A tale of two swamps -Exploring the lacustrine village

The meeting complete we were invited to inspect the fishery.  We walked in amongst the labyrinth of hard clay footpaths meandering between various houses, stores, shops.  On almost every flat surface, fish were laid out to dry in the sun.  They could be spread on specially made platforms; wooden structures overlaid with a mesh of dried reeds or old fishing nets, or they could be a cloth on the ground.  They were between the houses, in the houses, above the houses and even out on poles above the water around the village.  Sun drying was the preferred method here but we also saw instances of smoking, houses filled with woodsmoke and the fish curing on trays above the fire.  Ian poured over this cornucopia of protein, determining the range of species being caught, and occasionally tutting at the tiny size of the individuals caught.

While we were a curiosity to many of the villagers, most continued on with their daily work.  A flotilla of boats of different shapes and sizes were travelling between all the dry islands, cutting through the reeds or working their way along open channels.  Little dugout canoes were used for many of the shorter trips, and people proudly showed these off to us, middle aged men, teenagers posing for our photos then coming to take a look at them in the viewfinder.  One little boatman was intent on ignoring me as he navigated the hollowed out log that was at least ten times in length as he was high; I doubt he was more than four years old.

The village was clearly specialised to function in the middle of this water.  The island did not have significant flood defences around its edge – the footpaths just headed out into the channels where the houses stopped, but you could see that the village was subtly designed and maintained with this hard sun baked clay rising above the water level.  Although the village was crowded, it was clear they lived together harmoniously – you have to when space is a premium.  The cattle that roamed the swampy grasslands were adapted to live amphibiously and what a lush fodder they had to live off.  But the village also had to deal with hazards.  The water level did rise and fall; while in the past this had been natural flooding each season as the Kafue brings rainwater from the north of Zambia, nowadays it was controlled by the Itezhi -Tezhi Dam, and they had suffered some quick rises when the spigots were released to boost electricity production.  Despite being surrounded by water, access to fresh water was limited.  The swamp was used for everything and the quality of the water was tainted by sewage, animal waste, probably a whole host of diseases and parasites and a little fuel oil.  Set apart from the rest of the village a small island had been built up, and people took their boats there with empty yellow, blue and white canisters to fill up from a pump sourcing water from a much deeper, clean, aquifer below the swamp itself.

A Tale of Two Swamps – The appeal of a swamp

The most intriguing environment in Africa to me is the swamp.  In this enormous continent there is such a variety of landscapes, but as I have mentioned elsewhere those landscapes are huge and much is monotonous – miles and miles of Bloody Africa or MMBA.  Whether it be the long expanses of desert across the Sahara, the Sahelian, East African or Southern African Savannahs, the thick humid forests that stretch from Guinea in the west down to Congo, Angola and Uganda; it can all look a bit samey.

There are, though,  oases of alternative landscapes in Africa – the volcanic areas with its deep rifts and conical mountains, the highland plateaus with their cooler air and temperate vegetation.  Of course the Finbos in the southern tip is remarkable, the Atlas mountains and Mediterranean coast varied.  My favourite without a doubt, where Africa livens up,  is when there is clean fresh water all year round in a semi-arid zone.  The Great Lakes are superb inland seas, the great rivers like the Zambezi and the Nile bring life to parched ground.

Less well known and hidden away are the swamp lands.  The most famous of these is the Okavango Delta, where a great river from the highlands of Angola spreads over a near flat plain before disappearing on a geological fault as the desert finally wins back the water to the sky.  But there are hundreds of smaller swamplands dotted all over sub Saharan Africa.  The word swamp conjures up a lot of negative imagery; African Queen with Humphrey Bogart hauling his boat through reeds and becoming covered in leeches.  Deep muddy holes, crocodiles and hippos at every turn and of course infestation by biting, malarial mosquitoes.

Apart from Humphrey Bogart and the African Queen, yes these elements do exist here, but these watery landscapes are also hugely biodiverse and productive.  The legions of invertebrates swimming, crawling and flying around the swamp are bountiful food sources for animals higher up the food chain, as well as the ever present vegetation providing limitless grazing for the herbivores.  So the bird life here is as incredible as anywhere in the world, a range of antelope specialise in plodding through sodden grasslands, others wallow in the water.  And in its turn, the rivers, lakes and flooded reed beds provide the perfect habitat for an immense amount  of fish.

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There is something about a swamp