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 – Introduction to Bangweulu

Eventually a white 4 wheel drive turned up and a large middle aged man got out.  He beamed at me through his beard and shook my hand vigorously.  This was John Steel, a veteran Brit abroad, who was liaising with my project as the chief technical advisor.  We weren’t to stay in Mansa that night but at a hotel on the shores of Lake Bangweulu, some 75 kilometres to the east.  Before we drove out there, I was first driven to the outskirts of Mansa town and introduced to the project office staff.  My colleague from Hull, Ian, was already in the field, and John’s wife, Chris, had joined him to explore the villages down there.  So it was just John and I who sped along the straight tarmac road late in the afternoon.  The sun was beginning to drop as we reached Samfya, the small district centre situated on a hill above the lake.  We came to the end of the tarmac and dropped down to the lakeshore and the small hotel.  I was registered and was walked to my room by one of the porters.  We passed by several chalet rooms and the door was open on one and I spied Ian working away at a table.  He was wearing a jumper which surprised me but after initial greetings he told me the wind on the lake had been rough the last couple of nights and he needed it to keep the chill out.  I unpacked quickly in my plain but serviceable room, and joined Ian, Chris and John in a characterful bar near the reception.  We sat and drank and ate fish and discussed the findings of Ian so far and the plan for the next couple of days.


Morning at Lake Bangweulu

The lake was obviously the main feature of our work – this wide open tract of water is one of the less discovered great lakes of eastern Africa.  Although quite shallow it is broad – from our hotel we could just see a thin line of land on the horizon, and this was only a long split that nearly divides the lake – beyond is another stretch of water about half as broad.  Feeding into this lake are a myriad of rivers and dambos, each with their own areas of wetland and smaller lakes and pools, and at the far end a vast swamp where more rivers mingle with the outflow of the lake itself.  The marsh gradually tapers as it meets higher ground and then squeezes into a narrow valley as the Luapula River heads over a set of waterfalls and starts its long trek as a tributary of the Congo River and the Atlantic some 4000km away.

This series of watery features provides a  massive array of fishing options, whether it be from small fish ponds on dambos, seasonal river collection or nets in the swamps or open water all year round.  A hundred or more villages rely on these resources for the majority of their livelihoods and protein. Our job over the next couple of days was to explore a few of these villages, meet with the fisherfolk and elders and for me to get a feel for all the different types of landscapes and land rights that might influence my map of where the fisheries area should go.

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.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Where is the boat?

We were met with a scene from the Marie Celeste.  The tents were there and we saw the guys’ personal belongings strewn around; we saw fisheries and boat gear everywhere; upturned pirogues and a small metal boat in the swollen waters of the lagoon below us.  And on almost every surface were fish; some big but the majority juveniles.  They were being sundried on mats, across canvas tents, even on the bottoms  of upturned boats.  Ian took a good look round to get a feel for the different species; nothing really surprised him except the sizes – there were so few larger fish, and some looked as if they might have been caught with below-regulation mesh size nets.

With all the fish and old wooden boats; two things were missing, the modern aluminium boat and the captain to drive it.  We waited round for about twenty minutes but with no mobile masts or radio sets, we had no way of getting in contact with them.  We deduced that our delays at the hotel first thing and the lengthy meeting at the park compound had meant the captain had decided to go off without us, or else there was some emergency that had taken them away.  There was nothing much else to be done.  I took a wander out to the edge of the lagoon and watched some ducks waddling to the water’s edge.  I say edge, but like many of the lakes here, the water flowed up over the vegetation so it was difficult to say exactly where the border between land and lake occurred.  I watched a flock of storks fly over the lagoon and peered off into the glassy lake just in case a speedboat was heading towards us.  It wasn’t.

We returned a little down to the national park centre compound; and to make use of the time we had I the day,  Ian asked if he had any data on stock and catch, a so called Frame Survey.  We were driven round the compound to a row of offices and were given a tour.  Considering the remote location with only generators for sustainable electricity, there was a lot going on here; large ledgers containing sample fish sizes – length and width – just as I remembered from my days at the Fisheries Department in the British Virgin Islands.  There were a couple of laptops from which Ian was able to glean lots of data – none of it analyzed to any extent but carefully collected, and we saw some laboratory equipment where testing of fish was going on , and several specimen species and posters showed at least a reasonable level of knowledge of the local fish stocks was being cleared.  At least we got some useful information even if we did not meet the villagers that day.


Plenty of birds – but no sign of a boat

It seemed like one of our precious days in the field was going to miss a major element – the community meeting with the villagers on the river.  We wandered a little way along the lakeshore and found a hard gravelly area with one or two boats moored up – the clearing of the weeds showed that this was a fish landing site – where catches from the flats were brought by boat to be transhipped to lorries that carried catch to market in Lusaka or further afield.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Lochinvar

So with the delays Ian was already thinking we were well behind schedule – but there was much worse to come.  The road to the west comes off at Monze very near to the  hotel.  One of those wide gravelly untarred roads that ploughs remorselessly through the countryside.  Like other vehicles, ours threw up a cloud of dust and chippings as we flew down long straight stretches, cutting through farms and splitting up villages.  Sporadically, we had to negotiate a single track concrete bridge, timing our speed right to avoid any traffic coming in the opposite direction.

After about half an hour, we had to look out for a rather obscure turning – barely signposted to Lochinvar- that was a narrow track passing through several more villages.  The last of these was substantial, the local chief’s seat, and had several concrete buildings including a store as well as the more ubiquitous clay brick and mud houses.  At the end of the village the road turned through a gate marking the border of Lochinvar Park, but there was no gatehouse or ranger at the entrance.  Instead we drove down a straight track through a much more forested landscape.  Here and there we dropped down to a ford where the swollen water was still flooding off the land, despite the wet seasons having drawn to a halt and the weather having turned hot and sunny for more than the past couple of weeks.

Eventually we caught a glimpse of the park centre.  A rather glorious title for what was a bunch of run down chalets, ranger houses and some offices.  We drove past the tourist accommodation where a small crowd of young travellers were staying; being Sunday they seemed to be taking the day easy and hanging their washing on a line that extended out to one of the larger ranger houses.  This house was occupied by a member of the Fisheries Department – an extension officer who reaches out to the villagers in the swamps.  A long meeting ensued with Ian finding out about this extension officer’s perceptions of the state of the fishery.  The meeting again took longer than expected and we were due down by a lagoon to pick up our boat to the village.  The convoy getting longer – the local fisheries guy and a park warden came in a third vehicle stationed at some nearby houses and offices, we headed from the national park compound north towards the river itself.

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.