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Nyaminyami, River God

and Spirit of the Zambezi River, Zimbabwe

Nyaminyami is the ancestral spirit or Mudzimu of the Tonga people in the middle Zambezi Valley. The Tonga inhabited both banks of the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe and Zambia for centuries. Life changed for everybody downstream of Devil’s Gorge with the construction of the Kariba dam wall at the entrance to Kariba Gorge in the 1950?s. Much of the local Batonga population was then displaced and the legend of Nyaminyami was given fresh life.


The Zambezi River God and legend of Nyaminyami

Nyaminyami has apparently been seen on several occasions by local Tonga. He’s been described by some as looking “like a whirlwind”, others say that he had a “body like a snake with a head like a fish” but it was difficult to say how big he was as he’d never fully shown himself to anybody. There’re no reports that his wife has ever been seen.

The history of the Kariba’s dam wall construction and the floods in 1957 and 1958 are well documented. The legend of Nyaminyami itself has several twists to its tale however.

  • Nyaminyami and his wife are believed to have lived safely around the mouth of Kariba Gorge. A local account says that whilst the new lake’s water were rising many thousands of animals were being rescued through “Operation Noah”. The Tonga however were being relocated, in many cases against their will and in a spirit of resistance they invoked their spiritual protector, Nyaminyami.
    A separate account says that at the time that the wall was being sealed Nyaminyami’s wife was below Kariba Gorge “visiting other people of the Valley, to answer their prayers and bless her people”. Another says that Nyaminyami himself “was philandering down stream towards Mana Pools“. Either way the two became separated.
  • Whether it was his spirit being invoked by locals or his frustration and anger at being separated from his wife 1957 and 1958 were difficult years for the construction people at Kariba.

A 1000 year flood was recorded on the Zambezi valley in 1957 and construction was halted by flood damage. Local Batonga nodded knowingly and waited for the final destruction during the next rainy season. This nearly happened with the 1958 flood which was only slightly less violent than the previous year. Tonga elders claimed that the dam wall still stands today only through their intervention.

Now in the 21st century, great tremors are still felt in and around the mountains of the Zambezi valley with the mass of Lake Kariba pressing down on the earth. Apparently Nyaminyami still wants to be reunited with his wife. Will local intervention continue to prevent the destruction of the Kariba dam wall or will Nyaminyami and his wife one day be reunited?

The best way to explore Kariba and this sensational part of the the Zambezi Valley is to take a canoe safari from Kariba Gorge down to Mana Pools, Zimbabwe.

The Nyaminyami walking stick

Rainos Tawonameso, a Kariba resident designed a walking stick that incorporates some motifs from the area and the Batonga lifestyle.


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