A tale of two swamps – An exclusive service

Eventually the flight to Mansa was called forward and myself and two others were the only passengers to stir.  We were led to a very small plane, about 16 seats and invited to board from the back.  We plopped our hand baggage in a wide open space at the back of the cabin, next to a small picnic basket full of biscuits, crisps and drink cartons.  I went up to the front passenger seat, immediately behind the captain.  He and his first officer sat themselves upfront and proceeded to run through their checklists, then they turned and briefly introduced themselves and gave us a safety talk.  Ndola airport can take jets so our take off was leisurely – there was plenty of room on the runway for a small aircraft like this, and we flew over a few estates, past a copper smelting factory and out into the bush.  Although  a little hazy, the view below was rich with the tapestry of rural African life.  Straight red tracks disappearing off to the horizon, clusters of settlements surrounded by fruit trees, a tapestry of fields leading to bush.  And in Zambia there were a plethora of dambos – shallow valleys that flood in the wet season leaving a green carpet of lush grass for grazing.

It was mid afternoon and the clouds built up over the hot bushland; although it was not bumpy it obscured most of the view for a while.  The cloud gradually cleared and as we followed a long straight tarmacced road and a sinuous river I saw a town picked out in sunlight over to my right. A water tower stood out amongst the tin roofed houses.  We started to descend but overshot the town and turned right over a lush wetland and some more fields.  In the distance now I could see an open space of grassland and a thin strip of tarmac in the centre that marked the runway of Mansa Airport.  Even from the air it was obvious this was a neglected strip – the tarmac had no straight edges; the grass had sprawled across in several places.  I saw the flashing lights of a fire engine just to the right of the airfield; someone was expecting us at least.  Our landing was smooth and the pilots taxied the aircraft to a small cluster of buildings.  My ride had not yet arrived so I watched as the other two passengers were collected and their luggage offloaded onto pickup trucks.  I was ushered into the “Departures Lounge” which in effect was  a small waiting room next to the airport chief’s office.

A tale of two swamps – Getting to a second swamp

Two years later I was back in Zambia with Ian working on a similar project but this time in the north of the country.  He was to write fisheries regulations for the Bangwuelu swamp and I was brought in to look at delimiting the line within which the laws would operate.  Unfortunately there was no need for a socio-economist in this place so Alphart did not join us, but a lot of the liaison was to be conducted by Mainza Kalongo.  He had been the Acting Chief Fisheries Officer for Zambia when Ian and I had worked on Kafue but had now retired from the civil service and was topping up his pension with consultancy.

Bangwuelu is a large lake system in the north of Zambia  crossing three provinces – Eastern, Northern and Luapula, where I was to be based.  While it could have been a day long drive to reach Luapula, there was an option to fly north on a recently launched low cost local airline.  So I arrived on the overnight flight from London at Lusaka’s airport and instead of heading off in a taxi into town I settled down in a cafe overlooking the runway and waited a couple of hours for a flight to Ndola.  In amongst the chaos of a load of building work, I entered the small departure lounge of the domestic terminal.  This little airline, Proflight, was sending prop planes all over the country (and starting to reach out across southern Africa) at quite reasonable prices.  Ndola, one of the largest cities in the Copperbelt region of central Zambia, was a popular destination and my flight was full of travellers, mining engineers and others.  We headed out over the agricultural lands to the north of Lusaka and within an hour we had descended across an industrial landscape of mines, quarries, factories and power plants.  Ndola sprawled around us but like so many southern African cities, was so openly planned when first created that it still seemed spacious and uncluttered.  The plane descended right over the centre of the city and landed at the small airport.  I was shuttled into an even smaller departure lounge than the one at Lusaka, crammed with people, and I waited for my departure to Mansa – I took a look around to see if I could spot who might be joining me on the second flight.  A couple of flights departed and the lounge started to thin out enough for me to find a seat.


Landing at Ndola – is one of these going to be my next plane?

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 – The wrong road and a final detour

Our work done for the day we wanted to head back to Monza as soon as possible.  One of the fisheries officers advised us that if we followed the tarmac road out of Namwala all the way to the main Livingstone to Lusaka road, we would be faster than tackling the graded road we had come along that morning.  Without thinking we trusted his judgement and drove fast and straight along this main route.  We certainly made fast progress but after an hour of driving along this road we realised that we were heading a long way south and still had not reached the main road that would take us back to Monza.  When we finally turned we were at a town called Choma – still almost 100 km from our hotel.  The sky was a glowing red when we reached back to the hotel – second night in a row we were late for dinner.

We packed up from the hotel the next morning ready to head back to Lusaka, but we still had one more meeting with fisherfolk to go.  Just west of the town of Kafue, we headed off the main road past the large aluminium smelting plant.  Although their office was only a few kilometres away in Chilanga, the Fisheries officers had trouble locating the road down to the village we were to meet, and I had visions of another small cluster of buildings like the ferry from the previous day.  I could not have been more wrong.


A different sort of fishery – Ian Cowx photo

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 – Short cruise down the river

When at last the fisherfolk association themselves came this same issue was one of their key concerns.  We met on the enclosed veranda of one of the fisheries buildings and learnt so much about the management of the fisheries.  In general the pressure on fisheries in the upper reaches was low, but these niggles of being taken for granted by the electricity generators, plus feeling remote from the department of Fisheries in Chilanga, were ripe topics of conversation.  As we listened to the conversation, with occasional translation by Alphart, my eyes wandered around the veranda we were on.  Half way up the wire grill covering the windows I spotted the most beautiful praying mantis, a luminous green colour, its heart shaped head alert to any activity from flies caught in the veranda.  Then I jerked back and refocused on the debate.

The meeting was useful, but we had to curtail it as we were already late for another appointment downriver.  We made our way to a covered aluminium boat on the riverbank with some of the fisheries staff and pulled away downstream.  We made rapid progress along the wide Kafue River, and once more I was aware how life and the landscape here was dominated by water.  The land was a distant green line occasionally punctuated with spreading trees.  Much more immediate was the blue ripples of the river, the reeds, the fishing tackle and aquatic species.  We spotted a couple of the fishing villages I had seen on the map – the round huts peeking up above the reeds lining the Kafue’s banks which in turn would occasionally thin to reveal a landing site filled with dugout canoes.

As we came round a large meander I saw the ferry crossing which was to be where we were to hold out next meeting.  The ferry itself was a simple flatbed boat but it had two small engine rooms on either side.  Some donor had provided this mechanical device to improve over an old hand drawn version that had served the community for many years.  Unfortunately the operation could not afford the fuel and the engine had seized up with lack of use.  This meant that any vehicles now had to travel over 70km west to the dam to find the closest crossing.  Sometime old technology works better than new.

We drifted in alongside the ferry to a small landing site.  The boat ran aground still in open water and we had to leap across the last couple of feet to dry land.  In front of us several tracks and paths converged on the ferry but the closest village was on raised ground about half a kilometre to the north of us.  The only buildings on the shore were an open shelter that was to be our meeting room, and a small grass hut that served as a store.  We bought a few peanuts and a drink and waited for our participants to arrive.  As usual it was a slow process and I took the time to sit on a small wooden stool next to the store and soak in the scenery.  It was so peaceful there; we could hear distant voices chattering away in the village.  One of the fisheries officers headed up to the village to find out what was happening.


Waiting for the meeting to start

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 – 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.

A tale of two swamps – At the Chief’s Parliament

Not long afterwards, however we stopped again.  We were due to drop in on another chief for this western part of Kafue Swamps.  We could not miss the turning.  A large metal sign proudly pronounced that we were near His Royal Highness Senior Chief Nalumbamba Banamyumanti.  Not only were there these words but various logos and straplines that showed this was a man who meant business, was organised and took action.  We headed down the side track to a collection of well maintained rondavels.

But he was out.

Indeed for several minutes we thought there was no one there.  In the midday sun, Ian, Alphart and I waited patiently while the fisheries staff wandered around the compound looking for signs of life.  A middle aged woman came out of one of the houses; quite sensibly I think she had been taking a siesta out of the heat and light.

It was explained to us that the Senior Chief had headed up to Lusaka for an emergency meeting the night before, but with the lack of mobile coverage down here had not been able to get a message through to us.  We were led into the throne room of the Chief, which was less like the sitting room we had been in the previous evening, more like a proper office with a huge darkwood desk.  Various ornaments around the room including a huge giraffe gave it some decoration, but it still had the air of a badly maintained school house.  On the walls were flow diagrams, check lists and mottos that reinforced the information we had seen on his sign that this was a well organised man.  Indeed we were given copies of a glossy brochure that stated the Chief’s  strategic development plan for 2010-2015.  The format was impressive – a well structured document, numbered paragraphs, and with preamble, executive summary, action points , abbreviation lists…… the works.  Only when you read the detail did you see that there was a big gap between the noble aspirations of the plan ( to end poverty and increase the infrastructure for his people) and the detail of how it was to be funded and implemented.  It appeared the Chief had attended a course on how to develop a strategic plan, some American business school seminar perhaps, but had not been guided on how to get his ideas into more than a glossy brochure.  But since I had never seen anything like this from any other chief in Africa, I should not be too judgemental; as I say the aspirations were the right ones for people.

We went through another door into a large rondavel which proved to be the Chief’s Parliament.  About thirty large leather bound chairs on two levels circled round the room, dominated by the Chiefs chair behind a high desk; his gavel in place ready to bring the members to order.  Each chair was adorned with the insignia of the chiefdom.

It was all very impressive, which of course was the intention. It was a shame we could not meet the man; we were only around for two more days and already had a busy schedule ahead at both the western and eastern end of the swamp.  As we were getting ready to leave, I noticed some brightly covered grasshoppers on a bush in the Chief’s ornamental garden.  Then some more, then I realised the whole area was being systematically chomped away by a swarm of these animals.  These were no simple grasshopper, this was a red locust, once swarming could cause a huge amount of damage.

So the convoy started off again and we drove for another half hour on the gravel roads, before hitting a tarmacced road that led from the south to Namwala.

A tale of two swamps – Happy to be snapped

For the rivers were already beginning to dry up, just a few weeks after the end of the rainy season.  Even in the few days we had been there I had watched small streams become just rocky trails, and the flow was dropping in some of these larger rivers.

I talked with Ian at length about how he was going to treat this river catch; do these catchments need to be part of the fisheries management area?  He said that politically yes, but then he pointed to the size of the catch and said “but what needs to be managed here”.  The levels of fish in the river clearly could supply these villages easily and still be sustainable.

I’m usually quite careful about taking pictures of strangers, not just in remote villages but anywhere.  I quite like privacy and try to respect it in others, which is why you often see pictures of landscapes or objects in these stories.  I have learnt that capturing people’s stature, their dress, their expressions can animate the still photo so much and tell an enhanced story, so as time has gone by I have increased the number of portraits I have taken.  When up close I always ask if it is OK, and in many parts of the world there is a reluctance, or people ask for money.

Here in Zambia, the women were positively begging to have their photos taken and jostling in front of the camera to pose in a flamboyant or a statuesque manner.  What has changed is that with film cameras, you had to take away the negative to be developed, and unless you were very conscientious and trusted the local postal system, the subject would never get to see the finished project.  Now with big clear digital viewfinders you can immediately show the results to people.  In Zambia, several of the fisherwomen were proud to be taken, and the ones below the bridge would scurry up the rocks or on to the parapets to take a look at the results.  The reactions varied, from shrieks of laughter to a contemplative nod and smile, and occasionally a demand to have a second one taken.  They expected no money and were happy to have seen themselves; it worked out well.

The scene and the bustle were intoxicating and I could have quite happily stayed on the bridge all day, and maybe even tried my hand with one of the baskets; but we had already been delayed by the change of vehicle and still had a long way to go to our afternoon meetings.  So we reluctantly got back in our transport and carried on along the big wide dusty road.