MAZIMBA KAUNDA, Samfya
WHILE Mbala has been the recipient of much academic and public attention for its role in the war, another key player has been obscured and relegated to the background – Lunga district in Luapula Province of Zambia.
Lunga – the land of the hunters – was separated from Samfya district in 2011. But during the First World War, it was under Luwingu district but was managed from Nsumbu Island.
With a population of 24,005, Lunga is home to the Unga and the Twa. It is made up of about 5,000 square kilometres of swamp and stretches to the south and south east of Lake Bangweulu. It is fed by the Chambeshi River which has its source in the Mbala highlands. The Chambeshi comes out from the south-west at Mpanta as the Luapula River, hence the name Luapula which means ‘to come out from the other side’.
The Luapula River proceeds to enter Lake Mweru and Mweru-wa-Ntipa and then joins the Luvua River, a tributary of the Congo River. This river system forms the border between Zambia and Congo DR.
On the north, east and south east, the district borders Northern, Muchinga and Central provinces. It has four main chiefdoms, Kalima Nkonde, Kasoma Lunga, Nsamba and Bwalya Mponda. There are two main entrances into the swamps; Mpanta and Chinsanka harbours but the best transport modes are canoes and small engine boats due to its clogged channels and shallow depth.
Lunga district had an abundance of animals such as lechwes, elephants, hippopotamus, otters, reedbucks, buffaloes, antelopes and crocodiles. There were also various bird species such as pelicans, wild geese, heron and the famous shoebill. The Bangweulu Lake and swamps has about 83 species of fish. But from the 1950’s, the population of wild animals and fish has continued to decline.
It is true that the war was never fought in Lunga district. But to the people of Lunga, the war was experienced in other different ways.
The colonial administration relied heavily on the food from Lunga because the people fighting in Mbala and Tanzania had to be fed. Food resources included cassava, castor oil, bananas, sorghum, fish, black lechwes, sitatunga, sheep, birds and a few sweet potatoes. Lechwe was particularly abundant in Lunga where one could see a line of lechwe standing close together for two to three miles.
Two stations were set up at Mansa and Luwingu to purchase food for the war effort. For the entire war period, Lunga was looked upon as the main supplier of food.
Another important contribution that Lunga District made to the war effort was labour as couriers.
According to Jan-Bart Gewald, a professor of African history, “any historical understanding of the [First World] war requires that the central importance of African porterage labour be recognised”.
It was probably in cognizance of this effort that the Northern Rhodesia Regiment later adopted the motto of ‘Diversi genere fide pares’ (different in race, equal in fidelity).
The war was based on mobility, short raids and long treks on foot and thus called for massive labour. Horses, cattle and donkeys were unsuitable due to the tse tse flies in north-eastern Zambia and Tanzania.
Labour was procured using the Carrier Corps (known among the Africans as tenga tenga). Almost, 40,732 people worked outside Zambia as first line transport for the mobile column in East Africa in the capacity of porters, gun carriers and ambulance carriers.
Absalom Mulongo has noted that between April 1915 and March 1916, 12,786 people from the Bangweulu area were employed in the war effort. The people of Lunga also participated as soldiers in the Kings African Rifle (KAR) military unit, the Northern Rhodesia Police and the Rhodesia Native Regiment.
It was practically impossible to effectively launch a military operation in Africa without carriers. Britain relied on African porters to the scale of four porters to one European. Under the British command, there were one million Africans who worked as cooks, cleaners and personal servants trekking between Kenya and Zambia between 1914 and 1918.
In fact, statistics show that while 3,500 Zambians joined the army to fight against the Germans in Tanzania, between 50,000 and 100,000 were used as porters. Without this porterage labour, the war in Africa would not have taken four years.
Though there was no formal system of conscription, there was no such thing as voluntary labour as long as chiefs were involved. To the administration, its responsibility to secure labour far outweighed any other considerations. To force them to provide labour, chiefs were threatened with political and economic sanctions. At indabas held at the Boma in Luwingu, the district commissioner solicited pledges of allegiance and gave out quotas of labour and food stuff. Through such indabas, people came to know of the ‘white man’s war’ on Zambia’s northern borders.
But chiefs, because of the political organisation of the Unga and the Twa where the chief was not autocratic, they were not in a position to volunteer such services to the administration. Chiefs were well aware of their desperate position vis a vis labour. Under orders from the administration, they often employed violence or the threat of violence to secure labour. Through such measures, the Unga and Batwa were dragooned into wage labour. Those who resisted to be recruited had their houses burnt while deserters were shot as they fled from forced labour.
For the first two years, the administration was able to meet the demands for porters and food but after 1916, it became stretched beyond sustainable levels. All labour within Lunga district was utilized such that reinforcements were called in from other districts such as Kafue and Western.
The only railway in 1914 ran from Livingstone to Kabwe. Beyond Kabwe, there stood 1,000 kilometres without railway or road. The question that commanders had to answer was how to supply material to the warfront from Kabwe. The colonial officials looked to Lunga district to chart a short cut between Ndola and Mbala. This route was Lunga districts’ greatest contribution to the war effort. The idea of using water transport was audacious as 5000km2 of swamp had to be traversed to reach the war front. For those unfamiliar with the nature of swamps, they are small islands of sometimes dry but often wet land connected by a maze of dead-end channels, and lakes and lagoons weaved in a confusing and frustrating manner. Even in the 21st century with tremendous advances in technology, only native-born coxswains can negotiate them.
Native commissioners such as Frank Melland and JE Hughes navigated the swamps from the Chambeshi River and the Luapula River between 1911 and 1915. But it was Hughes who drew a map which illustrated possible routes. Hughes had an ulterior motive as he started a transport company and was given the tender to transport goods to the war front. On his maiden voyage, he transported ten tons of biscuits and 15 days later, he arrived at Chiwutuwutu, about 48 kilometres from Kasama.
Native Commissioner for Luwingu EHB Goodall was asked to tour the new route and he thought it could benefit with some adjustments. Consequently in 1916, Goodall cut a channel from Lake Chali to the Luapula River which made trips more efficient. The Goodall channel created the golden route and the lifeline of the British war effort.
But these routes were not discovered by white people. Just like the Victoria Falls, these routes had been traversed by the Unga people who had traded with the Bemba and the Bisa for nearly a century. Melland was actually paddled by Prince Tunga Mulilo (the Bisa Chief Kabinga’s son) and Kafubu. The route was also well known to those Unga men who went to Luwingu to seek work up to 1910 as well as when they took otter skins in lieu of tax.
A white foreigner at that time could not travel in the swamps without the goodwill of the Africans. Livingstone bitterly discovered this in the 1870s when he failed to proceed after guides were denied to him. I digress.
When transporting goods to the war front, the journey began from different points on the line of rail where about 6,000 porters of Luvale, Tonga and Lozi origin carried over 2,500 tons of goods and loaded them on trains. These loads included grain, guns and spare parts, safes, petrol, bicycles, police equipment, blankets, calico, whiskey, rice and salt. The couriers were paid 4s per trip plus food, salt and meat portions. The train unloaded at Sakania, which is 10 kilometres from Ndola. From Sakania, the loads were carried by porters through the pedicle to Kabunda or Kapalala on the Luapula River, a journey of 100 kilometres. At Kabunda, they were received by Sergeant Clarke who earned the nickname of ‘Sergeant Kabunda’ or ‘Kapalala Clarke’. From Kapalala, goods were then loaded onto canoes and paddled to Lunga through the Goodall channel for about 644 kilometres.
Another route was from Kapalala/Kabunda to Mpanta. From Mpanta, paddlers went to Lake Walilupe, passing Kawena channel to Nsumbu Island on Lake Bangweulu. Then they entered the Luapula River at Mpwanki’s village on Mbo ya Lubambe, passed through Ncheta, and then Matongo Island and Nsalushi. Both routes came out from Lukulu River, a tributary of the Chambeshi and then porters carried the loads for the remaining 48 kilometres to Kasama. Mulongo notes that by 1916, almost half of the population of Lunga worked as canoe paddlers, this remained consistent till the end of the war. About 1885 canoes were used in the swamp transport and 12,000 people as paddlers. Canoes were procured from Lunga for 6d per load per trip and sent to Kabunda for registration. A paddler was paid 6/- and 2/- food allowance for two completed journeys, if a journey was undertaken in less than one month, an extra shilling was given. By the end of 1916, the Lunga route was well-oiled that within two weeks, goods would reach Kasama. Over 70,000 loads of about 25kgs each were transported between January 1916 and February 1917. The golden route not only allowed the administration to have a constant and steady supply system to the frontline, but also was considerably shorter and less wasteful. Almost all goods loaded arrived in good condition. There was only one incidence of theft but it was nipped in the bud while only a cast-iron stove was reported to have sunk.
MAZIMBA KAUNDA, Samfya