The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
A SIGN on the path that leads from Mlibizi Resort towards the banks of the Zambezi River simply reads, “Beware of Crocodiles”.
The sign, painted in bold white as if to emphasise the importance of its message, is not unlike one that one might find outside a private residence advertising the presence of vicious dogs inside a yard.
Even the painting, depicting a man flailing as he flees from a crocodile, seems like the work of hand that has only got recently acquainted with a paint brush. But even from that crude sketch, the danger posed by the jagged teeth of the roughly drawn reptile seems real enough.
As the sun sets on Mlibizi Resort, it casts a blood-red reflection on the calm waters of the Zambezi and from a fair distance it may appear as if a crocodile has left the surface red after devouring a fresh kill.
However, the morning after that bloodshot sun had gone to rest beyond the western shores of the Zambezi, fisherman Sibanga Mudimba woke up with a fear of finding himself in the jaws of an entirely different beast altogether.
For indigenous fishermen on the Zambezi, the greatest danger does not come from crocodiles but hippopotamus, one of the greatest takers of human life in the animal kingdom, killing as many as 500 people per year around the globe, in comparison to only 22 by lions.
Hippos, who guard every inch of territory, on land or water, with violent jealousy, also have the deadly tendency of charging at boats and capsizing them, ensuring those inside die by drowning. If not, the hippos rely on their own jaws to finish the job.
On that morning, Mudimba, was in frantic search for a life-jacket, an essential bit of gear for fishermen on the Zimbabwean side of the Zambezi. Fishermen, most of whom use makeshift boats, are not allowed to wade deep into the river without life jackets by the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks).
The jackets are meant to be the lifeline for anyone who falls into the river but Mudimba only wears them to appease the Zimparks officers who watch the waters of the Zambezi like hawks.
According to Mudimba, who was raised on the banks of the Zambezi, life jackets on a fishermen’s back are to a cantankerous hippo what a red cloth in matador’s hands is to a raging bull.
“You cannot go fishing in the river without a life jacket because if you do, you’ll get in trouble with the guys from Zimparks,” he told Sunday Life. “But for us, it presents a complication because we feel safer without the life jackets than with them.
We say this because if you fall into the water and you’re wearing a life jacket, you become an easy target for the hippos. It becomes a bit difficult to escape in that case because you will float to the top and that’s when the hippos come to attack.
The only time when having a life jacket is an advantage is when you’re travelling on an engine-powered boat. We actually had someone who fell into the water while they had a life jacket but luckily for them, they were on an engine-powered boat.”
While Mudimba was on the morning extremely worried about the sleeveless inflatable jacket that is meant to keep even an expert swimmer like himself alive if he ever fell into troubled waters, something else was on his mind.
For the past few weeks, Mudimba and other fishermen have not been able to net a reasonable haul of fish in the dwindling springtime waters of the Zambezi.
While it is possible for bream and tilapia fish to earn them as much as US$10 per day kapenta have managed to evade their fishing nets almost entirely. This is the continuation of a trend that they have seen regularly repeat itself over the last few years, especially at this time of the year.
“Right now, things are slow for us because there are very few fish to catch. I think this has been the worst period this year but in general, at this time of the year, we get fewer and fewer fish to catch every year and this is something that affects our livelihood because the river and fish are our life.
But I guess it’s just the season and things will take a turn for the better a little later on in the year,” Mudimba said.
According to Zimparks spokesperson, Tinashe Farawo, studies have shown that fish populations on the Zambezi are depleting with a lack of rainfall reducing the algae that is at the base of the lake’s food chain.
According to Farawo, water temperature has increased over the years, exceeding the 28C threshold necessary for certain algae to thrive.
Algae is an essential part of the ecosystem in the Zambezi, it provides food for zooplankton, which is in turn provide food for the much sought after kapenta.
Fish catches in the country have thus been on the decline since 1989, despite the country reducing its fishing rigs from a peak of 560 to the current 445 while also implementing the seven-day, “full-moon” period and reducing fishing by 23% as well as increasing law enforcement to curb unregulated fishing.
According to scientists, climate change will cause average temperatures to rise by about 3°C before the end of this century while annual rainfall could decline by between 5% and 18%, especially in the south.
Despite regulations seeking to maintain such a key source of livelihood, fishermen on the Zimbabwean side of the Zambezi however, feel like they are getting the short end of the stick, as the Zambians can ignore the rules that do not apply to them.
“That puts us at a disadvantage from our colleagues from the Zambian side because they don’t have to put on life jackets and they usually don’t,” said one fisherman, William Muleya. “This is because they don’t have to follow the rules we do because they are from a different country.
These ones are much more daring as they don’t have to follow the same laws as we do, for example while there are areas where we can’t fish, they just go everywhere.”
The struggles of the fishermen however, are not shared by all, as some around Binga have already begun to look beyond the traditional source of livelihood for people in the area. As Government intensifies its efforts to improve infrastructure and speed up development in Binga, some are looking at the waters of the Zambezi in a different light.
Instead of taking fish out of the water, local tourism operators are looking to put people on it. Key to this is the packaging of Binga as a place rich in culture and history.
“This is a beautiful place as you can see, very beautiful scenery and very beautiful landscape,” said Rinzelani Majoko, the manager at Musumu River Lodge.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of history tied to it with the Tonga people, who are a very beautiful people on their own with a vibrant culture.
One of the things that happen when our international guests come through is they get to go for a village tour and they get to have a full authentic experience of how the Tonga people go about their stuff.
They learn how they prepare their food and how they grow up and how they go about their customs are traditions. So, they leave with a better understanding of the diverse culture and traditions in this particular area,” he said.
Guests at Musumu usually spend as many as three nights on the Zambezi while aboard the Shikra, a luxury houseboat which comes with 10 cabins, all equipped with ensuite showers and water closets.
The houseboat also has a generously proportioned lounge and dining areas which affords its residents a fantastic view of both the land and Lake Kariba, as they travel from the Elephants Bay to the Sengwe Wildlife Corridor.
Over the three nights out on the still waters of the Zambezi, some guests might be lucky enough to rub shoulders with some of the struggling fishermen, as they try to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of their own urban lives.
“We are on the western part of Lake Kariba and we obviously share the lake with our neighbours in Zambia. When you come here at night, it’s a different scenery because of all the lights coming from the kapenta rigs.
When I first came here, I thought the lights were a town in Zambia because there were lights all over.
You get fishermen with their canoes. So, this is a very nice vibrant culture that the Tonga people have and the relationship with the water is something that one had to behold,” Majoko said.