Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Caught by the storm

As we headed down to the boats the clouds burst, cold plops of rain fell on us, but we thought we would try and launch the boats.  We sat in a metal one and one of the villagers pushed us off the mud.  I tend to be of the opinion in the tropics that you are going to get wet, so up to this point had not carried any waterproofs with me – they usually made me more wet from sweat on the inside than dry from the rain on the outside.  And when the sun comes out you dry quickly.  But this day I had made a mistake – I had on a heavy polo shirt which sucked up the rain.  Additionally it had gone very cold  with the squalls on the lake and the water cooling the air.


We  are heading out on a metal boat?

We still pursued our destination but since the guys only had poles and oars we had not even cleared the nearshore lilies when the first thunder clap hit.  Being in a metal boat in a lightning storm did not appeal to any of us so we headed back to the black shore as quickly as we could with the limited forms of propulsion we had.  But the rain, which was already steady , turned torrential.  The inside of the boat was filling up fast and the passengers had to bail as fast as possible with whatever we had to hand.  We slipped onto the mud and scrambled out and headed to the vehicle.  The rain made it difficult to see further than the end of your nose, and was turning the beach into a quagmire and it took some moments to get back in the 4×4.  Jean Luc and Christophe were wearing thin plastic ponchos (which have now become part of my essential kit) but even they looked soggy and bedraggled when we got back in the vehicle, which we quickly steamed up.

We sat in the rainstorm for five minutes – it not being safe to move off as we could not see.  Eventually the rain did ease but it was still pouring and there seemed no point in trying to reach the cages now – we had to be careful to be back in Port Au Prince by nightfall from both the security issues and the fact our guides needed their evening free.

So we started back to the village and the main road.  The weather had other ideas.  Although the climb from the lakeshore was not all that steep, the rain had made the hard impacted road slimy and even with our diff lock engaged we could not make it up the road we had come along.  The driver tried hard but the smell of oil and the strained noises from the engine showed us that he was not approaching the problem the right way.  We tried to advise him on moving off gently but there was no way we could get grip.  Eventually he got out of the vehicle and reccied a route to the west.   It was a struggle but with much sliding, a couple of slip backs and plenty of back seat advice, we made it to more level ground and weaved our way through the village, much to the delight of a set of soggy children who had come out to see what the noise of wheel slips was connected to.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – At the ministry

I was glad of the sleep, despite being several hours behind UK time, I was fatigued from nearly two days on the go.  It meant the next morning I was not too groggy to wake up for an early breakfast.  Jean Luc insisted we travel as early as possible to the office; any later than 8 and we would spend the whole morning on the road.  So after a quick breakfast we met our driver at the reception and descended the windy road into Petionville.  We got through the town centre quite quickly but soon had joined the steady line of traffic down the main road towards the airport.  We did well though, it took only two hours to get to the Ministry of Agriculture compound at the back of the airport.

The ministry’s building was a large colonial style edifice with striking yellow painted plaster walls, a green roof and white highlights on the large window frames and balustrades.  Mainly two storeys but with an extra storey on stumpy towers and surrounded by tall shady trees; it must have been one of the grandest buildings in the neighbourhood.  It also showed that agriculture had had high status at one time in the country, no doubt related to its plantation history.  From the appearance of the buildings at the back; 1960’s and 70’s construction there had been some investment in agriculture then too, but it was to these newer constructions we headed towards.  For the main building had been a victim of the earthquake, its facade badly cracked in several places, surrounded by a wooden fence it was out of bounds to everyone.  Regrettably I could not see that Haiti would ever have the money to rebuild it.

So behind one of these buildings a small door took us in to a series of modest rooms that acted as the Fisheries Department’s national headquarters.  I met the staff including the chief fisheries officer and we had several meetings.  My main intention was to establish the meeting with the national GIS office and this achieved I talked with staff about what data they did have.  A GIS had been established in the office, as I find in many places, but the staff were not confident in what existed on it or how the software operated.

We lunched in the staff canteen, as far as I could make out, but it was quite unlike any canteen I had ever been in.  A short walk across the compound under the shady trees brought us to a house, little more than a chattel house with gingerbread roof and balustrades.  The main seating area was an open terrace with room for about twenty people.  We sat and had our dinners ordered – that old Caribbean thing about having a big plate of hot steaming rice and peas loaded with some hot spicy meat or fish.  Washed down with the sweetest soda you could imagine.  But the ambience of this location; a quiet oasis in the Port Au Prince valley and the good quality of the food made it a pleasant lunch.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island -How to improve aquaculture

And this is where I came in.  The emergency charity of which I am a member, MapAction, had done several weeks of support to the relief coordination operations and several of the team had gone on for several months to work with individual sectors – the health, food, water operations that were a vital life support to the country following the quake.  I had been diverted on some other work at the time.  But a couple of years later, I was asked by a consulting firm to work with them on a project looking at the potential for aquaculture in Haiti.  It may sound like a minor factor when people remain unhoused, but it was part of a much larger programme to look at building up economic activity in Haiti, improving the private sector and encourage the large Haitian diaspora to invest in their own country.

Like a lot of short consultancies, the proposal happens early on and  you hear nothing about it for months.  I went off and did work in several other places and one day an email plonked in my inbox from the development consultants that the bid had been successful.  I was to be teamed with a French Canadian aquaculturist and our team leader who spoke little English, a Frenchman who lived in Brighton, and me who spoke only grunting French with a smattering of shoulder shrugging.  I’d stressed in the bid that it would be preferable for me to have two trips, one to help me fact find and obtain all the data I needed (always a problem for  a GIS analysis project), and the second to work on the data and produce the results.  These were to be split about two months apart.  My role appeared to be to help the team leader decide where would be suitable  for aquaculture to exist.  This turned out to be an interesting intellectual challenge as there were several sorts of aquaculture out there to choose from and they needed different conditions for them to be successful.   One was fish ponds which needed nice flat areas (at a premium in much of Haiti), could benefit from a source of clay and would be useful if close to arable farming as a low cost access to feed.  The other was through fish cages in natural water bodies.  Herein lay a problem.  Much of Haiti’s rivers were polluted; in urban areas by the sheer quantity of people with a lack of access to suitable sanitation and the other issues of industrial and urban solid and liquid wastes.  And throughout the country the rivers were choked with sediment.  Even in a perfectly stable environment, Haiti had steep sided valleys and run off inevitably brought down soil and gravel that formed large deltaic braided riverbeds.  Add in the deforestation of the uplands and the widespread landslides on unstable slopes, the sediment load went off the scale.  Any cages would fill up with sediment or be dislodged by flooding.  Fortunately there was a solution.  There are a limited number of freshwater lakes in Haiti but one exceptional but foresighted government decision from the past was to dam some steep valleys and produce “lac collinaire” – hill lakes that resourced the local communities with fresh water.  In theory these could all be stocked with fish.


Can fish farming be expanded?

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 -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 – Where the fishery is under pressure

At the end of some plantation fields the road spread out into a wide flat area of bare earth surrounded by single storey brick buildings.  Almost every piece of ground was covered.  Around the edge were thirty stalls selling all manner of goods – plastics, metal containers, matches, milk powder, t shirts, football shirts, dress shirts, socks, sandals and shoes, mosquito nets, and more.  Out in the sun fish were drying, nets were spread and all over fishermen were working away.  We passed along the water front to watch recently hauled in nets being picked clean of fish.  We were eyed suspiciously by some of the fishermen mending their nets on upturned pirogues.  Ian noted that the average size of the individual fish in these catches was much smaller even than further up the Kafue river.  He also saw that some of the nets that were drying were made from mosquito netting.  Despite the rules of net size that the fisheries department were meant to be enforcing, people were openly fishing with a fine mesh – one that even a mosquito could not escape let alone small fry.  Hence the tiny fish that were being trawled up from the river.

This village was only about 40km from Lusaka and it was obvious that they had a large market to try and feed.  We were told that the village was full of people who had migrated from other parts of the country, including the larger towns and cities.  Our meeting here was treated with much more suspicion and there was a lot of arguing – mainly about the ineffectuality of the Fisheries Department especially from those people who fished legally but saw the flouting of the law on a daily basis when they came to places like this.  Whereas elsewhere in the Kafue basin we saw little need for careful regulation – just a light touch to keep the status quo – here the situation needed careful policing to avoid a collapse of the fishery in the next few years.

A tale of two swamps – Cramped conditions

About twenty minutes later we heard a large drum being beaten and gradually about twenty people drifted in to view from various directions.  There was some humble greetings before they sat patiently in the shade waiting for something to happen.  Eventually the representative from the local fisherfolk association, exercise book and Bic pen in hand, arrived and we were able to get underway with the meeting.

In the shade were the men; a small group of women, one or two with babies wrapped against them, sat at the back in the full sunlight listening in.  The meeting was slow as in this case, none of the people had sufficient English to talk freely so Alphart had to meticulously translate each phrase in each direction.  More people drifted in as we went along so by the end the shelter was overflowing with people.  When the meeting broke up several of the attendees insisted on having their photos taken and to be shown the results.  We boarded our boat and were waved off by about thirty people; such a contrast to our arrival.

The day was drawing on and the river was a lot busier than when we came down for the meeting.  Fishermen were hauling in the day’s catch, we saw several “buses” – larger canoes transporting villagers back from a day in Namwala.  Maybe they had been to market, had an appointment at the clinic or some government office; a couple of suitcases and bags suggested some were returning from a much longer trip and this was the last leg before reaching home.  One boat even had a few cycles and a motorbike being carried down the stream.

A tale of two swamps – Problem with the dams

On completion of formalities with the DC we drove a few hundred metres to the river’s edge to the Department of Fisheries complex.  The local fisheries officer had arranged us to meet the Namwala Fisherfolk Association but they were slow in arriving.  In the interim we passed around the offices.  I picked up lots of useful information on the location of all the fishing villages along the river and in the Kafue Flats.  It is amazing how much useful data is hidden away in offices like this.  I had asked about a list of all the villages at the head office in Chilanga but no-one could lay their hands on the information.  Here it was stuck up on the walls of the chief local fisheries officer.  Probably drawn in the seventies, the map was simple but clear and accurate – a detailed map of all the bends in the main river and its tributaries with carefully placed and labelled dots showing the location of the villages and a great long comprehensive key. Again I took photographs and was later able to fit them over the existing GIS data and create a digital database.  Despite care being taken with the paper, age had taken its toll – the edges were brown and frayed, a few tears had been repaired with sticky tape and the light had faded some of the features on the map.


Another useful data source

Our catch up with the fisheries officers complete, we took a quick inspection of their facilities and looked out over the river.  At Namwala there is a much narrower flood plan with none of the lagoons we had found further east, just the main river channel and a few reedy banks before the ground level rose.  The fisheries officers told us that does not stop flooding issues caused by the hydroelectric dam further upstream.  Traditionally the villagers of the flats could predict and adapt to the natural flood and ebb of the river; indeed the changes in river level were beneficial both for creating nursery grounds and fishing opportunities.  But the holding of water in the Itezhi-tezhi Dam for the turbines meant that the natural floods were not occurring at appropriate times or were too time limited to fit natural cycles of fish breeding.  Instead, the flood of water downstream was controlled by the demand for electricity in the urban areas of Zambia.  This could mean frequent discharges of water from the dam that caused a near tidal wave along the river for hundreds of kilometres.    With little or no warning of these fishermen had been swamped from their boats, villages could be quickly inundated and by measuring the long term effects on those nurseries and fishing grounds it was clear stocks and catch rates were falling.

A tale of two swamps – Leaving proves difficult

Despite the view of this village being a sylvan human-controlled environment, the wild was still out there nearby – wildlife will naturally want to take advantage of such a bountiful, water rich region.  We saw one example as we waited to board out boat to leave the village.  Another dugout canoe was punted past by a young man, a piece of tarpaulin covering the front left hand side.  It was explained to us that a few weeks back, a hippopotamus had taken a chunk out of the wood there while he had been in the middle of the lake collecting his nets.


Ever had a chunk taken out of your boat by a hippo

Our large party settled back into the aluminium boat, but we were too heavy to shove off the mud.  Several of us had to get out while the captain got the boat floating, and then we gingerly stepped across from a small headland at the entrance to the harbour and sat down as fast and safely as we could.  We carefully navigated around the sides of the village, avoiding a small fleet of boats carrying goods back from the landing site we had visited earlier in the day.  It was sad to leave this beautifully adapted little habitation and as we retraced our path along the main channel through an avenue of trees I kept glancing back to see the tarpaulins and grass roofs gradually shrink and disappear in amongst the reeds; as if it had never existed at all.


Supreme confidence

As we headed back across Chunga Lagoon we could see many fishing operations going on, mostly at this time of the day collecting in nets, and as the afternoon was now progressing and the temperature starting to cool, the birdlife was increasing again.