Interview: Basilwizi Trust, Zimbabwe

Terri Hathaway
Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fifty years ago, Tonga communities were forced to give up their traditional homeland during construction of Kariba Dam. Unforgiving terrain combined with the country's devolving political and economic situation have left the Zimbabwean Tonga facing greater challenges than their Zambian relatives, whose community well-being deteriorated following an inadequate resettlement. Starting in 2000, the Tonga-led Basilwizi Trust in Zimbabwe began helping rewrite the future of its people. International Rivers' Africa campaigner Terri Hathaway caught up with Boniface Mutale, Director of Basilwizi Trust. Born shortly after his family's resettlement, Mutale is leading one of the strongest efforts to combat the effects of displacement which continue to batter new generations of Tonga.

WRR: How did Basilwizi Trust begin?

Mutale: We were looking at how we could help the Tonga communities in the Zambezi Valley who were affected by construction of Kariba and the flooding of their lands. So we came together because there was no meaningful organization in the Zambezi Valley championing these communities' issues. We decided to form an organization that actually identifies with the people, that understands the issues affecting the communities, and will continue to work with the communities until a lasting solution is found. "Basilwizi" is Tonga for "people of the great river." It well describes the life people lived along the banks of the Zambezi, and their attachment to the river that was a source of their livelihoods for years.

WRR: How would you describe the effect of the displacement on the Tonga communities?

Mutale: The effect of the relocation has been grave. When the people were relocated, they were promised that water would follow them, meaning that the government was going to construct small dams in the new resettlement areas and pipelines from the Kariba reservoir to the new areas. They were also going to construct schools, clinics and roads, but very little of that was actually followed up by the then [colonial] government. A few boreholes were constructed, yes, but these broke down after some time and there was no follow up to make sure they continued supplying water. Most of these boreholes produced salty water which was not very good for domestic use. No dams were built for the communities. So, since that time, people have been experiencing acute water shortages in these new areas, something that they never experienced during the time they lived along the banks of the Zambezi River.

People have also been experiencing acute food shortages. They tell us that they used to have adequate food for their families throughout the year because they were able to grow enough food on the alluvial soils on which they lived on the banks of the Zambezi.

When it comes to infrastructure like clinics and schools, the situation is appalling. Up to independence, there was no secondary school in Binga, and those who got secondary education had to move out of the district. In these other areas like Nyaminyami, there was no secondary school, Gokwe is the same, Hwange is the same. So you can see the amount of suffering that people have been going through. After independence, the new government built some secondary schools in these areas, but still they are not enough. Today, some children must walk up to 20 kilometers to a secondary school, the same for clinics. People still walk around 10 or so kilometers to get water.

The relocation also did a lot of harm to the people's culture. After the relocation the Tonga communities, which were previously quite isolated, were open to outside influences. Over the years, the Tonga culture has slowly been eroded. They are losing their language. They are losing their identity as a people which is dangerous because then they will not know who they are. Then they are not in a position to fight for their rights because they would not be comfortable identifying themselves as part of the group that has been dominated. How do we get back to our ways? That has been something that the elder people in the Zambezi Valley have been very worried about. Even survival tactics they had during years of difficult times and through years of starvation, they are losing all those tools of survival. Yes, as a people, we know that culture is dynamic but I don't think it should go to the extent of wiping out what actually makes people survive, and what makes people become what they want.

WRR: What are the greatest achievements of Basilwizi, and what are the changes that you see in the communities?

Mutale: It's a challenge. When you are doing advocacy empowerment of communities it's not something that you realize benefits from overnight. But I must say that ever since we started we've been able to bring together the affected communities from the four districts in which we are working: Hwange, Binga, Nyamnyami, and Gokwe. At least these communities are now able to meet through their representatives to discuss the problems that they have, and at least now they know that they are experiencing common problems, and they are ready to speak with one voice. Before Basilwizi, there were individual voices of people who were trying to make the problems of the communities heard, but there was no concerted effort, no common issues to bring the people together. Now we are able to bring together representatives from different districts, to face the local authorities to say: "These are the issues affecting our communities. How best can they be resolved?"

We have also been working with communities to build leadership skills, communication skills and advocacy skills so that they are in a better position to engage the authorities at the local levels. The results of that work are already showing. Some communities we have been working with have been able to meaningfully engage with authorities at the local level.

I'm proud to say also we've been able to achieve some mileage on the culture. The Tonga language is not used in schools after the first few years, and that is a disadvantage to the education of our children. We worked with the communities to lobby the Ministry of Education, which has now put in place a policy which allows the Tonga language to be taught up to grade seven. It is not effectively happening yet in the communities but what remains to be done is make sure that the resources are in place so that the Tonga language can effectively be taught. A syllabus in Tonga is now with the Ministry for final approval. Once that is through it will be distributed for use by primary schools. So that's an achievement.

In 2005, we also carried out a baseline survey to capture the people's problems, aspirations, how they think the issues in the Zambezi basin can be resolved. That exercise has actually generated rallying points for the communities and that has helped in generating the momentum that you need for people to move forward.

WRR: What are concrete things people need in order to feel that the community has been rehabilitated after resettlement?

Mutale: The Tonga people face chronic food shortages, acute water shortages and there is poor infrastructure in the communities. We want to see small dams that could support irrigation schemes and supply drinking water to the communities. Clinics are needed because you have high cases of malaria especially during the summer season and people have nowhere to go when they are attacked by malaria. They also want to see benefits emanating from their abundant resources in the valley - wildlife and fisheries, for example. They want to see more communities getting involved in these activities which can in the end improve the lives of the people.

WRR: Basilwizi faces an uphill battle. How do you find the strength to continue doing the work you do?

Mutale: I think we have the right to live like everyone else in the world. We didn't commit any sin, why should we continue to live the way we live because of someone else's creation? We are also motivated by the memories of the injustices that are still fresh. The Tonga are willing to take it upon themselves to change their situation. The communities continue to drive the organization and to seek solutions. We find our strength in that.