A tale of two swamps – At the Chief’s Parliament

Not long afterwards, however we stopped again.  We were due to drop in on another chief for this western part of Kafue Swamps.  We could not miss the turning.  A large metal sign proudly pronounced that we were near His Royal Highness Senior Chief Nalumbamba Banamyumanti.  Not only were there these words but various logos and straplines that showed this was a man who meant business, was organised and took action.  We headed down the side track to a collection of well maintained rondavels.

But he was out.

Indeed for several minutes we thought there was no one there.  In the midday sun, Ian, Alphart and I waited patiently while the fisheries staff wandered around the compound looking for signs of life.  A middle aged woman came out of one of the houses; quite sensibly I think she had been taking a siesta out of the heat and light.

It was explained to us that the Senior Chief had headed up to Lusaka for an emergency meeting the night before, but with the lack of mobile coverage down here had not been able to get a message through to us.  We were led into the throne room of the Chief, which was less like the sitting room we had been in the previous evening, more like a proper office with a huge darkwood desk.  Various ornaments around the room including a huge giraffe gave it some decoration, but it still had the air of a badly maintained school house.  On the walls were flow diagrams, check lists and mottos that reinforced the information we had seen on his sign that this was a well organised man.  Indeed we were given copies of a glossy brochure that stated the Chief’s  strategic development plan for 2010-2015.  The format was impressive – a well structured document, numbered paragraphs, and with preamble, executive summary, action points , abbreviation lists…… the works.  Only when you read the detail did you see that there was a big gap between the noble aspirations of the plan ( to end poverty and increase the infrastructure for his people) and the detail of how it was to be funded and implemented.  It appeared the Chief had attended a course on how to develop a strategic plan, some American business school seminar perhaps, but had not been guided on how to get his ideas into more than a glossy brochure.  But since I had never seen anything like this from any other chief in Africa, I should not be too judgemental; as I say the aspirations were the right ones for people.

We went through another door into a large rondavel which proved to be the Chief’s Parliament.  About thirty large leather bound chairs on two levels circled round the room, dominated by the Chiefs chair behind a high desk; his gavel in place ready to bring the members to order.  Each chair was adorned with the insignia of the chiefdom.

It was all very impressive, which of course was the intention. It was a shame we could not meet the man; we were only around for two more days and already had a busy schedule ahead at both the western and eastern end of the swamp.  As we were getting ready to leave, I noticed some brightly covered grasshoppers on a bush in the Chief’s ornamental garden.  Then some more, then I realised the whole area was being systematically chomped away by a swarm of these animals.  These were no simple grasshopper, this was a red locust, once swarming could cause a huge amount of damage.

So the convoy started off again and we drove for another half hour on the gravel roads, before hitting a tarmacced road that led from the south to Namwala.

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.

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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.