In October 2006 I had the opportunity to explore the remote north eastern region of Zambia, and searched for the original burial site of Dr. David Livingstone, on the southern edge of the Great Bangweulu Swamps.
At Chiundaponde we asked around for Simon Vibeti’s Village and found it situated on the left side of the road about 3 kms the Waka Waka side of Chiundaponde just where it always was only I had forgotten the way!
(If you'd like to hear the great story of Dr David Livingstone, our famous story teller Russell Gammon, based in Victoria Falls, will take you on a live History of the Falls lecture to discover more about this famous explorer).
I had met Simon exactly 20 years ago, when I was employed by Eco Safaris and was building their Mandamata hunting camp in the swamps.
Simon was a “living legend”, supposedly 105 years old and who spoke the “Queens English”. His father was one of Livingstone’s escorts and Livingstone died under the Mubanga tree that was in the centre of Simon’s village. Simon told me that Livingstone’s heart was buried under this tree, and his father had taught him English, and that he was the first to teach English to Zambian students.
In 1986, the “tradition” was that I was to bring Simon a chocolate cake every time I passed through whilst building the camp. We became friends and I had many interesting conversations over tea and cake under the “Livingstone tree”, including Simon bringing out a leather trunk with some of Livingstone’s possessions!
So 20 years on I was extremely enthusiastic to learn the whereabouts of Simon and his grandson Stephen who worked for me as a driver in 1986 and had introduced me to Simon 20 years ago. We stopped again at the Nakapalaya Tourism project, managed in conjunction with the Kasanka Trust, to obtain further directions for the Vibeti family village.
It did not take long to find the village although 20 years on the whole area is much more heavily populated, than the few huts I remembered in the 80's. Jackson Kasama, the manager of Nakapalaya was most helpful and introduced us to Mary Vibeti, Simon’s grand daughter who informed us Simon had passed away in 1993, aged 132 years!
Hmmm ... 105 years in 1986 + 7 years to 1993 = 112 years, but what the heck anyone over 100 years old in rural Africa is really, really VERY VERY old!! I did not question their mathematics and having known Simon and his round glasses (like the end of a Coke bottle), I knew he was extremely old.
Tradition dictated that on Simon’s death his hut was dismantled and the Livingstone tree chopped down. Mary took us to his hut and the remains of the tree were still there. I was devastated to see this beautiful village I knew 20 years ago was now a pile of rubble and stumps.
We met Simon’s eldest son, Leonard, another pure gentleman who spoke perfect English, and who farmed nearby.
He took us, in the company of Mary and other members of the extended family, which had now grown to a group of about a dozen people, and we walked through fields of Cassava to a nearby woodland where Simon was buried in a simple grave next to his senior wife, who had passed away many years before him.
I felt sad the wooden cross had been destroyed by termites and offered to Mary and Leonard that we would donate a brass plaque to mark our respect for this honourable man.
I established that the trunk that Simon had had in his possession for so many years had been moved to the Dr. David Livingstone museum in Livingstone, and was pleased to know these artefacts are in safe and responsible hands.
And I think I should note that the Livingstone Memorial, which “as the crow flies” is about 18km to the west, is actually in the wrong place, the true Livingstone grave is actually at the house of the late Simon Vibeti!