Alan Murphy
Australia AU

Alan is a travel writer and author of over 20 Lonely Planet guidebooks, including the guides to Southern Africa and Zambia & Malawi.

Category: Alan Murphy's Column

This week Alan hones in on Zambia, a country he loves for its animals. In particular its beautiful array of birds, which are in fact the stuff of Zambian myth and witchcraft.

According to traditional beliefs there are good, and there are bad, omens in Zambia. Good futures or bad futures – omens are like little crystal balls gazing into upcoming events. The origins of these mysterious portholes lie in the traditional practices and way of life way, way back in pre-colonial Zambia. Their genesis shrouded in the mists of time.

Birds You Should Not Cross
While lots of animals fall under deep suspicion as bringing bad omens, it is the birds that have attracted my attention. Next time you’re out on safari in Zambia, keep in mind that those fluffy, feathered friends you see perching in trees (or waddling through the grasslands) are often messengers of doom…

I bet you didn’t know that it is taboo for a traveller to see a secretary bird cross a road or path. Sorry, but if one runs in front of the car, well, start packing...

The common owl species in Zambia are the spotted eagle and barn owl. If either owl perches on the roof of a house and hoots, then the owner or close relative is doomed. Ironically in Burma, owls are seen as good luck, and even as sources of wisdom in Greece.

The Evil Ground Hornbill
Now, ground hornbills are ugly...sorry but they are. Large, hulking black and red giant ground walkers, they are ripe for evil omen attachment.  Be careful around these birds because:

- they accompany witches on their night missions
- the bright red around their face symbolises danger or death
- they make unearthly loud, drumlike grunts in the morning and evening.
- they stink! Sometimes they are killed during drought as a sacrifice by a ‘rain doctor’. The carcass then thrown into a river where its smell will make the waters sick, so heavy rains fall to wash it away.

So, keep an eye out for those birds when on safari – keep your distance and show those little omens some respect!

Cursing for Cursing Sake
On the traditional theme but away from birds...there’s nothing like a colourful, traditional curse to get your message across: ‘Die on top of an anthill so that all those who will mourn you will be rolling down with their bottoms in the air.’ Yeah – take that!

The mythology in Zambia is intriguing. And there are plenty of built-in omens around other wildlife too, but that’s another blog...

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