Columnists Features

Nchelenge: A district on the edge

JACK ZIMBA, Nchelenge
IT IS hard to talk about Nchelenge and not mention Kashikishi. And many people usually talk about the two as though they were different places, with Kashikishi receiving a greater mention.
Even the residents of Nchelenge themselves talk about Kashikishi as though it was some distant place outside the district.
The reason is simple. Kashikishi, a trading centre on the edge of Lake Mweru, is what has made Nchelenge district popular, and if one is travelling by bus to the district, it is where the bus station is located.
Inevitably, Kashikishi is the name mentioned on the destination charts on buses, and not Nchelenge.
And yes, there would probably be no Nchelenge without this thriving trading centre.
Kashikishi, which started as a fishing camp has, over the decades, transformed into a bustling market trading in all sorts of goods, from salaula to food stuffs.
Thus, the district is inadvertently divided into two – Kashikishi as a commercial centre and Nchelenge as the administrative centre.
Actually, Kashikishi has so much trading taking place, that it is now considered the busiest commercial centre in Luapula, after the provincial capital, Mansa.
Kashikishi is also an important source of revenue for the local council. Nchelenge district council secretary Sishumba Mulowa says the local authority earned K354,000 last year through trade levies and licenses at Kashikishi.
“Kashikishi is a powerful trading place,” says Mr Mulowa.
The commercial centre also attracts many traders from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who come to buy various goods.
Without doubt, chisense (lake sardines) accounts for the biggest trade at Kashikishi, drawing many fishmongers from the Copperbelt and Lusaka.
But for all its vibrant commerce, Nchelenge did not have a bank until last month when Natsave opened a branch. Before then, residents relied on mobile bank services.
Walk a few metres beyond the trading area and you find an expanse of water with many wooden vessels of varying sizes littered along the shoreline, seemingly abandoned by their owners. This is a portrait of a watery wasteland that has become of Lake Mweru.
Like many water bodies in this land of rivers, Lake Mweru has not been spared from over-fishing and its fish stocks have been depleted to unimaginable levels.
According to district fisheries officer Masiliso Phiri, the catch in the lake has fallen from 12kg per boat per night in the 1980s, to 0.5kg presently.
In fact, the marine expert says some species of fish have disappeared from the lake. The chisense is still in abundance, though.
At the local market, fresh fish of the tilapia type costs as much as K25 per kilogramme.
But there is now hope that the fish stocks will rebound after Government stationed a commando marine unit in the district recently.
The local fishermen, who have been defiant in the past, flouting fishing regulations, are now said to be fearful of the army unit.
And due to the dwindling fish stocks, many residents of Nchelenge have now switched from fishing to agriculture, in order to make a living.
Last year, the district was given a target to sell 70,000 bags of maize to the Food Reserve Agency, but it exceeded that figure by 10,000 bags.
The district also has a rubber plantation covering over 120 hectares at Chilongo, which, however is not vibrant.
Another source of income for the district is a mine operating on the other side of the border in mineral-rich Katanga Province. The mine uses Nchelenge as a gateway to South Africa, where it takes its copper concentrate for processing.
Two or three times a week, a large barge docks at the harbour, carrying tonnes of the copper concentrate, which is then loaded on trucks for transportation to South Africa.
Last month as many as 172 trucks passed through the loading bay.
Nchelenge started in about 1956 as a sub-boma of Kawambwa and was later upgraded into a district.
According to Nchelenge district commissioner Derrick Mwelwa, the district derives its name from imi Kelenge, a type of wild fruit-bearing tree that was common in the area. Because the early European settlers could not pronounce the local name, it eventually changed to Nchelenge.
The district, which covers about 4,793 square kilometres, borders Chienge to the north and Kawambwa to the east.
On its western flank, the district borders the DRC, where it shares the waters of Lake Mweru with Zambia’s mineral-rich neighbour.
The district has three islands situated on Lake Mweru, namely: Kilwa, Chisenga and Isokwe.
Kilwa is the largest and perhaps most important of the three islets.
It is said that the Scottish explorer David Livingstone once stayed on the Island on one of his odysseys. The island was also a popular place with slave traders.
The huge caverns found on the island are said to contain some ancient rock paintings, as well as inscriptions of David Livingstone, himself.
Mr Mwelwa thinks it was Dr Livingstone who gave the island its name, borrowing from another island by the same name off the coast of Tanzania.
The district has the third-largest population in Luapula Province, which stood at 152,000 at the last census. It is also the most densely populated district in Luapula, with an annual growth of about 3.2 percent.
About 20 percent of the population in the district lives on the three islands, with Chisenga being the most populated.
And because of trade, Nchelenge also has a large transient population.
The district has four chiefdoms – Kambwali, Kanyembo, Nshimba and Muyembe.
Early in the morning, rickety boats can be seen bringing in traders from one of the three islands.
The picture may soon change, as Government has ordered a number of water transport vessels, some of which will be stationed in the district, according to Mr Mwelwa.
For land transport within the district, there are taxis that shuttle between Kashikishi and Nchelenge Boma.
There are plans to build a better harbour, while lodging fascilities belonging to the Ministry of Transport and Communication are currently being upgraded.
The council recently completed a street lighting project, which has covered 2.8km of urban roads. The street lights are powered by solar, a good initiative in view of the current power cuts. The local authority has also spent huge amounts of money to build a market in the main trading area, as well as to improve sanitation at Kashikishi by building toilets. Kashikishi has been prone to cholera outbreaks in the past.
There is an ongoing project to refurbish 15km of urban roads, which is likely to change the face of Nchelenge once completed.
Mr Mulowa thinks once the roads have been done, it will help turn Nchelenge into a resort town.
According to Mr Mulowa, the council has reserved about 15 plots for hospitality business at a lagoon along the shoreline, and his desire is to have investors that can build hotels and conference facilities there.
“We anticipate that in a few years to come the potential of tourism will be realised,” he says.
Currently, there are three or four guest houses on the edge of Lake Mweru in the Boma offering substandard accommodation, which is, however, compensated by a breathtaking view of the lake as it extends far into the Congo.
For those who fancy a night out, Kafindondo is the most happening place in the district, where one can choose between Congolese and Zambian beer. But it’s not uncommon for a visitor to be warned about neferous activities that take place at Kashikishi after dark.
There is a small state prison on the edge of the lake that was built by the colonial government. The prison was built to accommodate 19 inmates, but it now has over 100.
According to Mr Mwelwa Government also plans to build a college of science and mathematics in the district, as well as a district hospital.
There are also plans by the Ministry of Youth and Sport to build a stadium.
“We have been asked to identify three places where a stadium can be built and then the ministry will choose one,” says Mr Mwelwa.
“Nchelenge, 10 years from now will have the status of municipal council,” the district commissioner says.

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