The Zambezi plays an important role in the lives of all the people in the Mwandi area. The river is called ‘Lyambai’ which alludes to its unpredictable and stormy nature. During the floodtime it is a constant source of danger but it is also addressed affectionately as Yunene – the big one! This is because of the abundance it yields to farmers and fishermen. The cold season is coming to an end now and the day and night time temperatures rise as the level of the Zambezi falls.
Each year after harvest, many families who live inland, after having gathered in their maize and having stored it safely in the stick-woven bins on stilts and covering it by a thatch roof to keep out the rats, pack up their belongings and move down to the riverside. The elderly folks rather than face the journey and roughing it in a fishing camp often prefer to stay behind to watch over the other deserted properties.
All the belongings necessary for the 5-6 months away from home are packed into a two-wheeled scotch-cart that is drawn by oxen. The children generally do the packing. Cast-iron cauldrons, blankets, clothes, fishing nets for the men, conical basket traps for the women, paddles, even some caged hens. A variety of tools, axes, hoes, mortar and pestles, sacks of maize, pumpkins, the ubiquitous supermarket plastic bags filled with groundnuts and some 20l plastic containers for making sour milk and fetching water. Sleeping mats are left at home as new ones will be made from the reeds at the riverside.
The extended family now gathers in a circle in the yard to bid each other farewell. “Come back with the rains so we can prepare our fields,” Granny will remind them. “Go well,” is the blessing the parents and grandchildren receive. “Stay well,” is the reciprocated wish from the children and grandchildren for the grandparents. We’ll see each other- is said by all in a final farewell.
The womenfolk and younger children climb into the cart and sit at the front padded by the maize and the bundles of clothes. The father shoulders his axe and tugs the inside ox by the halter to set the cart in motion. The boys pick up their sticks which they will use to drive the cattle and they whistle and shout to push the herd forward. They travel ahead of the cart. Lurcher-like dogs assist the boys, nipping at stragglers’ heels and running up and down, barking self-importantly. It is a day’s journey to the riverbank, a journey choked by the dust stamped up by the cattle, jolted about in the unsprung bone-shaking cart and plagued by swarms of thirsty flies.
The last three kilometre stretch southward to the river is done at a trot. People and animals get excited as they near the river which will be their home and will supply most of their needs for the next half of the year. The cows smell the water and rush expectantly to slake their thirst.
The Zambezi spreads out before them. In front is a channel with a slowly flowing stream, like water in a lake. Across the water lie the grassy island pastures they know so well, fringed by the reeds they will use to weave sleeping mats and to build the fishing camp huts that will become their home. The moored dug-out canoe is unchained, bailed out and filled with belongings. They paddle over to the island pasture. Once the family and their possessions are safely landed on the other side, the cattle - directed from the canoe by the men and boys - are swum across. Fish - the bream, the catfish, the squeakers, the tigerfish and fry - are all available here. All good and necessary things and dynamic forces originate from the North according to the Lozi. The southward flow of the river; the South, the riverbank is the terminus where the journey ends.