Of Fish and Men

Dusk on Lake Tanganyika

Dusk on Lake Tanganyika

I spent last week with my friends Chris and Emily in Mpulungu, Northern Province, on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. Mpulungu is Zambia’s version of Monterey on the Central Californian coastline: lots of great shopping, a diverse history, interesting culture, friendly locals, and sweeping vistas on the shore of an incredibly diverse aquatic ecosystem.

It’s also really, really hot. If Steinbeck had been born in sub-Saharan Africa instead of Salinas, he’d have perished from the heat before he had a chance to write about the Musonda family making the pilgrimage from Kapiri to Mpulungu in search of a better life and jobs in the Lake Tanganyika fishing industry. The rest of Zambia is just leaving the warm, wet season and coming into cold season, but Mpulungu hasn’t gotten the message yet.

After hitching from Musaila to Kasama on Monday, we grabbed a swift and wind-chilled ride in the back of an open pickup truck up to Mbala on Tuesday morning, then hired a taxi to take us the rest of the way to Mpulungu. We spent the next four days exploring, marveling at the way fish permeate every facet of this bustling port town.

The waterfront market receives a healthy influx of fresh fish every morning, caught by fishermen the night before. A handful of commercial fisheries dredge the lake with nets, processing their catch in lakeside plants and shipping their prized yield downcountry to larger cities like Lusaka and Ndola and Kitwe. Lake Tanganyika, the world’s second-largest and second-deepest lake after Lake Baikal in Siberia, boasts 250 species of cichlids and 150 more species of non-cichlid fish. And we found tons of fish-patterned chitenges in the markets.

We bantered with kids, danced with merchants, and befriended generous local businessmen, who invited us to lavish braais where we feasted on fresh fish. We took a day trip to Kalambo Falls, a jaw-dropping single-drop waterfall in an impossibly deep gorge on the border of Zambia and Tanzania made even more striking by the fact that most of Zambia is a very flat country. We spent quality time bonding with good friends. We fished. We didn’t catch anything.

We prowled the sprawling markets every day, discovering items we hadn’t seen anywhere else in Zambia. Mpulungu’s proximity to both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to Tanzania means a healthy infusion of foreign textiles and goods, which means Matt was delighted to find the national football team jerseys for random countries like Côte d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe.

Lake Tanganyika isn’t exactly a famed vacation destination (unless you’re a fish biologist) because it has few white sandy beaches and little tourist infrastructure. But as a place to visit for the sheer enjoyment of a beautiful locale and new cultural experiences, it’s hard to beat.