Who’s this Tonga god ‘Nyaminyami’?



MANY people talk of stories which have become just tales with time. I explore one of the legends and myths that have become a hymn for the Tonga people of Siavonga in Zambia and Kariba in the neighbouring Zimbabwe.

Lake Kariba, once one of the highest man-made lakes in Africa in Siavonga is associated with myths and mysteries.

It is associated with the river god ‘Nyaminyami’.

The mythical god is said to have been enraged by the displacement of ‘his people’, which led to major difficulties during the construction of the dam in the 1950s.

About 80 indigenous people lost their lives when storms from the Zambezi River collapsed Kariba.

It is believed that even the sun got upset with the construction of the new lake. Soaring temperatures forced workers to house their tools in cooling buckets of water. 

Displaced animals which were rescued from the lake in what is now known as ‘Operation Noah’ also protested by attacking the workers who were working on the dam wall.

Part of the mythology of the local Tonga tribe of the Zambezi Valley is that Nyaminyami the river god who lives in Lake Kariba is a serpent-like creature.

He is said to be about three metres wide, but nobody knows the length.

Legend has it that the water stains red when he swims by.

Chief Sampakaruma allegedly saw him on two occasions many years ago, but the deity has been in hiding since the white men arrived in the country.

He is believed to have lived under a large rock close to the present-day Kariba Dam wall.

No tribesman would venture near it. The few who did were allegedly sucked down with their canoes in the whirlpools and never seen again.

They called the rock Kariwa, meaning the “trap”. That is where Lake Kariba derives its name from.

The rising water of the resource-rich lake covered the rock Kariwa, which now lies 30 metres below the surface.

This is believed to have annoyed Nyaminyami.

The tonga people also believe that Nyaminyami is married and that the building of Kariba Dam wall would separate him from his wife, which would anger him greatly.

The god allegedly threatened the peace of the valley in retaliation.

City dwellers had scoffed at the stories of Nyaminyami the river god as sheer superstition, but by 1958 the laughter had turned to chilled apprehension, especially for those working on the construction project.

Survey works on the proposed dam wall began in the late 1940’s. On the night of February 15, 1950 a cyclone from the Indian Ocean allegedly swept up the valley.

Such a thing had never been heard of in this landlocked, stable land. Fifteen inches of rain driven by a hurricane cascaded down in a few hours.

The river alarmingly rose seven metres that night. A number of villages were swept away.

When rescue teams finally managed to reach the area three days later, the putrefying bodies of antelope and other animals could be seen hanging from tree-tops remove.

The survey team also perished in a landslide.

Works on the dam began in earnest in 1955, but on Christmas Eve that year, an unprecedented flood rumbled down the gorge and washed away the foundations of the coffer dam and the recently constructed pontoon bridge.

The flood peaked, receded, and then peaked again.

This had never happened before and people started to talk about the river god.

Nyaminyami allegedly struck the third time in November 1956.

Heavy rains fell a month before the onset of the season. Sudden flash floods impeded work on the dam.

The mighty Zambezi River, swollen with water from local catchment areas, would rise over a metre in a night.

They were unaware that 1,300 kilometres away the Zambezi was ‘mobilising’ its forces.

It is fed by a catchment area of over a million square kilometres, of which nearly half is above the lake.

Heavy rains were falling throughout this vast region. The water was being hoarded in the floodplains of Zambia and the forests of Angola.

In January the Sanyati River, which entered the Zambezi very near the new wall, suddenly came hollering down like a cavalry charge.

The river rose almost six metres in the next 24 hours and surged over the coffer dam.

The largest digger truck, a bundle of tonnes of steel which had not been moved, disappeared instantly.

Only in March, after much damage had been done and the project set back several months, did the river begin to subside.

Such a flood should occur on average once every 1000 years.

Well, this is just one of the countless stories about Nyaminyami the river god.


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