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Fishing Lake Mweru: A Surprising Tale of Adaptation and Survival

Story posted December 02, 2007

David Gordon
David Gordon

At first, the tale of Lake Mweru seems all too familiar. Located on the border between Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, this important fishing resource has been radically affected by overfishing, environmental degradation and political tumult.

In a celebrated new book by Assistant Professor of History David M. Gordon, however, it becomes a hopeful story of adaptation and economic survival, even as those who fish its waters negotiate ever-shifting concepts of property and governance underscoring its environmental transformation.

Nachituti book cover

Nachituti's Gift: Economy, Society, and Environment in Central Africa (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), charts the course of fishing in this Central African lake from the mid-19th century to the present. The story of the lake, though central, serves moreover as a backdrop for Gordon's analysis of economic and social change as the fisheries—and fishers—respond to changing concepts of property rights and resource management from pre-colonial and colonial rule to the present.

"At the surface level, it's just a history of a fishery," notes Gordon. "At another, it's a history of the relationship people have to the land and water resources around them and how those relationships have changed. It's been a particularly dynamic 150 years in Central Africa. The area was conquered by the Eastern Lunda, then the British and the Belgians, who set up different colonial administrations. Then Zambia and Congo gained independence, followed by war in the Congo. The area I'm looking at was deeply affected by this history, with the many political changes that redefined peoples' relationships with their most important resources."

This book was one of four finalists for the 2007 Melville Herskovits Award, which is given annually to the best book in African studies across all disciplines, and also received an honorable mention at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association.

Mweru Fisher
Fish trader with bales of smoked fish in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 1998. Photo by David Gordon.

Interestingly, it wasn't a book Gordon intended to write. He originally planned to study how rural elites had fared in the region during periods of political change, but after an initial research trip to the Congo and Zambia in 1997-98, he realized how pivotal the lake was both to "ordinary welfare and extraordinary wealth."

"My food and my food for thought became the fishery," he adds. In field studies with local historians—many of them non-literate village elders who shared oral histories of the region—Gordon was repeatedly introduced to the legend of the book's title, "Nachituti's Gift." It is a tale of conquest by the Kazembe Lunda people and claims to date back to the late 18th century:

Nachituti was the sister of a local ruler, Nkuba. After Nkuba murdered her son, she sought revenge by enticing the eastern Lunda to conquer the valley. After their conquest and subsequent murder of Nkuba, Nachituti gave the Lunda king a basket of earth and a pot of water, symbols of the river valley's natural resources.

Women at Market
Women selling dried Chisense fish in a market town on the shores of Lake Mweru, 1998. Photo by David Gordon.

This legend underscored the way property rights had been defined before colonialism, at which point Europeans introduced new types of property regimes that accorded with European notions of individual and communal tenure.

"The problem with resources in post-colonial Africa—whether with land, water, oil or mines—is that they were not owned according to a system of laws that Europeans could recognize," notes Gordon.

As a consequence, African owners of the lands and lagoons in this region lost their control and the resources were exploited by the Europeans. The lake's valuable mudfish population was virtually exterminated by large-scale mechanized fishing introduced by the Belgians in the 1950s. Smaller species began to proliferate, whether due to absence of larger predators, or to the effects of modern fertilizer nutrients that are leaching into the watershed.

Interestingly, these changes have opened up new markets. "The ironic consequence of fishing down in size is that the surviving species were easier to fish and offered benefit to those who were undercapitalized people," notes Gordon. "Mainly women."

Today, the lake is home to a thriving population of small fish called Chisense, whose short, prolific reproductive cycle virtually ensures against overfishing and offers increased fishing opportunities for smaller-scale operators.

Junior Faculty Sabbaticals

Support for junior faculty sabbaticals is an important goal of The Bowdoin Campaign, which ends in 2009. These professional opportunities are vital for our faculty, allowing them to engage with peers, advance their research and creativity, and inspire students.

"From the perspective of biodiversity, there is definitely a tragedy here," reflects Gordon. "For someone concerned with the welfare of poor women, it's not such a bad story ... It's more a tale of adaptation than environmental collapse. It depends on what you see."

Gordon, who joined the Bowdoin faculty in 2005, is continuing to research and write a second book, which he plans to work on during his junior sabbatical leave in 2008-09.

The book deals with religion and political imagination in the history of south central Africa. "I hope to delineate the common historical processes that make the study of this region a significant sub-field of study within African history," says Gordon.

To purchase Nachituti's Gift online, visit the Bowdoin Bookstore.

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