against her body, followed by the sides of her neck.
I sent Kasongo up to Kaleya to buy some bream as it was winter and fish were in short supply, and most of the fishermen had made their annual migration out to the great swamp, which was permanent, unlike the Lukulu estuary. While we were having our breakfast I decided that the best way to feed her would be to cut a 44 gallon drum in half and fill it with water and therein place the fish. Kasongo finally arrived and handed me a few small bream, one of which I held rather gingerly out for Fred. At the sight of the fish her wings shot out and she came at the run towards me. Up went her beak and, snap, she had the fish. But she knew what to do. There was no instant swallowing as one might expect: the fish lay in her beak, its tail pointing in the direction of her throat. She started ‘mouthing’ the fish, flattening down the spines. These she could clearly feel through her soft pouch for she flipped it expertly, caught it with the fish’s head pointing towards her throat – the gill rakes and fish spines pointing in the opposite direction, lifted her head, swallowed, shook her head, then her tail, and looked expectantly at the other fish I was holding.
Fred became a friend and loved one, never a pet. I had decided immediately I saw her that her rightful place was in the Bangweulu, the ideal place for a pelican to grow to maturity. Her feathers had been cut, but there would be no more of that. We could feed her, enjoy her company, and when she was ready, she was free to go with our blessing. A wild bird, unlike a dog or chicken, is the apotheosis of animal life. I had no wish to place her in bondage. My enjoyment of her company lay partly in the knowledge that one day she would be gone. It was rather – I later came to realize, like life itself. The thought of eternal life was unthinkable – an unutterably dreary prospect.
Fred – it soon became clear, disliked Cathlin, seeing in her the usurper of my affections. But she also disliked all other feminine women – the occasional masculine one that visited being allowed to pet and cuddle her, and small children and my staff. A pattern soon began to emerge. In a matter of days she became my constant companion. In the morning I let her out of the chicken run. Seeing me, she would let out a honk of delight and start pushing against the fence. I would then pull her towards me and lay my head against hers, stroking and rubbing her soft breast and scratching at the base of his neck. How she loved this, her eyes hooded by the nictitating membranes, her bill and neck held back so that she resembled a ruler laid against a football. At morning muster she accompanied me the few yards to the front of the laboratory where Kasongo, Hobito – and whoever else was there, lined up below me, all in a line, to receive their instructions for the day. On one of the first days of our ‘marriage’, Cotton Mateyo had stepped forward politely to hand me a message sent by a runner from Chiundaponde. Snap, Fred’s beak came viciously together, narrowly missing Cotton’s hand. They all jumped back, exclaiming, “Yo..Yo..Yo!”, laughing at the spectacle of a bird defending its friend.
At Chikuni there were a number of machines: my Landrover, the Government Landrover, two airboats, a tracked all-terrain vehicle, a water pump, a seven-ton truck, three outboard engines and a portable electric generator. The machinery would normally have been maintained by the Mechanical Services Division (MSD), but I was far from the nearest depot. There was also the matter of their increasing incompetence. I had once sent the Government Landrover in to have the clutch plate replaced, expecting to collect it the following day. A year later, after many complaints to the hierarchy concerned, I received it back. So, with the assistance of Hobito and Kasongo, I decided to maintain the machinery myself. Shortly after Fred’s arrival I had crawled beneath the Landrover to check the transmission oil. “Number fifteen flat” I ordered, calling out to Kasongo nearby. Snap. “Yo..yo..yo!” Kasongo leaped back, and there was Fred staring smugly at me. Shee bent her legs, honked, wagged her tail and crawled under the vehicle squeezing herself between the chassis and my chest. It was a tight fit. Her honks were now loving ones as she nibbled at my hair and ear. Having found me she was deeply happy.
When I went out in the airboat she stood at the house a brilliant white admonishing speck in that Ireland in Africa, and when I came back she would clap her wings with delight and would waddle towards me. There was none of that sycophancy for which dogs are noted, none of that acute state of olfaction, of nosing the groin of visitors or slobbering amidst their genitals. She was highly intelligent, loving, protective, amusing, rarely distant, and impeccably groomed – a highly developed evolutionary model for communal fishing and not something man had fashioned for his own use.
When Chimbwe plain flooded I hired a fisherman by the name of Kapinga Mankwa to help me with the sitatunga catching programme. One of his jobs was to provide Fred’s daily fish fare. He was an engaging, simple fellow – always cheerful and very much a loner. He would set his net out in the plain and in the deep hole by the house. Fred would follow him as he poled out in his dugout and would watch as he skillfully worked the net, then would follow him back, eyes fixed on his thin frame. I had given Kapinga a T-shirt from my Canadian University; he now appeared as the most unlikely of graduates, yet a man with a deep knowledge of the ways of the swamp.
Fred was usually to be found at the kitchen door where stood his drum of water. On a hot day she would climb into the drum, taking up all the available space, though holding her wings up from the water. This became a trademark of hers and we were always able to pick her out later when she started taking her first fishing lessons from the wild pelicans. We tried keeping her out of the house, for the waxed floor was slippery and I feared she would injure herself. This was no easy job for she would sneak in through the kitchen and make her way over to the side of the couch where I usually sat – she knew this from his frequent peeks through the window – and would climb up and seat herself, her feet gripping the edge of the cushions, her beak hanging over. There she was, happy, knowing that eventually I would find my way back to the seat. Her strategy when Cathlin was at work in the kitchen was either to slip past her unnoticed or to pad silently up behind her and snap at her behind. Occasionally she would do this on her own way out. While she would allow herself to be petted by Cathlin, this could only be done with any safety if her beak was firmly grasped. I had to be particularly careful when children were about for she disliked them intensely, sidling up with homicidal intent.
And so the days passed: her wing coverts grew out and she could now be seen out on the airstrip facing into a stiff breeze and flapping her wings. She soon learned that an aircraft produced a wonderful rush of wind, and the sight of one was enough to make her wildly excited. She would wait impatiently for the aircraft to stop taxing, or to start up preparatory to taking off, and would rush madly around to the rear and begin flapping frantically. The arrival of the Zambian Airforce to move some Black Lechwe to Chinsali – at the behest of President Kaunda, was a special time for her. The aircraft only came for the day, but how she reveled in the gigantic wash of their propellers.
Perhaps our favourite time together was in the hammock I had stretched out in the Mubimbi tree at our front door looking out over the plain towards the Mandamata woodland. On a Saturday afternoon I would lie there, armed with my pipe and the radio, listening in supreme comfort beneath a cloudless sky in paradise to a rugger international played in some far off stadium. Fred, finding me there, would honk with delight and rush over. Lifting her up I would place him on my tummy where she would float dreamily for hours, opening her mouth every now and then and panting to cool off, and peering around occasionally, a red iris glowing in the orange and white and yellow of her head. Her soft and elastic pouch, and beak, lay across my arm. If I rocked too violently she would object by nipping at my legs, and if I caressed her, she would honk, open her beak, and envelope my head, then nibble at my hair and ear.
As the days went by, she still slept with the chickens but now ignored them, though Spots still crept up behind her when the opportunity offered to pull at her tail feathers. Fred only ever woke me twice: once I discovered an otter outside the chicken run, and another time a lioness, which slipped rapidly away in the night.
In March, at the height of the floods, our road across the plain was converted into a pool of water a foot or more deep in places, a natural passage way for fish. One day two Pink-Backed Pelicans arrived, followed by a small flock of Great Whites. Fred took immediate note and watched with interest from her vantage point near the chicken-run. Finally, unable to contain herself, she walked towards them, stopping when twenty yards away. With what excitement we watched this event. Some of the pelicans closest to her were curious. These glances of approbation were enough to make Fred rush excitedly over, her wings bunched up. But to her dismay, the birds resumed their preening and took no notice of her. How dejected she looked. The bunched wings came down, and for a minute she stood still, watching.
But perhaps it was her approach after all that suddenly caused the pelicans to line up three or four abreast and proceed as beaters, driving the fish and dipping their pouches with sideways sweeps of their heads in the water. Fred, taking her cue, hier wings still held idiotically up, followed behind. It was a dreadful imitation. She stabbed hither and thither using her beak as a prodder rather than a scoop, once she appeared even to lose balance and one of her feet broke the surface behind as she struggled to right himself. We fell about laughing. “It’s the Puku in her,” I said.
She remained out all day and we watched as they taught her how to be a pelican. But we could always pick her out from her fellow tribesmen by the fastidious set of her wings. As the light started to go I expected her to return to the house. But, no, somewhere in amongst the birds was Fred, clearly supremely happy. I would have left her but for my fear and certainty that as she could not fly she would be caught by a hyena or jackal. I walked slowly out into the water, being careful not to frighten the birds. My approach was slow and at an oblique angle. I called to her. Twenty Great White Pelicans stared back at me. “Come on, Fred” I called, feeling rather foolish. As I approached closer they began to edge away. One of them hung back. It was Fred. “Come on, old girl. Got to lock you up for the night. You can come back tomorrow.” Slowly, reluctantly, she allowed herself to be led to the chicken-run.
The next day when I let her out, she waddled straight out to her pelican friends, still in the same spot a hundred yards away. Immediatlely her lessons commenced. At the end of the day I again had to go and fetch her. This went on for four or five days. One day, when we awoke, the pelicans had gone. I was sure they had waited for Fred, for there were not enough fish to have kept them there for all those days. Poor Fred. Her look across the deserted plain was a stab in the heart. I made a great fuss of her.
At about this time we had to go off to Lusaka and for some reason or another we were away for close on a month. I was not worried about Fred’s physical well-being for I knew Hobito and Kasongo would take care of her. When we finally did return, she was overjoyed to see us, but I felt then that a little of the trust that she had had for me had gone. Clearly she had reached another plane of maturity, something that would help her make the break when the time came. And that would not be far away, for when the wind came she would flap her wings vigorously. She got stronger, the feathers grew in – her time was approaching.
One afternoon I started up the vehicle, and calling to her, drove slowly down the airstrip. She waddled, ran, flapped her wings and was airborne. I accelerated. Up she came close to me, looking lovingly in, flying effortlessly, her massive wings beating. We both stopped at the end of the strip and made a great fuss of the solo flight. Up and down the airstrip she went. Her obvious pleasure and joy in flying was so evident that I knew the day was not far off.
Encouraged by this, she now began to fly about, gaining steadily in confidence. I saw her once, a mere speck in the sky at about 4,000 feet, soaring effortlessly. A little later, there she was again, waddling over to me with a honk of pleasure. It was the dry season then and I noticed that the patch of skin between her bill and eye was slightly swollen and orange in colour. Now we knew that Fred really was a lady.
Some farmer friends from Mkushi, the Curtis family, visited us one day. I offered to take them fishing near N’gungwa. Fred and I had a long embrace. I felt that it would be the sight of us leaving Chikuni which might prompt her to make her move. When I returned later that day, she had gone.
I had known that her time was near, but it was with a hollow feeling that I went about my work. Later, seeing pelicans on the edge of the floodplain or on the river, I would rush up, heart hammering, “Fred…Fred…!” I would call.
Sometime before her departure I had placed a special ring on her left leg – No IM 0281 – so that I might learn of what became of her. I know she will always be somewhere standing still on a patch of dry ground, her head turned towards me, her wings held up. She was a fine lady.