A tale of two swamps – Introduction to Bangweulu

Eventually a white 4 wheel drive turned up and a large middle aged man got out.  He beamed at me through his beard and shook my hand vigorously.  This was John Steel, a veteran Brit abroad, who was liaising with my project as the chief technical advisor.  We weren’t to stay in Mansa that night but at a hotel on the shores of Lake Bangweulu, some 75 kilometres to the east.  Before we drove out there, I was first driven to the outskirts of Mansa town and introduced to the project office staff.  My colleague from Hull, Ian, was already in the field, and John’s wife, Chris, had joined him to explore the villages down there.  So it was just John and I who sped along the straight tarmac road late in the afternoon.  The sun was beginning to drop as we reached Samfya, the small district centre situated on a hill above the lake.  We came to the end of the tarmac and dropped down to the lakeshore and the small hotel.  I was registered and was walked to my room by one of the porters.  We passed by several chalet rooms and the door was open on one and I spied Ian working away at a table.  He was wearing a jumper which surprised me but after initial greetings he told me the wind on the lake had been rough the last couple of nights and he needed it to keep the chill out.  I unpacked quickly in my plain but serviceable room, and joined Ian, Chris and John in a characterful bar near the reception.  We sat and drank and ate fish and discussed the findings of Ian so far and the plan for the next couple of days.

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Morning at Lake Bangweulu

The lake was obviously the main feature of our work – this wide open tract of water is one of the less discovered great lakes of eastern Africa.  Although quite shallow it is broad – from our hotel we could just see a thin line of land on the horizon, and this was only a long split that nearly divides the lake – beyond is another stretch of water about half as broad.  Feeding into this lake are a myriad of rivers and dambos, each with their own areas of wetland and smaller lakes and pools, and at the far end a vast swamp where more rivers mingle with the outflow of the lake itself.  The marsh gradually tapers as it meets higher ground and then squeezes into a narrow valley as the Luapula River heads over a set of waterfalls and starts its long trek as a tributary of the Congo River and the Atlantic some 4000km away.

This series of watery features provides a  massive array of fishing options, whether it be from small fish ponds on dambos, seasonal river collection or nets in the swamps or open water all year round.  A hundred or more villages rely on these resources for the majority of their livelihoods and protein. Our job over the next couple of days was to explore a few of these villages, meet with the fisherfolk and elders and for me to get a feel for all the different types of landscapes and land rights that might influence my map of where the fisheries area should go.

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