Why Rhodesians regarded Ba Tonga as a nuisance to development

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THE Rhodesian authorities regarded the Ba Tonga as a nuisance to their development programmes at the time the Kariba Dam was being constructed, but nevertheless made it their government policy not to suppress modern social development of the Zambezi Valley for the Ba Tonga; the idea was to preserve them and their culture in a primitive state as a tourist attraction.
Perhaps this explains why Binga remains the most attractive place, but with almost half its population wallowing in gruelling poverty.
But over the years these seemingly happy people have been preyed upon by overzealous people and newspapers which portrayed a different picture from the true Ba Tonga.
Yet they are as much Bantu as the Shona and Ndebele, and regardless of their collective allergies, as much in the 21st century as the rest of humanity.
They too had brushes with the marauding Ndebele warriors during the First Chimurenga, but because of their fragmented and decentralised social system, they were hard to conquer, and there were no cattle to loot. The Ba Tonga remained relatively isolated and independent.
Besides that, the Zambezi Escarpment rendered the valley virtually inaccessible.
The thick forests, tsetse-flies, the scotching heat, low or unreliable rainfall, generally poor soils and lack of mineral resources discouraged penetration of the area for commercial exploitation; the outside world was therefore kept safely at bay.
Their struggle began in 1955 when they were removed from the land on which they had lived for many generations by the Zambezi River, on both sides of the river.
When the Kariba Dam was built, their river became a lake.
They were resettled on inferior land away from the river.
Uprooted from their land, they left behind a way of life and a culture that was built around their closeness to the river.
The Zambezi Ba Tonga people lived for many generations by the fast-flowing Zambezi that in 1957 separated what was then Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia (now independent Zambia and Zimbabwe).
The people on both sides of the river were closely related by inter-marriage and friendship.
These Tonga were moved away from the river banks, the river was dammed and it slowly filled the whole valley forming a huge artificial lake, 280 kilometres long, and approximately 25 kilometers wide — Lake Kariba.
The dam, sited at Kariba Gorge, flooded the whole of the Zambezi Valley upstream and compelled the resettlement of the whole population of both north and south banks.
More attention was paid to the animals and rescuing them, than to people in an operation dubbed ‘Operation Noah’.
On both sides of the Zambezi, the Ba Tonga were the losers.
They faced a tiring journey, usually in the back of open trucks, to be resettled far away from the area where they had been born and grown up.
The Zimbabwean River Ba Tonga, resettled in the 1950s, is just one of many African communities that have suffered from being resettled by colonial governments.
The scope and effects of resettlement upon large groups of people, especially in Africa, because of the construction of dams has been of great concern. According to research, Kariba Dam in Zambia and Zimbabwe relocated 57 000 people, Volta Dam in Ghana, 70 000 were relocated; Kainji Dam in Nigeria, 42 000, and the Aswan Dam in Egypt and Sudan relocated 100 000.
Recognising a pattern that has emerged in the construction of most large dams, it should be noted that much attention was given to the technical construction of major dams while the resettlement programmes for the people were initiated without ample consideration and research.
The engineers, geologists and economists concentrated their energies on the power considerations and the construction of the hydro-electric dams.
Concerning the Kariba Dam construction, resettlement became a tension ridden, crash programme to move the people before the river water flooded the people’s homes in the valley.
As a result, the Ba Tonga were moved before the resettlement areas could support them. Scholars maintained that compulsory and fast resettlement forced its victims to undergo extreme psychological, physiological and social-cultural stress, as well as inadequate water supplies.
For the Ba Tonga people on the southern shores of Lake Kariba, the 18 Ba Tonga chiefdoms located in the valley in what was then Southern Rhodesia, only three chiefdoms of Pashu, Dobola and Siabuwa were already located far from the Zambezi River and were not directly affected by the displacement.
While the chiefs and the people were forced to move, they were not permitted to resettle near to where the edge of the lake would be, as this was reserved for National Park estates and for future tourism.
Meanwhile, rocky hills located at the edge of the lake prohibited people from settling there.
Chiefs tried to find places with water sources or rivers, where their people could graze their cattle.
Generally, these areas were 25 to a 100 kilometres away from the edge of the dam water.
In Zambia, open resistance to removal occurred in June 1958.
The colonial Northern Rhodesian government blamed the African National Congress party when one headman and his people in Chipepo refused to move to Lusitu.
There was an attempted arrest and a riot broke out.
Anxiety and hostility grew among the Chipepo people.
When the Governor issued a final order that the people must board the lorries, the men charged the police who opened fire and eight men were killed and 32 others were wounded.
From this point on, the Zambian Tonga were a ‘shocked and frightened people’, fully aware of their fate if they defied the government.
Most of the Zimbabwean River Tonga families were transported in lorries for resettlement in 1957.
Songs were composed about the former colonial government which expressed the people’s disappointment at being removed from the river.
Revealing the damaged soul of the river Tonga, these songs were sung as they were taken by lorries to the areas of resettlement.
They have several chiefdoms which comprise Tonga land, whose administrative centre is Binga.
After the resettlement, many settled on the edge of the escarpment while others moved further ‘inland’ mostly along the banks of the Zambezi’s tributaries.
The Shangwe in Gokwe are offshoots of the Gwembe Ba Tonga and still share many of the Ba Tongas’ practices.
Inspite of the enforced exodus, the Ba Tonga remained virtually untouched right up to independence – they were merely transplanted.
Largely, they were only of interest to a few conscientious missionaries and curious academics.
Colonial masters and regime change architects have also targeted the Ba Tonga in their quest to make them turn against their legitimate Government by offering them food and other aid.
Unlike the bushman and the Basarwa tribes who wander in the Kalahari Desert for hundreds of kilometres in search of water and nutritious tubers, twigs and game meat for survival, the Ba Tonga people of the Zambezi Valley continue to face a serious dilemma of food and water shortages.
They have borne the brunt of successive droughts and endured hunger; they have been incarcerated for poaching and illegal hunting in their territory.
With the onset of colonialism traditional African wildlife and other natural resources management were rapidly replaced by European models that did not acknowledge existing indigenous practices.

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