28 May 2014
For the past eight days, we have followed the course of the Zambezi River watershed, going where its current takes us.
When Zach, Samwell, and I planned this post-Mid-Terms road trip through Zambia’s Northwestern and Western provinces, we decided from the start that we would just see where the road took us. Little did we know that the river that would ultimately determine the course of our journey, just as it has determined the culture and lives of the Lunda, Luvale, and Lozi people who inhabit its shores.
Time and again we were struck by how different life seemed to be in this slice of far-western Zambia, where thick old-growth forests remain the rule; soils are sandy and poor; and people are more reliant on hunting, fishing, gathering, and traditional crafts than on farming. On the surface, at least, the Lunda, Luvale, and Lozi seemed to be more directly connected to their environment – in a way that we Bemba PCVs both admired and envied.
Here we saw Zambians for whom swimming and kayaking are second-nature; who bathe daily in the cold, clear waters of the Zambezi; and whose lives are dictated by the rise and fall of flood waters on a river whose upper reaches remain wild and un-dammed. We did our best to follow suit, jumping in at every opportunity. (In spite of warnings about crocodiles and hippos, this is what everyone else did, too.)
Every time I dangled my feet in the river, I felt renewed.
We started out in the village of Mukeya, in Mwinilunga District, where Zambia bumps up against Angola and the Congo. Mukeya is the home of our fellow PCV Katie, and she took us down to the Lunga River, a tributary of the Zambezi that is the lifeblood of her community. In the 1970s, the village built a dam that funnels fish into a great big basket. They’ve maintained it ever since, and every morning, anyone who wants fresh fish knows to come and help with the harvest, which is shared among all participants.
The dam also acts as an ad-hoc bridge, best navigated barefoot, as we quickly discovered. We were lucky to cross empty-handed. The women who came across from a neighboring village toted babies on their backs and shoes and other supplies in their hands.
It was on the Lunga that we saw the first of many dugout canoes, carved from single, large trees that even here are becoming less common as the population grows. The man who paddled this one across tacked deftly and seemingly without thinking across the swift current.
From Mukeya we took our first of many unexpected detours – to the town of Chavuma, based on a recommendation from some Zambians we met along the way. Here we saw the Zambezi itself for the first time. We camped above rapids that two months ago were completely covered by water. In another two months’ time, we were told, they will be transformed into a waterfall by falling water levels.
For two nights we watched from the rocks as the setting sun turned churning waters to shades of blue, green, and gold. Each time, we were joined by several young Zambian men, all bathing naked among the rocks. I never found the women’s bathing area, so I, the lone woman at this spot, had to be careful where I looked!
One day we walked the 11 kilometers one-way from Chavuma to the Angolan border (which PCVs are not allowed to cross) and were delighted to discover that the dirt road followed the Zambezi for some of its length. On the way back, I couldn’t help jumping in the river fully clothed, partly to stave off the hot sun, but mainly for the sheer joy of it.
On our journey from Chavuma to Lukulu, we took our first Zambian ferry across the Kabompo River, which marks the boundary between forested Northwestern Province and sandy Western Province, land of seasonal floodplains and the independent Lozi people.
The Lozi have a unique history among Zambians, made famous by the yearly Kuomboka, in which their paramount chief, or litunga, moves from his summer to his winter home as the floodwaters rise around Easter each year. (Kuomboka didn’t happen this year, since one of the chief’s wives had died, nixing any celebrations.) There have even been some attempts by Lozi leaders to secede from Zambia.
It wasn’t until we reached Mongu – the Western provincial capital and home of the litunga – that we realized the extent to which the Zambezi floodplain dictates the lives of its inhabitants, both human and animal. All creatures – humans, hippos, crocs, birds – move and shift with the waters.
We were surprised to find that Mongu is actually 25 kilometers from the Zambezi itself, though it is connected to the river in rainy season by a vast expanse of flooded wetlands and – in more recent times – a flooded road that acts as a canal for both speedboats and traditional canoes.
About 10 years ago, the federal government attempted to build a year-round road from Mongu to the isolated town of Kalabo, on the Zambezi’s western bank, but the constantly shifting floodplain waters have so far thwarted these efforts, leaving behind collapsed bridges and sections of road that lead nowhere.
At the height of rainy season, around March, the floodwaters reach right up to the town, which is perched on a plateau. The shantytowns that crowd the water’s edge are partially protected by sandbags, but still the waters lap right up against the walls of their mud-and-grass homes.
To get a better sense of riverside life – both on the edge of Mongu and in the tiny settlements scattered between Mongo and Kalabo – Zach, Samwell, and I took one of the daily speedboats that act as Kalabo’s main lifeline to the rest of the country.
Here we saw a culture utterly different from any we’ve so far seen in Zambia. No mud-brick houses here. Instead homes are made either from mud and sticks, or, more commonly, entirely from grass. We were amused, however, to find many of these grass homes topped by tin roofs. Some even boasted satellite dishes.
Despite a decent number of speedboats based in Mongu and Kalabo, most Zambezi Floodplain residents rely on dugout canoes similar to those we first saw on the Lunga River. Again and again, we marveled at the skill (and core strength!) of these men and women as they balanced, upright, to paddle from place to place.
As one might imagine, fishing is a major source of food and income in this area. We stopped frequently to allow local fishermen to approach and sell bream or tigerfish to the wealthier speedboat passengers. As with any sales venture in Zambia, the haggling over price was entertaining, often engaging all passengers in teasing, joking, and false bravado.
Another major source of income on the floodplain is the making of reed mats, which here are made from much sturdier-looking sticks than the bamboo mats of our homes in Bemba land. Transport of these mats was to me the most impressive feat I’d yet seen along the entire Zambezi watershed. We watched, awe-struck, as men poled tiny, unstable dugouts laden with hundreds and hundreds of reed mats.
Of course, it’s easy to romanticize riverside life in an isolated part of an isolated country. Especially for a freshwater-loving PCV who lives a long way from big rivers and misses their constant churn, flow, and renewal.
But I couldn’t help envying the people whose lives are so closely linked to the ebb and flow of the Zambezi watershed.