Living in the Community – Protocol insists

This was in theory a much smaller affair, but the same ritual had to be gone through.  When we arrived the front door was shut.  Momoh knocked and talked to a lady who appeared through a  crack in the door.  She asked him to wait and reappeared a few moments later with an elderly gentleman.  This was the current acting paramount chief.  Fintonia is a special place in Bombali District.  It is the centre for the chiefdom of Tambakha, which covers most of the area north of the Little Scarcies River.  Most villages will have a headman who is in charge of the administration there, but then groups of them are looked after by a chief.  The whole chiefdom is ruled by a paramount chief.  I say ruled; his word is law, but the relationship is often more paternalistic and the individual chiefs have some fair sway in the way things go.  But they are still pretty powerful people and have influence with the administrative governments at district, province and national levels.

The method to communicate that a meeting has been called is very simple.  No mobile phone networks here, no letters sent round, not even runners to reach out to the village elders.  The village secretary beats a drum with a stick.  It hangs in the corner of the open room from a rope and it resonated throughout the village.  I am sure there must be other drums in Fintonia but the timbre of this one must be so familiar to the villagers that it immediately attracted attention.  Some plastic chairs had been placed out in the open room and we sat there for about twenty minutes while we waited for the elders to arrive.  They drifted into the room in their ones and twos, each greeted the chief and introduced themselves to us.  The drum also attracted many other people.  A lot of kids who had skipped school that day hung around the periphery, some women stopped their chores to come and look, and some of the older men, or the lazier ones who were not out in the fields, came drifting into the area.  Many, too , greeted us, and then started up side conversations with neighbours as we waited to get things started.


Calling people to the meeting

Eventually the secretary did a head count and reported that most of the elders he knew were around had attended.  The Paramount Chief, resplendent in a bleach white robe and white cap, motioned for the secretary to approach, and asked for prayers to be said.  The local imam was present and gave some words from the Muslim side, and Momoh, as a preacher himself, gave a Christian Prayer, then followed this up with a lengthy introduction to us.  It was not quite accurate but was probably the best way to introduce the issues.  I had to hand it to Momoh.  What we were providing was something that could prove quite controversial and cause a lot of disturbance.  We wanted to map the property in the village; marking out the boundaries between different people’s plots and gathering information about the types of relationship.  We had some software on which to plot the GPS points.  And we wanted to present the final map to the people and in particular the chief for their future planning and arbitration.  We were aware of how complicated the relationships in land were but we were to discover that we had not even started to understand.  But we stated from the outset that we were not here to resolve any disputes over land.  We could find ways of mapping all points of view and present them on the map, but then allow the villagers and the elders themselves to resolve it.

Living in the Community – Mobilising the work

The previous evening, one of our wider team of workers, Momoh, had popped up on our veranda to greet us.  Momoh was the primary field coordinator on the Sierra Leone side of the boundary and spent much of his time living in the village.  He had already briefed the chief on our intentions and that we had arrived in Fintonia, and had set up a formal meeting for first thing in the morning.

Momoh turned up at the house just as Gray was leaving for the park.  He also introduced us to three people who we were going to train.  One, Demba,  was tall and lanky and very outgoing.  The second Alusine, was not quite as tall and relatively relaxed, the third, Karim,  was slightly older and much more serious.  We shook hands and we exchanged talk of how excited we were to be here, how grateful we were for their time, and they said how much they wanted to learn.  The usual pleasantries at the beginning of one of these exercises.  Kofi and I collected the maps we wanted to use and our equipment and followed Momoh and the three guys to the other side of the  village.  We did not take the road; there was no need and since it zigzags through the village, it was much easier to head through the back of our plot, past a large store house and down through the backs of some more houses to where the paramount chief’s house was on a main street corner.


Meeting our crew

At first sight the house looked little different from many of the others in the village; it was relatively large, but was most noted for having a long open room, less a veranda, where the chief held his most important meetings.  There was only room here under the shade for about twenty people, and if more attended they peered in from all the open spaces or listened from the shade of a tree nearby.  I knew this from past experience.  When we had travelled here the previous July with the whole team, we had a big meeting here and it had been a village wide event.

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 – Chiefdom issues

After so many years of working throughout Africa, I had rarely been close to chiefs.  Apart from a rather drunk one in Zimbabwe and being at a few formal events where I was barely in the same company but a distant onlooker.  Here I was able to be part of a proper conversation with one, where we learned of the chief’s concerns and wishes, and were able to talk in detail about the project and fishing in general.

Tribal issues in Zambia, as in much of Africa, place a different network of administration onto the country and its people.  In most countries, there is a national government followed by some sort of provincial or regional government, then a district administration that look after so many affairs that other countries lay on their local government.  They deal with the roads, the waste, schooling, businesses, health care and social care.  I often find all of these to some degree are done by all agencies too, so it is often confusing to know who to go to to find information or get things done.  While major roads are maintained by the national government, tracks and side roads are district level; health care is supervised at national level but often clinics might be run from local administration.


The best map of chiefdoms I could find for southern Zambia

Laid over this administrative infrastructure and scattered across the country are areas which are called chiefdoms.  Because of historical land grabs by Europeans, the chiefdoms do not necessarily cover the whole country; commercial farming and city or towns have taken on large chunks of the best agricultural or industrial land.  In a very deterministic fashion, however, areas were set aside for traditional administration to go ahead.  In Zambia, when it was still the colony of Northern Rhodesia, these were called Tribal Trust Lands.  After independence they were given the name Communal Lands.  In recent years the definition of these has changed, and the term Chiefdom is again more widely used.  Despite attempts by outside powers to impose rigid boundaries on these chiefdoms, the picture is more complicated.  The people of these chiefdoms are joined by a complex set of relationships based on blood, marriage and inheritance.  With the world’s more dynamic populations these days people will move around into cities and between villages.  So you can live in what the map says is one chiefdom, and yet your allegiance is to a different chief.

We had found this out when we were with the villagers in Namyala earlier in the day.  Two chiefs claimed the swamplands around the village as incomers had settled in the region from across the border.  In theory the House of Chiefs, a ministry of the national government with an associated parliament for all the chiefs of the country, were the ones to sort out these disputes, but any arbitration, let alone resolution, was a lengthy and often bitter process.

The conversation ranged across a lot of issues, and at the end, the Chief promised to phone through some extra material that Ian requested.  At this point he pulled out a small but relatively new Nokia mobile phone.  He huffed a little and said; “When I was coming back from Nairobi recently, I had put this thing on Flight Mode and now I can’t work out how to turn the signal back on.  While Ian was talking, I took a look at it, already lowering his hopes of my technical knowledge by sympathising with him about the complexity of menus on such devices.  I clicked and punched my way through everything for about ten minutes, realising with the meeting drawing towards a conclusion that I would have to hand it back unfixed.  Then I just happened to click on a combination of key presses to reveal the right menu item, clicked it on and hey presto it was sorted.  Of course, being still miles from the main road, there were no mobile masts in the vicinity and so no signal in his house.  But as I handed it back, the Chief was delighted and, as Ian commented to me later, if I were ever in the vicinity again, I would probably get paraded through the streets as a hero.