A Tale of Two Swamps – in the DC’s

Namwala is the district centre for the region, but like several old colonial towns in amongst the chiefdoms, has little historical legacy; it was constructed as an administrative convenience – a place where the functions of the district can be collected together.  A small settlement has grown up around this to service the residents, but as we drove through its main street, I could see it was a relatively quiet town.


Entering Namwala on the tarred road

We first paid a visit on the District Commissioner.  As opposed to the chief, this was the Government’s chief representative in the region, and his office lay in a small compound where many of the district’s administration occurred.  It was a one storey building built around an open courtyard; almost like cloisters, but the hubbub inside was hardly monasterial.   In here were offices for health, social welfare, education, business licenses and all manner of other financial and support offices for the whole district, and people had walked, biked, or caught lifts on lorries or buses to do their business.  The queues outside each office were long and immobile and as we gathered outside the District Commissioner’s office itself, I was aware of a hundred sets of faces looking at us; old and young, mainly women but some men of all ages too.  Women held babies that cried or slept; older children were standing still, bored stiff at having to wait so long.  Occasionally an official would emerge from an office, clutching manila files, and saunter slowly along the open corridor from one door to another.

We were allowed to enter the DC’s office within a few moments (when we came out I could hardly discern a difference in the makeup of the other queues).  We were greeted warmly by the DC himself and invited to sit around a couple of those ubiquitous heavy sofas set about a low coffee table that every high ranking official in Africa seems to have.  Ian explained the project and got some valuable information from the DC.  More than the villagers from the previous day, the DC was concerned about the control of the river from the big electrical statutory body, ZESCO.  We chatted for a while, but my eye was turned to a large map on the DC’s wall.  Up to now I had been struggling to find a map of exactly where the modern day chiefdoms were.  All I had was the old maps from the British Overseas Surveys 1:50 000 maps, that I knew were outdated.  This guy had a modern GIS generated map on his wall showing all the names of the chiefdoms.  I talked with him for a while about it and he said it had been created by a commercial company in Livingstone for the House of Chiefs.  I would write to the agency to order but there was little hope of getting a positive reply, so as a precaution I took as many photos of the map as I could, trying not to blur the edges, keep the view perpendicular and not use the flash to avoid reflection, and hope I could stitch the photos back together later.  It is a practice I have learnt the hard way over the years.  On my first trip I had found some wonderful weather data at an agricultural establishment in the Zambezi Valley in northern Zimbabwe.  I had talked to the man for ages about it and handed over my card with address in UK and asked him to send me copies of the data.  How naive; I now realise there was no incentive for the man to do this, and no money to photocopy and post the results.  And as for him copying by hand?  Well; I was very young.  With digital photography it has become so easy to capture data that others have spent time putting together and as long as you attribute its source correctly, data’s value are so enhanced by being spread further.  In the end with the Chiefdoms map I spent several hours carefully piecing together the photographs and making a rough estimate of their extents.

As far as you can go -Joining the walking club

As was my way anywhere I go, on my first visit,  I made sure I bought a map from Legal and Lands of the island, and began to explore the roads of the green heartland, visit all the sites I could on my own and, where I thought it was safe, would walk off on tracks and footpaths on my own.  But walking off the main trails was a hazardous business.  The ground was covered in loose stones, the slopes were steep.  The paths are not marked well.  Added to this I saw from my maps that the roads only cover a little over a third of the island, many of the crown wastelands have no vehicle access at all.  So where there were trails there you were quite literally heading off into the wilderness – and until you walked back by the same route, you were unlikely to come across another person, let alone a vehicle, on your travels.  Weighing all the factors up, and I am not usually concerned about heading off for long treks on my own, I decided it was not a good idea to walk solo in St Helena.

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My trusty St Helena Map

Fortunately there was a solution.   On my first trip I was invited on a walk organised by Rebecca just down the road from where she lived.  It was a marvellous walk which I shall describe later.  On that walk I got to talk one on one with almost the whole group and enjoyed in particular the company of two people, Val and Pat Joshua.  I mentioned that I enjoyed walking and wanted to explore further.  They invited me to join their walking group.  They were both key people in the St Helena Nature Conservation Group which amongst other things, maintain a series of post-box walks.  Similar to the letterbox walks in Ascension Island, the trails are plotted and at the end you can find a book to record your arrival, and a unique rubber stamp and ink to record your achievement in your own booklet.  As part of this service, the group organised regular weekend walks so they can inspect the post boxes and refresh the materials in each one.  Over the three visits I did several of these and managed to get to some hard to reach corners.

Some were easy treks; I went up High Hill once with the group.  Let’s not get confused here with High Peak.  You might expect that on a small island people would be able to name things uniquely.   But no, the early naming of features on islands is left to sailors and often they use simple descriptive terms like High, Long, White, Red.   I got tired when GIS officer in BVI explaining about the six Long Bays and several White Bays.  However, BVI did have a couple of really nice placenames like Dead Chest and Throw Way Wife Bay.  While some features on St Helena, predominantly the houses and estates, had names which harked back to other locations, primarily English, or to families long established on the island,  simple features, those that were probably named first, were given simple names.  I’ve already described my visit to High Peak to watch the flax being cut, but High Hill was several miles to the west.