Fort Zombe

Me and the headman.

12/30/2018 – Update to this post: It’s not indigenous.

This past Monday I got to visit Fort Zombe, which is one of the cooler things that I have gotten to do, frankly. Fort Zombe is not well publicized, and I only found out about it via the very well done A Guide to Zambia’s Heritage, which is published by Zambia’s National Heritage and Conservation Commission. Allow me to quote the book in its entirety on Fort Zombe:

Fort Zombe is located about 10km from Mbala on the Mbala-Kasesya Road. It is west of Chief Zombe’s Palace and is perched on a high hill overlooking the valley. The site is the only known indigenous fortress built in dry stone walls in Zambia. The site, high and vast is overwhelming to the visitor. One immediately thinks of transfiguration when on top of this historical masterpiece of a compound built in dry stone. Apart from the Iron Age Communities that had settled there several hundreds of years ago, the British Soldiers had also used the Fortress during World War I as evidenced by remnants of battle gear like helmets and bullet shells.

So this is more than a little bit mind-blowing. When you’re talking stone fortifications in southern Africa, the only real other example that comes to mind is Great Zimbabwe. So here in my own backyard is a stone fortress and you’ve never even heard of it. So I roped in my friend Katie and off we went to go see it.

Seeing it is actually not so simple. The first step is talking to Chief Zombe. Fort Zombe is not the original name of the site, which currently appears unknown, and is instead named after the village of Zombe along with Chief Zombe. I don’t think the uh, Zombians were the original builders of the site, because I know Zombe village was at the site were Mbala is now, at least circa the 1870s when David Livingstone visited. But it resides in what is currently Chief Zombe’s chiefdom, and to see it you have to go through him. I happened to run into him at the Centennial, and he gave me his phone number, so when we wanted to see the site we called him and set up an appointment.

We arrived at his palace at about 1000 and greeted the Chief. He invited us inside and served us rice, potatoes, and pumpkin, along with tea which was extremely kind of him. He introduced us to his daughters, including both his firstborn daughter, and the first daughter born after he became Chief. He told us this daughter is the Chisulo, and the first child after becoming Chief has to be a daughter. This signals that the Earth has blessed his chieftanship. If he were to have a son, he would lose the chieftanship. The second child, however, must be a son. But since the chisulo has the blessing of the Earth, if she greets you it is extremely good fortune, and “you will find you become a minister or president!” So watch out world, vote PatInTheWorld for President in 2024.

We told Chief Zombe that we wanted to see the fort, and if he isn’t busy the Chief apparently generally likes to take people up himself. He was busy, however, and so he went to the village headman of Zombe village and asked him to take us up. So off we went!

Commanding views of the surrounding valleys.

The fort itself is on top of a hill right behind Zombe village, and is only about a 3km hike, but that is largely straight up the mountain. Walking up the hill, it’s easy to see how hard it would be to attack the fort and why it was built there. The fort offers a nearly 360 degree view of the surrounding valleys, and is a commanding vantage point for many many miles around. When we finally got to the top of the hill, the whole fort was much larger than I expected. From what I could measure on Google Maps, it appears to be a little over 4 acres in total, just within the fortress walls.

The fort must have been designed to house a very large population of people. There isn’t any information that I could find about the original purpose of the fort, but my guess is that it was built to protect against Arab slave raids. The area around Mbala, where I live and where the fort is were all on Arab slave trading routes in East Africa. The Moto Moto Museum has a diorama detailing how during the time of Arab slave trading, people in the area lived in fortified, stockaded villages to protect themselves against attack. My theory is that people the lived in the area got together and built Fort Zombe in order to protect against these attacks. I don’t think people were stationed in there long-term. It is on top of a mountain, so I don’t think there could be a source of water. Hauling water all the way up there would be difficult, and impossible under siege. Food would also be an issue; I spotted a few collapsed stone structures that seemed like they could have been storehouses to me, but they were not very large. I think that when it was evident that a slave raid was approaching, the village could haul enough food and water up to Fort Zombe to hold off the attackers until they gave up and left for less fortified villages.

Walking around the fort, I tried pretty hard to identify different aspects of it. The outside wall as it currently stands is in most places about waist height, having largely collapsed. It is built from stones that look to me like they mostly came from the top of the mountain, so people weren’t hauling building materials all the way up. Besides the walls and the “storehouses” I mentioned, there was a large structure in the middle of the fort that I couldn’t identify. At one end there was a circular section with a depression in the middle, and then a long, thinner section (pictured above) running for maybe 20-30 yards. I asked the guys showing us around, and they said it was a “house,” but I don’t think that is right. My only other guess is some sort of water storage, but that is a long-shot guess.

A section of the wall.

Our guides, and a section of the wall running into the distance in the back.

Evidence of WWI?

The most recent use of Fort Zombe was during WWI. Chief Zombe related to us how during WWI, British soldiers took advantage of the existing fortifications and commanding view and used it as a Fort to keep an eye on the Germans approaching from German East Africa. They have apparently found helmets and bullets on the site. As I was walking around I found the above tin can sitting on a wall. I like to believe it is evidence of WWI rations, but I guess it could be more recent. But maybe it’s from WWI! I put it back.

Katie, our guides, and myself probably spent about an hour wandering around Fort Zombe. I wish there was more to know about it. I haven’t heard of any archeological research into the site and it is quite phenomenal. I didn’t even know there was a stone fortress in Zambia, and it turns out it is right here in my backyard. Chief Zombe taking such a personal interest in it means it is important to local heritage, but nearly all history about it has been lost. The area has to be such a great opportunity for an archeological dig to find out about how the local people protected themselves and, if I’m right, the effects of the Arab slave trade in this area. If Zambia were to invest in making it more accessible, adding a walkway to it, and putting up some signs, it could be a major attraction in the area. I hope more people visit.