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Zambia-Zimbabwe: The Tonga - Left high and dry

News and Press Release
Originally published
SINAZONGWE, 5 September 2007 (IRIN) - Fifty years after the Tonga people were forcibly removed from the Zambezi Valley to make way for the Kariba Dam between southern Zambia and northwestern Zimbabwe, the community is still trying to find its feet.

Over the past decade a number of development programmes have been initiated to improve the Tonga people's lives, after their eviction by the former governments of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to make way for the hydroelectric power project that created Lake Kariba.

But community leaders and international experts say the restitution efforts have failed to improve the living conditions of the majority of the 250,000 Tonga: most live in three districts of Zambia's Southern Province, are heavily reliant on national and international food aid, and despite the tourism and fishing opportunities of Lake Kariba, unemployment remains high.

Still recovering

Chief David Siankusule, a Tonga elder in the Sinazongwe district of Zambia's Southern Province, told IRIN that official initiatives to improve his people's quality of life had failed to take into consideration the trauma they had suffered for the past 50 years.

"It is true that the Zambian government and others have made efforts to help us," Siankusule said. "They bring us food when we are hungry, and they have built schools and clinics."

But the efforts were "not ... enough to make a real difference". "Nearly 57,000 Tongas were moved from our fertile land next to the Zambezi, to plateau areas that suffer from drought and have poor soil - our whole way of life was destroyed," he commented at his homestead near Lake Kariba's western shore.

"We are now in the region of 250,000 [people], and the land we were put on can no longer support us. We need to be compensated for what was done, and with that money we can rebuild our own lives and culture. So, our noise [complaints] to the government will continue until our lives are improved."

According to Science and Politics of Large Dam Projects: Case Study-Kariba Dam, an independent study in 2006 by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (EAWAG), 23,000 people were moved far from the valley in the Zimbabwean side to new land of poor quality.

The Tonga on the Zimbabwean side received food during the resettlement period, but no monetary compensation. The study estimated that the government invested a little more than US$100 per person.

The Zambian government offered about $270 in monetary compensation per person and was therefore considered "less racist" by the Tonga, who were more eager to move to the Zambian side, the authors claimed.

Nevertheless, even in Zambia little was done until the mid-1990s to help the Tonga people after their forced removal from the Zambezi Valley between 1957 and 1958.

Government efforts

In 1998, as part of a project by the World Bank Zambia Power Rehabilitation Programme and the Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation (ZESCO), the Zambian government began work to rehabilitate and electrify Lake Kariba's shoreline to improve the local economy of the Tonga.

The World Bank, which, in its previous incarnation as the Federal Power Board, had co-funded the Kariba Dam's construction, urged ZESCO to establish the Gwembe-Tonga Rehabilitation and Development project with funding from the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA). Under this initiative the Zambian government built schools, health clinics, drilled boreholes and developed irrigation schemes.

To avoid past mistakes, the local communities were involved in all stages of the project, the Swiss study said. However, de-mining activities, bureaucratic glitches in the DBSA and poor supervision of the loan funds significantly delayed implementation of the project.

On top of this, "the continued distribution of free food aid in the project area and the high expectations from the beneficiary communities, and the bias against using Tonga professionals, have affected the implementation of the project", and little was accomplished by way of efforts to increase local production and improve household incomes, the EAWAG study found.

The bi-national Zambezi River Authority (ZRA), which administers water rights and usage of the Zambezi River and Lake Kariba, initiated "Kariba Dam's Operation Noah Re-Launched" a programme designed to emulate the efforts of conservationists to rescue the Zambezi Valley's wildlife before it was flooded.

The $142m project was one of the first attempts to rescue the ethnic group by improving their current economic, social and living standards, and offer reparation to the displaced Tonga. However, the Swiss study pointed out that aside from the ZRA's fund, which was financed by a one percent fee on water used for generating electricity, the amount of money raised was insufficient for the development needs of the community.

Unwilling to change

Laiven Makani Apuleni, the district commissioner of Sinazongwe, which lies along the western shoreline of Lake Kariba, told IRIN that the government was keen to help right the wrong done to the Tonga people by its predecessor, the Northern Rhodesian government.

But he warned that little progress could be made if the Tonga were unwilling to give up their traditional lifestyles as herdsmen, and livelihoods such as flood-recession farming, in which communities living on the flood plains had planted crops on the fertile alluvial soil left behind by flooding.

"We have tried to improve their [the Tongas'] environment so they can better their own lives, but the people do not take advantage, and prefer to live like they did in the past, even though the land they live on cannot sustain such a life," said Apuleni.

"We drill boreholes but they only use them to drink and wash their clothes. Lake Kariba is full of fish, but the fishermen you see on the lake are not Tonga; they are from the Northern and Western Province."

An irrigation scheme constructed by the government at Buleya-Malima in Sinazongwe, funded by the DBSA, was a prime example of the impasse between the authorities and the community, Apuleni said.

"When we finished building the scheme, it was handed over to the local Tonga cooperative, but they only use 10 percent of its capacity. If fully utilised, the food output from the irrigation scheme could feed the whole district."

Illiteracy was also a major stumbling block. "We feel [that] if they embrace education then they will see more clearly the opportunities available to them, but many adults feel it is better their children watch the animals [cattle] than learn in school," Apuleni said.


The EAWAG study said the reasons for the Tonga people's failure to compete for the economical benefits of tourism, fisheries and hydroelectricity were multiple. It maintained that lack of capital and poor education or professional skills had played a major role, and that the government was not giving the Tonga the opportunity to compete against better capitalised entrepreneurs.

"In the tourism industry, for example, the governments [of Zambia and Zimbabwe] and better capitalised immigrants share the benefits, whereas the local economy, especially those of the Tongas on the Zimbabwe side, bear the costs," the report stated.

The authors concluded that the main reasons for the delays in assisting the Tonga were the difficult political situations in Zambia and Zimbabwe, racism, lack of consideration for an underdeveloped population, and an absence of international pressure.

The resettlement areas "still lack the basic social and economic infrastructure. Furthermore, only a few rural centres have access to electricity or transport and in many areas people do not have access to basic services such as telephone and post-offices."

Tongas relocated to Zimbabwe had fared even worse, as they were unable to take advantage of the new opportunities the lake provided. "The lakeshore is state-owned and the government restricted access to the lake to a few fishing camps," said EAWAG.

"It is not surprising that the households in the resettlement areas suffer from some of the highest levels of unemployment and poverty in Zimbabwe." This, along with overcrowding in the settlement areas, "has led to chronic food shortages" in the area, added the report.