Even in a region subject to guerrilla warfare, women may suffer more from the violence of their kin than they do from the violence of their kin than they do from the enemy. The 1970s were years when Gwembe District in the Southern Province of Zambia was under threat of landmines and commando action as the European dominated government of what was then called Rhodesia, and is now Zimbabwe, attempted to forestall attacks by "freedom fighters," stationed in Gwembe who crossed Lake Kariba and the international boundary of the Zambezi River to launch attacks on Rhodesian territory. Rhodesian forces attacked Gwembe fishing boats and various installations along the lake, including the one secondary school in Gwembe district. Primary school teachers and extension workers were targeted for apprehension and interrogation. Many schools in the district closed as school teachers fled the area, and transportation throughout the district was disrupted because of the danger from landmines. On at least one occasion Rhodesian commandos penetrated well-inland to a stake-out in the Zambian escarpment hills, that rise above lake and river, where they attacked a lorry loaded with people traveling to the railway line. On that occasion some 18 people were killed while others were badly wounded.

Since 1956, as part of a long-term study of Gwembe District and its people, Thayer Scudder and I have been closely following the populations of four Gwembe villages. All four villages were resettled in 1958 when Kariba Hydroelectric Dam on the middle Zambezi was completed and Kariba Lake began to fill. Some 57,000 people were unwillingly displaced from the new lake basin. The majority, 34,000, lived on the north bank of the Zambezi River in what is now Zambia, and was then Northern Rhodesia. They were moved either to an area below the dam, into the hills above the lakeshore, or to the Zambian plateau that borders the Gwembe Valley on the west.

The four villages on which we have collected demographic data through repeated censuses were resettled in different parts of Gwembe District: two in the Lusitu area close to the Zambezi below Kariba Dam, one of the lakeshore in central Gwembe, and one some miles inland from the lake in southern Gwembe. In 1991, Gwembe District was divided into three districts: Siavonga (Gwembe North), Gwembe (Gwembe Central), and Sinazongwe (Gwembe South). For the purposes of this article, I continue to use Gwembe District to cover all three as was true at the time of the Rhodesian war. They lost their most valuable agricultural land and were settled on less fertile soils with an inadequate land-base for the existing population of 866 men, women and children (in all four villages). By 1973 the resident population in all four had risen to a total of 1528, and the population has continued to increase to approximately 2,000.

Prior to the move, Gwembe families relied on subsistence agriculture, hunting, fishing and gathering, eked out by supplementary cash earned by men who had to leave the area as labor migrants to find money for tax and to pay for blankets, clothing, and a few other items considered necessities. Women rarely left their home neighborhoods, where they supported themselves and their children in the absence of their men, 41% of whom were away at work at any one time. Since then the Gwembe economy has been diversified as the result of national and international interventions. Many now rely of cash crops, commercial fishing, and local employment, all of which ties them to the national economy and makes them vulnerable to its fluctuations. Their vulnerability to guerrilla action also stems from national policy, for Zambia supported the "freedom fighters" and permitted them to base themselves in Gwembe.

Since 1956 Thayer Scudder and I have returned many times to Gwembe to collect information on births, deaths, marriages and other demographic and personal information for those associated with the four villages. At the same time we have continued to examine what has been happening throughout the district and how this is influenced by government action and the impact of various international organizations. The Gwembe Study has been supported over the years by the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute (now the Institute for African Studies in the University of Zambia), the Joint Committee on Africa of the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Science Foundation, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Thayer Scudder Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Science Foundation, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Thayer Scudder and I each have a duplicate set of all field notes and are agreed that each has the right to use all material, whoever recorded it. Included in the files are diaries kept by local assistants, who record daily events, including acts of violence.

The Death Toll

Deaths due to Rhodesian action or caused by freedom fighters stationed in the district would have been brought to our attention. Because deaths from domestic violence are regarded as shameful, people are less likely to report them to us even though such deaths have been subject to official investigation. Our data, therefore, if anything, minimizes the incidence of domestic homicide.

As the record stands, one woman (and three men) died as a result of Rhodesian action during the war years covering roughly the decade of the 1970s. The woman died in 1978 in the commando raid on the lorry carrying passengers from Gwembe Central to the railway line. Two other women from the sample villages were badly wounded in that raid. In 1979 a young girl was injured when people fled to escape a Rhodesian raid on the Chipepo Secondary School and encountered a herd of elephants.

During the same decade five women were reported to have been killed by men with whom they shared living space. All five died from a blow struck by a drunken kinsman; the kinsmen included two husbands, two sons, and a brother. The blows were struck in anger when the men were angered by what they saw as a challenge to their authority or as a critique of their behavior. Four of the five women were elderly and their attackers were senior men with adult children and sometimes grandchildren. Any number of women were battered during those years, as they were before and after, but they usually chose to put up with the beating because they did not want husbands or kin to be jailed. This meant that they avoided treatment at local dispensaries for fear that those in charge would report the matter to the police, as under Zambian law they are required to do. In the case of homicide, the police were informed, but the case might be dismissed if a kinsman were involved or the police decided witnesses would not testify.

The Gwembe Tongs are matrilineal in descent, and in the past the killing of one member of the matrilineal group by another was said to have been treated as an internal affair, although the "fathers" of the dead person might claim damages for the death of their "child." The killing of someone from another kin-group, however, was a serious matter which had to be settled by compensation or vengence. Since the early 1990s, first during the colonial period when the area was under British rule and later after 1964 under the independent Zambian government, homicide has been a crime against the state. Nevertheless, people still try to deal with homicide in terms of their own local ethic.

The children of the woman killed by her brother pleaded with the police to overlook the matter on the grounds that they depended upon him as the head of their kin-group. The police agreed that it was a matter for kin to settle; members of the matrilineal group met and condemned the man to mourn alone. One man who killed his mother persuaded a younger unmarried kinsman to be charged in his stead, and that man served a short prison sentence. Another who killed his mother escaped arrest but left the community and Gwembe for some 15 years. One man who struck and killed his wife was reported, arrested and tried but released on the grounds of his age. He then paid damages to his own children who belonged to the same kin-group as their mother and had a right, under the old rules, to obtain compensation for her death. A second man who killed his wife was arrested but released for lack of evidence. I did not discover if he had paid compensation to their children or other kin.

Battered women usually do not press any action again husbands or kin, although abused women sometimes leave abusive husbands and may be supported in this by parents and other kin. Young women who can expect to marry again are least likely today to accept mistreatment. They say bluntly, "He beat me and I left." Many simple see men as abusive and think that abuse is a part of marriage. Women do know that they can sue in court for compensation for injury. The male court would be likely to dismiss claims based on a simple beating, but several battered women have sued for compensation for broken bones, along with divorce, and been awarded both compensation and divorce. Beating is one thing; broken bones or permanent physical damage puts public opinion on the women's side. A woman suing a kinsman for battery was less likely to have her complaint taken seriously, even though people agree that it is a most heinous offense for a man to strike his sister since the matrilineal line is continued through her. Nevertheless, men did and do beat their sisters, though much less frequently than they do their wives.

Why Women are Targets of Violence

Women are vulnerable to domestic violence and usually endure a great deal of it before taking action. During the 1970s and early 1980s domestic violence may have been especially common, although we have instances of homicide and brutal treatment of women from both earlier and later decades. These years were unusually stressful for a number of reasons. They followed on the good years associated with the coming of independence when the Zambian government had the funds to expand services even in the rural areas. Incomes rose, goods became more easily available, jobs were plentiful, and people were optimistic about the future. After 1973 all this changed, with the economic situation steadily worsening. Copper prices fell (copper was Zambia's major source of foreign exchange), and petroleum prices rose rapidly. The Zambian support for resistance against the settler government in Rhodesia was costly. Men could not find work. At home, fields were declining in fertility, there were years of drought, shortages prevailed - and not only in the rural areas. To this was added the stress of the Rhodesian war, fear of raids and landmines, the disruption of the area's transportation system, loss of income when crops could not be transported, and increasing shortages as local shops could not be stocked. All this had to be contended within a geographical region which is difficult at best. Hunger, a haunting possibility, was caused by the uncertainties of rainfall. The "good life" became increasingly chimerical.

Men, frustrated in many ways, began to drink more heavily. For the first time, local women began to produce brews high in alcoholic content, as well as the local beer, which by now was treated as a commodity in abundant supply. (In the past women brewed primarily for ritual purposes or for work parties.) Quarrels, normally suppressed when men were sober, now led to verbal confrontation and to attacks on property and person.

Violence, and not only against women, became more common. But when men attacked other men, they were likely to seize a lethal weapon, such as an ax, or club or spear, and fight it out in public. Women, however, were more likely to be felled in their homes by a blow of the first.

Women also began to drink more heavily, but reports of women fighting with each other are rare. Only a few women are known to have attacked a husband or other man even under considerable provocation.

The record, as set forth here, however, is incomplete and distorted from the point of view of most Gwembe Tonga, who judge as more vicious the sorcere who kills with design over the one who strikes out and kills without premeditation. Most deaths are still diagnosed as caused by sorcery, and frequently this is attributed to sorcery carried out by close kin, rejected lovers, or local rivals. Women are accused of killing co wives and their children, and occasionally a husband, with poison, and poisoning is considered a form of sorcery. Several young men, notorious for their disregard for local mores, are also alleged to have been poisoned by their own mothers acting on decisions taken by the matrilineal group which would no longer tolerate their activities.

But fear of sorcery is usually targeted against men who are the sorcerers par excellence. Men are accused of killing their children and matrilineal kin, but rarely wives, to empower medicines for wealth. They are accused of killing senior kin in order to inherit their positions and possessions. Senior men are thought to kill one another simply from the build up of rivalry for dominance within the community. Gwembe men and women both think that the greatest threat comes from senior men. They are said to have the greatest number of medicines and the greatest power because envy, malice and ambition increase with age. Senior men can be accused of sorcery if a number of their kin die in close succession. Then, no matter how kindly and helpful they may be, they can become suspect.

As the Rhodesian war was ending, fear of sorcery was at its peak, evidence again of the high degree of stress associated with that era. In 1980-81 almost every neighborhood within Gwembe District summoned a "witchfinder" to discover the local sorceres and deprive them of their means of sorcery. In some neighborhoods every senior man, who did not absent himself from the area, was accused, publicly mocked, and forced to compensate the witchfinder who was always an alien from another area. Senior women were rarely accused: only one woman in the four villages we have followed closely was publicly humiliated. She was one of the few women at that time who was wealthy in cattle and able to make a substantial payment to the witchfinder.

Tension, frustration, envy, rivalry and fear are probably endemic in Gwembe District, as they are apt to be wherever people live close to the subsistence level and face the frequent threat of illness and death. Violence is always a potential even in normal times. But the years associated with the Rhodesian raids were years of abonormal frustration and tension, due in part to the interference the war caused in normal activities and to the additional strains it placed on the Zambian economy. Gwembe women may then have been subject to a much higher level of domestic violence than is their usual lot. If so, this may well be due to the fact that men used them as an outlet for their own generalized anger. Heavy drinking, another possible way of responding to stress, compounded the violence as inhibitions were lowered and men struck out at women. Women, by overt or implied opposition, posed one more challenge to their position as men in charge of their own lives.


Considerations of the Gwembe data raise general questions about the relative toll of external and domestic violence takes on women. Where massive invasion takes place, rather than raids and landmines, women may suffer higher mortality from enemy action than from violence on the home front. In Gwembe, the local people were not the Rhodesian force's primary target - "freedom fighters" were. Nor were the Rhodesians trying to take possession of Gwembe territory or to conquer Zambia. That few Gwembe women died as a consequence of Rhodesian raids is therefore not surprising, and their experience cannot be generalized to areas where women are part of a targeted population. Nevertheless, in any region, in the build-up to war and in the aftermath of war, domestic violence may well increase as men take out their frustrations on women. Over the total war period then, women as a group may, in fact, suffer fewer fatalities from the enemy than at the hands of their kin and domestic partners who themselves may be responding to fears and frustrations associated with war.

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