Ingazi: The iconic symbol of the BaTonga people

Gogo Sariya Muyinde (86) scales down from her Ingazi hut

Gogo Sariya Muyinde (86) scales down from her Ingazi hut

Obey Sibanda Features Reporter
TAKING a walk in parts of Binga District, Matabeleland North Province, one cannot miss the sight of amiable huts built on stilts dotted around homesteads confirming the locals’ rich heritage and culture.

Once inside one of the huts, one cannot help but marvel at the beauty of the design. Floors are made of poles with an opening in the middle and have a well-thatched roof.

Ingazi huts, as they are called by the locals, are permanent dwellings found all over Binga and are synonymous with the BaTonga people.

One can be forgiven for mistaking these huts for granaries (isiphala) as they are built on a raised platform, with a small ladder to access the hut. But for the BaTonga, these are family huts. The hut is one of their most iconic symbols.

Durable and environmental friendly, ingazi huts are the products of centuries of history and tradition. The mechanism in which they are built has been passed down from generation to generation.The hut can accommodate about four people on average.

For years, the BaTonga built their ingazi huts without using modern equipment or machinery. They had no chainsaws or axes to cut down trees or contemporary hammers and nails to join their building materials together like modern day builders. They relied on the village ironsmith for tools.

The huts are built from low cost material which is easily accessible in the forests. Builders use poles, grass and reeds. Poles that are used to support the structure and act as the foundation are made from Mopani trees, which are strong and are not easily attacked by termites.

The floor is made of sticks and mud to provide warmth while the roof is thatched with grass, which also serves as insulation and is widely used in many rural homes.Thick grass bundles on the roof are so tightly woven that the hut is both water and wind proof.Underneath the thatch curving is sturdy frame work of long wooden poles linked together by smaller sticks that run across the poles.

Unlike modern day huts, the thatch is not covered with wire netting as this slows evaporation and reduces longevity.

According to culturist and Basilwizi Trust director Frank Mudimba, the hut does not require frequent maintenance and can last for years.

“The hut can stay quite long, the only challenge is the roof which needs to be changed from time to time. The structure that was there at home when I was born, was still there at the time I got married. My family used to change the roof but the superstructure remained,” said Mudimba.

Scholars argue that there are three possible reasons why the BaTonga people lived and some still live in raised homes.

Mudimba said the BaTonga people used to stay along the Zambezi River banks and the structure was strong enough to withstand floods. When crocodiles move out of water, they would not attack people because of the raised huts.

“The Zambezi River is known for bursting. The water from Congo upstream comes down, floods and bursts the Zambezi River banks. So you can imagine if one is staying in conventional houses and there are heavy floods. The houses will be razed down and crocodiles strewn all over. The raised houses were meant to protect villagers from flooding and crocodiles,” said Mudimba

The hut was ideal for protecting villagers and vulnerable domestic animals such as goats. When the BaTonga lived along the river, there were no national parks. Animals were not controlled and would freely roam around without any boundaries. Animals would roam at night and stray to people’s homesteads in search of food.

“In relation to wild animals, locals construct a goat pen below the raised hut so that when a wild animal comes to attack the goats, the people are able to attack it from the top. Lions and other wild animals cannot climb high structures,” said Mudimba,

Binga District is known for its high temperatures. It is very hot throughout the year and the ingazi provides good aeration. The hut is sturdy and dry, cool in summer and usually warm enough during winter.

In summer, the heat from the outside travels slowly to the inside ensuring that the temperature within remains cool. During the hot season, everyone wants to stay there because it is cooler compared to conventional houses.

Bundima village head Anderson Munenge, said the hut is a multipurpose structure. He said despite using the lower part of the hut as a pen for goats, it can also be used as a kitchen or a lounge for a family to sit on a hot day because of the shade it provides.

“Our women can cook underneath the ingazi. As you know, our place is very hot so we can also use it as a place to hide from the scorching sun,” said Munenge.

The BaTonga live on both sides of the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe and Zambia. They are the third largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe after the Shona and the Ndebele. BaTonga are part of the early Bantu settlers who colonised the riverine areas of the Zambezi as early as 3rd or 4th centuries AD.

Up until the construction of the Kariba Dam, the BaTonga demonstrated high sensitivity to the conservation needs of their environment and as such the valley was able to sustain life for years.

At the centre was the mighty Zambezi River, the guarantor of sustenance during the years of drought. They were relocated from the banks of the Zambezi River in the 1950s to make way for the construction of Kariba Dam.

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