From Caprivi to Zambezi – a historic journey through time

Dr Charles Mubita

The name Zambezi Region as a replacement of the surname of Chancellor Leo von Caprivi has elicited mixed emotions. This was to be expected because out of the world's many geopolitical "panhandles", that of the Zambezi Region fits the term: an area that is indeed shaped like a pan with a well-defined handle. In such a panhandle, it is usually difficult to find consensus between the egg and the oil. Tensions, whether tribal or political, are deep seated in a mystifying manner, essentially because the inhabitants of that region share affinities and long-standing cultural, ancestral, traditional bonds and common background. Irrespective of emotive sentiments, it is important that the name change from Caprivi to Zambezi is contextualised within the realms of the geopolitics of that region.
It is well documented that von Caprivi negotiated the acquisition of that part of Namibia in an 1890 exchange with the imperial United Kingdom. The reason was to allow the Germans to have access to the Zambezi River and a route to Africa's east coast, where German colony Tanganyika was situated - even though the river later proved un-navigable because of the Victoria Falls. That annexation was part of the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty, in which imperial Germany gave up interest in Zanzibar in return for the Zambezi region.
The politico-military strategic importance of the that part of Namibia in the colonial scramble for Africa is attested to by the establishment of the British Overseas Military Authority (Boma), today commonly known as the Boma in the Katima Mulilo area when the British retook the region from the Germans.
As a token of appreciation, the region was bequeathed to von Caprivi and ever since then the people in that region have called themselves Caprivians - a name that reduced them to loyal subjects of von Caprivi.
Long before the British and Germans came to that region, it was called Itenge and it was under the rule of the Lozi kings (the Luyana Litungas). Even after it was retaken and administered as part of the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (Botswana) it was called Itenge. It should, however, be noted that some scholars argue that the original name of the region was Linyandi. This is sometimes based on the fact that one of the Lozi kings, Sibitwane, resided in Linyanti during his reign. Linyanti means "a place of many buffalos". At the time, it was convenient for the king, who loved buffalos, to be closer to the delicious species.
What is clear, however, is that apart from the master-slave relationship, the people of that region have no cultural, traditional, ancestral or any other linkage with von Caprivi or Germany.
Whereas Caprivi derived its name from imperial von Caprivi, the Zambezi River has strong ancestral, traditional and cultural ties with the people of the Zambezi region. Known as Bulozi, Yambezi and Lyambai by the Lozi; Lyondo by the Luyana (Lui); Zambezi means "heart of all" in SiLozi and Luyana. It also means 'Great River' in the language of the Tonga people who inhabit its middle reaches. The MaSubia call it Iyambezi. The name has common ancestry in the above tribal groupings which all formed part of the Bulozi Kingdom even at the time of Sibitwane who ruled from Linyati.
For many years the river was spelt 'Zambesi', with the now popular spelling of 'Zambezi' becoming only widely used in the latter half of the last century. The Zambezi River is the fourth longest river in Africa (after the Nile, Congo, and Niger) and the largest to discharge into the Indian Ocean from the African continent, flowing for about 2,574 kilometres from its source on the Central African Plateau to sea.
It rises in Zambia at a height of 1,524 metres above sea level, the Zambezi flows through six countries namely, Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique before discharging into the Indian Ocean. The Zambezi River basin catchment area extends over the territory of eight countries - Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique - a catchment area of 1,320,000 square km with a cumulative mean annual flow of approximately 97 cubic km - making it the largest river in southern Africa. By comparison the Zambezi roughly equates to the Nile, but is significantly less than the annual flow of the Congo, which in turn is significantly less than that of the Amazon.
From a plethora of proposed names to replace Caprivi, such as Iyambezi, Linyandi, Itenge and others, Zambezi stands out as a proud heritage of the people of the Zambezi region irrespective of tribe.

Dr. Charles Mubita holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Southern California.

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