Iron Smelting

Me and the lungu.

The final adventure Katie and I went on during my visit was to visit an iron smelter near her site. I had been wanting to see one of these for a while, and the one pictured above is within walking distance of Katie’s house.

One of the more significant things about the Bantu people is that they were an iron-age culture when they first arrived in the area, displacing the stone-aged bushmen. Being an iron-age culture of course requires iron, and the way you get iron is by smelting it. You smelt it in an iron smelter, called a lungu.

Please excuse the poor quality of the above two pictures (I took them in the museum in Lusaka, where photography, it turns out, is not permitted), but they demonstrate how the iron smelters worked. They were basically tall clay cylinders with holes in the bottom and open at the top. To smelt iron, you layered them up with wood, charcoal, and iron ore. Iron is fairly abundant in the region, and if you have seen any of my other pictures this is evident with all of our red clay. Once you lit this sucker on fire, the intense heat from all the burning wood and charcoal, fanned by bellows leading into the bottom of the smelter, would melt the iron out of the ore and leave it in the bottom of the lungu. The iron could then be taken and shaped into different tools or implements, such as hoes or spear points. The act of smelting itself involved a ceremony with naked men, and women were not allowed lest their presence ruin the iron.

The whole Mbala area is, or was, littered with these lungus. Since they’re really just clay cylinders, it is safe to assume the majority of them have been knocked down, but a few (like the one at the top) survive. They are pretty significant for the region. I’ve mentioned it before, but the tribe I (and Katie) live with is actually the Lungu tribe (close relations of the Mambwe), and it is my assumption that they are named after the iron smelters (a book I have on Mambwe proverbs theorizes that “Mambwe” is actually derived from the word for “stone,” so if I were the Lungu I would play up that rivalry, even though both are Bantu and iron-age cultures). One of the things that struck me about this particular lungu is that it is in the very shadow of Liamba Hill. Liamba Hill is a giant stone-aged tool factory, and in the shadow of it is an iron smelter, the first step in iron-age tool production. That means the whole area has been a fairly continuous center for tool production and industry for literally hundreds of thousands of years. Not too shabby Mbala, not too shabby.

As a final note on my visit to Katie’s, the above picture is of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes she is growing. She grew her original vines from potatoes I grew and then distrubted to different PCVs after I attended the OFSP workshop. Distributing seed to a bunch of different PCVs has worked really well and really got these Vitamin A powerhouses spread out all over Mbala and Northern & Muchinga Provinces. Katie (and others) have gotten their community interested in orange sweet potatoes and she has already distributed vines with more planned in the future. I was just especially proud to see those vines above in person, because they’re like my grandchildren potatoes. Grandpotatoes. They just grow up so fast, you know?