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Zambia's Tonga People Reveal
their Environmental Testimonies

by Singy Hanyona
Lusaka, Zambia

Testimonies and memories of the Tonga speaking people of the Gwembe Valley remain vivid 48 years after the Kariba dam flooded their villages between 1957- 58. "Our gods never helped us again", these are the words used to describe the Tonga people's resettlement and its aftermath.

Panos Institute - Southern Africa has produced a ground-breaking report containing some extracts from 46 interviews which were gathered between the year 2000 and 2002, from the Tonga areas on both sides of the Zambezi river; Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Some 57,000 Tonga people in the Zambezi Valley were forcibly removed to pave way for the construction of the Kariba dam, one of the biggest dams in the world, a project which was funded by the then Federal Power Board, now the World Bank.

As part of the project to give a voice to the marginalized, the Panos Project; called “Oral Testimonies”, was designed to amplify the voices of both men and women, the result of which is a collection of moving testimonies, personal views and experiences.

As contained in the Panos Oral Testimonies report, older people recall the process of resettlement and its effects on their communities, lifestyles and traditions. “Giving up their alluvial and fertile lands on the banks of the river has had major repercussions”, reads the report in part.

One narrator said: “If fields could be carried, we could have carried them with us”. Others speak of the deep sense of loss they felt at leaving behind the shrines and graves of their ancestors. Panos Institute Director of Oral Testimony Shiobhan Warrington, who recently visited Zambia for the Oral Testimony training of journalists, said the poor people such as the Tongas of the Valley want to tell their stories through oral testimony.

“They wish others to understand what they have been through”, said Warrington, who led a team of 10 Zambian journalists from both print and electronic media in the Southern town of Choma. In a series of training programmes, the London-based programme recently worked with Panos Southern Africa in interviewing and tape-recording people who suffer and experience poverty first-hand. The key aim of the six days intensive Panos Project, was to generate “information for development”, by increasing opportunities for people to speak out in their own words on issues which concern them rather than having the views defined or interpreted by others.` The training was also aimed at providing a guide to journalists on how to adapt various research and documentation methods to grass root development work.

The training introduced Oral Training as a development tool that can amplify the voices of those whose economic, social or education position has excluded them from the circles of influence and power. As part of the project, journalists travelled about 100 kilometres to a rural setting, having to camp at Kanchomba Farm Training Institute, where they conducted interviews with the poor people in surrounding communities of Hamusunse and Hagwanama.

Like the Tongas of the Valley, the local people in Kanchomba know too well the impact of poverty on their livelihoods and how they eke their daily lives in a globalized world where only a few have access to basic necessities of life.

For the displaced Tonga families, their experiences can contribute to a greater awareness and understanding of the many different ways the resettled have to change and adapt to new environments.

The Resettlement

For centuries, Gwembe Tonga people lived in relative isolation along the Zambezi river, where escarpments nearly 200 feet high were effective barriers of what were then the Northern and Southern Rhodesia, now Zambia and Zimbabwe. The two countries decided to use the flowing waters of the Zambezi river to create hydroelectric power plant, which would supply electricity to both countries. The resulting Lake Kariba was the largest man-made Lake of its time, covering an area 120 miles long and 30-40 miles wide.

And one of the world’s largest dams, it is 420 ft (128 m) high and 1,900 ft (579 m) long. Altogether, 57,000 Tonga people were resettled as the rising waters flooded their villages in the Zambezi valley. For many, the move marked a dramatic change in their quality of life.

As many narrators are quoted in the Panos report, the resettlement programme ‘underpins the development’ of both countries, ‘yet it is rarely taught in Zambian or Zimbabwean Schools’. “People do not know who sacrificed what and how much in order for the dam to be built”, says the report, while highlighting the fact that for many Tonga people of the Valley, this neglect makes their struggle against poverty and food insecurity today, even more painful.

According to reports, more attention was paid by the authorities to the rescue of wild animals from the Zambezi Valley than to the welfare and development of the resettled people. Even today, one finds in Kariba a Monument to “Operation Noah”, the rescue operation for wildlife, but no Monument to the resettled Tonga. The story of their relocation remains neglected.

Before the resettlements, social ties were strong between the Tongas of the Valley. At some points, the Zambezi river was so narrow that if people saw a crocodile trying to catch someone bathing on the other side, it was possible to shout a warning to that person. Not any more. Many narrators recall how people used to cross the opposite riverbank to visit their relations and carryout religious festivities and traditional ceremonies.

These relationships were disrupted by resettlement and further distorted when the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland broke up in 1963. Several narrators say they lost contact with their relatives on the other side of Lake Kariba. Some Tonga narrators recall the resettlement as a traumatic experience as they were insufficiently compensated. Many express a sense that any disadvantages of resettlement are outweighed by the cost, especially the loss of fertile land. “We did not fight to remain because we saw that it was useless and we were the losers in the fight”, says one Narrator only quoted as Chibbiya. Another violent instance occurred when Tonga people refused to be resettled and government soldiers fired missiles, killing several people.

As one Narrator recalls: “We were refusing to shift and then it became a big fight. What we had were spears only. “We gathered in camps, on one side and the whites on the other side of the riverside. “They had tents and bugles. We used to parade and the flag was flying. When we refused to move, the Governor of Northern Rhodesia was upset and ordered that local people be prepared for war. “At that point, Chisamu village was burnt down by soldiers, including food storage bins. People were loaded onto trucks. We were shifted and resettled in a hurry and confusing way”.

The River People

The Tonga identified strongly with the Zambezi river, calling themselves “Basilwizi”-- the river People. They had rain shrines all over the river system where the carried out ceremonies called “Malende” or “Mpande”. This was to ensure sufficient rain and good harvests. Some narrators, however, describe how the shrines were sub-merged in the waters of the Lake, “because there was no way the shrines and some spirits could be carried with us”. Given all the testimonies, it is perhaps hardly surprising that many Tonga people view life before resettlement with great nostalgia: “Life was very good in the Valley when I was growing up. We had more than enough food”, are the words of Chief Siachilaba of the Gwembe Tonga people. The Chief compares this with his people’s post-resettlement without the natural resources of their fertile riverine gardens, abundant game and fishing areas. Most narrators describe the difficulties they face; poor soils, low and erratic rainfall and wild animals like elephants destroying their crops.

They are greatly troubled and feel authorities are not doing enough. Women describe how they have to walk long distances to the nearest Lusitu river and cannot manage to carry water on their heads twice-a-day from the river. Young generations are in no doubt that only those who are sufficiently educated would be able to secure good employment. That is why they want all their children to become educated.


They are still environmental refugees, who are struggling to survive, under a World Bank “turn-around” initiative called Gwembe Tonga Development Project (GTDP). Now, the World Bank, through the GTDP is “paying back” to the Tonga people. This is after the Bank and the Zambian government realised the dam effects on the people. But still, many mourn the loss of the rich alluvial river soil and battle to produce crops in the higher sandier areas. For the most part, the move was a severe disruption of their way of life and compensation minimal. The GTDP aims to address some of the environmental and social issues which came about following the construction of the Kariba dam. Road Rehabilitation, food handouts, the provision of a clean water supply, electrification, construction of schools, improving agricultural production, provision of technical assistance and health improvement are core issues that the project is grappling with. And in order to avoid some of the mistakes of the past the local communities are being involved in all stages of the project. The project implementation strategy is based on a cost-sharing basis with the beneficiary and other resources while the community is expected to provide manual labour and some raw materials. Funding for the project, costing about US$12,642,000, has been sourced from World Bank and Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA).

Recently, the GTDP, through ZESCO, handed over a number of clinics, equipped with staff and medicines to the Ministry of Health in Nkandanzovu area. Despite the anger and disappointment in these accounts of the Tonga people, they are full of hopes for moving forward and alleviate poverty.

The Tonga want their stories told. They want others to understand what they went through, so that more people appreciate their role in the establishment of the Kariba dam, one of the ambitious development projects of its time.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 25, 2005