A tale of two swamps – Chiefdom issues

After so many years of working throughout Africa, I had rarely been close to chiefs.  Apart from a rather drunk one in Zimbabwe and being at a few formal events where I was barely in the same company but a distant onlooker.  Here I was able to be part of a proper conversation with one, where we learned of the chief’s concerns and wishes, and were able to talk in detail about the project and fishing in general.

Tribal issues in Zambia, as in much of Africa, place a different network of administration onto the country and its people.  In most countries, there is a national government followed by some sort of provincial or regional government, then a district administration that look after so many affairs that other countries lay on their local government.  They deal with the roads, the waste, schooling, businesses, health care and social care.  I often find all of these to some degree are done by all agencies too, so it is often confusing to know who to go to to find information or get things done.  While major roads are maintained by the national government, tracks and side roads are district level; health care is supervised at national level but often clinics might be run from local administration.

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The best map of chiefdoms I could find for southern Zambia

Laid over this administrative infrastructure and scattered across the country are areas which are called chiefdoms.  Because of historical land grabs by Europeans, the chiefdoms do not necessarily cover the whole country; commercial farming and city or towns have taken on large chunks of the best agricultural or industrial land.  In a very deterministic fashion, however, areas were set aside for traditional administration to go ahead.  In Zambia, when it was still the colony of Northern Rhodesia, these were called Tribal Trust Lands.  After independence they were given the name Communal Lands.  In recent years the definition of these has changed, and the term Chiefdom is again more widely used.  Despite attempts by outside powers to impose rigid boundaries on these chiefdoms, the picture is more complicated.  The people of these chiefdoms are joined by a complex set of relationships based on blood, marriage and inheritance.  With the world’s more dynamic populations these days people will move around into cities and between villages.  So you can live in what the map says is one chiefdom, and yet your allegiance is to a different chief.

We had found this out when we were with the villagers in Namyala earlier in the day.  Two chiefs claimed the swamplands around the village as incomers had settled in the region from across the border.  In theory the House of Chiefs, a ministry of the national government with an associated parliament for all the chiefs of the country, were the ones to sort out these disputes, but any arbitration, let alone resolution, was a lengthy and often bitter process.

The conversation ranged across a lot of issues, and at the end, the Chief promised to phone through some extra material that Ian requested.  At this point he pulled out a small but relatively new Nokia mobile phone.  He huffed a little and said; “When I was coming back from Nairobi recently, I had put this thing on Flight Mode and now I can’t work out how to turn the signal back on.  While Ian was talking, I took a look at it, already lowering his hopes of my technical knowledge by sympathising with him about the complexity of menus on such devices.  I clicked and punched my way through everything for about ten minutes, realising with the meeting drawing towards a conclusion that I would have to hand it back unfixed.  Then I just happened to click on a combination of key presses to reveal the right menu item, clicked it on and hey presto it was sorted.  Of course, being still miles from the main road, there were no mobile masts in the vicinity and so no signal in his house.  But as I handed it back, the Chief was delighted and, as Ian commented to me later, if I were ever in the vicinity again, I would probably get paraded through the streets as a hero.

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