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.

A tale of two swamps – Getting to a second swamp

Two years later I was back in Zambia with Ian working on a similar project but this time in the north of the country.  He was to write fisheries regulations for the Bangwuelu swamp and I was brought in to look at delimiting the line within which the laws would operate.  Unfortunately there was no need for a socio-economist in this place so Alphart did not join us, but a lot of the liaison was to be conducted by Mainza Kalongo.  He had been the Acting Chief Fisheries Officer for Zambia when Ian and I had worked on Kafue but had now retired from the civil service and was topping up his pension with consultancy.

Bangwuelu is a large lake system in the north of Zambia  crossing three provinces – Eastern, Northern and Luapula, where I was to be based.  While it could have been a day long drive to reach Luapula, there was an option to fly north on a recently launched low cost local airline.  So I arrived on the overnight flight from London at Lusaka’s airport and instead of heading off in a taxi into town I settled down in a cafe overlooking the runway and waited a couple of hours for a flight to Ndola.  In amongst the chaos of a load of building work, I entered the small departure lounge of the domestic terminal.  This little airline, Proflight, was sending prop planes all over the country (and starting to reach out across southern Africa) at quite reasonable prices.  Ndola, one of the largest cities in the Copperbelt region of central Zambia, was a popular destination and my flight was full of travellers, mining engineers and others.  We headed out over the agricultural lands to the north of Lusaka and within an hour we had descended across an industrial landscape of mines, quarries, factories and power plants.  Ndola sprawled around us but like so many southern African cities, was so openly planned when first created that it still seemed spacious and uncluttered.  The plane descended right over the centre of the city and landed at the small airport.  I was shuttled into an even smaller departure lounge than the one at Lusaka, crammed with people, and I waited for my departure to Mansa – I took a look around to see if I could spot who might be joining me on the second flight.  A couple of flights departed and the lounge started to thin out enough for me to find a seat.


Landing at Ndola – is one of these going to be my next plane?