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Fish and Fishing in the Rivers and Wetlands of Usangu

Fish and Fishing in the Rivers and Wetlands of Usangu

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Published by Martin Walsh
A paper by Martin Walsh describing Sangu knowledge of fish and fishing practices in the wetlands of Usangu, Tanzania.
Citation: Walsh, M. T. 1996. Fish and Fishing in the Rivers and Wetlands of Usangu. East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin, 26 (3/4): 42 47.
A paper by Martin Walsh describing Sangu knowledge of fish and fishing practices in the wetlands of Usangu, Tanzania.
Citation: Walsh, M. T. 1996. Fish and Fishing in the Rivers and Wetlands of Usangu. East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin, 26 (3/4): 42 47.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Martin Walsh on Apr 07, 2009
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Martin T. Walsh
Natural Resources Institute, Chatham, andSchool of African and Asian Studies, University of Sussex, U.K.corrected version of a paper originally published in
East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin 
, 26 (3/4): 42-47December 1996
{NB: the page numbers in this version donot follow those of the published text, fromwhich a number of paragraphs are missing}
current address:
EANHS Bulletin 26 (3/4), December 1996______________________________________________________________________________1
This paper, based upon informationcollected in 1980-82, provides apreliminary description of indigenousknowledge of fish and fishing practices inthe rivers and wetlands of the UsanguPlains of southern Tanzania. It focusesupon the knowledge, practices, andperceptions of the Sangu, the originalinhabitants of Usangu, and reflects theirconcern over the alleged overexploitationof aquatic resources by more recentimmigrants into the plains. Borrowingfrom more recent research reports, it alsodraws attention to the wider and moreserious threat to the unique fish fauna of this area which is posed by other humanactivities in Usangu.
The Usangu Plains
The Usangu Plains comprise part of theeastern Rift Valley. They take the form of a shallow alluvial basin, which lies around1,000 metres above sea-level and coversan estimated area of more than 15,500km
. Ruaha National Park borders theplains to the north and the hills of Iringadistrict to the east. To the south and westthey are hemmed in by the SouthernHighlands and the mountain ranges whichrise up from the northern shores of LakeMalawi. The streams and rivers whichflow down from these mountains join inUsangu to form the Great Ruaha River,which meanders out of the plains to thenorth-east after passing through theUtengule Swamp. The annual rainsgenerally fall between December and Mayand bring substantial flooding. As the dryseason progresses the floodwaters recedeand the many seasonal rivers dry up.Water remains, however, in a number of permanent rivers, deep river pools, and theperennial Utengule Swamp.
Fish Fauna
The Great Ruaha and its tributariessupport a unique fish fauna. Until theformation of the Rift Valley, the Ruahaflowed westwards into what is now Zaire.Following faulting, however, the riverformed its own basin and was redirectedeastwards, where it joined up with theRufiji. The Ruaha evidently took with it anumber of Zairean fish species, and someof these have since speciated further toproduce endemics with a Zairean ratherthan East African affiliation. The fishfauna of the Ruaha Basin is stillimperfectly known, and the upper reachesand tributaries, including the UtenguleSwamp, have yet to be investigated.Unfortunately the aquatic resources of thebasin are now threatened by humanactivity: over the last three dry seasonsthe Great Ruaha between Usangu and theconfluence with the Little Ruaha Riverhas stopped flowing, and proposals havebeen drawn up to bypass the UtenguleSwamp with an artificial channel.
The Human Population
The Usangu Plains are the home of theSangu (
), speakers of an EasternBantu language (
) whoseimmediate affiliation is with otherlanguages of the Southern Highlandsgroup (Hehe, Bena, Wanji, Kinga, Kisi,Pangwa and Manda). The Sangu aremixed farmers who, in the nineteenth andearly twentieth centuries, had largeholdings of cattle. Oral traditions suggestthat hunting and fishing also played animportant role in their subsistence in thepast, and the Sangu derive their namefrom a kind of basket (
) whichthey say was used to carry game meat andfish up into the Southern Highlands wherethey were exchanged for agriculturalproduce. These baskets are still used inUsangu to transport fish.Since the colonial period the Sanguhave had to share the plains with growingnumbers of immigrants from outside of Usangu. Most of these immigrants fallinto two broad categories: farmers who
EANHS Bulletin 26 (3/4), December 1996______________________________________________________________________________2
have moved into southern Usangu fromthe south and south-east, attracted by thepotential for irrigated rice cultivation; and(agro)pastoralists from the north, attractedby the rich pastures and permanent waterresources of central Usangu. The ricefarmers include large numbers of Nyakyusa and Ndali from the south-west,and a polyethnic mix of people living onand around Usangu’s large irrigationschemes. The (agro)pastoralists includeIl-Parakuyu Maasai, who first enteredUsangu in the 1950s, and large numbers of Sukuma, who began settling on the plainswith their large herds of cattle in the1970s. The indigenous Sangu nowcomprise less than half of the total humanpopulation of Usangu.
Sangu Knowledge of Fish
Fish comprised an important supplementto the diet in Utengule, the former capitalof the Sangu chiefdom and village inwhich I lived and conductedanthropological research in 1980-82.Some of the fish eaten in Utengule wereobtained from the River Mambi, whichruns through the village, as well as fromlocal irrigation channels, but largerquantities were brought in by fishermenfrom the rivers and wetlands to the northand north-east.The general term for fish in
(noun class singular/plural 9/10).Most of the body parts of fish are referredto using terms which are also applied toother creatures (e.g.
, 3/6, ‘head’,
, 3/6, ‘bone’,
, 3/6,‘sharp spine’, ‘thorn’). Special terms areused, however, for the tail end of a fish(
, 3/6) and the mid-sectionbetween the head and the tail (
,7/8, literally ‘mid-body’).All of the Sangu names for fishwhich I heard in Utengule are listedbelow. This list is no doubt incomplete,because I only noted names as I cameacross them. It is also possible that Sanguin eastern Usangu know of species whichdo not appear in and around Utengule, orhave different names for some of the fishwhich do. The majority of the Sanguliving in the eastern plains speak dialectswhich are more closely related to Hehe(spoken especially around Madibira) andBena (in Rujewa and the south-east) thanto the
of Utengule and itsenvirons. Some phonological and lexicalvariation in local fish taxonomies shouldtherefore be expected, though to whatextent remains to be established.I have added to the list probablelinguistic cognates from the
PreliminaryGuide to the Commoner Fish of the Ruaha National Park and Upper Ruaha Basin
 compiled by Ian Payne, Vicki Cowan, andPhilip Townsley (hereafter PCT). Their‘local names’ were mostly recorded to theeast of Ruaha National Park along theGreat Ruaha, Little Ruaha andTungamalenga Rivers, and in the vicinityof Mtera Dam. Hehe-speakers dominatethe polyethnic population of this area, andwere the source of many of the names theygive. It should be noted that linguisticequivalence (or similarity) does not entailequivalence of zoological reference: thiscan only be established by identificationin the field. It is also possible that someof the Sangu terms refer to more than onespecies, or fish in different colour phasesor stages of growth. Nonetheless, thecomparison with PCT forms a potentiallyuseful starting-point for further research.
, plural
 (12/13), described as a small fish, alsocalled
. PCT ‘sulu-sulu’,
 Marcusenius macrolepidotus
 (Mormyridae, Elephant Trunk Fish).
, pl.
 (5/6), described as ‘white’ (probablysilver) in colour, with a head the size of afrog’s and spines which are painful if trodden upon. Cf. the root of 
, pl.
(5/6), describedas having spines which are painful if trodden upon.

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