You are currently viewing Luangwa: Backwater place coming back to life
A MAN packs dried fish at a harbour in Feira. The fish comes from Mozambique. Right, a boat laden with goods prepares to make its journey back to Mozambique. Many Mozambicans from the town of Zumbo depend on Feira for their supplies. PICTURES: JACK ZIMBA

Luangwa: Backwater place coming back to life

AND so, here I was quite literally standing on the banks of two rivers – the Zambezi and Luangwa – and looking at three countries – Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia – all in one short glance.This is a unique experience only possible at Feira in Luangwa district, south of Lusaka.
From a vantage point, one can actually mark the point at which the two rivers meet – the confluence. This is because the great Zambezi River, flowing eastwards to the Indian Ocean, appears greyish, perhaps owing to its depth, while the shallow Luangwa appears brownish.
For the Luangwa is really a run-off river, come October, its water will have been licked up by the sun or run off into the Zambezi, and all that will be left of this river is a sandy riverbed and pools of water at intervals.
On the river bank, I watched as three nations interacted in trade, various water vessels going and coming bearing people and goods. It is a perfect trade triangle called by the acronym ZIMOZA (Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia).
Yet, the only Luangwa many motorists traversing the Great East Road see is a thriving roadside market selling dried fish and reed baskets.
But turn into the D145 and drive for an hour or so and you reach Feira, which is where the administrative capital of the district sits, nestled between mountains and hot as hell in summer.
The D145 runs almost entirely parallel to the Luangwa River. The road was recently worked on and has considerably shortened the 89km journey to Feira. Before the road was done, it took about five hours to get to Feira.
If you are lucky, you will come across a herd of buffalo or elephants along the route before reaching Feira, for this district lies close to the Lower Zambezi National Park and Rufunsa game management area.
And yet, to a casual observer, Feira is a slumbering one-horse town – and maybe it is. But you have to wind the clock backwards three or even four centuries in order to appreciate this place, its beautiful wildlife and topography notwithstanding.
The settlement dates back to the 16th century when Portuguese traders used it as a market for slaves, gold and ivory.
There is evidence of Portuguese settlement at Feira as early as the 16th century. In fact, the name Feira is Portuguese meaning ‘open market’.
Feira is said to have prospered greatly around 1730. Some people, like Festo Makawa, a curator of one of the historical sites, actually believe that there is buried treasure at Feira stashed in secret bunkers by the Portuguese. But where does one begin to dig?
Festo’s great, great grandmother was also once sold as a slave in this area, but she managed to escape.
In the heyday of that era, a convent and a church were built here by a priest called Pedro da Trindade.
However, trade is said to have declined in the 19th century and the settlement was abandoned in 1830.
In 1856, David Livingstone visited the ruins of the church at Feira.
In 1887, the British arrived at Feira and John Harrison built his headquarters here. In 1902, Feira was established as a BOMA (British Overseas Management Administration) and it became an important staging post on the cattle route from Tanganyika to Southern Rhodesia, but its importance declined with the building of the railway.
In 1978, Luangwa was declared a district but that status did not turn its fortunes; it has remained a backwater place since. Its potential as an important trading post or tourist destination has remained just that – potential.
Ngoni Moyo, who is district commissioner for Luangwa, thinks this has largely been because of the bad road leading to the BOMA and the lack of reliable electricity. Luangwa still relies on diesel for electricity, although a power line is under construction that will connect the district to the national grid.
Mr Moyo says the liberation wars of the 1970s and 1980s also made the prospects for any investment in the district harder.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the rebel group Renamo fought a bloody battle against FRELIMO in Mozambique, which usually spilled over into Luangwa.
And in the 1970s, the liberation war in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) also spilled over into Luangwa.
In fact, one battle was staged about 15km from Feira at Kavalamanja in March 1978. A number of villagers were killed, including soldiers and guerrillas from Southern Rhodesia.
But this dark episode has only added to the rich history of the district and every year now, army officers flock to Kavalamanja to remember the fallen war heroes.
Indeed with all its beautiful wildlife, physical features and rich history, here is a place needing some publicity.
And that is what the local administration is planning. An expo to showcase Luangwa’s potential is planned for July along three themes – trade, tourism and transit.
The expo is being organised in conjunction with the Ministry of Commerce and Trade, and the Zambia Development Agency. It is scheduled to take place from July 15 to 16 with a budget of K1.3 million.
Council secretary Gilbert Sendama is excited about the expo and the prospect of development in the district.
“We want to bring the investors in one place and explain the potential of this place. If we can attract one or two investors, Luangwa will never be the same again.
“We want to make Luangwa the next tourist and trade hub of Zambia considering its many advantages and potential. In terms of tourism, very few districts have the endowment that Luangwa has and in terms of trade, we have peculiar advantage compared to other border towns,” says Mr Sendama.
Already, the council has given out more land along the river for lodges and luxury homes.
Currently, there are a few lodges dotted along the Zambezi River, but most of them can only be accessed by water due to poor road network, and in many cases roads do not exist at all.
“The council has offloaded high-value land for hotel and lodges development. We have created about 50 plots along the Zambezi River,” says Mr Sendama.
The plots include special residential plots on the riverbank and on the mountain tops.
“We actually have a high demand for those on the river front. Even the special residential plots are on high demand, especially that they give you a very beautiful view of the Zambezi River,” says Mr Sendama.
The council has graded about 40km of township roads to improve access to the new development area.
“The Luangwa we envision is a town with adequate banking facilities, shopping malls, fish and masau-processing plants, and a boat-manufacturing industry,” he says.
The masau fruits are plentiful in Luangwa and are usually loaded on lorries and ferried to the bigger towns, especially Lusaka. Some locals use the sourly wild fruit to brew beer.
Plentiful, however, cannot apply to Luangwa’s fish stocks. Years of indiscriminate fishing have depleted the fish stocks in both rivers, at least on the Zambian side.
Our neighbours have learned how to prudently manage the resource. The Zimbabweans are said to jealously guard their fish and will arrest anyone fishing illegally.
On the Zambian side of the river, however, I found a mosquito net on the river bank. Some fishers use them to catch fish but end up catching everything – spawns and young fish. The result is empty rivers.
And so the bulk of the fish here comes from Mozambique. Yes, what is usually marketed as Luangwa fish is actually not from Luangwa.
Actually, there is a fourth nation involved in the triangle trade – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Huge consignments of fish that lands here in motorised banana boats are destined for Kasumbalesa.
Luangwa district fisheries and livestock co-ordinator Bornwell Hankolwe reckons about 75 percent of the fish that lands here ends up in the DRC.
There is also a plan to install a pontoon on the crossing between Zambia and Zimbabwe. A docking bay for the pontoon has already been constructed and land where a dry port will be set up has already been identified.
The dream is to re-open this as a major transit route to South Africa.
Mr Sendema says the Zimbabwean government plans to construct a three-kilometre road to link the harbour to the main road leading to the capital, Harare.
It is said that once the route is opened, it will reduce the distance to South Africa by 400km.
“When that is done, which is in the next few months, this will be the shortest route to the southern circuit,” he says.
“We are now closer to having the pontoon more than ever before,” says Mr Moyo, the district commissioner.
A businessman from Mozambique is planning to bring another pontoon that will be transporting people and goods between that country and Zambia.
Both the Mozambicans and Zimbabweans depend on Luangwa for their groceries, building materials and fuel.
“For trade, we have two-fold demand – internal and external demand. Although the population of Luangwa may not support huge investments in terms of demand for consumables, which should not be the only determinant factor because we have Zimbabwe and Mozambique whose populations buy goods from Luangwa, the demand is sufficient to support any industry or chain store,” he says.
Luangwa has a population of about 28,000 inhabitants.
For residents of Luangwa, like Moricio Mumba, the prospects of Luangwa becoming a major trading point are brighter than ever before.
“Luangwa will become a great place again,” Mr Mumba says.