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The Zimbabwean Tonga and their collective rights to livelihoods, cultural integrity and autonomy

By Patrick Tom and Nyaradzai Munyaradzi

In the late 1950s, the colonial Southern Rhodesian government constructed a World Bank funded hydropower mega-dam on the Zambezi river in Kariba, bordering Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). This resulted in the displacement (without consultation) of the minority Tonga people from the ecologically rich plains of the Gwembe Valley, popularly known as the Zambezi Valley, where they had lived for centuries to adjoining higher dry areas such as Nyaminyami and Binga Districts. These districts are located in the agro-ecological region five of Zimbabwe, which is mainly characterised by infertile lands, very low annual rainfall and droughts. This has had a negative impact on the livelihoods of the Tonga people who prior to being resettled engaged in subsistence farming on the banks of the Zambezi River, which also provided them with natural resources including wild animals for meat as well as fruits, and as such, seldom experienced hunger and famine. In this area, displacement, which involved little compensation, turned the Tonga into one of the most impoverished and food insecure communities in the country. The situation has not improved as their descendants are food insecure most of the time unless they receive humanitarian assistance in the form of national and international food aid to boost their daily intake.

After their displacement, the Tonga needed formal hunting permits, which proved to be difficult for the majority of them as they had no financial resources to attain these permits, and as such, the majority of them were reduced to “poachers”. The post-colonial state inherited the old colonial policy, which states that wildlife is state property. As such, it has not yet fully addressed the land problem created by colonialism. The new attempts at “giving land to the people” have not addressed themselves to the important questions of the deliberate and systematic protection of the environment and natural resources. Furthermore, the government introduced the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE), which saw it giving management rights to the local communities as it realised that the conservation of wild animals does not only involve telling people not to poach, but also permitting them to use animal wildlife in a sustainable way. However, the misuse and abuse of the CAMPFIRE funds by Rural District Councils running the programme has meant that local communities such as the Tonga has not benefited much from the project.

Today, the Tonga people face varied challenges which are partly due to their displacement and their marginalization, which the post-colonial government has failed to address. These challenges include landlessness, deterioration of livelihoods, food insecurity, marginalization and abject poverty. As a result, the Tonga are considered to be amongst Zimbabwe’s most vulnerable groups. For instance, food insecurity is a serious challenge confronting the Tonga people in the Nyaminyami district. Infertile lands in the Negande ward for agricultural purposes has in most cases resulted in recurrent food shortages. Besides, the challenge of food insecurity, another challenge that the Tonga face in Nyaminyami district is the lack of access to reliable safe drinking water most of the time. In some areas in the district’s wards, most boreholes have since dried up. Shortages of reliable safe drinking water have become the order of the day in the Negande ward as it has four boreholes that service the area to approximately 6,517 people.  

Moreover, the Tonga people face a challenge of inadequate and quality education. Nyaminyami district has 42 primary schools and 15 high schools. Schools are far apart forcing children to walk long distances to and from school. For instance, we are currently involved in the Kauzhumba school building project in the district, which since its establishment in 1992 continue to have makeshift classrooms and does not qualify as a centre for national examinations resulting in Grade Seven pupils walking more than 10 kilometres each year to sit for their national exams at Marembera primary school. In addition, poverty acts as a barrier to education in the district. A large number of parents cannot afford the school fees and as such, most children end up not attending school. Moreover, locals resent the dominance of teachers who do not speak ChiTonga (Tonga language) in many schools in their communities with some young Tonga increasingly becoming vocal about it.

The Tonga had their homes and livelihoods sacrificed for a hydropower mega-dam project, yet after that sacrifice they have had little if not no access to resources in and around the Kariba dam.

The construction of the Kariba dam has had devastating impacts that have not only contributed to the suffering of the Tonga people, but have also violated their collective rights. As noted above, as proven by the experience of the Tonga people, the construction of the dam dislocated them from their ancestral land and impacted negatively on their traditional livelihoods. In addition to the dislocation and the disruption of traditional livelihoods, the dominance of teachers in the region who do not speak the native language are evidence of violations of the Tonga’s collective rights to cultural integrity and autonomy. Being a minority group, their voices cannot be heard. 

For additional information, we suggest the following resources:

Mashingaidze, T.M. (2013). “Beyond the Kariba Dam Induced Displacement: The Zimbabwean Tonga and their Struggles for Restitution, 1990s-2000s.” International Journal on Minority and Groups Rights, 20: pp. 381-404.

Magadza, C.H.D. (2006). “Kariba Reservoir: Experience and Lesson Learned Brief.” Lakes & Reservoirs: Science, Policy and Management for Sustainable Use, 11(4): pp. 271-286.

Mulonga Net. Available at


Ali Watson