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Nyaminyami - Zambezi Spirit

Nyaminyami - Zambezi Spirit

Nyaminyami (also known as the Zambezi River God, or Zambezi River Spirit) is believed by the river Tonga (or Batonga) to control life on the Zambezi.

The Tonga themselves have inhabited both banks of the Zambezi River in what was known as the Gwembe Trough (from Kariba Gorge upstream to Devil's Gorge) for centuries and in themselves have an interesting history. Prior to David Livingstone's work in the area around 1855/7 the Tonga were at the constant mercy of slaving parties and wild animals. Between then and the mid 1950's they lived in relative peace with very little outside influence - their contact with the "outside world" was limited to prospectors, hunters, surveyors and the local District Commissioners. In the mid 1950's life changed with the decision to proceed with the construction of the Kariba dam wall. Another chapter in the Tonga history was started.

Back to Lake Kariba

Legend of Nyaminyami the Zambezi River God

Nyaminyami has supposedly been seen on occasion by locals - much like the Lochness Monster however, hard evidence is elusive. He is described by some as looking like a whirlwind - the majority say he's dragon-like with a snake's torso and a fish's head.

The legend of Nyaminyami has several tales. According to local folklore, during hard times, the Tonga had free access to his flesh and were thus sustained by removing strips of meat.

The story of the dam wall construction and the floods in 1957 and 1958 are well documented. The local story goes as follows:

  • Whilst the waters of Lake Kariba were only just rising and the Tonga were being relocated they invoked Nyaminyami in a spirit of resistance. Although he was never used as a political symbol it was generally agreed that he disapproved of the white man's plans to build the dam. In 1957 when a 1000 year flood was recorded on the Zambezi, construction was halted and set back by flood damage. The locals nodded knowingly and waited for the final destruction during the next rainy season. This of course nearly happened with the 1958 flood which was only slightly less violent than the previous year. Elders today claim that it was only their intervention which placated Nyaminyami.

We in Kariba still have occasional earth tremors from the load of the lake on the earth's surface. Locals claim that this is Nyaminyami who at the time of the sealing of the dam wall was philandering down stream towards Mana Pools. He's now very lonely and only the destruction of the dam will reunite him with this wife.

A local Mashona by the name of Rainos Tawonameso has designed a walking stick that incorporates some motifs from the area and it's inhabitants.

The Symbols on the Nyaminyami Historical Walking Stick

  • The Handle represents "Nyaminyami" who the Tonga people believe is their spirit God (Mudzimu) and that the occasional earth tremor felt in the Lake surroundings is caused by this Spirit.
  • The Tree is a Mopane tree which is found in the Zambezi Valley, the Spirals represent the waves on the Zambezi River, the fish is representative of the staple food of the Tonga people, who prior to the building of Kariba Dam, fished daily on the Zambezi River.
  • The Figures represent people on the Zambezi River banks during their ceremonial dances
  • The Wooden Rings represent the bangles worn by the Tonga woman as a decoration during ceremonial dances.
  • The Sign of the Hand represents the holding of the "Magical Ball" used by the Tonga fortune tellers to guard against evil spirits.
  • The Woman's Bubble Pipe (Incelwa) is normally a long pipe made from a calabash and is used by the Tonga people for smoking tobacco. In the past these pipes were used for smoking "dagga" (marijuana) - a Tonga tradition.

More about how the annual flood effects the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

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