A tale of two swamps – Frenzy at the bridge

This hive of activity was centred on fishing in the river itself.  The flow was rapid here, thick brown water laden with sediment was toppling down off various rocks, under the bridge and into a slightly quieter pool below.  Down each bank of the pool, and in a couple of places upstream, women were waist high in the water, or reaching in from the bank; still wearing their highly coloured wraps, blouses and headscarves, although a couple were happy to be topless in the water.  They carried specialist woven conical baskets.  They would sweep them upstream through the water in one strong easy movement, the water squeezing out of the mesh of the basket leaving a rich catch of fish that they would toss onto the bank or wait for other women to come with plastic tubs to collect the fish.

There were men here too, some young boys were fishing with smaller baskets or lines, hanging nets on the end of long poles from the bridge, older men were trading with the women on the roadside; one old guy was snoozing off an early Katata home brew drinking session .  Several people regarded him closely as they passed by, ensuring that he was still snoring and had not expired.

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Just snoozing?

Away from the river fish had been laid out on wraps on the ground to dry.   The women here were also selling to passing trade – walkers, cyclist and the odd vehicle that passed by.  Ian, as was his way, analysed the species and the sizes – it was not encouraging.  Most of the baskets had a very fine weave and all but the smallest fish would be entrapped.  We looked at piles of what were almost fry on display.

There were bigger fish all round as well – catfish.  These grotesque, long slippery creatures were draped over chairs, hanging in bunches from a string proudly held aloft by boys hardly larger than the catch, or in amongst the other fish left out to dry.  I say grotesque, but once able to look at these creatures up close, they had a rather becoming charm; their mottled bodies covered a myriad of earthy shades, their red tentacles pointing down from their faces; their thick muscular bodies; everything suited to life in a muddy fast flowing river where sight was not important.  I wondered how they survived the dry season – did they instinctively migrate to the permanent waterbodies in the swamp, did they find muddy pools deep in the undergrowth to eke out the dry months.  Or did they die and hope that enough spawn from the previous season would survive underground, to be triggered into development at commencement of the next rains?

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A Tale of Two Swamps – Tilapia

The Nile tilapia were another concern to some people; mainly outside conservationists.  Tilapia, or the Nile perch has become one of the most prodigiously fish farmed species in the world – as I was to find out in Haiti a month or two later.  Again the species had got into local waterways and was supremely adaptable.  It was swamping the Kafue swamp.  The conservationists felt they threatened the local ecosystem, forcing out other native species.  Ian again was more pragmatic – keep harvesting them and eat them.  Given their spread along the Kafue there was no point in arguing for strict control, and they produced a very valuable source of animal protein. This was a place where it was often difficult to rear enough livestock each year, and tilapia never needed fodder.

I must admit Nile tilapia is not my favourite fish.  Served up as Bream at restaurants; its ugly face is enough to put you off, but the main problem is the deboning.  I’m not the world’s best expert at getting the flesh of a fish’s bone, but tilapia are made worse by the fact it appears to have two layers of bones, the main spine and then a row of hard cartilage out of which come the fins.  The jaw bones complexity also makes me not go hunting for meat round there.  The consequence is that my plate looks like a disaster zone and lots of flaky bits of fishmeat are mashed up with a hundred tiny translucent bones.  Despite these difficulties, it is a staple in the flats and is highly marketable around Southern Africa as bream.

We took a look at various sizes of catch; Ian was impressed that some fish catches were sizeable.  The local fisheries officers were collating the amounts of fish and market prices sampling for their records and they showed us the data sheets; but again the data were not being collated anywhere and never analysed .

We dug deeper into the crowd to see if there was anything else of interest, and I spotted a large pile of catfish on the grass.  These fish – like long thick bodied eels with evil looking whiskers that give the animal its name – weighed several  kilos each.