A Tale of Two Swamps – Entering the village

The clump of trees had resolved itself into a cluster of houses.  Well I say houses.  From this distance they looked more like Mongolian Yurts.  Our boatman cut his speed as we approached the first of these and we chugged past these as the  channel extended deep into the village centre.  After seeing a few isolated huts; probably store rooms, I realised the village itself was on a raised muddy island in the middle of the flooded grasslands.  Perched on slightly higher grasses, but still with their feet in the water, hefty cattle obviously content in water ambled in front of the boat and peered at us with dull eyes.  While the majority of the village was in one large island and densely packed, we made our way to a second smaller island with just a small cluster of buildings, and I clocked there were several of these smaller “suburbs” dotted around the plain.

Here we were to meet out main contact in the village – a guy who works as the local liaison for the Fisheries Department and is secretary of the local fisherfolk association.  We had to cut the boat’s motor to reduce our wash, but there were eager people nearby who were willing to tow us in.  Unfortunately the one that reached us first was the town drunk; at least he was amiable but he both had a problem keeping upright waist high in water, and also wanted to talk extensively.  This might have been OK but his English was very limited and the conversation kept heading towards money and alcohol.  Eventually the other visitors prised his hands off our boat and we were safely delivered at the secretary’s house.   We were immediately invited in to his house – a long substantial reed walled house with tarpaulin roof.  Inside was one large room, subdivided with low walls into a sleeping area.  On top of all the clothes that the family owned – piled high as if ready for a jumble sale, was a reed mat covered in very small fish.  The smell in the house was also piscine; I supposed it mattered little that the odour must work its way into their garments as these villagers ate, caught, dealt with, sold, and of course excreted fishy products.  The smell of fish must be as normal as pot pourri in other houses.

As well as the fish stacked on the clothes, above the cooking hearth at the back of the hut were trays of more fish being smoked and cured.  They shrivel up so much as they dried that they look most unappetising, but in the absence of ice boxes and fridges in many villages this is often the only way to keep fish edible for more than a day.  The ice that ends up in the village is expensive and is preserved for use in selling valuable fresh fish to distant urban markets; where opinions about what food should look like are more sensitive than in rural Zambia.

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