We were due to have a cruise across the lake and into the swamps to meet villagers that lived amongst the reeds, but the previous night’s wind had left current wave action too strong for the shallow bottomed aluminium boat fisheries planned to use. So instead we got in a couple of vehicles and drove round the southern part of the lake to a market village called Chikuwela near the start of the Luapula River. The road, a well graded dirt track, skirted the thin marshland area next to the lake, riding on a low ridge that separated the wetlands from the dryland cropping to the south. Almost the whole length was populated with farmsteads, the occasional store or school – living close to the lake was an obvious advantage. At one point we crossed a canal that had been dug by the Dutch to link Bangweulu and a second lake ; Kampolombo. Chikuwela was on a dry peninsula between this second lake and the Luapula River. Still with farmsteads running along the roadside, only the increased activity and larger number of stores indicated we had reached some sort of village centre.
It was a hive of activity. Several bars were already in full swing, dishing out the beer bottles and playing music powered from solar generated electricity. Other stores were retailing essentials like clothes and plastic household goods, and as usual here fish were being sold everywhere. We parked up and while we waited for the Fisheries Officers to find the headsman, we ambled down between some houses and to the riverbank. On a firm but muddy beach, there were a few canoes and a number of bags, and several people were sitting in little groups close to the water. Some appeared to have baggage and were awaiting a lift to one of the more remote villages deep in the swamp; others looked like they were waiting for laden boats to arrive so they could take the pick for selling in markets. From this landing site, a thin blue channel cut into the reeds to reach the main river in the distance. Every so often we would get a glimpse of boats passing up or downstream. We wandered back up to the village and spied some bundles on the road next to a large truck. Behind the truck was a low flat building which had once been painted blue but so many flakes had come off it was now more two tone. We were invited inside and met with a pile of similar bundles – thick canvas bags pulled tight in a trellis of bamboo and rope. We were told that inside would be packed with fish and ice – and the weighty wrapping was meant to keep the fish fresh. While we were talking a fully loaded lorry headed out of the village. Where were they going? Mainly the Copperbelt and central towns; a considerable journey for such perishable goods. Iced fresh fish were being preferred to dried fish these days though and the processing chain was having to become more sophisticated to respond.
The lagoon also supplied more local needs and we wandered round the back of the main street to find a busy market place. Outside there were the usual tomato sellers and clothes bundles spread on sheets on the ground. But in one building were two parallel stone slabs piled high with dried fish of many types and sizes. Ian was shocked that there were hardly any large fish being sold – few were more than 10cm long. The smell was a little overpowering and I was glad to head back outside again.