Nyami Nyami, the spirit of the Zambezi river

Nyami Nyami, the river god, and the spirit of the Zambezi river. Legend says that he is a serpent-like creature with the head of a fish, three meters wide, a whirlpool or a river dragon. It can be found as pendants on jewellery, usually carved out of wood, stone or bone, occasionally ivory, silver or gold both as a fashion accessory and as a good luck charm. He stains water red when he swims past.

AFRICAN HISTORY

deangichuki

4/30/2022 2 min read

crane on water damn

Nyami Nyami, the river god, and the spirit of the Zambezi river. Legend says that he is a serpent-like creature with the head of a fish, three meters wide, a whirlpool or a river dragon. It can be found as pendants on jewellery, usually carved out of wood, stone or bone, occasionally ivory, silver or gold both as a fashion accessory and as a good luck charm. He stains water red when he swims past.

According to African mythology, he lived on a large rock close to the present day Kariba dam wall. No tribesman would venture near it, those few who did were sucked down with their canoes in the whirlpools and never seen again. They called the rock Kariwa, the “trap”.

The spirits of the Nyami Nyami and his wife residing in the Kariba Gorge are God and Goddess of the underworld. The Tonga people believe the building of the Kariba Dam deeply offended Nyami Nyami, separating him from his wife. The regular flooding and many deaths during the dam's construction were attributed to his wrath. After the Dam was completed the Tonga believe that the Nyami Nyami withdrew from the world of men.

In 1956, construction on the Kariba Dam project was started. Heavy earth-moving equipment roared into the valley and tore out thousands of hundred-year-old trees to build roads and settlements to house the workers who poured into the area to build a dam that would harness the powerful river. The BaTonga's peace and solitude was shattered and they were told to leave their homes and move away from the river to avoid the flood that the dam would cause. Many of them were forcibly removed as they would not believe that their fields and homes they had known all their lives would now be flooded and underwater.

In 1957, when the dam was well on its way to completion, the Nyami Nyami struck. The worst floods ever known on the Zambezi washed away much of the partly built dam and the heavy equipment, killing many of the workers. Some of those killed were white men whose bodies disappeared mysteriously, and after an extensive search failed to find them, Tonga elders were asked to assist as their tribesmen knew the river better than anyone. The elders explained that Nyami Nyami had caused the disaster and in order to appease his wrath a sacrifice should be made. They weren't taken seriously, but, in desperation, when relatives of the missing workers were due to arrive to claim the bodies of their loved ones, the search party agreed in the hope that the tribesmen would know where the bodies were likely to have been washed away to. A Black calf was slaughtered and floated on the river. The next morning the calf was gone and the workers’ bodies were in its place. The disappearance of the calf holds no mystery in the crocodile-infested river, but the reappearance of the workers’ bodies three days after they had disappeared has never been satisfactorily explained.

Today minor earth tremors are occasionally felt in and around Kariba - Tonga African mythology believes that this is Nyami Nyami trying to see his wife but he is now cut off from her by the dam wall. When he can't get through, he turns around with such fury that the whole earth shakes.