Here we have two of my passions-distractions for the price of one: growing stuff and an enduring yen for baskets. I’ll tell you about the latter in a moment. Here it is though – a personal treasure – bought when we were living in Zambia – a basket made by the Batonga people.
The Batonga, these days, live either side Lake Kariba (it forms the border between Southern Zambia and Northern Zimbabwe, but once they lived in the upland valleys along the Zambezi River. This was back in the days when their traditional homeland was not flooded by nearly two hundred miles of Lake Kariba. In the late 1950s the Zambezi was dammed in order to provide hydro-electricity for what were then the British colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
Prior to their expulsion from their homeland, they lived by fishing, hunting, stock rearing and agriculture, and in fact had a subtle farming system which embraced both risk and caution. In other words, they exploited different ecological niches from the valley tops to the river flood plains. In the marginal upland areas they grew cow peas, ground nuts and different strains of millet and sorghum, reliable drought-resistant crops that ensured a living. On the flood plains they took a risk with water-hungry maize. If the river did not flood too badly and wash their crop away, then they would be in for a bumper harvest with surplus to sell. They also made use of the damp clefts of tributary streams in order to grow squashes. Doubtless their varieties produced much bigger specimens than my fist-sized munchkins.
So: they were a resourceful people, but deemed primitive by the colonial administrators because their possessions were few and made mostly from handy natural materials. Yet this paucity of paraphernalia had survival advantages too. When disaster struck – tempest, drought, raiders or epidemic, they could up sticks and start out afresh in a safer spot. They could not, however, escape the will of the colonial administration, or the rising flood waters that came with the building of Kariba Dam. They were moved from their ancestral lands against their will, and somehow, by all accounts, the British administration with little money set aside for the task, overlooked the need to make more than token restitution for the huge physical and spiritual loss of a displaced people. In effect they had become refugees in their own land. Meanwhile, the game department took great pains to rescue the wildlife that had become trapped on islands as the flood water backed up.
Back then, in 1959, the Batonga said the lake (by then the size of Wales) would take its revenge. At the time this seemed unlikely. The dam’s engineers had purposely built it on a bed of black basalt. But some fifty years on, it was discovered that the force of water down the spillways had undermined the dam, creating a huge crater. Repairs were badly needed to avoid collapse and a tsunami in Mozambique.
The BBC reported on this catastrophe-waiting-to-happen in 2014. And at last the repair work appears to be underway, scheduled to start last month at an estimated cost of nearly $300 million – funds courtesy of the EU, World Bank, African Development Bank and the Swedish government, and one key objective being to avoid a humanitarian disaster. In the meantime one can only wonder how the Batonga people have been getting along all these years, and whether their communities actually have access to the electricity supply for which they were uprooted. I’m guessing they may not. But if you want to lend them some support you can buy their baskets on-line HERE
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