Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Namwala: Community torn apart by politics

Bronah Muntemba (right) standing in her burnt-out house. Picture by Eddie Mwanaleza

THE extent of devastation was clearly visible from 300 metres above as the military helicopter swooped over the landscape – burnt-out houses dotted the banks of the Kafue and Namwala rivers.
And as we came to land in a cloud of dust, there was no soul to welcome us, not even children, who would normally get attracted by the huge helicopter. Two scruffy dogs, abandoned by their owners, seemed happy to see us.
We had landed in Chikwato village in Namwala district, a scene of one of the worst political violence in many years.
After some minutes on the ground, a horde of villagers came out of their hiding to meet us, each one of them eager to tell their story about the night their houses and livelihoods went up in flames, torched by suspected United Party for National Development (UPND) supporters.
“This is where the sofas were, and that is where my bed used to be,” Gilbert Mwala told me, as we stood in a burnt-out shell of a mud-and-straw house.
But the spots Mr Mwala was pointing at only had piles of black ash.
About 30 houses were burnt in the attack in Chikwato. The victims managed to escape with whatever possession they could carry from their burning houses. About seven were injured in the violence, one seriously.
According to Mr Mwala, the attack happened on Tuesday around around 18:00 hours.
“They came with spears and axes. I belong to the PF, that is why I ran away,” said Mr Mwala.
The 32-year-old was warned about the impending attack by one of his relatives.
According to Mr Mwala, some people escaped by boat across the river.
There has been sporadic violence, especially in Southern and Western provinces, since the re-election of President Lungu in the August 11 general election, which the UPND is contesting.
Over 200 people in the province have been arrested in connection with the political violence, while about 150 victims are now sheltered at Namwala Secondary School for protection.
Edwin Peleti, from the Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit (DMMU) under the Vice-President’s office is coordinating the humanitarian efforts in the district.
He said the department will repatriate and help to resettle those who want to be relocated.
But how did Namwala become a flashpoint for political violence, resulting into a humanitarian crisis?
Was the violence triggered by tribalism? Was there really an ethnic cleansing as reported by some media? Perhaps not.
Many of the victims talked to said the attack was more political than tribal.
“We have lived here at peace with the Ila people for many years,” said Mr Mwala.
About nine years ago during my first visit to Namwala, I was amazed at how diverse the population in the district was; and how all the tribes lived side by side in harmony.
Namwala, which is the land of the Ilas, has a wide mix of tribes.
Here, you will find the Lozis, Luchazis, Mbundas, Tumbukas, Luvales and the Ushi.
Perhaps even more interesting, among the different ethnic groupings that have settled here, are the Yao, or waYao, who came all the way from the southern tip of Lake Malawi.
The fishing tribes, such as the Lozis, Ushi and the Yao were drawn to Namwala by the fish which used to be plentiful there.
They established fishing villages along the banks of the Kafue and Namwala rivers.
Some of the settlements date to pre-independence period and one such settlement is a fishing village called Kakuzu, about 11 kilometres north of Namwala town, which was established by the Ushi people of Luapula Province. The settlement is believed to have been started in 1958 by a Mr Mwaba.
Taking advantage of the fact that the Ilas generally despised fishing, considering it as a lowly trade, the new settlers exploited the waters for fish.
The Ilas themselves kept huge herds of cattle on the vast plains and cared less about the fish. Today, Namwala is still well-known for its large herds, although the fish stocks have dwindled due to overfishing.
Over the years, a lot of inter-marriages have taken place among the tribes here.
One interesting young couple I met was Alfred Musonko, who is from Luapula Province, and his wife, Bronah Muntemba, from the Ila tribe. The couple got married in 2008 and has three children.
The two also belong to opposite ends of the political divide – Bronah supports the UPND, while her husband is a staunch PF supporter.
“My husband supports the PF, but I support UPND,” said Bronah, who speaks fluent Bemba she learnt from her husband. Her husband is also fluent in Ila.
Like many young people in the area, Mr Musonko was born here in 1984. His mother settled in Namwala where she was engaged in fish mongering.
Many of the victims I met are now second- or even -third-generation settlers in the district.
Bronah desires life to be back to normal here.
“People should return so that we can continue living and working together the way it was before,” said Bronah as she struggled to calm her irritable two-year-old child called Idah.
But some are now too scared to stay after the attack.
“I just want to go back to Senanga,” said Mr Mwala.

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