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 – Entering the village

The clump of trees had resolved itself into a cluster of houses.  Well I say houses.  From this distance they looked more like Mongolian Yurts.  Our boatman cut his speed as we approached the first of these and we chugged past these as the  channel extended deep into the village centre.  After seeing a few isolated huts; probably store rooms, I realised the village itself was on a raised muddy island in the middle of the flooded grasslands.  Perched on slightly higher grasses, but still with their feet in the water, hefty cattle obviously content in water ambled in front of the boat and peered at us with dull eyes.  While the majority of the village was in one large island and densely packed, we made our way to a second smaller island with just a small cluster of buildings, and I clocked there were several of these smaller “suburbs” dotted around the plain.

Here we were to meet out main contact in the village – a guy who works as the local liaison for the Fisheries Department and is secretary of the local fisherfolk association.  We had to cut the boat’s motor to reduce our wash, but there were eager people nearby who were willing to tow us in.  Unfortunately the one that reached us first was the town drunk; at least he was amiable but he both had a problem keeping upright waist high in water, and also wanted to talk extensively.  This might have been OK but his English was very limited and the conversation kept heading towards money and alcohol.  Eventually the other visitors prised his hands off our boat and we were safely delivered at the secretary’s house.   We were immediately invited in to his house – a long substantial reed walled house with tarpaulin roof.  Inside was one large room, subdivided with low walls into a sleeping area.  On top of all the clothes that the family owned – piled high as if ready for a jumble sale, was a reed mat covered in very small fish.  The smell in the house was also piscine; I supposed it mattered little that the odour must work its way into their garments as these villagers ate, caught, dealt with, sold, and of course excreted fishy products.  The smell of fish must be as normal as pot pourri in other houses.

As well as the fish stacked on the clothes, above the cooking hearth at the back of the hut were trays of more fish being smoked and cured.  They shrivel up so much as they dried that they look most unappetising, but in the absence of ice boxes and fridges in many villages this is often the only way to keep fish edible for more than a day.  The ice that ends up in the village is expensive and is preserved for use in selling valuable fresh fish to distant urban markets; where opinions about what food should look like are more sensitive than in rural Zambia.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Out on to the lagoon

The market was still going full pelt when we realised if we did not get going soon we would miss our appointment with the headman and his fishers at the little village across the lagoon, so reluctantly we weaved our way back to the Fisheries mooring site and piled in to a small aluminium flat bottomed boat.

A couple of the fisheries staff donned lifejackets but I saw the lake was near still, so just soaked in the scene of an almost dead flat landscape pricked apart by occasional stands of trees.  We picked our way backwards into the open water, then the captain opened up the throttle.  It was good to feel the wind against you at this late morning hour.  We navigated straight west across the lake, passing a few pirogues heading to and from the melee at the landing site.  For many minutes we crossed open water, but then I started to spot little clumps of grass poking above the lake surface.  Despite us being so far inland, the waves generated on the lagoon became choppy and the fisheries officers were happy they had their lifejackets on.  The grassy “outcrops” became much more frequent and higher and I noticed that I could see a layer of grass just a couple of feet below the surface of the water – indeed a couple of times I could hear grass scrape the boat’s bottom.  We spotted plenty of birdlife out on the open water and resting on little grassy islands in the lagoon – in some cases the islands were wholly nests.

 I was close to the front and saw a wall of long grasses poking up above the water – we were heading straight for them.  I could see no way through but as we approached a significant channel opened up- wide and clear and aiming away from the lagoon towards a distant clump of trees.  As we entered this channel,  I noticed there were carpets of white water lilies in amongst the grass, like a fantastically large ornamental pond stretching as far as the eye could see.  In a few places they clogged up our channel and we had to cut our way through hoping the outboard motor did not snag in the roots.

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.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Getting to grips with the fishery

We snaked our way in between all the activity; Ian and I immediately observed with some interest and possible suspicion because of our skin colour, but there was no hostility to our own inquisitiveness.  As we made our way to the lakeshore we saw the limnal side of the operations.  Several boats were heading from all possible directions towards this one spot – some we could easily see from a distance were piled high with more of these fish boxes.  On the hard were about twenty large canoes and many other boats.  Men were heavy lifting the cargoes ashore; women would take over and be haggling with the fishermen; these were the middle men who were wholesaling the produce.  Then eventually the hauliers got involved and the shipments were placed on the back of their trucks and after a long wait, the huge old rusting lorries would roar into life and start their precarious trip up the single track road to Monze and their markets.

Other commodities were being traded here as well as the fish and the home items; large fuel containers came in from the lake empty and returned full; bags of ice, and people  – some off the bus with all their belongings were carefully transferred over to canoes for the final part of their journeys; and similarly transferred in the other direction.  This was like a major junction on a railway network – the point through which all activity occurred; and we happened to stumble on it for one of only two days a week when it occurred.

Ian was interested to see inside the crates and boxes but once packed their owners were loathe to break them open.  But there were also buckets, bags, and canoes full of fish.  I saw the first examples of an American Crayfish that was causing havoc throughout the fishery.  These large freshwater lobsters had been cultivated in fish farms nearby but, inevitably, had escaped into the river system.  As bottom feeders and scavengers, they found ample pickings in the swamp, became highly adaptable to their new environments and their numbers have skyrocketed.   The local people were at a loss as to how to quell the numbers of this alien species.  They complained to us that the sharp pincers were ripping open their nets and cages and releasing the fish catch as well as damaging their equipment.  Ian had a solution.  He said pop them in boiling water and serve them up with garlic and butter.  The locals had never thought them edible.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Back at the landing site

Undeterred, the following day we had another meeting scheduled not far from Lochinvar.  We headed back down the same route, swiftly collected the local fisheries officers and went on to the same wooded island.  The guys were there, but so were about 100 other people.  The hard gravelly area next to the lake that had been so deserted on the Sunday was now thronging with activity.  As we approached from the road side, we saw many women in their multicoloured wraps dealing with bags tightly packed and sealed.  Four trucks were fully loaded, and there was also a small minibus waiting at the site.  While we were there more trucks arrived.  They came filled with items such as washing up bowls, clothes, utensils, gear for fishing.  These were offloaded and transported to a wide array of boats, small dugout canoes, larger pirogues and other craft to be sold and carried off to the villages in the middle of the swamp inaccessible by road.  In turn those boats had carried a wide array of fish, some already packed up in the huge bags we had seen the women haggling over, others still in open bags and some just grouped together and held with wire or string.

The fish bags came in two sorts, one was filled to the brim with sundried fish, but tightly packed to prevent flies getting in and some of the smell getting out!  The others were crates that were even more substantial.  Ice had been carried down from the towns on the trucks and fresh fish were packed in to the ice crates.  They were often surrounded by insulating cardboard and pressed between wooden grills lashed together by ropes.  It gave the impression more of cotton bales than fish, but the quantities were immense.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Heading to the Golden Pillow

Lusaka’s traffic had been a bugbear most of the week as we went from meetings in the centre of the city; along the optimistically called Cairo Rd, the departments in the leafy eastern suburbs of the city and Chilanga.  But we had a good run down the wide main road that leads to Harare, Victoria Falls and the rest of Southern Africa.  We drove up through Chilanga.  It is a curious place, dominated by the huge white chimney of a cement works, several quarries and roads for large trucks ferrying raw materials around.  Once past these works the village itself is in amongst a wooded hilltop; on the left the Fisheries department, and on the right a zoo.  Every day as we drove past we had strained our necks to see if the lions were out in their enclosure; today nothing was stirring.

Beyond Chilanga the scenery changed as we gently descended into the Kafue River basin proper for the first time. The town of Kafue itself is largely industrial dominated as it is by a hefty aluminium smelting plant to the west of the residential area.  After the town we curved right and onto a large low bridge where we stopped and took a first look at the Kafue River.

It was soon after the end of the wet season and the river was in full flood; its deep, dark waters reflecting the bubbling clouds above, the long lush green grass waving in the current.  On the north bank a series of small restaurants clung to the water’s edge, indeed a couple were situated on rather ungainly looking party boats.  This was the very bottom of the floodplain – east of here the river floods through the Kafue gorge and then through a series of cataracts down the gorge that splits this part of the northern Zambezi Escarpment.  We turned off the main Harare road and instead went south westwards along one of Zambia’s longest thoroughfares to the southern city of Livingstone and the Victoria Falls. We passed the sugar cane fields of a commercial farm and headed up on to a steadily rising ridge between the escarpment and Kafue Flats.  After another couple of hours we arrived in the town of Monze but before we were deep into the town Alphart turned off into a large gravelly car park and we were at our hotel for the next few nights – the Golden Pillow Lodge.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Kafue

This is where I came in.  One of these swamplands occurs just south west of Lusaka in Zambia.  The Kafue River rises in the industrial Copperbelt in the centre of Zambia – the first thing I ever remember seeing in Africa when I was heading to Zimbabwe on a jumbo jet in 1993.  Its circuitous route takes the Kafue roughly south west and through one of Zambia’s larger national parks of the same name.  The Zambians damned the river at this point to make the Itezhi-Tezhi Dam, but below this point the river passes through a gently inclined wide open plain, before narrowing through a series of gorges to discharge into Lake Kariba and the Zambezi River.

This plain is full of small lakes and channels fringed by extensive reed beds; it contains two more national parks (Lochinvar and Blue Lagoon), several other reservations and a whole load of communities specialized in reaping the rich protein of fish from its waters.  Being so close to Lusaka, much of the fish is shipped off to the city and is potentially lucrative income for people living in the region.

As in many places, it is not all good news.  There is the threat of overfishing of the stock as it is not being monitored and managed; there are invasive species such as crayfish and Nile perch or tilapia that could be nudging out the native species. Two dams; the Itezhi-Tezhi Dam at the top of the swamp and the Kafue Dam deep in the gorge, power a large proportion of Zambia’s electricity needs.  Fundamental to this is a controlled flow of water, and villagers are complaining of the upsetting of the natural cycles of flood and retreat in the swamp that are damaging fish nursery habitats.

So the government wanted a plan for the Kafue Fisheries, taking forward an Act of Parliament , helping to monitor and manage the stocks and activity and any external threats.  Problem was is how you define the Kafue Fisheries Area within which you can do all this monitoring and management and for that you needed a geographer.  Me.