Bongani Ndlovu in Binga
|A SYMPHONY of boat navigation lights from a fleet of kapenta fishing rigs reflected off the Zambezi River on a dark and clear night, creating a magical streak of glittering light reaching across the water.
From a distance, the all-around white lights resemble a floating city on the Zambezi River, the fourth-longest river in Africa.
It is also the longest east-flowing river on the continent and the largest from Africa flowing into the Indian Ocean.
Its drainage basin covers 1 390 000 square kilometres.
Welcome to Binga District in Matabeleland North, the home of kapenta fishing in the region.
Despite being a lucrative business, kapenta fishing is one of the most daring and adventurous undertakings, which requires audaciousness. Fishermen and women spend long nights in the Zambezi River.
Kapenta is eaten by most Zimbabweans and is served as a snack and starter in hotels. It is a very healthy food with rich protein and low levels of saturated fats.
These tiny creatures are harvested in five basins along the Zambezi River. In Binga, kapenta fishing rigs are operated by organisations, individuals and fishing cooperatives.
In April, President Mnangagwa donated 17 fishing rigs to chiefs in Binga, women and youths as part of the Government’s empowerment initiatives.
The Second Republic is on a drive to uplift rural communities with particular attention being given to Binga which historically lagged in terms of development.
The Government is utilising local resources to transform rural communities. In Binga, fish farming is a low-hanging fruit in realising the country’s rural industrialisation agenda.
Plans are on course to shift from subsistence to commercial fish farming which will see the establishment of canning factories in the previously forgotten Binga district.
To achieve this, Government is set to build cold rooms within fishing areas so that fishermen realise the real value of their labour. A tender has since been awarded to a company that is going to install the cold rooms this year.
The Zimbabwe Prison and Correctional Services (ZPCS) is one of the organisations that also ventured into the kapenta fishing business.
ZPCS operates a fishing rig on the Zambezi River.
Besides being an income-generating scheme, ZPCS feeds inmates in all prisons countrywide.
The surplus is also sold to the public to generate income for the self-sustaining project. Kapenta is a good substitute or supplementary protein source.
The fishing boat was commissioned in April 2018 at the Rest Camp in Binga by Ambassador Cain Mathema who was then Matabeleland North Provincial Affairs and Devolution Minister
The rig is operated by Mr Kelvin Siasimuna (27) from Siabuwa who is also the captain and is assisted by Mr Opportunity Muzamba (22) from the Sizemba area in Binga district.
The two men spend nights on the Zambezi River looking for kapenta fish. Messrs Siasimuna and Muzamba are paid on commission and for every 30kg of dry kapenta that they catch, they retain about 2kg as payment.
ZPCS provides them with food, a monthly allocation of 200 litres of diesel, engine oil and 50kg of coarse salt, which is added to maintain freshness.
They work for three weeks a month. On Monday night, our news crew joined a ZPCS team on a familiarisation tour of the kapenta fishing activities on the Zambezi River.
The 6km journey on a 22-horse powered diesel engine started at the dock called Intale with the crew leaving shortly after 7pm.
The boat navigation lights resemble a floating city.
Due to the scenic close-up view of the boat lights reflecting on the water, locals have christened the place the “Floating City on the Zambezi River.”
It took the rig a little over an hour to get to the first fishing site, Dilika.
ZPCS Correctional Officer Nelson Pasipanodya said Dilika was the most fertile land for the BaTonga people.
“They were driven out of their land when the Kariba Dam was being constructed and some of them drowned after a backflow wave swept them away several years ago,” he said.
Correctional Officer Pasipanodya said there are a lot of risks faced by boat operators on the Zambezi River, some of which include being raided by pirates.
“There are pirates or poachers who can raid your boat and take away the catch. In most cases, these people will be armed with firearms, and all they want are kapenta fish hence it is wise not to resist,” said CO Pasipanodya.
Locals have blamed Zambians for overfishing and often overlapping into the Zimbabwean side of the river to poach fish, with some having been arrested.
CO Pasipanodya said bulbs are lowered into the water, and the light is used as bait to attract the fish.
Mr Siasimuna said he resorted to catching kapenta fish after dropping out of high school a few years ago.
“In Binga, when it comes to kapenta fishing, there is no formal school where people can attend lessons.
“Catching Kapenta is all about obeying your instincts, listening to the wind and where it will be blowing, the temperature and direction of the water flow,” he said.
Mr Muzamba said: “I’m not afraid of getting into the river because I conquered this fear a long time ago.”
He said for one to make a decent living out of fishing, they need to catch at least 90kg of kapenta. A kilogramme of dry kapenta fish is being sold for US$7.
Ms Cecilia Mudimba from Simatelele, who is also a member of a female-run fishing cooperative said while kapenta fishing is a lucrative business, it is also labour-intensive and risky.
“We go to the river at night just like our male counterparts to catch kapenta fish, which is not an easy task. Every week, we take turns to do the fishing since it requires a lot of manual labour,” she said.
“There are also dangerous creatures that live in the water such as hippos and crocodiles which usually lurk near the shores.”
Ms Mudimba said that once caught, the kapenta fish are transferred into baskets and coarse salt is added to maintain freshness.
“Upon returning to the harbour in the morning, we place the fish on drying racks where they are sun-dried losing two-thirds of the wet weight. This dried high protein product has the benefit of having a long shelf life and is easily transported into remote areas without refrigeration,” she said.
Ms Mudimba said the dwindling water levels and overfishing threaten to sink Binga’s kapenta fishing cooperatives.
“We also have Zambians employing unethical means in their fishing operations and at times they poach our fish and even invade breeding areas,” she said.
To help control the over-harvesting of fish, Zimparks and their Zambian counterparts introduced a Full Moon Calendar which suspends all rig fishing in the river for the seven last days of each month in Zimbabwe and 10 days per month in Zambia.
ZimParks charges US$1 200 per year per boat. The BaTonga or Basilwizi (people of the Great River) have since time immemorial anchored their lives on farming on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River and catching fish for relish and trade as a way of earning a living.