Water, land and politics in southern Africa: remaking Mutirikwi

A great book is just out by Joost Fontein, now director of the British Institute in Eastern Africa. It’s called Remaking Mutirikwi: Landscape, Water and Belonging in Southern Zimbabwe, and is published by James Currey. It’s long and detailed, but important and fascinating (preview here).

It tells the story of Lake Mutirikwi (in southern Zimbabwe near Masvingo) and its surrounding areas, and its influence on landscape and livelihoods through its provision of water. Lake Kyle, as it was formerly called, was completed in 1960, and was part of an ambitious project to provide water for the lowveld for the expanding sugar estates, and a European recreation area around the lake. It served both capital and racial politics, and became a symbol of the European dream for Africa.

Kyle created an Europeanised landscape – removing people to the reserves, creating game parks, and providing irrigation, all through an impressive engineering feat. It tamed nature, created an European aesthetic, and offered white residents of Masvingo and beyond a playground for fishing, hunting, game viewing and more. But landscapes are never static – they have long histories, memories and echoes of past social relations and politics embedded within them. This is a key theme for the book: pasts anchor the present, layered landscapes with multiple meanings are generated and diverse (material) cultures of belonging are combined.

The book starts with 2005-06 and with the fast-track land reform. A sense of optimism and hope is seen in the lands surrounding the lake. Old gravesites have been reclaimed, sacred groves now honoured as part of newly peopled landscape. And with this old disputes and political competition between ‘traditional’ leadership groups rekindled. The land invasions are seen by many of Joost’s informants as a restitution of ancestral lands, and the important spirit mediums of the area – Mai Macharaga and Ambuya VaZarira – reconfirm this.

Starting with the present, then moving to the past and returning to the present at the end, offers an overall story of how landscapes’ characters are hybrid creations, ones that always carry the past with them. The story of the shifts from an ‘African’ landscape to ‘Europeanisation’ through colonialism then ‘Africanisation’ again following land reform shows how politics, belonging, and discursive constructions of landscape are ever shifting. There are frequent ruptures, as new landscape visions are imposed, but also, importantly, continuity, with the past always having an influence on the present.

The book is of course especially fascinating to me having worked in this area for a long time. While our sites, where we have tracked land reform outcomes since 2000, are on the other side of the lake to where the book focuses, the stories are very similar. The reigniting of chieftaincy disputes, as the book explains in some detail in Chapters 1 and 5, has certainly dominated local politics on the Masvingo borderlands with Gutu. Such ‘genealogical geographies’ provide an important historical backdrop to any study of contemporary land use, with what the historian Gerald Mazarire calls nineteenth century “principles of territoriality” revived in a new politics of land. What is nice about this book is that this is not ‘just’ history – based on archive based reconstructions – but very much rooted in the present, informed by fieldwork immersion, and written by someone who really knows the area well, having researched and indeed lived in the area for years.

In Chapter 6, the book takes a bigger, regional view of landscape, and looks at the hydropolitics associated with the provision of water to the sugar estates in the lowveld. This complements the earlier work by Will Wolmer, and provides a useful historical background to our work on sugar and land reform in Hippo Valley. As Joost explains in the conclusion, the experience of Muturikwi is being reflected in new ways with the Tokwe Mukorsi dam, with similar issues around displacement and resettlement, the removal of people from ancestral lands, graves and religious sites, and the creation of a new tourist-friendly lake environment.

At 340 pages, it’s a long and detailed book, sometimes with some rather heavy ‘academic’ language, and a quick review cannot do it justice. But the chapters are packed with fascinating stories and important data. Other chapters deal with spirit control of landscapes, and the intersection of the material and spirit world in negotiating use and creating belonging; the contested relationship between wildlife – including fish and hippos – and people; the legacies of the liberation war and the struggles over land that occurred both during and after the war. All with intriguing, sometimes gripping, stories contained within them. For understanding the complex cultural and political histories underlying land reform in southern Zimbabwe, this is a really important contribution. I hope Weaver Press will produce it in Zimbabwe, but if you can afford it, buy it now!

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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