The Mighty Zambezi
By “Awake!” correspondent in Zimbabwe
THE place is the undulating countryside of Africa, about 5,000 feet (1,500 m) above sea level in northern Zambia. There an unusual birth takes place—that of the mighty Zambezi, the fourth largest river of Africa, after the Nile, Congo and Niger.
Waters issue from a black, marshy bog and gather together into a tiny stream. Then, like a mischievous little boy, the stream bounces, tumbles, leaps and romps over rocks. As it grows larger it develops power, energy, majesty and, finally, winds its way to be swallowed up in the Indian Ocean.
The mighty waters of the Zambezi have served people for thousands of years and played a vital part in the growing prosperity of the peoples of Central Africa. Energy from these waters, now arrested at Kariba Dam, is being used to industrialize and modernize the lives of thousands of people and light up a once-dark continent.
Would you like to get acquainted with the 2,000 miles (3,200 km) of this river from its source to the Indian Ocean? In the 1850’s the Scottish explorer David Livingstone did just that, but you will not need to battle fever, tsetse flies and mosquitoes as he did.
Just 20 miles (32 km) from the river’s source, the Zambezi is already strong and vigorous and some 15 yards (14 m) wide. Building up strength and volume from its many tributaries, it pushes its way down to the Barotse Plain. It is here that the Lozi people for numerous generations have used these life-sustaining waters for drinking, bathing, fishing and cooking. Traditions and witchcraft that have developed on its banks, however, have never been washed away.
A villager in this area explains that she had wanted to give birth to children but failed. The witch doctor diagnosed the trouble as being a large bird that plucked the babies from her womb—just the opposite of the myth of the Western world where people speak of the big stork that brings the babies. The witch doctor told her to build a little protective idol outside her home. She took half a calabash shell and made it into a nest, placing within it an egg, so that, when the big bird would return, it would take the egg instead of her babies. As we continue our journey with the Zambezi, the villager remains barren and the idol stands outside her home, like so many others, as a monument to the bondage to tradition in which so many here are still held.
We call the Zambezi a river, but in February, March and April you would think it was a large lake with water stretching as far as the eye can see.
The waters rise as much as 40 feet (12 m) during the rainy season. Every year as the waters rise, thousands of villagers go to higher ground and take part in the “Kuomboka” ceremony. The paramount chief in his royal barge is paddled over to his summer palace, accompanied by a thousand voices in traditional song. Rhythmically dancing, thousands of the Lozi people greet the paramount chief upon his arrival.
Leaving the plains, we journey through other settlements until we arrive at Sesheke. It was here on August 4, 1851, that David Livingstone first admired the beautiful Zambezi. Livingstone would see little change if he returned. Vast herds of game still find refreshment in the glass-clear waters of the river.
We have journeyed some 800 miles (1,300 km) and the river has become about two miles (3 km) wide in parts. Just ahead we are to be awed by one of the world’s most beautiful and spectacular falls. Perhaps you can already hear the roar of the 15,000,000 gallons (57,000,000 L) of water that every minute plunge over the one and a quarter miles (2 km) gorge, crashing down 350 feet (107 m) to the floor of the crevasse. Like a mysterious mist, the spray ascends a thousand feet (300 m) or more into the clear blue sky. The native people here call it Mosi oa Tunya (the smoke that thunders).
David Livingstone is said to have discovered these falls in 1855, naming them after Queen Victoria of England.
Although the average flow of water is 15,000,000 gallons (57,000,000 L) a minute, 159,000,000 gallons (602,000,000 L) have been recorded in the wet season. With this much water, in one minute you would have enough to give 10,000 people a good-sized bath every day for four years.
Do you see those signs on the bank of the river? “Swimming is Suicide.” Yes! Water so beautiful and crystal clear, and yet you dare not swim in it for fear you might find yourself legless or lifeless, a victim of the crocodile, the hidden danger in the depths of this beautiful river.
Batoka Gorge and Lake Kariba
This huge river suddenly finds itself confined to a narrow gorge that snakes its way through the Central African plateau. The water level never drops below 50 feet (15 m), and during the rains it increases to over 100 feet (30 m). We travel 60 miles (97 km) through this Batoka Gorge named after the Batoka people. The area is desolate, uninhabited, with wiry, dry shrubbery growing over the cliffs. Twenty-three miles (37 km) from the Victoria Falls the river has worn itself 800 feet (244 m) deep into the rocks.
We are now entering Lake Kariba, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. It stretches 160 miles (256 km) ahead of us. In the years following 1958, with the construction of the dam and the resultant rising waters, some 50,000 Tonga people left their homes to find new settlements.
This huge lake has now become a rich source of food for the people. In just one 14-week fishing period over 1 1/2 million pounds of fresh and dried fish were produced, excluding local consumption.
Leaving the dam through a narrow gorge 14 miles (23 km) long, we enter a veritable paradise of rich, green, lush vegetation. Buffaloes, hippos, elephants, hyenas and birds of every description have made their homes here, inaccessible to the thrill-seeking hunter.
Middle Zambezi to the Indian Ocean
We are now in the middle Zambezi and the hard, rocky terrain has given way to the beautiful Chicora Plains, where the river continues to meander for 60 miles (97 km). It is picturesquely framed by a narrow belt of rich evergreens.
The calm and quiet of this part of our journey is suddenly broken. No doubt you can hear the crashing of millions of gallons of water racing and gamboling over the rocks and boulders of the Kebrassa Rapids.
The next gorge is known as Lupato Gorge, some 4,000 feet (1,220 m) below the surrounding barrier hills. As if with a final surge of energy, from this point the river races wildly over jagged rocks. Churning, foaming, boiling, it crashes on relentlessly. As the river roars out of the gorge, though, it soon changes its pace. As if spent, it quits the race and now glides on with majesty, spreading its waters three to five miles (5 to 8 km) wide, meandering down a broad valley for the final 200 miles (320 km) of its journey.
The Zambezi divides up into a number of large streams leading to the delta, where it enters the Indian Ocean. Our exciting journey ends as the river loses its identity. Its waters, at one time so refreshingly crystal clear, now murky from the delta sands, are swallowed up by the warm blue brine of the Indian Ocean.
Livingstone called the Zambezi “God’s highway to the interior.” We appreciate the Zambezi as one of many rivers that beautify our earthly home and refresh its inhabitants.
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[Picture on page 22]
Swimming is Suicide