For the first few days I found it hard to take in the way the Tongan’s lived. There was the appreciation that they lived in simple huts or rondavels, and had small cleared areas within which much of the activity of their lives took place, washing, cleaning, cooking and eating, and where visitors were received and business conducted. The initial impression was that they were fairly sedentary in their lives, not having the means or the contacts to journey very far. I had that notion blown away a few years later to the east where I found many people would travel regularly to Harare by bus. Here I think it was different, the region was one of the most isolated in the country – Harare may be more than a day’s bus ride for many people. Tongan’s were far away from other people and markets. Some would say this was on purpose, but I think it was more due to the fact they were almost forgotten by the government.
Most people are aware that the Mashona people dominate the politics of Zimbabwe and indeed make up the majority tribal group. They live predominantly in the east around the capital, Harare. The Matabale, a sizeable minority live in the west of the country centred on the city of Bulawayo. But few people are aware that the Tongan’s form the next largest minority in the country. Their lands were the Zambezi Valley in the west of what is now Zimbabwe, and they used the Zambezi River as their main source of water and livelihood. Tongan’s straddled the river, most living on the northern side in Zambia. They were a fishing people, and the Zambezi was a permanent source for food and water. In flood times, they moved up to the hills surrounding the river valley, in dry times, they lived among the hippos and crocodiles next to the river itself. The flooding of the Kariba Dam in the 1950’s may have brought Hydroelectric power to both Zimbabwe and Zambia, a wonderful tourist trap for sailing, cruising and fishing, and a fantastic backdrop for my sunsets, but it also meant the displacement of thousands of Tongans. Perhaps the starkest realisation of Tongans’ position in the country was seen when Operation Noah made sure that many animals were not stranded by the rising waters and they were guided to the new parks like Matusadona by environmentalists. The Tongans’ themselves were often forcibly evicted, and tales of trucksful of villagers shackled together have entered the folklore. Often the Tongans were driven thirty miles away from the edge of the new lake and dumped under the escarpment to rebuild their lives. The water supply from the rivers off the escarpment were seasonable, the soils were poor and even if they could be tilled, the Tongans had little experience of large scale farming – they were hunters and fishers. Their quality of life was substantially reduced and they had little comeback with the politicians, none of whom were Tongan. The new lake divided up the tribe of Tonga, and in some cases families were split by the rising water.
My words don’t give you the impact this relocation had on the people. I have turned to the pages of a fabulous book, Lwaano Lwanyika or the Tonga Book of the Earth where Jameson Muleya of Binga Secondary School, wrote a telling poem called “A New Valley”.
When I look northwest of the school
What can I see?
Yes, the deep division between
Zambia and Zimbabwe,
Glittering though it appears.
Where did it come from?
What was there before?
Was it the baTonga people?
Yes, the baTonga
Yes, the hardy people of the Kasasambezi Valley.
In a cool and remarkable place,
There they lived.
Not a wandering people, they lived.
Famineless, they lived
Warless, they lived.
With wisdom, welcoming to friends.
But what happened in the 1950’s?
By contrast a disgrace.
Against it, the generous baTonga spirits were really helpless.
Helpless, they were driven,
Away, they were driven
Unthoughtfully, they were driven
For the good only of selfish grants.
Where is your wealth, my dear fellows?
In rocky places it was lost.
Where are the rains, now that they matter?
In the valley, crops were grown even when no rain fell.
But now you must cry for the rain that does not come.
Mawala, did you go with all your spiritual powers?
Oh! Heavenly father, why were you during that time
Not defending such innocent souls?
Siadongo; Sikulibamba; Kanundu; Moonga; Siampongo; Chikwenga; SimWaabwe;
Malawa, why did you desert us at such a time?
Why did you allow foreigners to chase you from you favourite valley?
Oh! My wise ancestors,
Rest in peace and watch your toiling children,
They are building a new valley for a home.
Lwaano Lwanyika, by Pamela Reynolds and Colleen Crawford Cousins, tried to document the livelihoods of the Tongan people, as their history and culture was predominantly oral. The book is packed with stories, folklore, scientific facts and figures relating to all aspects of life. They talk of their history, the people themselves, how they live, what they grow, how they look after themselves, what they know of the plants and animals in the Zambezi Valley and what technologies they have developed and adapted in their valley lives. Although written for children, I found it tells of such a rich tapestry of life that it would be hard to believe that only fifty years ago, the Tongans were treated worse than animals and even now, in independent Zimbabwe, they are worse than third class citizens.