The Tonga-Speaking Peoples of Zambia and Zimbabwe: Essays in Honor of Elizabeth Colson

By Pritchett, James A. | African Studies Review, December 2007 | Go to article overview

The Tonga-Speaking Peoples of Zambia and Zimbabwe: Essays in Honor of Elizabeth Colson


Pritchett, James A., African Studies Review


ELIZABETH COLSON: AN APPRECIATION Chet Lancaster and Kenneth P. Vickery, eds. The Tonga-Speaking Peoples of Zambia and Zimbabwe: Essays in Honor of Elizabeth Colson. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2007. viii + 392 pp. Maps. Tables. Figures. Notes. References. Index. $45.00, Paper.

In March 1955, after more than a decade of economic and engineering feasibility studies, the international bidding was opened for the construction of a dam at Kariba Gorge on the Zambezi River. At 384 feet high and 1737 feet long, the Kariba project remains one of the most massive hydroelectric dams ever built, creating the largest artificial lake in the world at the time of its construction. This unique engineering feat was a bold expression of postwar European confidence in science and the human capacity to tame and transform nature in the name of modernization: in fact, to command nature's acquiescence in grandiose colonial dreams of limitless industrial expansion. The Kariba project was also a surprising expression of confidence in the stability of the colonial order of things. Through the hindsight of history, we know that the British Empire in West Africa was already crumbling at that time. Indeed, the former Gold Coast had already achieved some measure of internal self-rule and would receive full independence in less than two years. Much of British Central Africa would follow suit in less than a decade. Yet Kariba Dam was conceived not as a parting gift, a farewell gesture of thanks to colonial peoples for decades of human and material contributions to European development. Instead, Kariba moved forward as if the African clamor for independence were inconsequential-as if African people themselves were irrelevant. The project would flood 20,000 square miles of potentially productive African farmland, and it forced the removal of 57,000 African people to higher ground. No input was sought from those who would be most affected, and no resistance was tolerated.

The immensity of Kariba Dam's impact on the landscape was perhaps exceeded only by the immensity of its impact on the human imagination. Industrialists worldwide intensified plans for utilizing the heretofore inconceivable amount of electrical energy that would be up for grabs in both Northern and Southern Rhodesia. International environmental organizations vied to be the first to study the dramatically changed downstream ecology that would result from the containment of roughly 40 percent of the total runoff of the Zambezi River. Conservationists from all over the globe flocked to the Zambezi Valley to participate in "Operation Noah," a multiyear effort to rescue animals, large and small, from the rising floodwaters. Members of the hospitality industry jostled one another to acquire the best sites for new hotels, game lodges, sport fishing resorts, and boating marinas along the shoreline of the newly forming lake.

One small group of scholars, however, recognized the potential the Kariba project held for studying social change. A group of people with a richly varied riverine-focused subsistence system was about to be forced to begin life anew on the bleak, wind-swept, wild-animal infested plateaus that hovered over 3000 feet above their old village sites. How would these people adapt? What would be the impact of the move on their social, political, and economic systems? How might notions of land tenure, reciprocal rights and duties, traditional leveling mechanisms, and gender dynamics fare in the new dispensation? Might the change affect such basic parameters as morbidity and mortality rates? And what of the ancestors and spirits of the forest and river below? Would they move up to the new location as well?

This satchel of weighty questions was foisted on the shoulders of a young anthropologist named Elizabeth Colson. And the rest is history.

Colson was raised in a small farming community in Central Minnesota, conscious from a young age of the continuing presence of Ojibwas who had been dispossessed of their land by Euro-American settlers. …

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