An Illustrated Supplement to Deep Water
Part Two: Southern Africa
One Good Dam
Photographs by Jacques Leslie
Scudder’s taste for wilderness is most thoroughly registered on his face: he has spent much of his career studying semi-arid river basins, and now his visage has become one. It’s a sun-parched river delta, as triangular as the Nile’s, narrowing from his broad forehead to his soft, round chin. His small green eyes, modest nose, and fleshy cheeks form the prominent islands, and the channels across his forehead look deep enough to have been dredged. His fabulous inch-long eyebrows are themselves alluvial fans. (The Okavango Delta is another.)
Over Scudder's right shoulder was a magnificent pink-tinged rock-ribbed Grand-Canyonesque gorge, and over the other shoulder, nestled into a slope, was a Mohale resettlement village. It looked to me like a fetal Levittown, a couple of dozen identical gray cinderblock houses, all fronted by identical green plastic water barrels, arranged in precise rows: a relentlessly linear village in place of traditional villages’ preponderance of curves. The ambiguous gift of modernity now reached deep into the Malotis.
Mohale in mid-construction was an assembly-line ingot, an elongated, flat-topped triangle stretched across a riverbed a third of a mile wide. From our hilltop vantage point above the dam, the project looked like an elaborate erector set construction, with rock quarry, tractors, the world’s largest dump trucks (sporting tires taller than our minivan), and a zigzag road across the dam face like an African cicatrice; only the scale was too large, by a factor of thousands. In the words of an Irish engineer who gave us a tour, “A rock-fill dam is just an ugly pile of rock that you put a concrete slab on to make watertight.”
In front of us, the rear of a public bus bore a painted illustration of the Katse Reservoir, an idealized portrait in brilliant blues and greens that shows a shimmering lake spanned by a graceful bridge as a contented peasant looks down from flourishing fields. The message, though wordless, was obvious: put your hopes in the dam.
On one side of the center was a wispy waterfall that disappeared into a mostly dry streambed, which in turn snaked its way down to the reservoir. The bed’s two banks were a shade greener than the surrounding hills, an illustration of the life-giving nature of water.
We drove through overcast Ha Lejone (HA-la-JO-knee), the biggest town in the Katse basin, a town that nevertheless looks only a few years old, and raw. The town has little in it besides a marketplace, with few marketers and fewer patrons, and on its fringes a desultory work camp, a relic of dam construction. On this misty, sunless day, when the clouds seemed to have extracted every glimmer of enthusiasm from the sun’s rays, men walked the dusty street wrapped in their blankets, with heads covered in baggy wool caps.
We stopped at ‘Muela, the smallest dam of the project’s completed triad, and tending to disappear inside a narrow gorge. The dam is the forward salient of an otherwise predominantly hidden installation: it receives water tunneled from Mohale and Katse, passes it through the turbines of an underground power station (which transforms its energy into Lesotho’s power supply), then enables it to gather behind ‘Muela Dam, which regulates its rate of flow through yet another tunnel into South Africa. The dam was completed in 1997, five years before our visit, and the surrounding village seemed to have weathered the shock. Rondavels in sparse arced clusters overlooked the reservoir, and in their neatly trimmed thatched roofs exuded sufficiency. But above them ominously loomed the project’s operations building, possessing a scale so unlike anything in its human-sized surroundings as to suggest that it had been deposited there by aliens, which, in a sense, it had. Massive and bland, it announced the arrival in ‘Muela of modernity, three stories high and twenty-five horizontal windows per story, as linear as a milk carton, bristling with antennae and surrounded, at a generous distance, by chain-link fence. Some six hundred feet beneath the operations building, embedded in a sandstone cavern, three turbines perpetually churned, lighting up Maseru and ‘Muela alike.
Katse is a cloud-gray curve— a double-curve, in fact, bending into the reservoir both from abutment to abutment and from foundation to crest— whose grace obscures its height and power. Walking across Katse was like strolling across the deck of an aircraft carrier, windswept, feeling something alive beneath my feet, faintly aware of occupying an illegitimate space, as if I were committing a transgression by being there. Just as an aircraft carrier’s violence resides beneath the deck, evidence of the dam’s violence is hidden underwater; maybe that is why zoologists Bryan Davies and Jenny Day compare the Katse reservoir to “a very long, very heavy axe head with the blade burying itself in the valley floor.”
We stopped in a village where the pressure of the filling Katse reservoir had caused the ground to emit eerie moans that frightened villagers, and then, in January 1996, a 3.2-magnitude earthquake left a mile-long crack in the terrain. The crack extended from the reservoir straight up a slope for nearly a mile; even when I inspected it, four years later, the crack was so wide that I could see through it and down into the earth for several feet.
We walked down an unpaved alley parallel to the fence, until we reached the Thamalakane. At the moment, the Thamalakane was a series of ponds, connected to one another by trickles narrow enough to hop across. Most of the wide, empty riverbed was green with vegetation, as if sustained by the memory of water until the flood arrived. By now, Scudder’s shirttail was hanging out, and his floppy green hat was pulled low on his head to ward off the russet sun.
Scudder lay in the long, damp grass of the riverbed and crossed his feet. Tall reeds framed his outline. “You’re at the very edge of where the Okavango meets the Kalahari sand veldt,” he said, “and you can see how important water is. Just since we’ve been here, we’ve seen about seven different kinds of birds, and there’s two black storks staring at you.” He pointed to the storks, uncommon Okavango residents that were now perched on the top limb of an acacia tree just across the river, enveloped in powder blue sky. Long-billed and long-legged, they faced in opposite directions, as if posing for photographs of their exquisite silhouettes. For the first time in our acquaintance, Scudder looked something like relaxed.
A yellow-billed duck flew by. “Look,” he said. “The storks are going. They’re graceful flyers.” They flew in an upward spiral over the river before choosing their direction. In a voice infused with wonder, Scudder said, “Look at that.”
From a decrepit elevated blind, Scudder and I could see the fence that bisected the Thamalakane: it’s a homely affair of wood and wire rising out of the river’s pre-flood trickle. On the Maun side, a few donkeys grazed, and then some cattle joined them; on the Reserve side, where domestic animals were forbidden, wart hogs, wildebeests and impala dined on grassy stubble near the river, while baboons looked on. Eagles and storks flew overhead. Two impala with elegantly twisted horns pranced by, snorting loudly.
We soon discovered that the main reason we didn’t see the Boteti is that it was extremely hard to distinguish from the woodlands surrounding it. Where the road crosses it, it was filled not with water, but mud. Donkeys grazed in it. Beer cans were half-submerged in it. We marched through the mud and found a gauge, a kind of oversized ruler, sticking out of it, an apparent project relic. It was hard to imagine how the fifty-foot dam envisioned in the project could fit inside this shallow depression. “To make the dam,” Scudder said, “they would have had to dig down quite a bit.”
Moremi includes Chief’s Island, by far the biggest island in the delta: it is the shape of Manhattan and forty times Manhattan’s size. It is wide and dry enough to contain in its interior a pocket of Kalahari desert, with vegetation and animal life to match— it’s a dot of Kalahari yin inside the swampy Okavango yang, itself surrounded by Kalahari yin. Land, water, land, in all combinations and gradations: in the Okavango, water is blood. On a sandy spit of road before we even reached the reserve, a few dozen elephants stampeded in front of us, and raised a dusty cloud that signified the absence of the flood.
For much of the way, the Boro looked so narrow I could have walked across it. Perpendicular to this trickle, I saw a tiny dam of sticks made for traditional fishing: the impulse to dam is apparently universal. Then, near a safari camp called Mombo, I could see where the water had spilled out of its metaphorical glass, and now crept along the floodplain, obliterating the Boro, spawning swamp, more like seepage than wave. From there to the panhandle, the browns and golds of the lower delta gave way to the blues of omnipresent water and the greens of island vegetation, from the faint grasses on the islands’ edges to the intensely leaved palms in their center. The flood now was practically galloping, the Australian pilot said. Galloping, of course, is relative; even a smitten couple on a meandering stroll could overtake the flood. Yet the flood is fundamental, inexorable, life-giving. The Okavango exposes the fallacy of speed.
On the Zambian side, a salient extends out from the cliffs just downstream from the waterfall, and offers, at least theoretically, a vantage point. I was a drought beneficiary: because of the Zambezi’s reduced volume, I could see a section of the falls, silvery in the late-afternoon light, and behind it, the broad expanse of water, so flat and wide that it looked less like a river than a rapidly moving lake flinging itself over a precipice. Upriver, low trees along the distant shore formed the horizon line; above it was a single long, horizontal smear of sunlight— blue at the bottom, then purple, red, gold, yellow, finally bleeding into the slate white sky. Here was one of nature’s most awe-inspiring creations, the antithesis of a dam, the epitome of release instead of containment, but now also the upstream counterpart to Kariba Dam, together enclosing the Gwembe Valley in disharmonious juxtaposition.
At the bottom of our descent was a resort town, Siavonga (SEE-uh-VONG-uh), a creation of the lake. By Zambian standards, Siavonga is posh. We drove by an assortment of resorts and ostentatious homes— one had Greek pretensions; another one, a giant satellite dish. The homes had once hugged the reservoir’s rim, but now the reservoir was doing the hugging. Deceived by the low reservoir level caused by four mid-’90s drought years, a dozen or so landowners built their homes beneath the reservoir’s rim, ignoring warnings that the homes would be inundated when the rains returned— which is precisely what happened. Clark showed me a house with what appeared to be a grandiosely colonnaded carport, which now opened onto Lake Kariba.
Kariba Dam is as utilitarian as an execution chamber: it is massive but entirely plain, verging on Stalinist. Its most striking features are the disturbing black, white, and brown streaks that run down its downstream face from cement joints and sluice gates, and the gray and brown stains that traverse the face like blurred stripes.
Emmy displayed a fastidiousness that defied his surroundings. On the top of his head, he allowed the hint of curly black stubble to form a perfect oval. He wore a black button-down shirt and green denim pants that bore the label “Killer” and the slogan “For Those who are going places.” When he sat down, I could see on his socks the word “LOVE,” spelled out in inch-high letters encircling his lower calves. His manner was dignified and composed.
The next morning I saw that we’d set up in the shadow of a magnificent baobab tree, leafless but multi-limbed, each branch seeming to end in a squiggle of switches.
The “L.,” it turned out, stands for Little, and he looked not just small, but shrinking. Like just about everybody else in Mazulu, he was too thin. His mustache looked like a pasted-on smile, a determination to be optimistic. He wore a proper white button-down long-sleeved shirt, and his tie was perfectly knotted; his disarray showed only beneath the knee, with the mud caked on a trouser cuff, the turquoise-and-white-striped socks nearly gathered around his ankles, one shoe held together with tape.
We met the next morning at Emmy’s compound, beneath the spreading tree. Eight men representing a group called The Voice of the Resettled People of Chipepo, plus Emmy, Richard, Delly and I sat in a circle on rudimentary low-slung wooden chairs, some stools, a log, a rock. Three of the men did the talking, one by one, in numbered points, until I realized I was experiencing a political harangue, delivered to the wrong audience. Mr. Syantumbu recited the ill effects of the Kariba Dam, including the two-hour war in 1958. Sibbuyu Abeshy, the organization’s secretary and author of its newsletter, pronounced the land “not fit for human habitation.” Abeshy, in his 20s and probably the youngest of the men, looked the most up-to-date, with his shaved head, crisp white t-shirt, and pants displaying a stylized American flag design down each leg— yet he was the angriest and most bombastic. “We the victimized people...” was how he began one declamation. “That dam was once our sweet home,” he said, “but now we are brought to this dry land, which was once the home of ornery animals.” The resettlement was 44 years old, much older in fact than Mr. Abeshy, yet in his telling it seemed to have just happened.