Bangweulu – where water meets the sky



Zambia 1993
Bangweulu Swamps, northern Zambia. In the local Bemba language, ’Bangweulu’ means ’Where water meets the sky’. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



In 1867, during his search for the source of the Nile, Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone traversed a vast plateau south of Lake Tanganyika – an area which today is a part of northern Zambia. He arrived at a huge lake, at the far end of which vast swamps were stretching to the horizon. In the local Bemba language, the lake and the marshland was called Bangweulu, meaning ’Where water meets the sky’.

Several years later, in 1873, Livingstone visited the same region, south of the swamps. At this time, his health was in a very poor condition, and in the village of Chitambo he fell sick and died. His intestines were buried under a tree, after which his body was transported to the coast, and from there brought by ship to England. From the road between Serenje and Samfya, c. 10 kilometres north of the turn-off to Kasanka National Park, a sign indicates the way to Chitambo. A memorial has been erected near the tree, where Livingstone’s intestines were buried. It can be visited for a small fee, payable to the local Chief Chitambo.



Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
In the village of Chitambo, a memorial has been erected near the tree, where Livingstone’s intestines were buried. Obviously, a visit by Westerners to this memorial is not an everyday event. My companion Uffe Gjøl Sørensen and I were soon followed by a crowd of very friendly village children. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Water and termite mounds
Lake Bangweulu and the Bangweulu Swamps are situated in a large depression named Great Bangweulu Basin, in the centre of the huge North Zambian Plateau. Altogether, the lake and the swamps cover an area of c. 9,800 square kilometres. The depression is catchment area for no less than 17 rivers, which rise in the surrounding hills, covering an area of c. 190,000 square kilometres. However, only one river drains this huge area, the Luapula River, which is a tributary to the huge Congo River.

The climate in this area is tropical, with three seasons. The rainy season, amainsa, is between November and April, with an annual precipitation of c. 1,200 millimetres, followed by a cold, dry season, umupepo, between May and August. In July, the day temperature is usually around 15oC, and nights can be very cold, occasionally near the freezing point. The hot, dry season, ulusuba, is in September-October, with up to 35oC.

The water level of the Bangweulu Swamps is very low, in most places below two or three metres. The rivers from the surrounding hills bring a huge mount of eroded material into the swamps, and where it is deposited, the river channels often change their course. Along the banks are dense growths of tall water plants, especially papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) and reed (Phragmites australis). Other areas have a lower vegetation, comprising e.g. club-rush, arrowhead (Sagittaria), and composites. On their way across the marshlands, the river channels form countless shallow lakes, their surface often covered by a carpet of floating plants, such as blue waterlily (Nymphaea nouchali ssp. caerulea), with reddish or bluish flowers, Indian water-snowflake (Nymphoides indica), of the bog-bean family, with white flowers, and Ottelia ulvifolia, of the frogbit family, with yellow flowers.

Most of the few larger islands in the swamps consist of sand, deposited by the river channels. Other islands, called chulu, are established around termite mounds. Formerly, this region was drier, with thousands of termite mounds – today a common sight in the grasslands, bordering the marshes, which are only submerged a few months a year. Livingstone referred to the Bangweulu Swamps as ’a world of water and termite mounds’.

As termites concentrate and transform organic material around their mounds, the immediate surroundings are more fertile than the land around them. Therefore, many plant species, which require a higher content of nutrients, often grow on or around the mounds. During the rainy season, much material is deposited around the mounds, and, over time, trees grow up around them, forming small woods, called mushitu. Trees growing in these woods include Syzygium cordatum, sausage tree (Kigelia africana), and various fig species (Ficus). On almost all islands in the swamps, these mushitu woods have been felled, replaced by exotic trees like eucalyptus, which are utilized as timber and firewood.

Even though c. 90% of the precipitation evaporates in the strong sunshine, the remaining 10% is enough to make the water level rise about one metre during the rainy season. As the Great Bangweulu Basin is so flat, the water line may move as much as 45 kilometres inland, when the water level is at its highest. This area, which is submerged part of the year, is mainly covered in grasses. These grasslands rise almost imperceptibly away from the swamps, merging into miombo woodland – a very open forest type, dominated by the genera Julbernardia and Brachystegia.



Zambia 1993
Along river channels in the Bangweulu Swamps is a dense vegetation of high plants, mostly papyrus (Cyperus papyrus, right), and reed (Phragmites australis), interspersed with lower vegetation of e.g. club-rush, arrowhead (Sagittaria), and various composites. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
The surface of the shallow lakes of the swamps is often covered by carpets of floating plants, e.g. blue waterlily (Nymphaea nouchali ssp. caerulea). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Zambia 1993
Termite mounds are a prominent feature in the grasslands surrounding the swamps, which are flooded a few months every year, during the rainy season. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Plant eaters – big and small
Naturally, the lush vegetation of the swamps attracts numerous plant eaters, the largest of which is the elephant (Loxodonta africana). In former times, elephants would frequent the swamps in fairly large numbers, but in later years they have become scarce. Almost as large is the hippo (Hippopotamus amphibius), the Latin name of which is from the Greek hippos = horse, potamos = river, amfi = both sides, and bios = life, thus ‘the river horse, which lives on both sides’, i.e. in water as well as on land. These enormous animals, up to 3.5 metres long and weighing up to 3 tonnes, spend most of their time partly submerged, or basking on the river banks. Their skin excretes a reddish fluid – which some, erroneously, believe is blood – which protects the skin against being burned by the sun. At night, hippos go ashore to graze.

The Zambezi sitatunga (Tragelaphus selousi) is an antelope, whose very long hooves can be widely splayed – an adaptation to run in wet or swampy areas without sinking in. The male is slate-coloured, while the female is a beautiful reddish-brown, and both sexes have pale vertical stripes on their body. Only the male has horns, which are rather short and slightly spiralled. The sitatunga is an excellent swimmer, and when in danger it may dive, lying submerged with only its nostrils above the surface.

The black lechwe (Kobus smithemani) is confined to the Bangweulu Basin. The long, gracefully arched horns of the male are ribbed, whereas the female has no horns. Following the rainy season, when the water recedes from the flooded areas around the swamps, fresh grass will sprout. At this time, large numbers of lechwe will frequent these areas to graze. In former times, there were hndreds of thousands of these magnificent antelope, but their numbers have shrunk drastically due to uncontrolled hunting, and today there may be as few as 30,000 individuals.

Three other species of antelope live in these grasslands. The yellowish-brown, long-necked oribi (Ourebia hastata) lives singly or in family groups. The southern reedbuck (Redunca arundinum) has black markings on its front legs, and its rather short, arched horns have a whitish base. This species is found in the transition zone between the grasslands and the swamps proper. The size of their territory varies according to the seasons, i.e. when the water level rises during the rainy season, and recedes during the dry season. The larger tsessebe (Damaliscus lunatus), which is dark brown with a darker face and greyish thighs, often keeps a lookout from the top of termite mounds. At times, stray leopards (Panthera pardus) and hunting dogs (Lycaon pictus) are a threat to the antelopes. Today, their chief predator, the lion (Panthera leo), has been exterminated in the Bangweulu Swamps. The massive buffalo (Syncerus caffer) occasionally visits the marshland, mostly the surrounding grassland, where huge herds may be observed.

Most of the plant-eating birds in the swamps are members of the duck family. Larger or smaller flocks of white-faced whistling-ducks (Dendrocygna viduata), fulvous whistling-ducks (D. bicolor), comb ducks (Sarkidiornis melanotos), spur-winged geese (Plectropterus gambensis), and pygmy geese (Nettapus auritus) forage on water plants in lakes and river channels.

Lesser plant-eaters like insects, snails, fish, and turtles are rarely observed, but due to their enormous numbers, they transform a much larger biomass.



Zambia 1993
Male Zambezi sitatunga (Tragelaphus selousi). The long hooves of this antelope can be widely splayed, allowing the animal to run in swampy terrain without sinking in. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
The black lechwe (Kobus smithemani) is endemic to the Bangweulu Basin. Only adult males are black, while females and immature males are brown. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Zambia 1993
The yellowish-brown oribi (Ourebia hastata) lives in grasslands around the swamps. This is a male, which has rather short, straight, almost vertical horns, while the female has no horns. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Zambia 1993 
Most plant-eating birds of the swamps are ducks or geese. This is a flock of white-faced whistling-ducks (Dendrocygna viduata), identified by their white cheek patch. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Billions of gnats
In November, with the onset of the rains, insects pullulate. On certain days, billions of gnats hatch simultaneously, rising like smoke from the surface of Lake Bangweulu. Their hatching coincides with the south-bound migration of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica), and tens of thousands of swallows gather to fiest on this abundance of food. A few days later, they are gone.

The abundant insect life gives nourishment to other animals like prawns, fish, frogs, and smaller birds. No less than 67 species of fishes have been encountered, many of these, however, declining due to overfishing. Higher in the food chain are e.g. turtles, snakes, Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus), pink-backed pelican (Pelecanus rufescens), various herons and storks, shoebill (Balaeniceps rex), wattled crane (Grus carunculatus), and two otter species, African clawless otter (Aonyx capensis) and spot-necked otter (Lutra maculicollis).

The Nile crocodile is fairly common in the marshes. Most of them eat mainly fish and antelope, but large crocodiles, five or six metres long, often become much feared maneaters. The victims are mainly bathing children, or women washing clothes in the lake or along the river channels. Another reptile is the Nile monitor (Varanus niloticus), which grows to 1.5 metres long. The major part of its food is fish and frogs, but it also takes bird eggs and young.

The remarkable shoebill, which looks like a cross between a stork and a pelican, is only found in East African swamps, from the Sudan in the north to Zambia in the south. Its preferred habitat is papyrus swamps, in which it nests. The name of this bird stems from its bill, which is large and boat-shaped, with a hook at the tip of the bill – indeed resembling an oldfashioned wooden shoe. The Arabic name of the bird is Abu Markub (’Father of the Shoe’). It eats mainly fish, but is also able to crush the carapace of turtles with its powerful bill.

The large wattled crane is found in Ethiopia, and from Tanzania southwards to South Africa. Usually, the female lays only one egg, and it will not breed at all after a rainy season with scanty rainfall. For these reasons, its reproduction rate is very slow, which makes it very sensitive to habitat destruction, such as draining of marshes and construction of river dams. This magnificent bird is declining in almost its entire distribution area, and fewer than 10,000 birds may remain. In the Bangweulu Swamps, it is widely distributed, but in low numbers.



Tanzania 1993
The Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) is fairly common in the Bangweulu Swamps. This one has caught an antelope and is now guarding it against other crocodiles. When the meat has rottened and become tender, the crocodile is able to tear it from the bones. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Zambia 1993
The wattled crane (Grus carunculatus) is widely distributed in the Bangweulu Swamps, but in low numbers. This pair was photographed at the Luapula River. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



An abundance of birds
The inundation of the surrounding grasslands during the rainy season causes an abundance of fish fry, snails, prawns, insects, and other small creatures to hatch in the shallow water. Huge flocks of wintering waders from the Northern Hemisphere feed here, such as ruff and reeve (Philomachus pugnax), greenshank (Tringa nebularia), marsh sandpiper (T. stagnatilis), wood sandpiper (T. glareola), and collared pratincole (Glareola pratincola), competing with local birds for food. Resident birds include African spoonbill (Platalea alba), sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus), grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum), goliath heron (Ardea goliath), slaty egret (Egretta vinaceigula), and the peculiar black heron (E. ardesiaca), which will raise its wings over its head like an umbrella, catching the fish, which gather in the cooler shade beneath the bird.

Various raptors, such as Montagu’s harrier (Circus pygargus), pallid harrier (C. macrourus), and African marsh harrier (C. ranivorus) patrol the plains in search of weakened animals, whereas pied crows (Corvus albus) and yellow-billed kites (Milvus parasitus) are mostly seen around human habitation, where they feed on garbage, or occasionally steal a fish from drying-racks.

Birds like African reed warbler (Acrocephalus baeticatus), swamp flycatcher (Muscicapa aquatica), marsh tchagra (Bocagia minuta), and coppery-tailed coucal (Centropus cupreicaudus) often feed among tall swamp plants, whereas blue-tailed bee-eaters (Merops persicus) and olive bee-eaters (M. superciliosus) swoop out from their perch to snap dragonflies or bees.



Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
The coppery-tailed coucal (Centropus cupreicaudus) lives in tall swamp vegetation. This one is sitting in a papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus). Coucals belong to the non-parasitical cuckoos, which rear their young themselves. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Early people of the swamps
Presumably, the Bangweulu Swamps have been inhabited for thousands of years. The aboriginals were perhaps from the rainforest area in central Africa, or they may have been San (by the Boer called ‘Bushmen’), who originally inhabited the entire southern Africa. Several hundred years ago, large bands of Bantu people started emigrating east and south from their home in Nigeria and the Congo River Basin. The word bantu is from ba (’several’) and ntu (’human’), i.e. ‘people’. Slowly, the Bantu spread east and south, over time colonizing the entire southern half of Africa, and the aboriginal peoples were expelled to more remote areas.

One Bantu tribe, the Unga, arrived at the Bangweulu Swamps in the 1700s. In the marshland, they encountered a hunter-and-gatherer people, whom they called Ba-twa (’the wild people’). These Ba-twa were living in temporary shelters, their food comprising e.g. rhizomes of water-lilies (masanga), papyrus roots (luko) and a number of other wild plants, besides fish, birds, and antelope. The Unga settled on islands in these vast swamps, where fish and game were abundant. Over time, they mingled with the Ba-twa, and the language and culture of these aboriginals have disappeared. Today, all people in the swamps call themselves Unga, and they all speak the same Bemba language.


Unga society
Today, the Unga live on larger islands in the marshes. Most houses are made of clay, which is applied to a frame of branches, and the roof is straw. Some houses are constructed of sun-dried bricks, with a corrugated iron roof. Generally, the houses are quite small, 25 to 30 square metres, yet in each of them live up to seven or eight people. On the floor are mats to sleep on, and in one corner is a fireplace made of stones. There is no electricity in the swamps, and few people can afford to buy kerosene lamps. They make do with the light from the fireplace, or candles, and outdoors they use torches.

The Unga society is matrilineal, i.e. you trace your descent through your mother’s lineage. In former times, a newly married man would move to his wife’s village, so that she could stay with her family. Today, however, in practice the men dominate the women. Polygyny (having several wives) is common, and a man may have a wife on several of the islands. An Unga woman never has more than one husband.

Traditionally, the Unga marry at a young age, the girls at 15 or 16, the boys at 18 or 19. Formerly, it was not unusual to encounter mothers, who were only 14 years old. Marriage is a very simple matter. The boy just moves to the girl’s family – or sometimes vice versa. Most families are extended families, comprising e.g. two sisters and their husbands and children, living together with the wives’ parents.

In daily life, the chief is the head of the village, or several villages within a specific area. When a chief has passed away, his post is inherited by one of his daughters’ sons, who is elected by the people. The chief is paid by the government. His job is to distribute the right to use arable land and fishing waters. As a rule, his decisions are respected, and villagers also often contact him and the village elders regarding various problems. Two men might dispute, who was the first to spot a particularly good fishing water, or a woman might complain that her husband is spending the money she has earned for alcohol.

There is a sharp division of labour between the sexes. The men are fishing part of the year, and in the village they build houses, and also canoes, which are carved from a tree trunk. Few can afford to buy a so-called banana boat – a fibre glass boat, the shape of which somewhat resembles a banana. A few of the Unga are skilled labourers. The women do the housework, including cooking, and they tend the fields. However, the men do help them preparing the fields for planting, which is very hard work. Children start working at an early age.

All Unga men wear European style dress. The women have adopted the European frock, but as a rule they also wear a gaily coloured cloth, c. two metres long and one metre wide, called chitenge. Babies are always carried in a chitenge on the back of their mother, or grandmother, or sister, whatever they are occupied with.

Larger villages in the marshland have a shop and a school, and the teacher lives on the island. A few places have primitive clinics. Seriously ill persons must be transported to the hospital in Samfya, often a journey of several days by canoe.



Zambia 1993 
Most Unga houses are made of clay, applied to a frame of branches, and the roof is straw. House building and thatching is men’s work. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
Slender, black canoes are the main means of transportation in the swamps. They are flat-bottomed and therefore suitable for the shallow waters. They are carved out of a tree trunk, most of them produced on the mainland, as there are very few large trees in the swamps. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Zambia 1993
Unga children learn to punt a canoe from a very early age. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Zambia 1993
Mats are made by tying reed stems together, using fibers. Mat production is women’s work. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Zambia 1993 
Men as well as women wear European style dresses, but most women also wrap a gaily coloured cloth, called chitenge, around their waist. Babies are always carried in a chitenge. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Christianity and animism
In former times, the Unga were animists, for whom all living things contained a spirit. These spirits were able to fly about, and to harm or benefit other beings. You could take care not to be harmed by an evil spirit by bringing offerings to it. During the first half of the 1900s, the Unga were converted to Christianity, and today several denominations compete to spread their faith. The congregation will build their church and also pay the priest. During the service, song and dance are very important elements.

However, even the modern Unga firmly believes in spirits and witches. If a person suddenly falls ill or dies, or if a village is haunted by bad luck, this must be caused by an evil spirit or a witch. To be declared a witch is a very serious matter, and the person in question – man or woman – is sometimes expelled from the village. If a death is not caused by a witch, a so-called man-crocodile could be the cause – a dangerous double-being, which, simultaneously, lives as a crocodile and a human being. If a person dies at the same time as a crocodile is killed, this person is considered to be a man-crocodile.

Unga society is permeated by tabus. For instance, if a man is sleeping with another woman, while his wife is pregnant, he is blamed if the child dies. Certain food items are forbidden for pregnant women to eat. Theft can be prevented by attaching a witchcraft charm onto valuable items, such as canoes and crops. They are now as well protected, as if they were under lock and key.

Death is a very important event, and the entire family will attend the funeral, coming from near and far. A widow or a widower is allowed to marry again, but before it can take place she or he must undergo a cleansing ritual by sleeping with a relative of the deceased.



Zambia 1993
The Unga are Christians, and almost everybody goes to church on Sundays. They are called to service by drums, or, as here, by a boy, beating an old truck rim with a piece of iron. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Diet of the Unga
The staple food of the Unga is tubers of cassava (Manihot esculenta) – also called manioc or tapioca – which originated in South America. During the 1500s, the Portuguese brought cassava plants from their colonies in Brazil to Africa, where they acquired slaves to work in their colonies. Cassava soon became a popular food item among the Bantu peoples, who brought it along, when they started migrating southwards across Africa.

Cassava is a very hardy plant, which can grow in the sandy and infertile soil on the islands in the Bangweulu Swamps. It is propagated by simply cutting stems into smaller pieces and sticking them into the soil. The cassava plants are cultivated on small, raised mounds to keep the tubers above the high water level in the swamps – otherwise they will rot. Since the last harvest, these mounds have been overgrown by grasses and other plants, and this turf has to be turned over, before planting of cassava can take place. This hard work is done by men as well as women, and hoes are their only tool. The turf is the only means of fertilizer, as the Unga cannot afford to buy chemical fertilizers, and they possess very few domestic animals. The yield is low because of the poor soil. Another huge problem is wax scales, which suck out the juice of the plants, causing many of them to wither.

The soil must lie fallow for two to three years between each harvest. The tubers are dug up after only one growing season, as they will otherwise rot during the rainy season. For this reason, the plants do not get sufficient time to develop cuttings for the next season, and these must be bought on the mainland.

Nshima is a kind of porridge, made from cassava tubers. Preparing nshima is a very long and laborious process, lasting 7 to 10 days. The women dig up the tubers, carry them to the village, peel them, and cut them into small pieces that are dried in the sun. They are then soaked in water for a day to extract poisonous cyanides. The wet cassava ferments for a couple of days and is then mixed with cassava flour from the previous preparation. This mixture is pounded and left to ferment for another day, then pounded again and left to dry in the sun for yet another day. At last it is pounded into flour, which is boiled to make nshima. It is eaten with your fingers, usually with fried fish and a bit of green, sometimes from wild plants.

The Unga also grow a few other crops, e.g. sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), beans, maize, and pumpkins, but due to the poor soil, the yield is small. As they cannot afford to buy chemical fertilizers, the Unga cut grasses and other wild plants to be used as fertilizer. Some Unga have tried to grow rice, but, unfortunately, preparing the paddy fields coincides with the fishing season, so if a woman is growing rice she cannot join her husband to the fishing camp (see the following paragraph). Most Unga women prefer to go to the fishing camp, so very little rice is cultivated in the swamps. Furthermore, rice fields must be weeded more often than cassava fields, and ripening rice plants must be guarded against birds, hippos, and other animals, which do not eat cassava plants.

The Unga have very few domestc animals, only chickens and ducks, besides dogs. In former times, they also had goats and cattle, but as the water level in the swamps was rising over a number of years, all available soil had to be cultivated, and nothing was left over as pastures. Sometimes hunters bring antelope meat, or wild geese or ducks, to sell to the villagers. The fact that many of these animals have been shot illegally, doesn’t seem to bother anybody.

In the old days, when the swamps were teeming with black lechwe, the village chiefs would arrange an annual hunt. However, following World War One, firearms became more widespread, and far too many lechwe were shot. Today, there may be as few as 30,000, and government authorities have established wildlife sanctuaries in the swamps for them. To shoot a lechwe or a sitatunga requires a permit, and you must pay a fee to the government. As the Unga have always hunted these animals, they consider this requirement unfair, and for this reason poaching is widespread.



Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
Because of the high water level during the rainy season, cassava (Manihot utilissima) must be cultivated on mounds, as the tubers will otherwise rot in the humid soil. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Zambia 1993
The fields must lie fallow two or three years between each crop. A fallow field is seen to the right. These women are carrying eucalyptus branches to their village, four or five kilometres away. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Zambia 1993 
Unga girl, weeding between the cassava plants with a hoe. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Zambia 1993
Pounding cassava to make flour is an occasion for the Unga women to gossip about the latest news. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Zambia 1993 
Cassava porridge, called nshima, resembles stiff oat porridge. Nshima is eaten with your fingers, usually with fried fish and a little green, e.g. leaves of wild plants. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Life in a fishing camp
At the end of the dry season, between August and November, the water level in the swamps has receded, and the fish are concentrated in smaller areas. By this time, the annual fish fry has also grown to a suitable size.

Now it is time to go fishing, and most Unga families move from their village to stay in fishing camps in the interior of the swamps. In August, the father will leave alone, bringing only fishing nets and a few necessary items for a month’s stay. On a tiny island, he will build a small grass hut, which is quite simple, made of branches and reeds. However, this way of construction allows the wind to pass through the walls, keeping the interior wonderfully cool. At one end of the hut is a tiny kitchen, and the remainder is bedroom for the entire family. At night, the door and the small window openings are covered by sacks, to protect the sleeping family members against mosquitoes.

About a month later, the rest of the family will join the father. The canoes are paddles by larger boys, while their mother and siblings will keep track of household items, clothes, soap, cassava and maize flour, chickens, ducks, dogs, and whatever else they may need for a two months’ stay.

In the fishing camp, people get up at dawn. Men and older boys paddle their canoe to empty the fishing nets, which were put up the night before. Each net is about 50 metres long, and on average, each family needs about ten nets to make a living. In former times, nets were made from plant fibres, or from thin metal strings from old car tyres, but today almost all nets are made from nylon, which is far more durable. Before removing a fish from the net, the fisherman will stun it with a blow from a stick, to make sure that it won’t be able to jump out of the canoe. While men and boys are out emptying the nets, women and larger girls are busy in the camp, cleaning the hut, preparing breakfast, nursing babies, weaving mats, etc. The fish, which were caught the previous afternoon, are gutted and placed on mats to dry. Some of the fish are smoked in a special smoke hut, in which wet plants are placed on a fire to produce a heavy smoke.

When husband and sons return, the entire family eats breakfast: fish and nshima, often with edible wild plants from the swamps. The morning catch is gutted and placed on mats to dry, while nets are spread out to dry in the sun. Some may be damaged and need to be mended.

During the hot midday hours, the children swim and play in the shallow water. Before building his hut, the father makes sure that there are no large crocodiles in the area. In the afternoon, men and boys again go out fishing. They beat the water surface to scare fish into the nets. This method is in fact illegal, but nobody cares. Some fishermen use hooks, while others stretch out nets between two river banks, pulling the nets along the river channel. This method is also illegal.

At dusk, men and boys are back in the camp, where the mothers will serve the evening meal. Afterwards the family members can relax for a while, but the mosquitoes soon become a nuisance, so everyone goes to bed early.

In later years, people from the mainland have been fishing in the swamps in ever increasing numbers. Zambian farmers often have to wait for many months to be paid by the government for their crops, and when they are finally paid, the gelopping inflation has often eaten much of their profit. To sell fish is a much faster and easier way of making money. To be permitted to fish, mainlanders must pay a fee to the local Unga chief.

In the grasslands bordering the swamps, people often build long weirs, with a few openings, which can be blocked when the water is receding, making it very easy to catch the fish, which cannot escape. This method is highly destructive, as many fish, which have gathered in the shallow waters to lay eggs, are also caught, as well as fish fry. Naturally, these various forms of overfishing have caused numerous fish species to decline drastically.

Firewood is scarce in the marshland. Papyrus and dry grass can be used, but wood is far better. As almost all trees in the mushitu woods have been felled, firewood must be acquired from the mainland. For this reason, a busy traffic of boats can be seen, laden with fish, which are exchanged for firewood.



Zambia 1993
The huts in a fishing camp look rather primitive, built of branches and straw. But they are comfortable and cool, as they provide shadow and allow the wind to pass through. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Zambia 1993 
Unga woman and children, catching small fish in large baskets. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Zambia 1993
The fish catch is spread out to dry on mats, placed on a scaffold made from branches. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Zambia 1993
Unga men paddle their boat, laden with dried fish, to the mainland, where they will exchange the fish for firewood and other necessities. The boat is a fibre glass boat – a so-called banana boat, the shape of which somewhat resembles a banana. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



A vicious circle
Between December and February, the fish are protected by law and may not be caught. They need time to breed and replenish themselves. It is time for the families to leave the fishing camps. Dried and smoked fish are packed, as well as house utensils etc., whereupon you paddle back to your village. This is a leisure time for the Unga. Maybe you need a new grass roof on your house, or holes in it must be repaired. Fish nets must be mended and prepared for the next fishing season. Once in a while, the father will paddle his canoe, laden with dried fish, to the mainland, where he will exchange them for necessities such as maize flour, salt, soap, clothes, and batteries. On his way, he may encounter tradesmen on their way out into the swamps, thus avoiding to make the rest of the trip.

In their leisure time, many Unga men just sit and talk, while drinking alcohol, and some women – especially widows – make good money by making and distributing local alcohol. Good business days for them are Sundays after church service, and at funerals and weddings.

For the children, it is time to go to school. It is mostly boys who attend school – most girls must stay with their mother to take part in the house work and work in the fields. The Unga do not regard school education as very important – after all, you are just going to become a fisherman or a house wife. Education of girls, especially, is not important, as they are going to marry at an early age. A scanty knowledge of reading, writing, and calculation must suffice.

Attending school is expensive, as you must pay for books and utensils, and also contribute to the maintenance of the school building. Most Unga cannot afford this, causing most of the school buildings to be in a very poor condition. During the rainy season, a whole wall will sometimes collapse. Often there are not enough tables and chairs for the students, and as only a few of the children have books, the teacher will say something, which the pupils will repeat by shouting in chorus, or the teacher writes a sentence on the blackboard, which the kids duplicate. Very few Unga children complete a higher education.

The Unga want a higher standard of living. However, the only means of payment they possess is fish, which means that if you want a little more than just the bare necessities, you must catch more fish. To do this, many Unga have acquired fishing nets with smaller mesh (down to 3 centimetres), and they fish for longer periods of time. This is destructive to the already harassed fish populations, and only worsens the problem. Fewer fish grow to breeding size, and the amount of fish fry is diminishing.

As said before, the government has prohibited fishing between December and February, and certain fishing methods are not permitted. All prohibitions, however, are violated, and control from the authorities is scanty in the remote swamps. The Unga have entered a vicious circle, which keeps them in poverty, causing many young men to leave the swamps to gain a higher standard of living. The cities on the mainland, however, hold many other dangers, which were formerly unknown in the marshes, such as a high level of crime and life-threatening diseases like aids.



Zambia 1993
Zambia 1993
Attending school is expensive, as you must pay for books and utensils, and also contribute to the maintenance of the school building. Most Unga people cannot afford this, causing most of the school buildings to be in a very poor condition. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Sydlige Afrika 1996-97
Zambia 1993
Verdensnaturfonden – the Danish section of WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) – has made a huge effort to help the Unga to a better standard of living through the foundation of local councils, called Community Development Units. Several women’s groups have also been formed, teaching women about healthy food, hygiene, care of infants, knitting, sewing, and baking, and also about women’s rights in Zambia. These pictures show women, attending a meeting on Ncheta Island. During the meeting, a lot of laughing and dancing took place. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Visiting the Bangweulu Swamps
A new source of income for the Unga could be tourism, as the rich wildlife of the swamps attracts people with an interest in nature. The best time for a visit is during the rainy season, between November and March, but other times of the year can also be profitable. However, the poor infrastructure of the marshland makes it difficult to access, and facilities are scanty. A luxury camp, named Shoebill Island Camp, is managed by the Kasanka Trust, and a part of the profits is used to train rangers, and for development projects in local villages. The camp can be reached by charter plane, or by road, via the Serenje-Samfya road. Further information:

Another possibility is the less luxurious – and less expensive – Nsobe Game Camp, situated in the same area. Previously, a part of the profits went to development projects in local villages, but rumours have it that this practice has ceased. Further information:



I would like to thank consulting biologist Uffe Gjøl Sørensen, who hired me for a very interesting assignment to document the daily life of the Unga people, and sociologist Peter Gregersen, who provided most of the information about Unga society.



(Uploaded March 2016)


(Revised August 2018)