Friday, 7 November 2014

The lost tribes of Namwala



Jack Zimba

This article was published on Sunday, September 13, 2009

MICHAEL Mufaya stands at the edge of the Namwala River on a windy Sunday morning, his hands clasped and mutters some words. He is praying for a good catch of fish.
“I always ask the Creator to help us catch the fish before we throw our nets,” he says with a slight smile.
Mufaya is a little bespectacled graying man who speaks English with the masterly he has acquired during his career as a journalist. He retired many years ago. He is also widely travelled, including a stint at the famed Scotland Yard in 1971.
But sight is now failing the old scribe, so much so that he has to be half-led down to the river by his colleague.
Mufaya, a Lozi, is just one of the many people that have settled in the southern district from other parts of the country to ply their trade on these waters.
Here in Namwala, you will find the Lozis, Luchazis, Mbundas, Tumbukas, Luvales and the Ushi.
Perhaps even more interesting among the different ethic groups that have settled here are the Yao, or waYao, who came all the way from the southern end of Lake Malawi.
Talk of a cosmopolitan society, Namwala is. Its cultural diversity is only rivaled and suppassed by its biodiversity; with its rich bird life. The graceful fish eagle patrols the skies above the Kafue and Namwala rivers, including its many lagoons.
Most of the tribes that have settled here were lured by the Kafue River and its bountiful supply of fish. The Yao, for instance, are chiefly fishers back in Malawi, little wonder, they chose to settle in Namwala. So did the Ushi.
For generations, these tribes have plied the waters in their dugout canoes for fish, but that supply is now under threat and dwindling at a frightening rate.
And the Fishers Association of the Kafue Flats was too eager to show me what had become of their river – how their harvests had fallen to worrying levels.
With the blessings of Mufaya’s prayer – he is the secretary of the association – our fishing party, led by Solomon Mukendwa, the association's tresurer, casts a 300-metre dragnet on the Namwala River.
On the river bank, two Luchazi men wait their turn to cast their net. Meanwhile, they roast two fish by laying them directly on a heap of smouldering semi-dry ox poop. After a few minutes, the snack is ready and I’m offered one.
I hesitate, but after convincing myself that cow dung is nothing but grass that comes out at the other end of the cow, I eat up the small fish. Dung-grilled fish.
Firewood is hardly available on these vast grass plains and so the fishermen make do with the only readily available ‘coals’ to prepare their meals.
After casting our net, we start pulling it to shore. It's a laborious task, but when the net lands, disappointment registers on our faces. Just a few small fishes - yellow belly breams, tilapia, Wamunyima and one crayfish.
The men pick all the fish and leave the eight-legged crayfish to die a slow death on the muddy river bank like an accursed thing. Why?
The crayfish was recently discovered in the Kafue River and is said to be multiplying at a fast rate. Nobody knows where it came from.
But it is its strange appearance that is making the locals here uncomfortable. It resembles a lobster.
Some, like Mukendwa even fear touching it.
But who knows, maybe one day this strange creature will get the attention of hoteliers and big-time chefs. After-all, it is a delicacy in other parts of the world.
Wamunyima, on the other hand, is bream-like fish which was introduced into the Kafue by accident. Originally, the fish was brought in from Germany by a man called Wamunyima and kept in a pond in Mazabuka where he worked. But during the last rainy season, the pond got flooded and sent the fish into the nearby Kafue River.
The second throw brings to the bank about 25 big yellow bellies fighting to jump back into the river. There is jubilation among the fishermen.
While the other tribes are lord of the rivers, the Ilas rule the plains, where their large herds of cattle can be seen grazing lazily. Every where you look on these treeless plains your eye will fall on a herd. This is what has defined Ila wealth for generations.
You can take an Ila man to the river, but you can't force an Ila man to fish.
Although the Ila have lived along the Kafue and Namwala rivers from time immemorial, very few are venturing out on these waters to fish.
"It is just not in us to fish," says Borniface Kaande, an Ila man teaching in the district.
"The Ilas do not fish as such. They just buy the fish from the people who do the actual fishing and act as middlemen, taking the fish to town for sale. The art of fishing itself is not traditionally and naturally ours,” says Kaande.
But the cattle disease that decimated many herds the past couple of years has led a few Ilas to turn to the river for survival.
"The Ilas had little to do with the river. All they used the river for was to feed their animals, and even going near the river sometimes was taboo. But maybe because of the coming of diseases like corridor which swept their animals, slowly, some of those who were hardly hit started going down  to the river. However, this was not well received by the natives. If they found an Ila fishing, they would have a kama small meeting to find out why," says Daniel Chilundika, the fisheries technician in the district.
And according to Dr Ernest Ndalama, the veterinary officer for the district, Namwala has over 120,000 head of cattle.
And with the cattle diseases now under control, things are looking up for the ranchers.
But big buyers like Zambeef and Starbeef, which have recently set up business in the district have affected the small-time beef traders like Royd Mwakamona, a quiet middle-aged Ila man with a herd of 300.
The two abattoirs slaughter about 400 animals per week, according to Dr Ndalama.
Mwakamona, who lost about half of his herd two years ago, has now opened a butchery to stay afloat between the two big buyers.

About 11 kilometres north of Namwala town is a fishing village for the Ushi.
The settlement is believed to have been established in 1958 by a Mr Mwaba.
“I settled here in 1963, before even Kaunda became president,” says the chairman of the village, Jackson Chintelelwe.
The Ilas call the village Kakuzu, but Chintelelwe calls it ‘Kakusu’. “We don't have ‘Z’ in my language," he says with a slight smile.
Chintelelwe is an old patriarch who still has one foot stuck in the colonial era, and still draws comparison between the government of Roy Lewinsky and the current ‘governors’. He also speaks highly of King Edward III. "Things were better then," he says.
Chintelelwe, who looks much strong for his age - he is 86 - is incensed by the fisheries authorities' decision to increase the fishing licence from K7,500 to K100,000.
"They are forcing us into slavery. We are just slaves," he complains bitterly.
But despite decades of fishing, and the tonnes and tonnes of fish that these rivers have provided, there is nothing at Kakuzu to show for it. Just nomadic structures of mud and grass.
Now, the department is trying to help the fishermen with management skills and how to invest their earnings.
"The fishers, I don't know what good term I can use... But the tricky thing is that when you're so definite that today you can spend money, tomorrow you get some more, you don't think of investing. The fisherman is so definite that even if he loses his money today, tomorrow he will have some more. So for him to think of investing doesn't arise. So that is one area we are fighting hard to change,” says Chilundika.
He adds: “If it wasn't for that, the fishers were supposed to be the ones commanding the economy of this district.”
And the few bars in the town act as a barometer for a good season.
“If you see that there are less people in the bars, just know that the fishers out there have a problem with their catch, because to them when they catch fish, it's either they buy chilimba, or go to drink. Tomorrow he doesn't have money, he will sell the chilimba, catch fish and buy another chilimba, just like that,” says Chilundika.
But reaching out to all the fishermen along the Kafue is an impossible task for the fisheries department.
There are over 80 fishing camps in Namwala district occupied by a mixture of tribes, with over 500 kilometres of fishing grounds. But there is also a mushrooming of illegal camps.
Kakuzu East was initially an Ushi-only camp, but now through intermarriage, other tribes, including Ilas, can be found.
“Here we just speak bemba,” says the elderly patriarch who hails from Kaputa in Luapula Province.
Most of the young men and women in this settlement were born here, and although they speak their mother tongue fluently, they have not known any other home but Namwala.
But there are many challenges for settlements like this one. There is no easy access to healthcare and education. The nearest school here can only be accessed by canoe across the crocodile-infested Namwala and Kafue rivers. So the children just stay home.
West of Namwala, across the Kafue, lies another fishing village, Kakuzu West. The Tumbukas have lived here for decades.
Last year, many fishing families along the river were hit by floods when excessive rains caused the Kafue to burst its banks, grabbing as much as three kilometres of land along its course. Hundreds had to be evacuated by the government and other relief agencies to higher ground. But many others stayed, refusing to give up their source of livelihood. There are still signs of last season's devastating floods - washed-away bridges still lie unattended to.
But where has all the fish gone?
Yes, where have all the fish gone?
Some fishermen blame the situation on the high levels of water in these rivers caused by the Itezhi-tezhi Dam 65 kilometres upriver. But others, like Chintelelwe, are less technical about the problem.
“There are just too many fishermen now, that is why the fish can’t even breed,” he says.
Chilundika agrees with the old man.
“There has been tremendous increase in the fishing activities. Previously we used to have very few fishermen, but now it's like there is an influx,” he says. “All those who were retrenched here and elsewhere have resorted to fishing so the weight on the fish stocks has increased tremendously.”
But his biggest worry is the lack of resources to properly manage the Kafue Flats in his department.
“This increase [of fishermen] is not matching with the government resources, because we are supposed to be monitoring the fishing activities, but we can only monitor around here because we don’t have the resources,” he says.
As we course along the Namwala River, we come across what Old Chintelelwe was talking about; several dragnets laid in the river.
We also pass two men in dugout canoes using an illegal method called kutumbula, where they set a net and then herd the fish into it by poking the water with a long stick. Mukendwa and his colleagues look on helplessly.
“I think Chintelelwe had a point,” Mufaya says reluctantly. There are just too many nets on this river.”
But without detailed expert analysis, it is hard to make authoritative conclusion on the fish stocks in these waters. Chilundika's office needs resources to carry out extensive monitoring of the fish stocks.
“I wish we had the means to do a statistics survey so that it can tell us where we are. And definitely recommendations would come that we close this fisheries for some time,” he says.
Fishing in the Kafue has obvious risks and is not for the faint-hearted. There are bloodthirsty crocodiles that lurk beneath these waters. But nothing compares to the danger posed by the hippos.
This year alone, six fishermen and a wildlife officer have been killed by the grumpy mammal and the fisheries association is seeking a way families of such victims could be compensated by the wildlife authority.
Alexander Liambango is chairman of the 300-strong fishers' association. He is a tough-talking man just a year shy of his eightieth birthday. Liambango worked in the railways in then Southern Rhodesia from 1948. But as a trade unionist, he got into trouble with the authorities. They deported him in 1963.
He continued working for the Zambian railways until 1979 when he retired and settled in Namwala.
“The reason I came here is, while I was working, I was making more money as a fisherman. I had people who were working for me here,” he says.
The old trade unionist is now fighting for equal opportunities for fishermen just like the other farmers in the district.
And he has a number of requests to the government. First on his list is workshops for the fishermen so that they can be equipped with information on new fishing methods, setting up of fish ponds and how to preserve the fish. He also wants the fishermen to be considered in developmental programmes and to be given land to cultivate.
“We would really want to cultivate, as you can see these soils are very fertile. But we can't plant any crops here because of the cattle. And when we try to complain to our friends, the Ilas, they tell us that these plains belong to the cattle,” he says.
According to the law, 30 metres of land from the river bank should be used by the fisher.
But the department is careful in dealing with the two groupings and is reluctant to enforce such laws for fear of causing conflict.
“That one is a bit tricky to introduce,” says Chilundika. “The only way is to find good common ground between the two.”
When there is any tribal talk in Namwala, it is in hushed tones, but sometimes it does become loud. The Ilas, for instance, refer to other tribes as balumbu or foreigners. But the “lumbus” detest the term.
“There are no lumbus here. Kaunda said 'One Zambia, One Nation',” says Mukendwa, sounding a bit emotional. “I don't like the word myself. It is very insulting. I'm not a foreigner.”
But behind their backs, the other tribes accuse the Ilas of laziness. “They just keep their cattle,” they say. I wonder if the Ilas wouldn't say the same about the fishing tribes.
But despite their differences, they have existed harmoniously side by side for generations.
“Ilas are very welcoming people and we are very, very accommodating,” says Kaande.
And it is not only in fishing that other tribes have taken advantage.
There are others who came here as small-time grocery traders, but have now made it big, building beautiful lodges, shops and owning fleets of trucks.
“There is a lot of money here,” the conductor of our bus tells me. “If you can come here with a capital of K6 million [K6,000] and work hard, you can make it.”
And everyone here seems to have something to sell. The bus going to Namwala is laden to the brim with goods, that it looks more like a cargo truck than a passenger bus. One just wonders how the crew manages to negotiate their way passed the police checkpoint at Kafue.
In the afternoon, we make a third throw in our fishing expedition, about 800 metres further upriver, but we cast the net so wide that we run out of rope to drag it back to the riverbank. We abort our attempts and call it a day and peddle back to land to share our catch. After five hours of fishing with a 300-metre net-line, our catch is unimpressive - just about a bucketful.
We share the fish among the seven of us, each of us getting about three kilogrammes. In the past, according to Mufaya, spending five hours on these waters would produce up to 20 buckets of fish.
So, is this a disappointing catch for you? I ask Mufaya.
“What do we do?” he asks, shrugging his shoulders.
As we leave the river, I wonder just how much fish remains in these waters. Will there still be fish for the generations to come?
By this time, September, this town should have been teeming with fishmongers, selling cheap fish to customers who come from as far as Lusaka. Nothing like that is happening now.
Soon, these waters will be closed for fishing, leaving many fishers no more satisfied than when it just opened.
“Since I came to Namwala, I think this is the worst year,” says Mufaya.
“There used to be fish in Namwala,” he says with a deep sense of nolstalgia. “But I don't think there will be fish left for our grandchildren.”
At dusk, I dash back to the river - about a kilometre from my lodge - and escort the tired sun to its resting place beyond the western horizon. Its powerful glow changing the entire skyline to a magnificent reddish-pupple as it penetrates zillions upon zillions of dust particles. Below it, the Namwala River settles to a tranquil sleep.
And I watch as a Kingfisher scans the surface of the waters for its last catch. Unlike the Ushis, Tumbukas, Luvales, Mbundas, Yaos, Lozis and the Luchazis, there will always be something in these waters to satisfy the small demand of the little bird.

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