World Wetlands Day 2003: Tanzania

Utete Celebrates World Wetlands Day
February 2nd 2003

Finally, after weeks of preparations the dawn of World Wetlands Day arrived. Much to the relief of the organising committee, the night faded into a dusky morning with a little cloud but no rain. Leaving the house in the moonless darkness added to the excitement, as a growing procession of people joined us on the way down to the shores of Lake Lugongwe near Utete, in Rufiji District, Tanzania. The snaking procession included the Wazee, the respected local elders whose traditional knowledge had been vital in the preparations but also teachers, students, decision-makers, Rufiji District staff and welcome guests from as far away as Denmark.

As the Open-billed Storks, roosting in the treetops, descended to the waters' edge to start feeding, we began our leisurely naturewalk. Strolling along the marshes and reedbeds we paused occasionally to listen to the Golden Weavers chattering, or to watch the hippos' surfacing and snorting or to discuss how vital the wetlands are for the livelihoods of people in Rufiji. The examples are easy to see around Lake Lugongwe: the water supply for Utete town is pumped from the lake, there is fertile land for agriculture, its nutrients replenished annually by the floods and fishing provides both food and business opportunities. Two young local fisheries researchers explained to the walkers how management of a lake's resources can improve the quality and quantity of fish. They cited the example of Mtanza Msona, a nearby village where the local fishermen have successfully agreed on a closed season and on gear restrictions in their lake.

Bibi Habiba, one of the Wazee, captured the attention of the young and not so young as she explained the traditional medicinal uses of the wetland plants encountered. Students enjoyed using the binoculars to watch the Jacana birds step delicately over the Lily leaves, or see the Kingfishers perched, patiently waiting to spot a fish under the surface. A pile of smashed up shells next to a rock fuelled a lively discussion on the type of animal that could be regularly using the rock as an anvil. The final consensus (with a little help from our Wazee) was: a Marsh Mongoose smashing the snails to get at the meat.

Arriving at the bridge across the connecting channel between the Lake and the mighty Rufiji River we found Mr Mwakalinga (District Agricultural Officer) who demonstrated how to measure water levels in the lake, and explained the importance of collecting water level data in order to try and understand the ecological processes at work in Rufiji, but also to discover long-term trends. The data is being used to model the flow of water in the Rufiji. The first indications are that the lakes, so vital for peoples livelihoods and for local wildlife, will dry out or become saline without annual replenishment by the floods. That those floods are increasingly threatened by developments upstream, did not escape the attention of the public and many questions were asked.

As it started to get too warm for walking in the open we retreated to the shade, still discussing the issues raised during the walk.

At two o'clock the Siasa Primary School Brass Band enthusiastically announced the beginning of the afternoon activities, singing and swinging through town and bringing hundreds of other children along to the Mazingira (environment) grounds in its wake. After a very brief introduction and welcome to the event, visitors started to mingle and explore the exhibition room and library, built by the Rufiji Environment Management Project (REMP ). There were plenty of activities for all age groups, the young children coloured pictures, almost rivalling the winners of the drawing competition, whose efforts were displayed on the far wall. Older Children took part in the Water Cycle Game and seemed to particularly like the wetland word search puzzles. Others tried to guess the hidden picture from clues describing the habits of animals and plants.

The exhibition room was soon full to bursting with excited chattering children, crowding around activities and information posters. It was a relief to squeeze out through the door to watch the activities outside. In different corners of the ground facilitators were playing environmental games with a large groups of children. The Wetland Web of Life game demonstrated the inter-relatedness of most things we see around us, whilst the Fishing Game was encouraging children to think about the impacts of over-fishing and create their own management solutions.

The highlight of the day was the performances by Mapinduzi and Siasa Primary school choirs. They performed songs about wetlands, birds and their importance. The lyrics, tune and dancing were fantastic, full of energy and the choirs delivered a punchy message for parents, decision-makers and all inhabitants of Rufiji asking them to secure their future by conserving wetlands.

The crowds of children settled down with the adults to watch a short drama performance by the Utete Drama Groups. It used comedy and slapstick effectively to explore the impacts of habitat degradation on rural communities, and re-iterated the importance of wetlands in maintaining ecosystem functions and rural livelihoods.

Lars Dinesen and Mzamilu Kaita from Wildlife Division Headquarters (Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism) presented the brand new 'Important Bird Areas of Tanzania' book to the guest of honour Brigadier General Sylvester Hemedi, the District Commissioner of Rufiji. Three of the 80 important Bird Areas listed in the book are located in Rufiji District.

The Rufiji District Commissioner then presented the happy winners of the drawing competition with their prizes, followed by prizes for the choirs, the drama group and primary schools.

The last activity of the afternoon was the Quiz. Students from the two primary schools had to answer questions about Rufiji Wetlands and Birds in front some 400 people enthusiastically urging them on or very vocally disapproving of incorrect answers. Many people learned new things about wetlands and birds through the quiz.

After dark, environmental education videos were shown and discussed and despite of the long and hectic day, the hall was full.

This was the first time Utete and Rufiji District celebrated World Wetland Day. It has certainly raised awareness and who knows, perhaps the Rufiji delta, with the largest mangrove area of East Africa and home to over 40,000 waterbirds may soon become a Ramsar site. The exhausted organisers were happy with the success of the occasion, and are already making plans to take the celebrations to the village level in 2004.

Mapinduzi and Siasa Primary School choirs

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