Kariba: Once a Tonga playground

tonga_museumThere is a place at the very northern end of Zimbabwe where it is so hot, dry and arid, that one's brain takes on an echo of one's surroundings - "Binga by the Sea". (Pictured: The Museum of Tonga History in Binga.)


It does however have one saving grace and that is the vast Lake Kariba, which stretches for 100 km across Zimbabwe’s entire northern border. Before the dam was built in 1960, the Zambezi River was the playground of the Tonga people. They knew no borders; they crossed the river to farm, to marry, to fish. Fishing was their livelihood; the Tonga people were well off and well fed in spite of the hostile terrain and climate. Malaria was a fearsome problem, but the Tonga people were able to bring about their own sort of immunity. The people were self-sufficient and life was good.

However, when the Lake was built, their lives changed drastically. They were herded away from the lands that their forefathers knew, into the hinterland where there was no water, no fishing, no way at all of sustenance.

Folklore was much maligned as the tribal heritage was decimated, fishing was the only trade they knew, and stories about these strange marginalised people grew and festered.

One lovely Tonga legend is that of the Zambezi River God – Nyaminyami, a strange dragon-like creature with a snake’s body and the head of a fish. According to Tonga legend, the Nyaminyami lives in the Zambezi River and controls the life in and on the Zambezi.

Over the years there have been several sightings of the Nyaminyami by local people but there has never been an official, recorded sighting of the creature.

Another completely untrue myth was that Tonga Elders were permitted to smoke mbanje quite legally, but according to the law, no one is allowed to smoke mbanje in Zimbabwe.

Tonga women smoke tobacco in a nifty little clay pipe, which has water in the bottom to eliminate much of the nicotine. The men have a different pipe, which does not filter the nicotine.

Legend was that Tonga people had only two toes, and that they had tails! But thankfully the Tonga people have pulled themselves out of the mythical mire and have established a museum of Tonga history in Binga Town.

Its a fascinating tour through the lives of the River Folk, their daily habits, their culture and the clever management of their own private little ecosystem, before “progress” came to the Zambezi Valley.

The curator of the museum is a lively, highly-educated gentleman. He gently but expertly, reverently almost, talks one through the experiences of a fascinating people whose lives changed forever when the Kariba Dam wall was built.

Diagnoses were lowest at harvest time and in the following three months, when food was plentiful, but increased significantly when food was scarce. The rising TB incidence did not reflect patterns of migration as all data collected only reflected patients already living in the catchment area of the hospital.

A total of 18,746 antenatal HIV tests were conducted at the mission hospitals during the period of the study and 3,636 were positive. HIV prevalence at antenatal clinics fell significantly during the period of the study from 23 per cent in 2001 to 11 per cent at the end of 2008. This decline was seen even though HIV testing rates remained high and stable at above 90 per cent.

This decline in HIV seroprevalence during the peak economic crisis year when public health programmes had essentially collapsed in Zimbabwe suggests that economic decline may be decreasing HIV seroprevalence in pregnant women.

Investigators suggested that this may be due a decrease in sexual mixing and thus lower rates of infection, or possibly increased death rates or decreased fertility in HIV-positive women due to lack of nutrition and starvation. – Silverman Metal. An epidemic of tuberculosis in association with HIV, malnutrition and hyperinflation in Zimbabwe. 5th IAS Conference on HIV Treatment, Pathogenesis and Prevention, Cape Town, abstract TuPdB105, 2009.

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