The waters of thirst

Forty years ago, the Tonga were driven from the Zambezi to make way for a dam. Despite official promises, they have been l;eft high and dry. Paul Vallely reports
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They knew the river god would be angry. He lived

under a rock which stuck out from the swirling

gorge. The rock was called Kariba. Perhaps the white men thought the god would be propitiated by giving that same name to the dam - and the massive lake which built up behind it, the biggest man-made lake in the world in those days. But Niya-min-yami, the god of the waters, was not placated. He wreaked his vengeance by raising the river to an unusually high level and sending a torrent to destroy the white man's bridge. The next year the waters swirled 10ft higher, destroying the construction work.

The trouble with gods is that they stay with the people who belong to them. This was 40 years ago. As the valley flooded, the Tonga river people who worshipped Niya-min- yami were moved by the British colonial powers. The dam, which was to generate power for both sides - Northern and Southern Rhodesia - of the mighty Zambezi river, was run from the colonial heartland of Salisbury in the south. That was why most of the elephant, rhino and lions, moved to accommodate the rising waters, ended up in tourist-friendly game parks south of the river in what, after independence, became Zimbabwe. By contrast, most of the Tonga people, regarded by the colonials as primitives, were shunted off to the less favoured north of the river into what was to become Zambia. There they were taken to areas 40 miles from the river and abandoned with little more than empty promises. The Tonga took their god with them, and his anger turned upon them.

Today, the earth is scorched and dusty in the village of Musulumba, one of the sites on the low plateau to which the Tonga were moved. The wind whips up tiny eddies of sand between the stilts on which stand their homes. Traditionally, the stilted ngazi kept sleeping quarters and granaries out of reach of river flood water, now they lift the Tonga out of range of wild animals and provide shade in which to meet and talk. They are sitting in three groups, waiting for our arrival. By the village entrance, a group of elders squat or sit on stools carved from a single piece of wood; they are men in their seventies and eighties who survived the move from the river 40 years ago. In the shade of the longest building of gnarled timber and thatch sit their wives, even more ancient-looking than their men. Under a baobab tree are gathered the farmers, waiting to talk of crops and irrigation. As to the rest of the village, the women and children are farther off, scattered in the surrounding huts of mud and thatch, the women pounding grain in massive mortars or sorting through scanty collections of vegetables, the children herding cattle or bowling wooden hoops.

Courtesy dictates that we must first meet the elders and listen to their stories of the times before what they call the Kulonga - the same word their translation of the Bible uses for the Exodus. Time has enhanced the pre-flood days into a golden age, especially by comparison with the harshness of today. Their desolation is as much spiritual as material. They speak of the mizimu, their ancestors whose burial grounds were flooded because of the dam, and of their belief that the spirits of the dead are inherited by chosen members of the living. But other spirits have been drowned, which is why, they say, Musulumba is today a drought-prone area.

Life was easier in the old days. When it rained, the Tonga would farm in the upper land, and when the rainy season was over they would plant along the beds of the Zambezi's dried-up tributaries. Then they were told that they had to move. At first they resisted - eight Tonga were killed in the riots that ensued - but they had no real hope of success.

"After ceremonies to honour the gods, we travelled here by foot," says the most venerable of the elders, Kala Siamenda Samedde. "It took three days. They brought parts of our homes on lorries, just the iron sheets for the roof. We got some money in compensation on the size of our houses, but there was nothing for the land, though we exchanged good for bad."

The area's animals fared significantly better. A public appeal was launched to raise money to buy boats to rescue them from the islands which were formed as the waters rose. A high-profile rescue dubbed Operation Noah was begun to trap or sedate rhinos, lions and even the huge concentrations of snakes which gathered on the dry land. Great care was taken, using rods with nooses of string, to catch large numbers of the deadly black mamba and to transport them to the safety of the new Southern Rhodesia game parks by the lakeside.

The Tonga were not so fortunate, and not only because they were not allowed to settle in the parks, to graze their animals or to cut grass there. "At first," says one of the old women, who are not introduced by name, "we were allowed freely to cross the river for trade and for family celebrations. Then the border was closed and our links with the others were destroyed, and we were cut off from the spirits carried by those of our relatives who lived across the Zambezi."

The Tonga sense of identity was dealt a severe blow. So, too, did the quality of their life. "We were promised that our water would move with us," says another of the women elders. "We were promised there would be plenty of water, that our children would be educated, and that there would be free clinics."

The reality today is that 101 families survive from a single standpipe. The water flows only between midnight and 6am. Perhaps the water is reserved for more important people during the day. Perhaps it is a rationing method. The Tonga are not sure. No one has bothered to explain it to them. "The rest of the time," the first woman says, "people are forced to draw tainted water from the stream."

The lack of rainfall concentrates the water contamination. It also routinely produces poor harvests in this part of Lusitu, and this year, when there has been almost no rain at all, the harvest has been extremely meagre. "There is enough in some households to last for three months," says Stannard Harringa, the only one of the young farmers who is allowed to sit with the elders. "When that is exhausted we'll go for bush fruits like sozwe - a wild berry which must be cooked for three days otherwise you will die."

In families who have had no harvest, people have resorted to eating grass - grinding the seeds to make a thin substitute for the nshima porridge Zambians usually make from maize. "Nshima made from grass has a sandy taste because the seeds are very fine and hard and the grinding puts stone into the mixture," says one of the older women. "It causes stomach problems and we still remain weak because it gives no energy."

At the clinic by the Zambezi, the nurse, Alex Chandamukuka Mutale, confirms the reports. "It causes abdominal distension because the cellulose can't be digested. Later it brings more serious complications. But people say it's better than nothing."

The main health problems, though, are TB, and asthma caused by the dust storms which rage across the parched plains throughout the summer. Once the area was thickly forested. But the Tonga have cut down so many trees for fuel and to clear fresh land for agriculture - which quickly becomes exhausted because of lack of fertiliser - that it has become a dust bowl. The air is routinely so thick with a choking red dust that, when the priest from the area's Italian mission station returned to Milan for a health check, the doctors took one look at his chest X-ray and accused him of being a chronically heavy smoker.

Under the baobab tree, the young farmers talk animatedly about possible solutions. "Irrigation is the obvious one," says Stannard Harringa. "There are two options: to allow us to dam the local tributaries or to use water from the lake via a canal. These are not just ideas. We can tell you in detail how they would work."

And so we journey to the river. The most senior elder, Kala Siamenda Samedde, will not come. "Whenever I see the lake I feel bad." he says. "The lake is a beautiful place but it brings no goodness to anyone." However, one of the younger generation, Robson Simweemba, accompanies me and Henry Northover, the official of the Catholic aid agency, Cafod, with whom I am travelling.

It is a tourist paradise. At the river we encounter hippos which blow and puff as they submerge themselves in its grey-green waters and then roar as they emerge on the shore. We travel upstream to the mighty dam and the secluded palm-fringed hotel resorts, which nestle discreetly among the lakeside forests, and from which you may swim if the hotel staff report there are no crocodiles lurking at the time.

Robson stands by the wide blue waters of the massive lake and recalls a song of his people: "Where are the spirits of our grandfathers?/ They float now/ angry and tired,/ lost in the waters of Kariba."

Does he believe this is the cause of the drought which afflicts his people, I ask. For though he is a Tonga, he has been educated in a Western manner and says that he is a Christian; he works for the Zambian Catholic Bishops' Conference, collecting information about the impact upon ordinary people of the cuts being made to health and education services to pay off Zambia's foreign debts.

He does not respond directly. Instead, he tells a story about a local Catholic priest who, having offended a witch doctor, would go to sleep in his bed and awake to find himself outside the house.

Might not that, I suggest, just be sleep-walking? In reply, he simply tells another story of how the priest's enemy sent a lion to knock on his door. How, I ask, does he know a spell was responsible?

He tells another story, of how the watchmen at the Kariba Dam still find that things have been moved by the drowned spirits. "Catholic theology may be true. But so is the power of the ancestors. There are many ways of looking at reality."

He stands and looks into the vast emptiness of the waters. "My people are starving. It makes me very angry. Forty years is a long time - and there has been nothing done for the Tonga people."

There is an ironic postscript to the story. Later that week, I visit the office of a senior civil servant in the Zambian Ministry of Finance. We are there to talk about various strategies on debt, which may enable the country to repay more slowly and without cutting services, which has led to a doubling of the infant mortality in the past five years. But first I mention the Tonga river people, as I have promised them I will.

"Good news," says the civil servant. "We've just signed an agreement for a $165m refurbishment of the Kariba Dam, to be financed by the World Bank, the European Union and others. And we have made it a condition of the refurbishment that provision must be made to aid the displaced people."

It will include a programme to bring tube wells, small-scale irrigation and rural electrification schemes as well as income-generating projects for the Tonga, and work by anthropologists to attend to the cultural aspects and the issue of the drowning of the ancestral burial places. It is the first project we have negotiated on this scale with a social dimension."

No one, of course, has bothered to tell the people of Musulumba, or to consult them on how the scheme might best be implemented. Perhaps if they were to, it would have a greater chance of success. But then, exclusion is something the Tonga people have by now come to expect