In 2013 I received a Southern African Water Wire Fellowship from InterPress Service Africa to report on the importance of the Zambezi River to the Tonga community in Zimbabwe. Towards the end of my photography project, an interviewee gave me the original name of the Zambezi – ‘Kasambabezi’ – from a Tonga phrase meaning “only those who know the river can bath in it,” emphasising their knowledge of the deep water, the currents and where the hippos and crocodiles lurk. The name shows the incredibly close relationship Tonga society had with ‘their’ river.
Meandering through eight countries, the Zambezi is Africa’s fourth largest river; indirectly affecting over 128 million lives as a source of water and food. Further adding to the river’s importance is Lake Kariba, the world’s largest man-made reservoir. Sharing a border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, Kariba provides hydroelectric power and supports a fishing and tourism industry. The Tonga people, who were displaced from their ancestral homes to make way for the building of Lake Kariba in 1956, have long struggled with their forced removal into one of Zimbabwe’s most underdeveloped regions, Matabeland North. “It was so difficult,” says Siamuchimba Muleya, “our hearts still feel that pain of leaving our crops behind. We had never experienced drought before, we only experienced it here, when we left our water.”
These communities should be thriving off the resources the river and dam provide, not only in terms of drinking water, irrigation and electricity, but also as a source of livelihoods and enjoyment. Yet instead, the reality is that livelihoods are affected when climatic challenges such as flooding and drought, are further “exacerbated by the prevailing health, social and economic conditions facing the communities.” Politically, the Tonga are a minority and have never been given much attention, either by the Rhodesians or by the Zimbabwean government after Independence – their claims to the river falling on deaf ears.
Sixty years after forced relocation, this series of images investigates where the Tonga are today and how connected they are to their river, the Zambezi.