Five Minutes With Munchkins, A Batonga Basket, Then A Bit Of A Yarn ~ Regular Random


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

Regular Random  Please visit Desley Jane for the challenge rules. and see her own five minute photo-shoot.

32 thoughts on “Five Minutes With Munchkins, A Batonga Basket, Then A Bit Of A Yarn ~ Regular Random

  1. Visually delightful — the squash look fabulous with and in the basket. But more importantly you’ve used that story-tellers magic to take these objects and hang from them a bigger, more abstract, and very important story. I had a sociology lecturer sooo many years ago who did this. He would begin to talk about a single artifact or event and by the end of the class he had us thinking about, and remembering, much bigger issues. Needless to say, I still remember his lectures — and the point of them — vividly. 🙂

      1. That’s a much more creative notion, Su. Thank you. I shall go and fly some flags with my master work. Am having a bit of bother organising the content. Actually, maybe I need some real ones. Flags that is. All the info strung on jolly coloured sheets all round the office. It could work!

      2. That sounds like a plan. An ex-flatmate studied for exams by colour-coding all the material he had to learn and pinning the different coloured sheets of paper to our walls. At the time, I think I could have passed the Organic and Inorganic Chemistry exams he was sitting!

    1. So far it seems unlikely, doesn’t it. Even when we think we’re doing good we cause all manner of chaos from unintended consequences., mostly because we don’t accord those whom we wish to help equal status with ourselves. Or enter into fair negotiations first.

  2. I love the weightiness of your posts in response to challenges (as I may have said before!) The basket is a beauty: however, sending me off to the basket website was an act of cruelty to a woman who is attempting frugality. The combination of basket and squash is an aesthetic triumph which provides some solace in face of yet another example of colonial brutality.

    1. I worry that I’m leading people into a sense of false security with those pleasing images. I had not originally intended to write the Kariba story – but once I was looking at the basket one thing started leading to another, and I realised that I am actually very angry. The British Empire (and others) have created one big resource grabbing pickle that just goes on and on under ever new guises – whether in Africa or the Middle East, or wherever there’s something to loot. Sorry for tempting you with the basket site.

  3. Oh the ham-fisted entitlement of rich white men. I understand your anger. The baskets of the Batonga are beautiful, and your images incorporating the golden squash also beautiful.

      1. Oh I do hope not! I do hope there are enough relatively sane people who will turn things around. I focus on all the grass roots movements and there’s a lot going on that’s encouraging.

      2. I veer between great optimism and great pessimism, especially when one sees what is being done in the developing world with teak plantations and palm oil forests.

  4. A beautiful basket and sad story. How common to find the two items together. It is much the same with Native American art in the US. (On a lighter side, I have to ask. What does grabbing pickle mean??? :))

    1. 🙂 My rather garbled description of the mess the resource-grabbing rich nations have made around other people’s countries 🙂 There are natural resources at the bottom of every conflict it seems.

  5. It’s a beautiful basket and totally adorable squash. Forgive me and my fever-addled brain, but is it “usual” to call squash munchkins? Either way, I love it. Great series and story.

    1. Thank you, Desley Jane. I should have said, shouldn’t I. It’s the name of this particular dinky little variety 🙂 Also good baked whole, I’ve read, but haven’t yet had the heart to try it. They are lining up on the kitchen window sill.

  6. Such a good idea buying their produce on-line!
    It’s a very little help but something is more than nothing….

    We all wonder why this world seems to only be a punishment for many human beings ……
    Love your article and photos , thanks , Tish!

  7. Gotta love The White Race and the things we’ve done to pretty much everyone else. I sometimes want to put a hood over my head so I don’t have to learn about one more horrific thing we’ve done somewhere and how much damage we’ve caused to which people. It’s never-ending. I hope they at least get to use some of the power. At the very least, they are owed that much.

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