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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Gonarezhou South Eastern Zimbabwe – circa 1968

Above: The Shangaan tribesmen make the reed barriers out of locally sourced dry reed stalks, bound together with homemade bush string or 'gusu-tambo'.

In 1968 I was stationed at Chipinda Pools with the Rhodesian Department of National Parks & Wildlife Management. As a 17-year-old cadet game ranger, a highlight of my time in the Gonarezhou was witnessing a Shangaan tribal event which was conducted at Chief Mahenya’s at the Save/Runde River confluence.

Called a Saila in Shangaan, it was an annual fish ‘drive’ (or series of fish drives) conducted on the Runde River in a unique and sustainable manner. The one I witnessed had an aura of sadness about it. Quite simply, the Gonarezhou was about to be gazetted a National Park which was a good thing. However, those few Shangaan tribespeople living in scattered hamlets on part of what would become national park, in the triangle formed between the Save and Runde Rivers (Marumbini), were being relocated to far off Nuanetsi, west of the Mwenezi River near Buffalo Bend.

Above: Stripping bark to make gusu-tambo.

One of my first tasks as a fledgling game ranger was to burn their newly vacated hamlets. I had spent much of my boyhood at Chibuwe Irrigation Scheme, just upstream from Chisumbanje, on the Save River. And back then in the early and mid-1960s we’d often camp at the Save Gorge, near where Chilo Lodge now stands. Thus, my respect for the Shangaan tribe goes back a long way. Burning their hamlets wasn’t a job I relished, and my game scouts too, being Shangaan, weren’t exactly jubilant whilst we went about torching recently vacated kraals.

Above: With the participants having spread out across the chosen pool, a fish drive is about to start. It was an extremely festive occasion tinged with sadness.

The 1968 fish drive I witnessed was the last they were allowed to perform before the Gonarezhou National Park came into being. Present, were a number of National Parks wardens, including the late Frank Junor who at the time was Fisheries Research Officer at Kyle National Park. The late ‘Spud’ Ludbrook, another fisheries officer was also there. And as I recall, the late ‘Tinky’ Haslam from the Mabalauta Field HQ was also there. John Osborne (deceased) the Chipinda Pools senior ranger was away on leave. I was basically the ‘gofer’ and did a fair amount of running around.

Each saila takes place once a backwater or pool has been selected. About 40 Shangaan men enter the water behind a strung-out woven reed fence, which they hold upright, with the base in constant contact with the bottom of the pool. They then move slowly towards the opposite end of the pool, pushing the woven reed vertical fence in front of them. Before this happens though, a tribal elder known as a praise singer wades across the pool blessing it to ensure there won’t be any crocodile attacks.

Above: Another view of the drive commencing.

Pulled along immediately behind those holding up the vertical reed barrier, and attached to it are floating rafts, also made out of reeds and lined with grass. They were there specifically to catch fish leaping over the reed barrier in their efforts to escape being continuously forced into an ever-decreasing area of water. As the larger escaping fish landed in the rafts they were quickly grabbed or speared. Numbers of them also escaped by falling into the water between the floating rafts, or by flipping out of them before being caught.

Because there were gaps of a few centimetres between the woven reeds making up the barrier, smaller fish merely swam through and escaped. It was this which made the entire exercise sustainable from a conservation perspective. The catch, about 30kg, was shared equally between the chief and his people.

In time the Shangaans who were relocated to the Nuanetsi area became a thorn in the side of National Parks, by way of poaching. They were understandably bitter and with hindsight perhaps back in 1968 their entire cultural side, including the fish drive should have been incorporated into a tourism plan for that part of the Gonarezhou.

Above: The reed rafts lined with grass catch the fish which jump over the barrier.

Fortunately, after Zimbabwe independence visionary Zimbabwean conservationist and Shangaan linguist Clive Stockil, was instrumental in introducing a CAMPFIRE program for the Mayenye area. And now, under the auspices of the Mahenye Charitable Trust the annual saila is once more part of Shangaan life in the Save/Runde Rivers confluence area of south eastern Zimbabwe.

I’m grateful to the late Frank Junor, who after he was diagnosed with bowel cancer during 2005, very kindly gave me the photos that accompany this post.

Above: Following each drive the fish caught in the baskets are evenly distributed amongst the participants, with all the biggest going to the chief.

Acknowledgements: Mahenye Charitable Trust from where I refreshed my memory reference the annual saila.

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