How colonial insensitivity, Kariba disrupted BaTonga lifestyle

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By Dr Michelina Andreucci

THE rugged hills and steep-cut hills of the Escarpment isolated the Zambezi from the rest of the world.
Moreover, the Valley was renowned for malaria, trypanosomiasis transmitted by the Tsetse fly, and Rift Valley Fever, which discouraged other indigenous Africans from settling in the valley, for fear of their health and that of their livestock.
But for the BaTonga people, the Zambezi provided a utopian way of life. It was a Valley beset by droughts and floods, which brought periods of hunger in their wake.
Short, heavy downpours and intense heat limited the arable soils; the BaSilwizi had managed to tame the river.
Archaeological evidence show Zimbabwe was inhabited in the Neolithic Age; the earliest inhabitants spoke a Khoisan language. In the 3rd Century AD these ancient inhabitants were displaced by groups coming from Guruuswa in the north, who were the primogenitors of the Shona.
The BaTonga are considered to be the original inhabitants to establish themselves in the Zambezi Valley about AD 300. Their forefathers favoured the riverine areas along the Zambezi and its tributaries. Oral traditions reveal that the BaTonga know no other homeland. All attempts at explaining their origins and migration routes being merely speculative and tentative.
History suggests a thriving trade centre existed circa 600 years ago in the Zambezi Valley. At a site known as Ingombe Ilede archaeologists unearthed evidence that people lived there and traded with the Arabs, Chinese and Indian. Copper crosses measuring 30cm in length, thought to have been the main unit of currency, were found.
Sites dating back to the 18th and 19th Centuries have been found on the Batoka Plateau as well as ancient village sites near Kalomo and Choma. The oldest site was found on Sebanzi Hill, at the edge of the Kafue Flats, in Zambia.
The BaTonga were organised into many lineage-based villages. As in most African societies, the basic unit of BaTonga society was the household. The BaTonga being matrilineal, in inheritance and succession, each household was structured around a married woman and her children, sometimes this would include aunts and grandmothers.
Prior to the damming of the Zambezi River at Kariba Gorge and the subsequent flooding, the valley comprised an area of 230 miles long and 150 miles wide. The Zambezi River bisected the Valley in roughly equal proportions. The ‘River People’ — Bazilwizi, as they refer to themselves, are a matrilineal, peace-loving group living along both sides of the Zambezi River in north-western Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi where they share a common language and culture.
BaTongas’ traditions agree that the BaTonga people of Zambezi, who lived on what previously was Sebungwe District of the Valley Tonga on the southern bank of the Zambezi River, are closely related to the Liya Tonga or BaTonga vaLiya of the Zambian Plateau. Their language and culture, according to historical orature, link them to the Ila-Tonga of Gwembe district on the northern bank of the Zambezi.
Before the arrival of the BSA Company and the subsequent colonial creation of the Gwembe-Sebungwe District boundary along the course of the Zambezi River, the Valley Tonga people never viewed the Zambezi River as a ‘boundary’ between them and their relatives. They would cross on their ‘mikolo’ (dugout canoes) to visit relatives across the river. One BaTonga elder confirmed this close connection saying:
“…we are one with the Zambian Tonga. We crossed to this side of the Zambezi early in the Century (18th) in search of fields to cultivate Chilimo – indigenous grain and crop plantations, because the northern banks had become overpopulated.”
The BaSiliwisi are people whose whole belief and value system was based on the river, it was there not just for fishing, but as their direct link to God – the God of the River. Their rain shrines were all along the river where they carried out their annual ceremonies of Mulende or Mpunde, to ensure sufficient rain and good harvests and protection from evil.
Kariba was not their first upheaval.
During the 19th Century, the Zambezi Valley was subjected to many raids by the Ndebele and Kololo people. The Ndebele considered the Zambezi Valley to be under the sphere of their influence, but they never exercised direct political control over the Valley Tonga. Some say due to the unbearable climatic and geographical conditions, the Ndebele raids ceased after they were defeated by the BSA Company in 1893.
After Mzilikazi’s death in 1868; Lobengula, his son, was appointed heir in 1870. Thereafter Lobengula reined unchallenged from his kraal in Bulawayo, extended his power north to the Zambezi and eastward over the land occupied by the Shona and other tribes.
David and Charles Livingstone pioneered the whiteman’s invasion into the Zambezi Valley circa 1860, on an eastward exploratory journey from Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls) to the mouth of the Zambezi, followed by Thomas Baines (1822-1875), Karl Mauch and others.
Throughout the era of the BSA Company rule the Zambezi River was a politically constructed border, rather than geographical or ecological barrier.
These colonial boundaries were the first rift in the dispersal of the BaTonga people. Over and above the Empires’ carving of Africa and what it did to certain groups of people, there were also river disputes such as the Congo River, which they cut into proportions without consideration to its effect on the original owners, the land and the people who would be forced to relocate.
With the exclusion of the Arab slavers, the Kololo and Ndebele raids, and Livingstone’s encounter with the BaTonga the Valley Tonga led a fairly sheltered existence before their forced colonisation by the BSA Company in 1896. Due to their remoteness, however, the BaTonga were classed as an ‘ethnic minority’. They were considered to be ‘nomadic’ and too remote to send to school, though they strongly resisted the white culture
In a report on his tour of Sebungwe District in 1898, the Native Commissioner Valdermar Gielgud described it as
“…very large and thickly populated along the whole front of the Zambezi… a dry, waterless and barren country… a region without any mineral reserves at all….”
It was territorial avarice that made Rhodes extend his ‘domain’ to incorporate this perceived desolate valley.
The BaTonga’s settlement pattern was determined by the availability of water, which explains why they built their villages along the Zambezi and its tributaries.
Prior to resettlement their agricultural activities were dependent upon the Zambezi River’s flood levels. Flooding was a pre-requisite for dry season cultivation, the size of their winter fields varied in relation to the severity and height of the floods.
This was an adaptation to their natural environment, since the rest of the district was notably dry; dry season crops were planted following the receding floods of the Zambezi at the end of the rainy season.
Throughout the BSA Company’s rule of the Sebungwe District, drought was prevalent in the BaTonga Valley. It has been chronicled that the habitat of the valley had been a famine area since 1900 and the coming of the white man.
The physical conditions prevailing after their resettlement in 1957/58 are harsh and extreme. Today they are forced to dig in hard ground which they are not accustomed to and are erroneously looked upon as a primitive, lazy people, although they are very sophisticated.
The frequent crop failures and famine experienced by the BaTonga compelled them to live off roots, wild fruits and indigenous vegetables. Wild plants served as a cereal substitute during famine periods when crops failed. Goats and to a less extend an indigenous breed of sheep were kept as domestic livestock by the BaTonga, however, these were few in numbers.
The Tonga people were resettled along Lake Kariba after the construction of the Kariba Dam wall; from Chirundu, Kariba Town, Mola and Binga to Victoria Falls.
The Northern Rhodesian government sent a game warden to the scene; his duties were to ‘kill two elephants each week to provide meat for the BaTonga tribesmen evacuated from the lake site’.
Since the economic prospects for the BSA Company were very dim, Sabungwe District came to be viewed as a source of cheap African labour for Southern Rhodesian mines, the building and maintenance of towns and as servants for the white farmers.
The BaTonga people resisted relocation because according to their cultural and meteorological calendar it was their peak and sacred period; hence their resistance to the insensitive call to move. They had not understood the dam would be a Kariva that would cause those floods.
How sacred was that part of the River?
While we are lucky to have this powerful hydro-electrical generation scheme in the form of Kariba Dam, what has been done to compensate this human injustice?
Colonial insensitivity went beyond eviction of the people. It involved the religious and cultural disengagement and disempowerment of a people who still say today: “Our gods never helped us again…”
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian Researcher, Industrial Design Consultant and Specialist Interior Decorator. She is a published author in her field. For Comments E-mail:linamanucci@gmail.com

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