Displaced and Disconnected: The BaTonga Conservation Culture Under Threat in Zimbabwe

-Those cultural practices, whether they have to do with nature and conservation, or our day’s lifestyle, they got diluted

By John Cassim

Harare, Zimbabwe

The BaTonga people of Zimbabwe have long been admired for their deep respect for their language, traditions, and the natural world around them. However, the construction of the Kariba Dam in the 1950s scattered these communities, disrupting their age-old conservation practices and threatening their cultural identity.

While the Zimbabwean government promotes sustainable environmental practices and land reclamation, some BaTonga leaders, like Mudenda Chilumbo, a well-known politician with the Mthwakazi Republic Party, believe the current government must do more to restore the BaTonga people’s traditional lands and way of life.

Tonga Chiefs Span Multiple Provinces

According to Thomas Sibanda, a historian also from the BaTonga tribe, his people are spread across five districts: Kariba, Gokwe North and South, Binga, and Hwange, where they are governed by 24 chiefs. This dispersion stems from their displacement during the Kariba Dam’s construction.

·      In Nyaminyami District Chiefs in Kariba (originally Kaliba), the BaTonga are under Chief Moola, Chief Negandi, and Chief Musambakaluma.

·      In Gokwe North District, there are two Chiefs: Simunchembu and Nenyunga.

·      In Gokwe South District, the BaTonga are under Chief Mukoka.

·      Binga District, believed to be the true origin of the BaTonga, has several Chiefs: Sinamweenda, Sinamunsanga, Sinakatenge, Siamupa, Siabuwa, Sinampande, Sinansengwe, Sinakooma, Sikalenge, Binga, Siachilaba, Saba, Pashu, Siansali, Sinamagonde, Dobola, and Chief Kavula.

·      In Hwange District, they are under Chief Nelukoba, although plans were in place to install two more chiefs in 2020.

Broken Promises and Lost Sovereignty

Mudenda Chilumbo laments that the then government’s pledges of proper relocation after the dam’s construction never materialized. The BaTonga people were divided and placed under various provincial administrations, hindering their ability to govern themselves effectively.

Chilumbo argues that this dispossession was deliberate, aimed at weakening the BaTonga’s claim to self-determination. He advocates for the creation of a separate BaTonga province, allowing them to manage their development and cultural affairs.

“So, that’s what we are advocating for as BaTonga people along the Zambezi River. If you go to the other side, in Zambia, it is the same scenario, the linear settlement along the Zambezi River. But they’ve got their own province called Southern Province.

They are doing their developments along the province because the powers devolved from the central government. And those people who are occupying positions of responsibility are from the same clan. Unlike in our scenario, where you can’t find a district education officer who hails from the Tonga tribe,” he complained.

Environmental Impact of Displacement

The separation from their ancestral lands has also impacted their environmental practices. Former legislator, Hon Prince Dubeko Sibanda, with the opposition Citizen Coalition for Change (CCC) for Binga, explains how their traditional conservation methods have been diluted due to their minority status in relocated areas.

“Those cultural practices, whether they have to do with nature and conservation, or our day’s lifestyle, have been diluted,” he said.

Sustainable Practices Abandoned

Dubeko Sibanda details how specific areas were previously considered off-limits for cultivation, and how a variety of plants and trees provided sustenance. These practices have largely disappeared as the BaTonga have struggled to adapt to their new surroundings, where they are now a minority.

Traditional fishing practices that involved designated breeding areas and size restrictions have also been abandoned. The scarcity of fish has further eroded these conservation methods.

Deforestation due to overpopulation has become a severe problem, limiting access to firewood and forcing residents to seek alternative fuel sources.

“People have thrown away all those conservation measures that they used to practice. Deforestation has become a very serious problem in our area. It has become a very serious problem because of over-population. It’s very difficult to even get firewood anymore in most of our areas,” Dubeko Sibanda lamented.

Loss of Grazing Lands and Wildlife

Livestock no longer have access to ample grazing areas, and farming has become difficult due to exhausted land. The displacement has also restricted the BaTonga’s access to wildlife, as most animals are now fleeing their habitat and confined to national parks. This is due to increased human traffic from people with less understanding of wildlife conservation.

The Tonga people’s story is a stark reminder of the human and environmental costs of development projects

Similar Challenges in the Region

The picture painted by the BaTonga people regarding the disappearance of conservation indigenous knowledge, agrees with the findings in a report titled, “Mainstreaming Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Integrated Catchment Management in the Kingdom of Lesotho.”

The report by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC) in collaboration with the National University of Lesotho (NUL) talks of responding to climate change using indigenous knowledge systems.

“In response to climate change and emerging challenges, it is essential for decision- makers to formulate policies based on the best available knowledge. The knowledge of local people known as Indigenous Knowledge is increasingly recognised as an important source of knowledge for conservation of natural resources and ecosystems, and for resilience strategies. 

The tradition of African people is to live in harmony with nature, through sustainable use of the resources within their localities,” the report says.

It further stated that, “Indigenous knowledge is therefore a precious resource that must be preserved, not only as a component of cultural identity, but to meet the challenges of modern life. 

The use of indigenous knowledge can contribute to the increased efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability of environmental conservation among rural communities in Lesotho and elsewhere in Southern Africa.”

This knowledge forms the basis for community-level decisions pertaining to sustainable land management, livestock rearing, food security, human and animal health, and the management of natural resources and ecosystems.

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