Have you ever swum in a river? I have. And you should do so too if you haven’t.
Unlike a swimming pool, a river is vibrant and alive. Unlike an ocean, it is intimate. If the river is relatively small like the one I used to swim in as a child, you will be able to swim leisurely across in less than thirty seconds. You will not want to swim too far along the river because the next bend always seems to flow into a rather dark section with roots and rocks jutting out towards the whistling waters as if eager for a dip.
Sadly, you may have to walk for days across vast valleys and rolling hills to find such a river that is still intimate and fully alive. This is because there are people in Kenya and across the world who keep strangling both small and big rivers.
The people who are strangling our rivers are those whose decisions are making climate change worse. This is because there is a direct relation between climate change and the current drought that is causing our rivers to dry up. You see, when greenhouse gas emissions are released into the air, they cause air temperatures to increase which causes more moisture to evaporate from land, rivers, lakes and other water bodies. Although other factors like deforestation and unsustainable irrigation can also cause rivers to dry up, climate change is the biggest culprit.
Nairobi’s four million residents are currently receiving a particularly painful blow from climate change – water rationing. Although most Nairobi residents especially those in Eastlands have been undergoing water rationing for years (I fall in this category), almost every member of the Capital City is now feeling the pinch. Earlier this month, an official from Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company attributed this dry-taps pinch to the fact that water levels at Ndakaini Dam have dropped to an all-time low of less than 25 per cent.
This unprecedented drop has been occasioned by diminished water volumes in the three rivers that drain into the swamp – Thika River, Githika River and Kayuyu River. Nairobians should be kissing the ground that these rivers walk on because they supply the water that ultimately ends up in their taps. Since Ndakaini Dam supplies 84 percent of Nairobi’s water, these three rivers are infinitely more important than the recently opened Two Rivers Shopping Mall, Africa’s newest and biggest Mall.
Anybody (including Mr. Trump) who harms these three rivers is basically harming four million Nairobians. If USA veers away from the green path that it had started walking on by speeding on with its harmful greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will continue causing drought and Nairobi’s Three Rivers will continue limping. Consequently, the water levels in Ndakaini Dam will nose dive further and Nairobi’s taps will remain dry. Expanding water sources for Nairobi will end up being a short-term measure because even those new sources depend on rivers that are alive, not dying.
The kind of rivers that I used to swim in.
When you finally see it, you will wonder what all the fuss was about. It will be small, barely bigger than one of your nails.
In fact, you will not even see it if you search for it in Zambezi River. Not because it’s too small for the hissing waters of the big river but because it prefers the cool, silent and dark waters of Sianda stream. Sometimes, it flows with the stream into Kataba River but never beyond. In this regard, it prefers the quiet serene suburbs of a city as opposed to the city itself.
Dennis Tweddle, a South African resident from Britain, together with his team, have searched for the elusive small fish in the rest of the upper Zambezi system to no avail. As someone with a keen passion and intellectual curiosity for the fauna that live in rivers and oceans, he has been on the trail of the little beauty but has only found it in Sianda stream and Kataba River.
Armed with a D-shaped net, Dennis and his team scoured the waters, searching for the elusive teeny tiny fish. They mostly focused on floating vegetations as it likes living under them.
Just a few inches away from the curious net, neobelias nestles by the dangling roots of the vegetation. She is well refreshed after a restful night and is looking forward to another fishy day. The cool waters that are brushing by her scales have travelled all the way from their source at a large headwater swamp that feeds Kataba River.
The Upper Zambezi river system that hosts Kataba River and Sianda stream is a labyrinth of moody water that comes and goes according to the rainy season. When it rains a lot, the floodplain overflows with water, plants spring to life and fish come calling, much to the delight of Chinga, a local Lozi fisherman.
Like many Lozi people in Upper Zambezi, Chinga looks forward to the flooded plains because it means more fish. And more fish means more food plus a bit more money.
The rain means so much to him that his favourite two words in the whole world are, ‘pula ikalile.’ The rains have started.
As he paddles along Sianda stream, Chinga doesn’t care much about the banded neolebias, as the little fish is known. He is understandably more preoccupied with bigger, fleshier fish that can fill the stomach and fetch some Zambian kwacha.
IUCN has listed the banded neolebias as critically endangered. It’s living on the edge of extinction cliff and could plunge into extinction any moment.
Unfortunately, simple, innocent maize can potentially push the fish into extinction. Maize and other food crops. Pollution from fertilizers and herbicides can threaten their fragile habitats, inching them further towards that dreaded extinction edge.
Does it mean that the local Lozi people shouldn’t farm just so that some tiny fish can live? It is possible for the people and the fish to co-exist as they have for ages. This can be done by fostering a symbiotic and not a parasitic relationship. How that can be done is a matter that can be decided in consultation with the Lozi people themselves.
Further to the pollution, every time the cool cover of the dense vegetation is removed, the tiny giants are left coverless and exposed to the elements. This could be a reason why they were not found in the canalized parts of upstream Kataba River.
A river canal is essentially an artificial river bed that channels the waters of a river to other areas where it doesn’t flow naturally. This may have short term agricultural benefits for the local Lozi people but it interferes with the natural river ecosystem that secures habitation for the tiny giants.
Kenyans and Zimbabweans that have experienced the flattening of their homes by bulldozers in the name of development can identify with the plight of the neobelias. But luckily for some of these evicted residents, they had the option of purchasing houses elsewhere with the compensation money paid by the government.
Since the neobelias don’t have the option of purchasing new floating vegetation, they have to make do with whatever they can get before eventually losing the struggle to survive.
For now, many neobelias are thankfully winning the survival struggle. While it isn’t clear approximately how many are still swimming in Sianda stream and Kataba River, it is evident that they are not swimming anywhere else in the world.
On 13th October 1974, 286 athletes ran in the first ever Berlin Marathon. Less than three hours later, 32-year old Günter Hallas had won the marathon. This year in 2014, Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto ran forty minutes faster than Günter and set a new world record. When next year’s winner crosses the finish line, the 42-kilometre long Berlin Marathon will have covered almost 1,800 kilometres since its inception. This is the length of Senegal River, Africa’ second longest river.
Popularly known as West Africa’s water tower, the highlands of Fouta Djallon in central Guinea are the source of Senegal River. Flowing from these highlands are three rivers that provide eighty percent of Senegal River’s waters – the Bafing, Bakoye and Faleme River Rivers.
After leaving Fouta Djallon, the river powers into Mali then flows on to form the boundary between Senegal and Mauritania. It ends its epic journey upon arrival into the Atlantic Ocean.
Mali has the lion’s share of the Senegal River basin. 30 million acres – which is 38 times the size of Cape Verde – sits squarely in Mali. Senegal’s share of the basin is the least and is one fifth of the size of Mali’s share.
Living in the Senegal River basin are millions of people who have swam and fished in the river for centuries. They are a rainbow of ethnicity and include Peuls, Toucouleurs, Soninkes, Malinkes, Bambaras, Wolofs and Moors. They possess an intimate knowledge of the river borne from centuries of living next to it.
Also familiar with the river are the hundreds of bird and fish species that swim, wade and feed in the river. Among them is the African spoonbill, so named because of their spoon-like bills.
As the white spoonbill sways its large beak in the cool water’s of Senegal River, it appears to be dancing to some riverine music. Left – Right – Swoosh. Left – Right – Swoosh. The swaying is alternately gentle and fast, as if the river’s music is both rhythm n blues and hip-hop.
Senegal River doesn’t just entail the H2O liquid known as water. It has also enabled the Senegal River basin. If this basin was a country, it would be bigger than Uganda. Its 74 million acres are teeming with dazzling biodiversity and rich wetlands.
Despite unending hiccups and monumental challenges, agriculture also thrives in the basin, causing the Senegal River valley to be baptized, Le grenier du Sénégal. Senegal’s bread basket. But it’s also a potential bread basket for the three other countries. Indeed, Senegal River basin’s irrigation potential in the four countries is one million acres. Only one-fourth of this area is currently under irrigation.
For decades, governments of the four countries, local organizations and international donors have invested huge amounts of time and resources towards full utilization of the basin. Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Sénégal (OMVS) has been at the heart of these efforts. It was born through a convention that came into force on 11 March 1972. OMVS therefore shares a birthday with Didier Drogba who was born six years later on the same day.
Just like the great Ivorian player, OMVS has scored many goals and also missed many. One of these goals is especially relevant to the riverine communities – secure and increase revenues of people living in the Basin. However, some have ruled the goal as offside arguing that OMVS hasn’t really achieved this and instead made things worse by enforcing large scale rice farming as opposed to enhancing the small scale farming that had existed for centuries.
Twenty five years after the birth of OMVS on seventh January 1997, another convention established Diama and Manatali dam agencies. Diama dam is located next to Senegal’s Diama town. It prevents salt water intrusion upstream and channels irrigation water into approximately 110,000 acres of land. Manantali , which is located in Mali, provides hydroelectricity to Mali, Senegal and Mauritania. Despite these massive electricity benefits, Manantali’s agricultural benefits haven’t met the expectations of local communities and several other stakeholders. Again, the balance between large scale dam ventures and small scale agricultural practices has proven to be quite tricky.
The African spoonbill is swaying again, oblivious of the politics that has inundated the river basin. All it knows that the river keeps it well-fed and alive. Less than a kilometer away, acres of rice plantations stand still, indifferent to the river’s music but swaying to the gentle breeze that is a staple of the river during sunrise and sunset.
The rice farms and African spoonbill are not alone in depending on the river. Thirteen million people live in the Senegal River basin. Out of these, approximately three million live near the river and depend on it for their livelihoods. Whether these livelihoods have been enhanced or undermined with the passage of time is still up for debate. What is clear is that without the river, millions of people would be rendered helpless and hapless.
When the river approaches the end of its 1,800-kilometer journey, it flows into its very own delta and does wonders there. This delta contains rich wetlands that host at least four Ramsar sites. One of these sites is the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary, a favourite of the spoonbill and at least 1.5 million other birds. Ironically, as Africans migrate to Europe in their hundreds every year, thousands of birds migrate from Europe to Djoudj in Senegal. Without doubt, this place is a 40,000 acre bird paradise par excellence.
Djoud, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, comprises of a lake, streams and water, water everywhere. The African spoonbill just loves this water, even though it’s not a big fan of the crocodiles that like lazing in it. Apart from the crocodiles, sea cows also roam the waters. These sea cows are so unique to West Africa that their other name is West African manatee. They have short fins that look like legs and small eyes that give them a geeky look.
The Bassin du Ndiaël is another Ramsar Site in the Delta. It is now largely dry although half a century earlier, it teemed with hundreds of thousands of garganeys, those small, colorful ducks that glide on water with the grace of a gazelle skipping in the savannah grassland. Thankfully, the Bassin du Ndiaël is not just about lost glory as it currently hosts at least 20,000 water birds. On certain days, these armies of birds can be seen, gliding, flying, fluttering, cackling, cooing and chirping.
Guembeul Natural reserve is yet another Ramsar site in the delta. This is where Sahelian mammals and reptiles find much needed refuge. One of these mammals is the spectacular scimitar oryx. Its long horns sit on its head like a crown of elegance. A patch of brown on its neck matches just as elegantly with its white body, making it to look as if it is wearing a stylish broken suit from Shakara Couture. Once numbering in their hundreds of thousands, the scimitar oryx have dwindled to mere dozens, making the protective refuge of Guembeul Natural Reserve even more critical than ever before.
The fourth Ramsar site in the Senegal River delta is Parc National du Diawling. Its vast 40,000 acres are all in Mauritania and they host over 220 species of birds including pelicans, black storks and flamingoes. Just like the three other Ramsar sites in the Senegal River Basin, this is one place that birds, mammals and reptiles can call home.
Above all, millions of West Africans earn livelihoods because of West Africa’s wonder river. It is now critical for them to be further empowered so that they can be primary guardians and beneficiaries of the wonder river. In the words of Heraclitus the ancient Green philosopher, ‘you cannot step twice into the same river…’
We only have one chance to interact productively and sustainably with the wondrous waters of River Senegal.
Although you will be expecting it, the spray will catch you by surprise. It will drench your happy face and leave a lasting mark in your heart. You will have seen the spray from miles away as it often rises to heights of up to four hundred metres.
The spray is created when torrents of Zambezi waters plummet for more than one hundred metres into the Zambezi gorge.
When you finally make it to one of Victoria Falls nineteen viewing points, you will come face to face with the spray and the majestic waterfalls themselves.
That moment when your eyes first behold something that you have waited for your whole life to see can drench you in mixed feelings. This is how I felt when I finally stood at one of the fifteen viewing points on the Zimbabwean side. On the one hand I was utterly speechless. In total awe and instantly comprehending why the gushing waterfalls were a sacred site for riverine communities like the Leya.
I understood why David Livingstone, the nineteenth century explorer described the waterfalls in glowing terms, ‘scenes so lovely they must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight… the snow-white sheet like myriads of small comets rushing on in one direction, each of which left behind its nucleus rays of foam.’
The grandeur of Victoria Falls inspires awe and I was duly awestruck. But on the other hand, this awesome moment was punctured by a lingering feeling of, ‘now what?’
Now that the Victoria Falls were right there before my eyes, the sheer joy of anticipation had dissipated with the spray. What next?
An answer slowly came into my mind when I walked through the moist pathways of the rainforest that borders the waterfalls. By the time I was gazing at the mighty falls from below, I was drenched. It felt like standing in rain and just feeling the water fill every pore in my body.
What next? It occurred to me that through the spray, I was interacting directly with Zambezi’s water. This reminded me that Victoria Falls was in actual fact the waters of Zambezi both tumbling down and shooting upwards in a spectacular dance of Mother Nature. It was time to know the heartbeat of these waterfalls and comprehend what made them tick.
Behind the wonder of this seemingly divine spectacle are wandering waters that underpin ecosystems without which the waterfalls would not be there.
Before the day that is Victoria Falls breaks out and stuns the world, there is a night without which this dazzling morning would not be possible.
When Zambezi River arrives at Victoria Falls, it is just over two kilometres wide meaning that a leisurely walk across it would take you half an hour. When it is flowing in full force during the rainy season, the falls become a two-kilometre wide, 100-metre plunge into Zambezi gorge.
Before the mist-forming waters take the deep plunge, they are engrossed in occasional rapids and a gentle flow that has its origins in Zambia’s Kalene Hills close to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. As such, the hills precede the falls. The Zambezi waters meander through hills, valleys and plains that contribute uniquely towards the overall wellbeing of the river.
Along the way, the river provides shelter for fish, crocodiles, hippos plus a host of diverse flora and fauna. Diverse fish species like tiger fish, catfish and cichlids reside in the river as do the bigger boys and girls – crocodiles and hippos.
Crocodiles flap their bulky tails in the raging waters as their powerful jaws delve into the rotting flesh of wildebeests that lost the battle against the Zambezi as they tried to cross it.
Along the way, the raging waters create two smaller, lesser known waterfalls – Chavuma Falls and Ngonye Falls. These falls are more of warthogs compared to the elephant that is Victoria Falls but they are waterfalls nonetheless, harbingers of Victoria Falls, in essence preparing the way like John theBaptist.
Ngonye falls are like gates that mark the river’s departure from Kalahari sand floodplain and entry into the basalt dyke geological formation that makes the Victoria Falls possible. Indeed, the riverbed that ferries Zambezi’s waters was carved out over ages in a unique fashion that facilitates Victoria Falls.
Ngonye falls is only one fifth of Victoria Falls but it is part of a natural architecture that carves out Victoria Falls superhighway.
Etched firmly on this superhighway in the wider upper Zambezi, are dambos, as the small headwater wetlands are known. Of particular significance is the marshy wetland in north-West Zambia that births the river. As noted in a comprehensive report on Zambezi River’s Ecosystems, ‘although the impact of individual small wetlands on flow may be negligible, because there are so many of them, their cumulative impact may be significant.’
Cumulative impact is the name of the game in the bigger picture of upper Zambezi. The wetlands and floodplains like Barotse together with other ecosystems all join forces to ensure that River Zambezi keeps flowing on, delivering the water that ends up cascading as Victoria Waterfalls.
The upper Zambezi section of the river is uninterrupted by large dams that can be found in subsequent sections of the river. In this regard, the waters of the upper section are blessed with a natural, unhindered flow.
This flow also surges in underground streams that replenish the river during dry season between April and October. Some of Victoria Falls tumbling waters stem directly from those unseen underground streams of upper Zambezi. Many of these streams break into the surface through dambos that subsequently channel more water into the waiting arms of River Zambezi. Indeed, it is a replenishing cycle of nature that feeds into Victoria Falls on a constant basis with a tireless dazzle.
In the same vein, by the time Zambezi creates Victoria Falls, it has already benefited from smaller rivers that power into it with cheerful roars. In Angola, Luena and Chifumage rivers join Zambezi and become part of the great river. In Zambia, Kabompo River also joins the Zambezi with a cheerful flow. This river has its origins on the border of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lungwebungu River, which is the largest tributary of Upper Zambezi, similarly pours into Zambezi in Zambia although it commences its journey in Angola.
Against this backdrop, the gushing waters of Victoria Falls are a mosaic of four large tributaries and several smaller streams. Consequently, when that spray from the waterfalls moistens ones face, it contains water drops from all these great rivers and streams that deposit their waters into upper Zambezi.
Behind the wonder that is Victoria Falls are dazzling flora and fauna without which the tapestry of Upper Zambezi would be incomplete. Amongst them are stunning birds like the lilian’s lovebirds aka nyasa lovebirds, small African parrots whose green yellow plumage matches perfectly with their red-lipstick lips; marabou storks whose massive beaks remind one of flying rakes; the mostly pink southern carmine bee eaters that can be seen building their nests along the banks Zambezi River and the red billed quelea whose wise visage add an air of beautiful maturity to the Zambezi tapestry.
Every once in a while, these birds can be seen flying through or above the Victoria Falls spray. Although their cheery chirps are lost in the hiss and thunder of the waterfalls, their bright colors and flapping wings add beautiful music to the sight of the falls.
Gazing down from their birds’ eye view, the birds can appreciate that Victoria Falls is a wondrous culmination of equally wondrous ecosystems in the upper Zambezi.
 McCartney, M.; Cai, X.; Smakhtin, V. 2013. Evaluating the flow regulating functions of natural ecosystems in the Zambezi River Basin. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
Seriously, that river was something else. Kept me cool when it was hot. And boy, it sure was hot during the August holidays.
You see, every holiday, the day after the schools closed, Papa would see to it that we boarded the train for a fifteen hour journey that would deposit us right into our local town.
‘100 years ago,’ papa usually told us whenever the train hooted as it approached the dusty, green town, ‘the railway was so tired when it arrived here that it stopped here and refused to go further.’ I believed him then and even today, I still get the sense that the poor railway just had to call it a day when it arrived there. Fifteen hours from Nairobi. This is the time the journey from the capital city to the village town took. Fifteen fun-filled hours.
The first thing I did within an hour of arriving in the village was to sprint to the shy whistling river. It was right where I had left it three months earlier. In the middle of trees whose names I still don’t know. The trees towered over thickets from which they grew.
I stood there, unable to move forward. My legs, hands, nostrils and my entire body parts were mesmerized by the transparent brownish waters before me. It was whistling. Sssshhhh... the waters whistled. My, my, my.. I had missed that whistle. I closed my brown eyes. Clenched my fists as if afraid of something. But it wasn’t fear. It was awe.
Sssshhh...the whistle was even louder with my eyes closed. The thought that soon, I would be right in the middle of that whistle flicked open my eyes. Rustling. This is the word that best describes what I had at that moment.
“To make a succession of slight, soft sounds, as of parts rubbing gentlyone on another, as leaves, silks, or papers.” This is the description I got when I entered ‘rustling’ into the search box of dictionary.com
It is a description that brings back what I would feel a quarter a century ago whenever I stepped into the hallowed banks of River Firatsi. There was a succession of sounds – crackling leaves as thicket creatures crawled left and right; distant mows of cows approaching the river to quench their thirst; soft thuds of fellow boys as they raced to the river to do what I was about to do; hushed sounds of leaves kissing each other as the river breeze brushed by them. And the staccato beat of my heart as it danced at the utter joy of the flowing river.
Finally, I step forward. My fists unclench; my heartbeat mellows; my lips part into a wide smile; my brown denim shorts drop to the moist riverbank sand; the Kimbo T-shirt covering my eleven-year old chest is yanked over my head and thrown behind me as I jump gleefully into the shy whistling waters of the river.
The climax comes when I dip my head into the cool waters. For a few moments, I can see and feel nothing. Zero. I am in the arms of the river and everything else ceases to exist. A moment later, my head bursts back to the surface and I feel as if the little grey bird that is perched on the branch of a nearby tree is cheering my union with the shy, whistling river.
The river Firatsi has at least fifty-six other siblings across Kenya. There are many more but these are the ones I know. Sadly, some are no longer whistling consistently. That’s a story for another day. For now, meet these queens of refreshment:
Gura River. Nzoia River. Yala River. Nyando River. Sondu Miriu River. Awach River. Itare River. Kitare River aka South Awach River. Gucha River aka Kuja River. Migori River. Riana River. Mogonga River. Mara River. Suguta River. Kerio River. Lokichar River aka Lomenyangaparat. Turkwel River. Suam River. Olarabel River aka Ngusero River. Molo River. Perkerra River. Njoro River. Gilgil River. Malewa River. Turasha River. Southern Ewaso Ng'iro. Seyabei River. Lagh Dera. Lak Bor. Lagh Kutulo. Lagh Bogal. Ewaso Ng'iro. Isiolo River. Naro Moru river. Milgis. Dawa River. Tana River. Kathita River. Mutonga River. Thiba River. Thika River. Kiama River. Ragati River. Kururu River. Muhuhi River. Galana River. Athi River. Mbagathi River. Ruiru River. Nairobi River. Tsavo River. Tudor Creek. Voi River aka Goshi River. Umba River. Jipe Ruvu River. Lumi River.
Kalene hills, Zambia - Thunder and beauty. These are the two words that come to mind when the Zambezi River begins its epic journey in the bosoms of Zambia’s Kalene hills. Although the thunder of Victoria Falls is still silent at the source of the river, the beauty is just as loud.
The river’s marathon expedition takes it into Angola, but the waters miss their country of origin so much that they flow back into Zambia. After that, the iconic river thunders on along the borders of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe then gushes into Mozambique before surging into the Indian Ocean.
All through its journey, the gushing, hissing waters of Zambezi are accompanied by at least 239 species of fish.
Amongst these fish is the electric catfish. It prowls the silent deeps like Zambia’s friendly lions, hunting at night and hiding during the day. If it were not a fish, it might have been a lion or a cheetah, for it possesses a lethal secret weapon like these two cats. It may not have the speed of a cheetah or the regal ferocity of a lion, but its secret weapon is in a class of its own.
Its 3 - 5 kilos of body mass are no match to Vundu, Zambezi River’s largest fish. But don’t mess with the electric catfish on account of its smaller size because that secret weapon will deal with you painfully if you do. As it swims in the lower Zambezi, the electric catfish sometimes comes face to face with the Cornish jack, another fish that possesses a similar secret weapon.
When the catfish is hungry, it races through the dark waters in search of a meal. Any meal. It’s not a choosy diner and will eat whichever hapless fish that happens to cross into its path during its nocturnal prowl.
The secret weapon of this particular catfish is literally electric – it can emit up to 600 volts of electricity though other estimates place this lower. That’s why it is known as the electric catfish aka malapterurus electricus.
This jolt of electricity is its hunting and defense rifle. In this regard, in discharges naturally what Kariba hydroelectric dam, Cahora Bassa dam and several other dams in the river discharge artificially. These dams have a total capacity of nearly 5000 MW, almost five times as much as Kenya’s total installed hydroelectricity capacity. This makes Zambezi a truly electric river with truly electric fish!
The electricity of the catfish has already found its way into African universities. Hangnilo Robert and a team of researchers from a university in Benin were able to light up an LED bulb using electricity discharged by a very small electric catfish weighing only 19 grammes. This success made them to conclude that, ‘the feasibility of an energy farming centered on that catfish is quite conceivable.’
If the researchers’ conclusion proves accurate, then electric catfishes might just give Kariba and Cahora Bassa dams a run for their money! That may be a long way in the future but the seed of possibility is there.
Like a leopard, numerous dark spots dot the body of an electric catfish. Fishermen who have reached out to touch these spots have ended up with electric shocks that left them numb and perplexed. These fishermen span the length and breadth of Africa wherever the electric catfish occurs in the continent’s major river basins like Senegal, Niger and Zambezi. The unique catfish also electrifies Lakes Turkana, Chad, Albert, Kainji and Tanganyika. It is therefore fair to say that this catfish is a truly pan-African fish that would make Kwame Nkrumah proud!
It may not be critically endangered like the banded neolebias of the upper Zambezi, but it’s not exactly over-abundant either. We however shouldn’t wait until it is endangered to start racing to its rescue. Instead of reacting with such crisis management when it is already too late, now is the time to ensure that the electric catfish doesn’t slither onto the endangered list.
Incidentally, the banded neolebias which is just below one inch long, may be a dwarf in the fish world, but it is a giant in the overall world of biodiversity. It is only found in the Kataba stream and its tributary, the Sianda stream, in upper Zambezi. This tiny fish isn’t a massive beast like the mammoth whales that are found downstream in the Indian Ocean but it is dangerously close to extinction. If this sounds alarmist, it is because the alarm went off a long time ago.
The electric catfish seems oblivious or indifferent to its smaller cousin’s woes. A quick glance at its wide mouth leaves one with the impression that it is either grinning or sneering, as if wondering why the banded neolebias can’t just heed the divine call to multiply and fill the river.
Indeed, the electric catfish has a lot to grin and sneer about. For starters, this mammoth river in which it swims is Africa’s fourth longest river and meets the needs of at least thirty million people in the Zambezi River basin. Apart from feeding and enhancing the livelihoods of millions, this river has also given the world one of the seven natural wonders – Victoria Falls, known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya meaning, ‘smoke that thunders.’ These falls are without doubt a divine smoke of dazzling beauty that has shocked even the electric catfish, the master of shocks.
The catfish also grins about the major wetlands and Ramsar sites in the river basin. They include Barotse floodplains in Zambia, Chobe swamps in Namibia, Linyanti swamp in Botswana and Busanga swamp in Zambia. The wetlands are golden chicken that lay golden eggs, contributing immensely to ecotourism, wildlife, fishing, grazing plus a host of other ecosystem products and services. Indeed, the basin’s natural capital is simply staggering, greatly supporting economic activities in agriculture, mining, forestry, tourism and manufacturing.
The sneer of the catfish mostly has to do with human attitudes and activities that are harming the vast Zambezi river basin. It wonders silently, ‘how can you starve and harm the very chicken that is laying golden eggs for you?’
The wetlands are as fragile as they are priceless. Is this fragility being managed properly?
The hydroelectric dams are the biggest consumers of the rivers water. Is this ultimately sustainable?
Riverine communities have lived next to the river for centuries. Is their indigenous knowledge being fully tapped into?
The catfish has no answers to these questions. Together with all the other fish in the river, it is a fundamental part of the entire Zambezi River ecosystem. It is also unique amongst the fish. How many other fish can boast of the ability to electrically shock both prey and assailant?
Fishers are its primary assailants and from time to time, the catfish ends up entangled in a fishing net or biting a fishing hook. Because it can live up to ten years, many are the times that it evades fishers’ traps. But when its luck runs out, the catfish becomes a delicacy. It is a popular meal amongst many fishing communities.
In 1951, British zoologist Hans Lissmann described the electric catfish quite colorfully. He wrote that they have the ‘appearance of a rather rigid sausage propelled by somewhat ostraciform movements.’
Alas, the electric catfish is akin to a swimming sausage that discharges electricity. Not bad for a fish that is not particularly pretty. But like romantic love at its apex, its touch sends instant shockwaves.
Tete Mozambique – Pedro’s tiny boat dugout looks like a brown ant against the expansive blue backdrop of the lower Zambezi River. He is twenty years old and although his hair is black, fluffy and plenty, the weary lines around his brown eyes make him look like he was born in 1976 and not 1996.
‘Mulungu!’ God! Pedro shouts in Sena. This one-word prayer is his way of starting the day. The orange sun looks so happy as it rises that some of this joy makes its way into Sena’s heart and he flashes a brief smile before launching into furious rowing of his boat dugout.
The waters are calm at this early hour of the day. Every time his singular wooden rowing paddle hits the waters, they protest with a rustle that disturbs the silence. The rustle feels like a lonely voice, so he decides to sing his favourite part of nita mukuma kwini, the popular song by Lizha James.
Esta doer o meu coração, this hurts my heart so much... his deep voice erupted into an off-tune rendition of the song but the dynamic tune energizes his hands to row faster and faster.
The fleshy, slippery body of a large vundu catfish descends into Pedro’s mind. He knows that these large vundus can be caught in this part of the lower Zambezi River because his father caught them severally. But he has never been lucky to catch one and it is his ultimate dream. Such a large fish would fetch him anywhere from 2 – 5 thousand Mozambique meticals.
Capturing such a giant fish is a dream, but what he does hope to capture are other relatively profitable fish like the tiger fish, kurper, nchenga, and cornish-jack. He doesn’t like the Zambezi barbell fish because the whisker like organs that dangle from its mouth give it a scary look. As a child, his father would threaten to show him a barbell every time he cried.
Other artisanal fishermen in the area like kapenta, the little fishes of the river but Pedro doesn’t fancy them much. Kapenta from lower Zambezi are exported to as far as Zimbabwe often eliciting protests from Zimbabwean fishermen who find it difficult to compete against the cheap imports.
Pedro has two friends who make thousands of Metical from kapenta exports. They keep urging him to join the kapenta bandwagon but he usually retorts that, ‘why catch small fish when you can catch big fish?’ Because the small fish fetch big money. Their answer leaves him speechless but still, he goes for the big fish.
A gentle staccato hum interrupted Pedro’s melodic hum and even before he glanced to his right where the staccato hum was coming from, he already knew what it was – a fishing boat.
Recreational fishing is common in the lower Zambezi. It is definitely more lucrative than Pedro’s artisanal fishery but not as timeless. Centuries before the first recreational fishing enthusiasts came along, Pedro’s ancestors were already fishing in the great river. He is following in their footsteps but unlike them, he fishes to earn a livelihood, and not just to have a good meal or because he can.