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The People of the Great River

This is the story of the River Tonga People. In 1955 they were ewmoved from their land. They had lived for many generations by the river Zambesi, on both sides of the river. When the Kariba Dam was built, their river became a lake. They were resettled on Inferior land away from the river. Noone asked their permission to flood their land and create an artificial lake. Uprooted from their land, they have left behind a way of life and a culture that was built around their closeness to the river. Their story is one of many.
By Mike Tremmel
and the River Tonga People

The Tonga have a dramatic story to tell their displacement from the great waters of the Zambezi River. The Zambezi Tonga people lived for many generations by the fast-flowing Zambezi that in 1957 separated what was then the Federation of Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia (now independent Zambia and Zimbabwe). The people on both sides of the river were very closely related by inter-marriage and friendship. These Tonga were moved away from the riverbanks, the river was dammed and it slowly filled the whole valley forming a huge artificial lake, 280 kilometres long, and approximately 25 kilometres wide - Lake Kariba.

"The Dam, sited at Kariba Gorge, flooded the whole of the Zambezi Valley upstream of it and compelled the resettlement of the whole population of both north and south banks. More attention was paid to the animals and rescuing them, than to people. On both sides of the Zambezi, the Tonga were the losers They faced an arduous journey, usually in the back of open trucks, to be resettled far away from the area where they had been born and grown up. Once there, they had to build from scratch, clearing the bush and constructing huts. The people of the north and south banks were cut off completely from each other. Relatives were never to see or hear from each other again. Many also lost highly productive alluvial fields on the edge of the Zambezi and had to take to dry land farming in the rugged foothills of the escarpment. The suffering this movement entailed has not yet been chronicled". (Tim Matthews in Lwaano LwaNyika: Tonga Book of the Earth).


In August, 1955, a momentous event occurred which was to bring about a dramatic change in the life of this marginalized people. The District Commissioner and the Minister of Native Affairs of Southern Rhodesia, travelled to the Zambezi River Basin to meet with the River Tonga Chiefs. The Chiefs and elders were informed that all River Tonga were to evacuate their lands and abandon their homes because the entire area would become a lake, (Nesham, 1961). The Tonga were soon to learn that this "resettlement" would happen without their agreement, and in areas with poor soil for farming and limited access to water. This displacement of about 57, 000 River Tonga has been recorded in Commissioner's Reports and in extensive research studies done by anthropologists such as E. Colson, S. Weinrich and T. Scudder. They provide detailed accounts of the life, culture and history of the River Tonga at that time.2

A look at the name Tonga shows the importance of the River to the people. One explanation comes from the verb kutonga , which means "to rule or judge". An article by Joseph Moreau SJ, offers another meaning, (Moreau, 1950). The Tonga were known originally as BaDonga or "the people of the river", mulonga means "a river". In time the "l" changed to "d" and they became known as the BaDonga, or "the people of the great river" Donga means "a very large river". As the "d" and "t" sounds are similar, BaDonga became BaTonga.

Splendid Isolation

The River Tonga have described their life near the river before being removed to make way for Kariba dam, as a time of "splendid isolation". This description needs to be understood in its historical context. With the exception of some men who went for work in the mines or in towns, the River Tonga were basically isolated from the rest of the people of Southern Rhodesia and live a very traditional way of life. Being isolated had advantages such as being free to hunt without control by colonialist policies. The River Tonga took advantage of fertile gardens and fields along the banks of the Zambezi, and also enjoyed a variety of ways to catch fish for relish. They had their own leaders and life was governed primarily through the Chief's court and his police, rather than by colonial authorities. The relative absence of government involvement left them free to honour their ancestral spirits and keep their traditions alive. Very close ties were maintained with their relatives and ancestral spirits on the other side of the Zambezi river.

But the River Tonga also suffered from their isolation. Left alone and basically neglected by the colonial government, there were no schools, clinics or hospitals, even as late as 1957. Infant mortality rates were extremely high, partly because there were no vaccinations made available to them. The River Tonga relied on their traditional medicinal herbs for healing illnesses. While effective in treating many cases of illness, traditional healing was inadequate to respond to some major diseases. Many suffered from serious eye problems, goitre and outbreaks of diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, bilharzia and measles. As a consequence, life expectancy was low. In an article entitled "The Underdevelopment of Binga and the Overdevelopment of Aid", Trish Swift and Martin deGraaf of Save the Children (UK), describe the deplorable situation of health when the River Tonga lived along the former river banks. They observe that "the land of 'milk and honey' also had its drawbacks. It is estimated that 60% - 80% of children died of malaria and diarrhoea before the ages of five. Tuberculosis, leprosy and bilharzia took their toll on the adult population" (Swift and deGraff, unpublished, available Binga Secondary School).

Relatives and Ancestral Spirits

The possibility of crossing the Zambezi river to relatives, meant that traditional ceremonies could be held to honour ancestral spirits. In this way many Tonga traditions were kept alive. The river connected them to their relatives and friends, known as Bamutala those living on the other side of the river. The elderly riverbank dwellers talked freely of their frequent crossings and love for relatives and their gratitude for being able to pray with each other during ancestral ceremonies. What follows are brief descriptions of just a few of these traditions but they capture the strong spiritual bond between relatives and ancestral spirits. The river was the link which enabled the River Tonga to remain connected.

Hunting and Wildlife

Nkulichili Mudimba: We were free to hunt animals for food. We also killed dangerous animals when they were in our fields or our villages. We used to dig a big pit in the path of the elephants coming to our villages. We also killed lions when they came to eat our goats. We built a small hut and put a goat inside. The lion would come and try to enter inside the hut to eat the goat. Near the door, we placed a snare and the lion was caught when trying to enter. People were very united and we stayed near each other. We helped one another with problems, especially with dangerous animals. But some people were killed by elephants and buffalo. Some among us were talented in hunting. When an animal was killed, the hunters returned to the village, dancing with joy. They would make loud whistling sounds by blowing into nyele (animal horns) and this alerted everyone that the hunt was successful. Part of the meat was given to the Chief before the rest of it was shared with the community. Back then we did not think that rhino horns were of great value so we threw them away. Some of the elephant tusks were taken to those who were skilled in making necklaces, bangles and decorations for us. But most elephant tusks were given to our Chiefs. This made the Chief very respectable in the eyes of the white people who would come for the tusks. The Chief was called a hero by these white men and was given a gun, clothes and other gifts.

Victims of Resettlement

Large populations throughout the world have been victims of resettlement programmes for the purpose of major technical developments. The Zimbabwean River Tonga, resettled in the 1950s, are just one of many African communities that have suffered from being resettled by colonial governments. Their story can be seen in the context of resettlement studies and research which have been done by E. Colson and T. Scudder (available in the Binga Secondary School library). Scudder has analysed the scope and effects of resettlement upon large groups of people, especially in Africa, because of the construction of dams. His research includes: Kariba Dam in Zambia and Zimbabwe, with 57,000 people relocated; Volta Dam in Ghana, 70,000 relocated; Kainji Dam in Nigeria, 42,000, and the Aswan Dam in Egypt and Sudan 100,000.

Recognising a pattern that has emerged in the construction of most large dams, Scudder points out that much attention is given to the technical construction of major dams while the resettlement programmes for the people are initiated without ample consideration and research. The engineers, geologists and economists concentrate their energies on the power considerations and the construction of the hydro-electric dams. Concerning the Kariba Dam construction, resettlement became a tension ridden, crash programme to move the people before the river water flooded the people's homes in the valley. As a result, "people were moved before the resettlement areas can support them". He maintains that compulsory and fast resettlement forces its victims to undergo extreme psychological, physiological and social-cultural stress, as well as inadequate water supplies.

In a study of the Tonga people on the southern shore of Lake Kariba, A.K.H. Weinrich writes that there were a total of eighteen Tonga Chiefdoms located in the Zambezi Valley in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Three Chiefdoms of Pashu, Dobola and Siabuwa were already located far from he Zambezi River and were not directly affected by the displacement. But the Tonga of fifteen chiefdoms had to abandon their homes near the banks of the river. While the Chiefs and the people were forced to move, they were not permitted to resettle near to where the edge of the lake would be, as this was reserved for National Park land and for future tourism. Anyway, rocky hills located at the edge of the lake prohibited people from resettling there. Chiefs tried to find places with some kind of water source or river, often where their people already had grazing rights for their cattle. Generally, these areas were twenty five to a hundred kilometres directly away from the edge of the Zambezi.

In Zambia, open resistance to removal occurred in June, 1958. The colonial Northern Rhodesian government blamed the African National Congress when one Headman and his people in Chipepo refused to move to Lusitu. There was an attempted arrest and a riot broke out. Anxiety and hostility grew among the Chipepo people and they resisted any move. When the Governor issued a final order that the people must board the lorries, the men charged the police who opened fire eight men were killed and thirty-two others were wounded. From this point on, the Zambian Tonga were a "shocked and frightened people", fully aware of their fate if they defied the government.


Most of the Zimbabwean RIver Tonga families were transported in lorries to areas of resttlement, in 1957. Songs were composed about the former colonial government which expressed their disappointment at being removed from the river. Revealing the damaged soul of the River Tonga, these songs were sung as they were taken by lorries to the areas of resettlement. In A Wilderness Called Kariba, Dale Kenmuir notes that "on December 3rd, 1958, the two sluice gates through which the Zambezi was flowing were closed." The closing of the dam wall marked the end of the former life of the River Tonga along the banks of the Zambezi.

Early Years of Resettlement

By 1959, all the River Tonga who had lived along the banks of the Zambezi River had been moved. The Chiefs had tried to search for places with enough surface water and areas for large fields. Resettling was no easy task for homes had not yet been built and fields had not yet been cleared. Force to surrender their former way of life, and permitted to establish new lives only in certain areas, the River Tonga of Fifteen Chiefdoms, began the task of building new villages, and farming in generally non-fertile lands. Many described how they lost their sense of unity and togetherness when they were forced to resettle in bush areas. Upon resettling, Chiefdoms were relocated further away from each other. People chose to build smaller villages and favouring privacy, kraals, or family homesteads were more spread out when compared with their kraals situated near the river. No longer able to rely on riverine gardens which supplemented the harvest from their fields, villages became more spread out and larger fields were needed in the resettlement area. Some River Tonga wondered with regret that there may be less unity among themselves today because villages became more scattered.

Soon after resettlement, they were no longer permitted to hunt, like many other Africans under colonial rule. Often unsuccessful in farming because of a lack of rain and poor soil, the River Tonga became a people dependent upon the government for food and years of drought relief. Although there were boreholes and dams in some areas, the River Tonga complained that sufficient water was no longer available to them, like it was along the Zambezi. During the gatherings, one of the women, Simpongo Munsaka, kept repeating over and over again, "We left with our property and our bodies, but we left our water behind. We would like our water to follow us. They promised that the water would follow us".

During the first two years of resettlement, the government provided food relief of grain, powdered milk and salt to the displaced communities. The government was also responsible for building a hospital in Binga and some schools, sinking boreholes, building small dams and for the construction of roads. The area in which the River Tonga resettled was heavily infested with tse-tse fly. In response, the government launched an extensive campaign against this threat of disease which can be transmitted through the fly to people and livestock. This had the double effect of providing jobs for some Tonga men and eventually would protect livestock in the entire region. Each Chief was allocated an area near the lake for a fishing camp. Perhaps because of distance fro the lake, estimates from the River Tonga suggest that only a few hundred men, and no more than an thousand, took up seasonal residence at these fishing camps. While efforts were now being made by the colonialist government to respond to health, education and general welfare needs of the River Tonga, it must be kept in mind that those displaced were forced to resettle before any of these service had been adequately provided. This lack of planning and poor timing caused much suffering.
Mike Tremmel came to Zimbabwe in 1986 and joined the pastoral team of All Soul's Catholic Church, Binga. In July 1994 he returned to the USA.

The above is taken from a book The People Of The Great River, The Tonga Hoped the Water Would Follow Them, by Michael Tremmel and the River Tonga People. Our thanks to Michael Hanly who produced and edited the book and sent us a copy. He lived in Africa for four years and has now returned to Ireland.
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