A tale of two swamps -simple poached fish

We returned to our own hotel for one last night.  I was due in Mansa this weekend for more meetings and to start making my map, before I would head back alone on the Proflight (literally the only passenger on the Mansa-Ndola leg this time) and to spend most of the next week locked away in my motel room next to a large new Chinese shopping mall in central Lusaka.

All very different and modern compared to the quiet simplicity of this lakeside hotel.  I soaked up the last sunset, the light reflecting purple of the lake, almost placid again after the winds of the rest of the trip.  Out in the lake a few dugout canoes contained fishermen setting the night’s nets.  My name was called from along the way and I ambled over to find Ian and Mainza tucking in to the tilapia that had been bought near the Luapula Bridge.  Here was the resource that we were studying, making regulations about, mapping the area where it would be protected and managed for everyone.  It was just a fish, simply grilled and presented, but it was a symbol of the Bangweulu Swamp

We shared the one plate, picking the meat from the bone with our fingers; separating out the spiny exteriors and leaving behind a classic cartoonish skeleton of the fish.  It was the best meal I had in Zambia that trip.

A tale of two swamps -So far from the ocean…

We had one last stop that day.  To the north of Samfya was a resort hotel and we had seen from the main road that it sat above sand dunes.  We decided to investigate further and took a turning off the tarmac just at the entrance to the town.  We surfed over the crest of these dunes and dropped under the hotel to a beach bar.   The sand was whiter than by our own hotel; you could have been in the Caribbean.  A guy was sweeping the sand clear of detritus from the nearby trees, preparing the beach for weekend trippers and locals.  I’m not sure I wanted to enter the lake myself as there were a few water snail shells around and I was not keen on contracting bilharzia.  But the scene was alluringly beautiful and surreal.  This beach was the westernmost point of the open water of Lake Bangweulu and lakewashed sand from the rest of the basin must be blown here on prevailing easterly winds, particularly in the dry season when the lake is low and sediment exposed.  Over the years the sand has been whipped up into 20m dunes as if you were on the coast or desert plains.

These bizarre natural phenomena in amongst the marshland and rolling agricultural land are not protected though, and sand is a valuable building commodity, so it is no surprise that the leeward side of the dunes are being excavated at an alarming rate.  But the beachside has an elegant beauty all of its own.

A tale of two swamps – The Luapula

The road dropped onto a long straight concrete bridge which traversed the myriad of channels and grasses below us.  After a couple of miles we reached the main channel of the Luapula River itself and stopped to take a look.  The day was still.  A hot sun was beating down and only the faintest of breezes was cooling us.  There was barely a cloud in the sky and below us this vast body of water was flowing fast but unfussily below us.    At first sight it looked as still as a lake, but on closer inspection you could see rapid movements – the swaying of the grasses almost tugged from their roots, small items of debris twisting and turning in eddies but still heading remorselessly downstream.  The water itself was reflecting blue but when you looked straight down it was a deep brown; not from sediment but just so deep and rich that light had trouble penetrating more than a few centimetres.  A glimpse of a large fish or a shoal of smaller ones was occasionally retrieved.  At one stage I looked into the water and watched a crocodile ; its head still but its body gently swaying back and forth to one side of the main channel.  I almost shrieked out to the others.  They started over to where I was standing and I looked back to check it was still above water.  As I looked harder I realised it was not a crocodile at all, but a formation of weeds tangled around the long grass reaching for the river’s surface that all but gave the impression of a resting croc.  But by now it was too late; Ian, Mainza and Chris had all gathered on the parapet and were wondering where I was looking.  Red faced I confessed, but I did force them to look and admit it could be mistaken for a reptile.


Well there could have been a croc there?

What we did see were hundreds of birds – smaller ones flying in amongst the reeds, a few treading carefully across the hummocks of grass floating on the river, a few herons motionless close to the smaller pools.  But overall there was a sense of quiet gravity.  Apart from the mass of water moving through the bridge, around was mostly stillness.  Even on the road we saw but two cars in ten minutes.  And they passed as unspectacularly as they could muster so as not to disturb the solemnity of the scene.

I marvelled one last time at the long grass, its roots thrusting up from the deeps into sunlight to the floating mass of whips and blades. How does such a plant manage in this environment; more than manage, thrive.  It must grow at an astonishing rate to stop from being lost in the dark as the river floods every year.

Reluctantly we got back in our vehicle, which turned around and headed back to Mansa.

A tale of two swamps – Roadside sellers

We drove south a way after our visit to the village. Pausing briefly to take another look at the herd of lechwe, we got back on the main road and headed Lusakawards along this raised causeway.  In the distance we could see a white tower on a small hill; our guides told us this was a guard post at one end of a long bridge across the Luapula River.  In between us and it was a group of people standing around in a lay-by.  We drove past them and halted on the roadside.  Immediately we were surrounded by people; hawkers selling…you guessed it … fish.

We realised these hawkers had crossed the swamp from villages we could just make out on the horizon – the route of their canoes marked by breaks in the grass.  Some had set up small shady stores at the foot of the causeway and they were bringing up a few buckets or handfuls of fish strung together at a time. As well as the sellers, mostly women and teenage boys, there were other hangers on, men with bicycles, babies strapped to backs, young kids playing in the vergeside grass.

Ian examined the fish; it was very similar to that being dried in the village we had just left behind.  He went around scientifically looking at it all and it did not take long before the women realised they were not going to get many sales from us.  But Mainza had spotted some nice fresh tilapia and bought it up.

A bright white, long-distance coach appeared on the horizon and a couple of minutes later pulled into the lay-by behind us.  The sellers saw much more of a market from it than from us and sped off along the tarmac.

We got back in our vehicle and continued along towards the white tower.  On the road below two police officers were manning a check point and we had to stop for a moment to show passports and explain our business.  We told them we were not going much further along the river, just to view the river and come back.  They seemed indifferent to this idea and waved us on.

A tale of two swamps – Where to draw the line

It was a shame we could not get to the temporary fishing settlements in the depths of the swamp to see whether the same attitude to fish conservation was so strong.  And we never got to look down the river beyond the swamp into practices there.  I’d become aware that the fisheries department already split the swamp into five management zones.  Partly this was due to practicalities of getting around this remote area of Zambia, but it partly reflected the different geographies and the fishing practices which went on in them.  It was easy to see the main part of the fishery was the lake and the wetland areas to the south and east.  What I was less certain of was how far down the river we should extend the boundary, and at what point around the edge of the lake and swamp did we say the regulations were to cover.  As well as the main swamp there were long fingers of marshland that extended upriver to the north east in several valleys.  There was also the complex of dambos to the north and west, some containing marshy river valleys, others with smaller lakes and wetland patches.  What did the area have to cover?  As well as to identify what types of fishery and habitats needed to be included,  it was also my job to make the boundary something manageable – i.e. it could be enforced on the ground.  There are a number of options; one it to make it completely natural so it contains the ecosystem you are trying to protect.  This means following natural features but in the case of a fishery it is not wise to split a river in half; it has to be done by watersheds – i.e. make the catchment boundary or highest point from where water drains into the swamp the boundary of the fishery too.  But some ridges are not too obvious, especially in the only slightly bumpy landscape that is common in north west Zambia.


A route across the swamp

I was coming to the conclusion I would need a combination of natural and man-made features to delimit the entire boundary, and occasionally would still need some arbitrary lines drawn in the good tradition of African colonists for centuries.  Even the southern boundary was to be a challenge as Bangweulu Swamp seemed to merge with other swampy lands well beyond where I had been given as an area of interest for my study.

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.



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.

A tale of two swamps – Still no boat trip

Our next stop was a meeting with the headsman, the guy who looks after the village for the local chief.  We were driven a short distance out of the village centre and parked under some shady trees next to a substantial brick house.  We were led into a back room that served as the village council chamber.  We sat round on sofas and on hastily found plastic chairs, but left empty a large armchair covered in heavy throws.  First the village secretary came in and introduced himself, then he was followed by an older guy who again did a series of handshakes around the room before filling the vacant armchair.  We talked of the situation and challenges of fisheries in this region for some time; none of it was particularly a surprise to Ian.  We followed this up with a meeting at a school attended by members of the fisherfolk association and its officials.  All in all it was a productive day and we got several angles on the fishery and I started to get a sketch of the layout of the landscape I had to map.


Meeting participants

Next morning I was up early once more and took a longer walk.  I thought I might get a better view of the lake from the hill behind the hotel so I although I started out on the same track as I had traversed the previous day I soon turned sharply uphill.  The track became deeply rutted but still was passing through some low density housing; each building set in half an acre of its own garden.  I learnt later that these were originally the houses of the civil service from colonial days; the ones sent out to administer the far flung districts like Samfya.  Despite rising a long way there were no really good vantage points to see the lake – the very top of the hill was covered by a series of radio and mobile phone masts.

After breakfast we met up again with the fisheries officers to see if there was a chance that we might go across the lake, but no, the open water on the lake itself was still too choppy.  This was unfortunate as I really wanted to see what the hidden villages in the swamp were like, and head down narrow channels in amongst the reeds to find them.  Some of these villages were temporary; used by fishermen only in the open fishing season.


Morning walk

A tale of two swamps -At the fish market

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.

A tale of two swamps – Early riser

It had been a long day of travelling, and after the overnight flight the night before, I was ready for some rest but as often when I start trips I awoke early just as the first hints of daylight were revealing themselves through a gap in the curtains.  I pushed those curtains back and watched the sun rise over the lake, as rapidly as it always does in Africa.  It was still an hour before breakfast so I decided to take a walk around the environs of the hotel.  Most of the hotel rooms were in one of two blocks on the lakeshore, protected from choppy waves by a low wall.  There were also some trees to protect the shore, but their roots currently stood in water – being the end of the short rainy season the lake was relatively full.  This meant there was only a narrow beach of beautifully soft white sand.  It could almost be seaside.  The wind the night before had whipped up sizeable waves – the fetch on the lake was not good enough not to produce full size rollers but they had crests and broke noisily on the sandy beach.

I wandered through the hotel compound; it had been almost dark when I had arrived the previous night so now I picked up on more features on my morning walk, including a large naive styled antelope sculpture made of plaster next to the dining room.  I headed out past a snoozing guard in the car park, out the front gate and along the dusty track that ran parallel to the lake shore.  There were a number of small workshops and storerooms dotted along the track, mostly related to fisheries and woodworking, and I did not realise till after breakfast that the Fisheries Department had their offices along this road.  Ian introduced the key officers to me when we walked down the road again, and we talked about the day’s trip.

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.


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.