A tale of two swamps – The hidden village

Instead the fisheries officers had set up another meeting at a community further down the Luapula River.  To reach it we had to retrace our steps from Samfya a few miles back towards Mansa, but then turned left down a well made tarmacced road; later we discovered it had been rebuilt with Chinese money only recently.  We zipped along a watershed, the ridge between two river systems, one of them our Luapula catchment from where the Bangweulu Swamp lay,  past many dry land farms before dropping back down a long hill into the wetlands.  The road was built on a high embankment and apart from the odd track descending into the swamp, often only a few metres before it came to open water where a canoe might be moored, there was little else to see but tall grass and waterweeds.  Even the Fisheries officers had trouble identifying the turning to the village we were due to visit.  We passed it once before one of them remembered that it was close to a military outpost – a small rock outcrop in the middle of the wetland to guard this strategic road across the Luapula River.    We turned off onto  a one lane track, which deteriorated into two tyre tracks in amongst lush grass, and occasionally became covered in several inches of water.  There was one small farmstead in this area that we passed; otherwise we were travelling through a sea of grass.

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Lechwe

To my left I spotted the antlers of a stag.  It was a lechwe; not the same subspecies as in Lochinvar to the south, but the Black Lechwe.  The male seemed to be keeping about twenty females, although it was difficult to count as we could only see heads above the tall grass and their might also have been many fauns hidden away.

The grass eventually gave way to a line of trees, the track broadened out once more and we found ourselves on hard ground in amongst farmers’ fields.  A long thin village lined what appeared to be an ancient sandbank in amongst the swamp, meandering as much as the nearby Luapula River.  We passed a school and several farmsteads and again the Fisheries Officers seemed to be struggling to locate the people we were to meet.  We stopped the vehicles at a denser part of the village; several huts close by the dusty track.  As with the previous day we did some reconnaissance of the local area and dropping down from the sandbank beyond the village gardens we saw this incredible expanse of blue and green patches – well defined pools and channels amongst equally well defined grassy stands.  There appeared to be a number of landing sites all along by the village and a less defined central place where the women would wait for the laden boats.  We wandered back into the village proper, where our arrival had now caused a lot of interest and we were being followed carefully by an entourage of children and women.  The Fisheries Officers were still having problems locating our hosts, but the women around us were keen to show us what they were doing with the fish.  They led us from the sunshine into a smoky hut and we were shown a hearth in one corner where a fire was gently glowing  – enough to produce copious fragrant smoke that was permeating through grills into the fish above.  Fragrant it might be but the smoke was also irritating to the eyes and throat and I had to speed out gasping for fresh air.  We were also shown high wooden platforms lined with bamboo poles on which fish were drying in the sun.  Once the villagers realised Ian was a fish specialist, they were so proud to show him every type of fish they had been catching, coming up with plastic buckets and bowls, a few fish tied together with a wire or string.

We finally met up with the elders and fisherfolk and held a brief meeting.  Ian found there was very little different from the other locations we had seen.  These were permanent villages; quite sizeable settlements predominantly relying on the fishery for their protein and earning incomes. Being permanent they had a good sense of the need to protect the fisheries as a long term investment.

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