For the first time ever in recorded history, the source of the once might Zambezi is dry. Even more surprising is the fact that this has happened at a time when, water levels in the region are supposed to be at their highest on account of the good rains experienced in the past six months.

A visit to the site reveals a shocking sight; a dry patch now meets the eye from the spot, where the Zambezi river used to ooze from. In happier times, that was the first sighting of the river as it creeps from the undergrowth to form a rivulet and then it disappears and creeps back in visible patches here and there.

The importance of this source is the reason the Zambian government declared this a protected area. It is also the reason why beautiful walk-ways were made for people to easily walk around and see the phenomenal spot, which is the source of the Zambezi river. This same spot is also the reason why a nice visitor center was constructed by the Zambia government to provide information for tourists.

So what happening?

Willy Chiwaya, the conservation assistant who has been taking care of the Zambezi source for the past 10 years admits that this is the first time the area has dried for the time he’s worked there. He speculates that this could be because of insufficient rains this year – regardless the fact that the areas has had sufficient rain.

However, Chiwaya explains that there is some exceptional happening this year as the water table has already gone down despite the good rains:

“The water table has really gone down. We have not had enough rains this year like we have had in the past. But there is still water here, though its 300 meters away from the actual source were we are standing,” said Mr Chiwaya.

Like Chiwaya, traditionalists also have their explanation: “the forefathers are annoyed that is why the source is dry. They are annoyed with the white people who have encroached into our land and chased us from the source. We are asking the government to allow us resume the musolu ceremony,” said Senior Headman Mukangala, a local Lunda leader who lives less than two kilometers from the source of the Zambezi river.

The Lunda speaking people are the owners of this land – the source of the Zambezi river. The Lundas called the river Yambezhi but the white man opted to call it Zambezi. Actually, the Republic of Zambia derives its name from Zambezi river.

In the years before the source of the river became a national heritage site, the Lundas considered the area as a shrine. They used to come to this area to perform rituals.

“Where there is a monument, that was some kind of a hospital were the sick were brought for healing. What used to happen is that the ancestors would come here, get few leaves and trees to mix together and give the herbs to the people who were at the camp and they would get healed,” revealed Mr Chiwaya.

Chiwaya further explained about the restrictions which were followed religiously at the shrine:

“There are some restrictions which are currently not being followed thats why this place is no longer a shrine. Only circumcised men where allowed here and women who did not have sex during the day time were also allowed to come.”

And then came the white man

Senior Headman Mukangala lives a few kilometers away from the source of the Zambezi. During the colonial error, he used to be Chief Kabanda but in 1947, he was de-gazette on account of not having enough people in his chiefdom. The British colonial government claimed his villages were scattered and he would not manage to hold his chiefdom together.

Today Senior Headman Mukangala feels the drying up of the source of the Zambezi river is a curse.

“The decision to stop us from celebrating the Musolu traditional ceremony at the source of the Zambezi is what is causing problems and the drying up of the source. The spirits are annoyed,” says the traditional leader.

Before the whites started visiting this area in the 1920s, the villagers used to perform a ceremony called Musolu. In this ritual, they prayed asking the gods for good rains. The ritual is no-longer being performed.

“During the ceremony, we used to start by praying to God for good rains. All Headmen under my leadership would gather at the source of the Zambezi. All people would be happy because they would be talking to God directly,” he said.

The Musolu ceremony, like many other cultural activities of this nature, is performed once a year. Senior Headman Mukangala now recalls how it was done. Throwing some seeds on the ground, Senior Headman says: “Once we paint our faces with white powder, we would then ask God that whatever we have planted, let it germinate so that next year we can have enough food for your people.”

But all is not so dry at the source of the Zambezi

Three hundred meters away from the actual source, there is some activity. A small brook of water coming from an underground fountain, is the first sign that the Zambezi river still runs here. As they say that big things, sometimes start very small. These are the humble beginnings of the Zambezi before it starts its long, winding journey to the Indian ocean.

The Zambezi river grows in size and flows to the Kalene hills within Ikelengi District before it crosses into Angola. While in Angola, the Zambezi, grows in size and stature as more and more rivers and streams pour into it. And for flowing for 240 kilometers, the Zambezi river gets bigger and bigger before entering Zambia.

A few meters after entering Zambia, the Zambezi passes a place called Lingelengenda in Chavuma District. Here there are rapids and natural swimming pools popular with young people. Some boys could be seen swimming at the rapids without the fear of being snatched by crocodiles – crocodiles are famed in this area.

From Angola, the Zambezi flows swiftly and southwards towards Chavuma town and forms another set of rapids which plunge into Chavuma falls. The Zambezi then continues on its southern journey to the Western Province, down to Mozambique and finally into the Indian Ocean.

All along its 3, 540 kilometer stretch, the Zambezi is a lifeline for millions of people in Southern Africa. But it is the new developments at the source of the Zambezi that are worrisome. Does this drying have any effect on this mighty river?

“I must believe that we haven’t just had enough rains, because if you can see the status of the road we used when coming here, it is still very good, but usually around this time, there is a lot of trouble getting here due to too much water. But its still okay because there are no enough rains,” said Mr Chiwaya.

Despite this climatic phenomenon, the Zambezi is giver of all things. The river is a source of transport, food and employment in Zambia, Angola, Botswana, Namibia and Mozambique. It is also a major source of electricity for these countries due to its many water-falls and dams which produce hydro power for domestic and industrial use.

NOTE: The original version of this article was aired on Zambia’s TV1 Newsline program on 19 May 2017 – it can be watched here.