Teachers spend hours and years trying to shape students. But for one man, every day is potentially his last as he deals with hungry crocodiles that could do with a pound of his flesh: stealing their eggs, feeding and killing them. Bright Mhango has been mingling with the reptile handler in the central Malawi district of Salima, Goliati Chibakuwa.
Away from the white sandy beaches that revelers throng in Senga Bay, Salima, lies one fenced establishment. From the outside, it is just low lying fences with trees growing inside. But if only the swimmers at the beach knew that just 600 metres from where they are, there are 16 500 crocodiles, they would think again before diving head first into the water.
The “Croc Farm” or Nyika Farms lies some 10 minutes off the road going to Livingstonia Beach Hotel and next to Kambwiri Lodge. It is a breathtaking site, not aesthetically, but for what is grown on the farm: crocodiles.
About 30 humans mingle to and fro inside the fenced establishment; a carpenter; someone is slashing grass and there is general beehive activity with each person doing their niche and from a vantage point all is normal.
One man stands out from the crowd. He barks out instructions, jumps from driving a tractor to talking to guests and labourers slightly bend their bodies when talking to him. He is definitely in charge.
Goliati Chibakuwa, 39, was just like any other school leaver before 1999. He landed a job as a truck assistant and plied his trade in Dwangwa. Then one day, his boss says to him, “I have bought a crocodile farm and I want you to manage it.”
“By then, I had never seen a crocodile. All I knew about crocodiles were the rumours that they are dangerous creatures,” says Chibakuwa.
He has medium height, a roundish face and eyes set deep in his skull. He wears his beards long and his cleanly shaven head brings one to think of a boxer or members of the apostolic faith. He is the second in command at the Croc Farm and has been since the farm started in 1999.
“When I saw a crocodile for the first time, it corresponded with the stories I had heard of the beast. I was tensed up,” he confessed.
But what was he to do, go back to unemployment?
He was soon on the bus to Zimbabwe to learn all there was to learn about minding crocodiles. He learnt how to breed, feed and slaughter crocodiles and what to do with the meat and skin after slaughtering.
“Crocodiles are unlike other animals that you get used to, they can never be tamed. Each time I deal with them, I am mindful of that. That is why I have no scars despite handling thousands of crocodiles,” said Chibakuwa, outstretching his hands like Jesus did to his disciples to show his scars.
There are several brick-fenced pens on the farm of about one and a half metres with a wire lining tilted inwards for obvious reasons. Inside the pens, several trees stand alongside man-made shades to provide shade to the coldblooded reptiles.
I did not learn the collective name for a group of crocodiles in primary school, so, while others will call them a float or nest, I will go for “gang.” There are gangs upon gangs of crocodiles in the pens with some piling on top of others. Their unmistakable greenish yellow skins dominate the place.
Some with mouths constantly open like a mouse trap, some only showing their nose and eyes on the surface of the water in the pens. The place is silent, apart from the hiss of the wind and the distance cracking of the waves at the lake; it is like being in a horror movie just before the beast strikes.
As one is guided from pen to pen, the size of the crocodiles does not change significantly, only their ages. At four years, the crocodiles are still diminutive, but they don’t have to rush to grow up; they can live up to 160 years, according to Chibakuwa.
Most of the crocodiles have their teeth removed to avoid damaging one another’s skins while they pile up and, definitely, to keep the handlers safe. There are, however, a set of adult crocodiles that still have their teeth intact. These adults are not to be slaughtered and are used to produce eggs.
One male is allocated seven females and after mating from May to July, the females start laying eggs in September and can produce 40 to 100 eggs each. The eggs are laid in the sand next to the pools and Chibakuwa and his assistants have to invade the pools to get the eggs for incubation. It will be 90 days before the eggs can hatch.
“We feed them every second day of the week; each of these young ones gets about half to one full chicken every two days. The adults can get up to 10 chickens each,” he said.
Chibakuwa has to ensure that each egg is not damaged. After it hatches, the younglings have to live in warm water, otherwise most of them die. A boiler sits on standby to heat the water for the newborns to swim in.
Since they never get to meet their mothers, Chibakuwa teaches them how to feed by dropping small fish into the water and letting them take a grab.
After enjoying more chickens than the average Malawian household for five years, the honeymoon ends. The animals are taken to the butchery, a secluded building on the farm.
Those about to face the knife are not hard to miss; their pool water is coloured red with Potassium Permanganate to heal the skin.
“We slice them somewhere on their neck just below their heads where it is softer and we insert a wire into their spinal cord, which kills them fast. We skin then, clean the skin and salt it and then put the skin in a cold room ready for export.
“We have markets in Italy, France, South Africa and Germany. The meat from the slain ones is fed to the others,” said Chibakuwa.
Fourteen years ago, when the farm was being set up, people were afraid, and understandably so, with the tales from the Kamuzu Banda era where some dissidents are said to have been fed to crocodiles. Now, the farm employs 18 people from the immediate areas.
There was no need to enquire about the price of each skin, but if one feeds chickens to a beast three times per week for five years, it has to be for a reason.
And as people invade the market in Paris, Venice or Sandton to buy crocodile leather products, they might not know what the likes of Chibakuwa put in to grow the crocodiles.