The Zimbabwe you don’t know

November 12, 2022

Growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe, Lake Kariba was my weekend playground as a child. I water-skied across its crocodile-infested surface from the age of eight and spent many nights aboard my dad’s fishing boat during the brutal years of the war, wondering if we would survive until morning. Memories of times spent on this expanse of water, which is tainted with a horrific history, would stay in the back of my mind as a key truth about my place in the world long after I’d grown up and moved away from not only Zimbabwe, but from Africa.

Today, one could easily forget that Lake Kariba was made by humans. Herds of buffalo and elephants graze on her emerald banks. At night, the lake turns ink black, her velvety surface sequined with reflections of stars. But before nightfall comes sunset. I’ve probably seen the widest variety of southern African sunsets of anyone I know, from Cape Town to Kenya. All are different, but the riot of color that streaks the sky at Kariba, transforming the lake into a mirror of pink and then purple, is so astonishing it feels almost psychedelic. It silences and stills you, too magnificent for words or gestures. And yet, amidst such beauty, lies a subconscious feeling that this vast African lake shouldn't quite be there. And it shouldn’t be…

From river to dam

Before the late 1950s, there was no lake, only the Kariba Gorge, through which the mighty Zambezi River flowed. The decision to dam the river held the promise of hydroelectricity for Zambia and Zimbabwe, two countries that badly needed it. Yet, the consequences for wildlife and the BaTonga people who had lived and farmed the valley for centuries were catastrophic. At a staggering human cost, 57,000 BaTonga living in 193 villages were forcibly uprooted from their ancestral homes to new, undesirable land on higher ground. These people, who had lived, fished, and farmed throughout the Gwembe Valley for centuries, strongly advocated against the dam’s construction. 

No language has the words to adequately convey the horror and disrespect of removing an ancestor-respecting people from their ancestral land, from the ancestors themselves, from all that is known so intimately. The BaTonga attributed the series of disasters and raging floods that followed their removal to Nyami Nyami, the river god. The myth of this African deity surrounds the doom of the 1958 damming disaster like a thick impenetrable fog. A reminder of the fruitlessness of man’s efforts to subdue nature. 

As waters rose, it was thought that native wildlife would move to higher ground. But it all happened too quickly. Thousands of animals drowned or became marooned on newly formed islands with no food source. A rescue mission akin to that of Noah’s Ark – the aptly named Operation Noah – ensued. Led by Zimbabwe’s (then Rhodesia’s) chief ranger, Rupert Fothergill, a team of trackers, guides, ecologists, and volunteers rescued 6,000 animals over five years. This rescue of creatures great and small, including herds of elephants, lone rhinos, dazzles of notoriously difficult zebras, porcupines, prides of lions, and even giraffes, defies belief. But somehow, with a fleet of boats, nets, ropes, and plenty of courage, the team achieved the inconceivable.  

The displaced BaTonga believed that Nyami Nyami, a fearsome god with the body of a serpent, the head of a fish, and menacing fangs, would not stand for a wall across his river. That wall, designed by French engineer André Coyne, was a double curvature concrete arch dam over 420 feet tall and 1,900 feet long, holding 150,000,000 acre-feet of water. It is still said that Nyami Nyami will one day break the wall, returning the BaTonga to their ancestors.

Nature’s power and promise

It’s near impossible for me to reconcile the destruction of the past with the present. Today, the lush banks of Lake Kariba act as a beacon of conservation. Thriving wildlife, pristine tracts of wilderness, and pioneering lodges like Bumi Hills encourage responsible, sustainable tourism. The Lake’s glassy surface and fish-filled depths encourage a lively culture of fishing and houseboats. And after years of mismanagement, Matusadona National Park, a critical habitat that hugs part of the lake, is being restored to its rightful place as a wildlife haven under the expert eyes of African Parks and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. The conservation initiatives in action throughout the park – including the translocation of native wildlife, collaring of elephants, and solid, consistent governance and anti-poaching patrols – are so important. With the right support and protection, Matusadona has the potential to become Zimbabwe’s leading elephant and rhino sanctuary. 

For those intrepid explorers fortunate enough to experience this vast expanse of water, trading the evening game drive for a boat ride to catch the sunset leaves no doubt about the transformative power of nature. As I said, it’s too magnificent for words. And some reminders of the verdant, forested valley that once was do still remain: the petrified gray branches of submerged trees reach out of the water like starkly beautiful but hapless sentinels of a drowned world. It’s a place where I feel deeply rooted, baked into the wet soil like clay. That kind of connection to a place never leaves you. This body of water, a lifeline for all who live along her banks, holds so much… a traumatic history and high hopes for an environmentally sound future, one with conservation at its core.

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