Origins of African Settlement at Victoria Falls

© Marleen Post
Tonga village at Victoria Falls.
Ethnography is a subjective art, open to the vagaries of historical prejudice and selective community memory and reinterpretation. Colonialism, internecine wars, apartheid and post-independence nationalism have made ethnicity a loaded concept, but within traditional communities there is a way of life, a socio-political unity that can be a source of pride.

And it is within this context that we briefly examine the African communities who occupy the Victoria Falls area today.

The oldest-known community in the Victoria Falls region is the Kwengo, descendents of the San who were the original hunters on the Zambezi-Chobe flood plains and gatherers of reliable plant staples such as the mungongo nuts of the Kalahari sandveld. However, two millennia of farming intrusion and more recent colonial and post-colonial policies have all but displaced or adsorbed these people and, today, few would openly testify to this heritage for fear of being looked down upon as inferior.

Around the Victoria Falls are the Leya, part of the larger group of communities that call themselves Tonga. Once occupying both banks of the river and its islands, they are now restricted to the north bank under the chiefs Mukuni and Sekute.

There is a history of considerable rivalry and warfare between these chiefs and their followers through the generations; nonetheless, both sections of the Leya hold the Falls in awe and regular ceremonies are still held to appease its spirits. In previous years, this involved sacrifices of artifacts and animals at various locations, both from the islands at the brink of the waterfall and in the gorges, most important of which was the large pool where the Zambian hydroelectric plant now discharges its water.

The Tonga are an amalgamation of small, politically independent units. They are clan-like and allegiances are confined to a few neighbouring villages, linked through kinship and ruled by leaders, mwami, whose power is fluid and is based on descent from an ancestral leader backed up by religious practice. They are also matrilineal, that is they trace descent and inheritance through the mother's family rather than the male line, which is a more common occurrence in southern Africa.

North of the Leya are the Toka, another Tonga group with cultural and linguistic similarities to the Leya, the main difference being in the historical origins of their ruling chiefs. The Toka ruling elite were driven from the Falls by the invading Leya, and their chief Musokotwane had the reputation of being one of the fattest men in Africa.

While losing territory around the Falls, this community remained strong. They were able to withstand several attacks from their powerful Lozi neighbours and were at times a refuge for various pretenders to the Lozi kingship and other disenchanted members of the ruling elite.

To the west are the Subiya. This latter group extends as far west as Sesheke and they are virtually identical to the Leya; the differences being the result of their greater integration into the neighbouring Lozi state where they continue to dominate the spiritualist sector.

Ethnographer Kafungulwa Mubitana wrote that the Subiya had the reputation of being great conjurers and magicians and were commissioned to perform before the Lozi kings, while, in the 19th century, they were important metal workers.

Image: Czech explorer Emil Holub's illustration of a Tonga iron-smith. 1875. Courtesy Rob Burnett

Livingstone wrote that Siansingu Sekute, who in the early 19th century identified himself as a Subiya rather than a Leya chief, kept a pot of medicine on Kalai Island which was reportedly used to blind his enemies with a thick mist during battle. Sekute's changing identity is a reminder that these ethnographic communities were, and are, fluid constructs that change through time.

On the south bank of the Zambezi are a mixture of Tonga groups with the remnants of the Dombe and Nanzwa, Shona-speaking communities who were strongly influenced by Tonga traditions and language.

They represent the scattered remnants of the Nambya state which was once based in the northern parts of Hwange National Park where they were responsible for building the stone enclosures now known as the Bumbusi Ruins.

Image: The Ruins at Hwange. Rob Burnett

Most of these people were subsequently displaced when the land was confiscated for the National Park, hunting concessions or European ranches in the 20th century. The composition of the current population has been complicated by the consequences of tourism and wage labour, but many of these earlier communities can trace their associations back as far as the 16th century.

Brett Hilton-Barber and Lee R. Berger. Copyright © 2010 Prime Origins.

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