Into the West – Mysterious Mongu and the Mighty Zambezi
I’ve finally made it to Western Province. It’s the last of Zambia’s ten provinces for me to visit, and I really wasn’t sure that the day would ever come when I’d finally get here. You see, Western Province is kind of an enigma. It’s mysterious in that people don’t just end up here. No, you go to Western Province for a reason, not because you just happen to end up there.
It’s completely out of the way otherwise. Western Province lies to the west of the main rail line that divides the country. Basically, anything to the left of the line on a map is underdeveloped and… out of the way.
My first impression of Western Province was the exact same as everyone that has visited before me: this place is sandy! Like a beach, the ground of Western is fine sand, which makes it a pain to walk in. In fact, during the day it was hard for me to take photographs because the sand would reflect the sun’s light so brightly. The photographs shone too brightly.
The second impression I had of Western is that this place is immensely fascinating. The Lozi people (a grouping of smaller ethnic groups) largely make up Western and they’re immensely proud. For a long time they rejected most attempts at investments that weren’t initiated by Lozi people; like multinational grocery stores, businesses owned by Zambians from other provinces, and even adoption of English is a main language of use (I liked this particular aspect – keeping one’s mother tongue is a great way to keep one’s culture and way of life).
The Lozis are ruled by a King (the rest of Zambia’s ethnic groups use chiefs) and each year (except for this year and last year) he holds a ceremony called Kuomboka, which celebrates the Lozi King’s movement from the flood plain to his palace on high ground. This event is celebrated near the end of March / start of April because at this time the Zambezi River will begin to flood – as much as 40 feet in depth – and swell with the rain brought on by the seasonal rains.
Like the Nile River of Northern Africa, the flooding river brings silts that naturally fertilize the soils and create excellent agricultural production in the area. This is definitely worth celebrating.
One day, when my work was through for the afternoon, I went to Mongu Harbor. Fascinating place. The harbor is really just a canal built into part of the city by way of a dredging machine. There, long canoes (mainly made of metal) were pulled ashore and loaded up with supplies: Coca-cola, corn flour, clothes, buckets, and other amenities to be taken up-river. The reason these supplies aren’t simply driven in like the method used throughout the rest of Zambia is that the flooded Zambezi makes the dry season roads completely impassable. Boats and their crews will have to do.
The harbor smelled badly, but was alive with activity. People from up-river were using smaller wooden canoes to bring in reeds for selling and trading, while people from the harbor were packing boats to reach far out communities with goods.
Because of how sandy Western Province is the villagers near to the mighty river are not able to make compressed mud bricks for their homes – like those in the rest of the country do, so those near to the river use reeds to form their huts. The Zambezi’s shores provide these reeds freely and abundantly.
In many ways the Zambezi River seemed to act not only as Western Province’s main lifeline, but also as its bank, its highway, and its chief problem maker.
In some areas, HIV rates exceed 20%. One reason for this (as explained to me by a woman I interviewed for my job) is that local fisherman for a long time were trading freshly caught fish for sex. A woman looking to buy her family’s nightly dinner was told her money was no good and the only way to get those fish was through trading sex. What the Zambezi River was giving by way of food was not coming freely – disease was increasing as well. The woman concluded her explanation of this to me by saying that this practice is not as common anymore, but in some areas it is unfortunately hanging on.
(She said the HIV education group she works in was able to reduce this practice of trading sex for fish through informing the wives of the fishermen about what their husbands were doing. Clever women, eh?)
Western Province is rich in culture and strong in pride. It was worth the trip to visit and the effort to do some exploring. I can honestly say that I’ve been to many of the furthest corners of Zambia and I have never found a place quite like Western Province. Seeing the Zambezi River is beautiful enough, but at least getting a glimpse of all it gives and rewards its nearby inhabitants was immensely interesting. It gives, it takes, and it keeps flowing.
by Jordan Blekking