maanantai 28. syyskuuta 2015

Professor Alfred Colpaert: Caprivi, from “Zipfel” to Zambezi region

The Zambezi region is an interesting area, a sub-tropical part of Namibia, but until 2013 is was better known as the Caprivi Strip. I have been doing research in the eastern parts of the Zambezi region since 2006 on several projects. Since that year much has changed, certainly during the last five years.

The Caprivi Strip, a colonial” artifact” in the north-east of Namibia is a long and narrow strip of land, ending in the Zambezi and Chobe floodplains. Nearly 450 kilometers long and about 30 kilometers wide, most of the strip is very sparsely inhabited, savannah like forest. The strip is wedged between Angola, Zambia and Botswana. The former name of the area, Caprivi, was never actually decided upon, and was a reminder to the German Chancellor Leo von Caprivi, who negotiated the area in 1890 to create a corridor between German west and east Africa. The term Caprivi Zipfel was later used to indicate the useless “appendix” in the northern parts of German South-West Africa.

The remote location, 1200 kilometers from South-West Africa´s capital Windhoek limited economic value, malaria, bilharzia and no navigable route by the Zambezi to east Africa, left the area mostly without German control and without white settlement. Germany lost its South-West African colony to Britain at the beginning of WW 1 and later became a protectorate of South Africa. Although South-Africa had aspirations to include South-West Africa as a fifth province this never became reality. Caprivi, however, proved of strategic importance and was administrated directly from Pretoria, as its advanced position in southern Africa became evident during the border war with Angola during Namibia’s struggle for independence.

Namibia, the Zambezi region and Southern Africa

The Zambezi region, and nature protection

From the 1970’s until Namibia’s independence the Caprivi area became a highly militarized area with a large number of military bases, training areas and air fields. Most bases are now out of use and have been reclaimed by nature, but their names remain. For example Fort Doppies near the Kwando river has become part of local legend, with tales about the lion who was the pet animal of the soldiers serving there (Teddy the Lion). After independence much of these formerly military areas have been transformed in national parks and nature conservation areas.

The main city is Katima Mulilo, a little frontier town, on the border with Zambia is the regional capital. The town was formerly a predominantly garrison town, with only a few shops and recreation possibilities. After independence the South African Defense Force left and being a major employer the economy of the area suffered greatly. This led to local unrest and in 1999 a short lived secession movement operated in the area. To overcome the economic problems the Namibian government has improved roads, build a bridge to Zambia and has expanded the regional University of Namibia Campus. The Trans-Caprivi transport route to the Zambian copper mining area proved successful and the economy of the town has improved markedly in the last ten years. At present Katima is a small bristling town with modern shops and even traffic lights. New office blocks are being built to accommodate local government. Although most of the new economy is based upon transport and traffic between Zambia and Namibia, new sources of income are needed.

The rural areas of the Zambezi region are communal land, which are administered by traditional authorities. Rural life has stayed predominantly traditional, small scale farming and cattle herding are the predominant forms of livelihood. Cattle are herded daily and graze the floodplains during the dry season and the higher grounds during the floods in April – May. Except for the town area, houses are mostly build of mud, but presently more brick houses can be found also in the rural areas. Health services and schools are available in the larger villages and the urban center, but even with modern services available people still consult traditional healers. And although most people are devote Christians, the belief in ghosts, black magic and curses is widespread. This perhaps is one of the reasons for the high AID/HIV prevalence in the area.

The climate of the area is subtropical, temperatures ranging from +0 to +40 Celsius, and in Namibian terms is very moist, with 680 mm or rain annually, and the availability of perennial water is of course a major attraction in southern Africa. The mighty Zambezi, and its tributary the Chobe flood annually in April - May, and the floodplains form an enormous sanctuary for birds, reptiles and hippos. On the higher, dryer parts buffalo, elephant lion and other large mammals can be found. Even though there are large protected nature areas, tourism has not been developed as well as in the neighboring country Botswana. There are several explanations for this, the lack of security during the last years of the UNITA insurgency in Angola, lawlessness, poaching, and the human wildlife conflict. Only recently armed military have started to patrol the park areas, whereas in Botswana the army has been long known for its harsh tactics against poachers. Local farmers rely on the floodplains for cultivation and use the rivers for fishing, transportation and drinking water. This creates conflict as also elephant and buffalo need access to water and on their way trample fields and can be dangerous to humans. Because the parks in the Caprivi are not well developed, Katima has stayed a stopover for people on their way from Botswana to the tourist attractions in western Namibia, Etosha, the coastal areas and the Namib Desert.

                    Traditional canoe with a load of reed on the Zambezi River.

However, things are changing, UNAM has an education program on tourism and wildlife management, new Lodges have opened and more boats suitable for tourism are available on the Zambezi River. Sport fishing is increasing as the Zambezi Tiger fish is an excellent game fish, and fish over 5 kg are not rare. The history of the area attracts many former South African serviceman, interested in visiting the areas they served in. Also an increasing number of middle class African families are more and more interested in travelling and tourism.

From my own experiences in the Caprivi River Lodge, a medium priced lodge on the banks of the Zambezi River, the number of black African (remember there are also white Africans) has steadily increased, and nowadays perhaps about half of all customers are non-white. They are professionals staying in Katima for various projects, NGO’s and European and South-African tourists. One of the main hindrances for tourists are the slow and difficult border procedures. The easiest crossing is to and from Botswana, but also here one first has to check through the Botswana border post, and after about one kilometer across the river again but now to enter Namibia. To cross from Namibia to Zambia is even more difficult, at the Zambian site one has to pay in different currencies, car insurance, carbon tax, road tax and for a visa, partly in US dollar and partly in Zambian money, and remember the border crossings are only open during daytime. A one stop border post system would be a solution, but also multi-state and multi-entry visa would mean more fluent tourist flows and therefore more revenues for local economies.

The ruins of Fort Doppies near the Kwando River


The Chobe floodplain seen from the Botswanan side, on the left the scenic Baobab tree.