Faces of Africa – Nyaminyami: The river god

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Nyaminyami a mythical god who used to provide meat for his people, whenever he appeared.

The Tonga and Lozi people who’ve lived in the Zambezi valley for centuries refer to Nyaminyami as the river god, protector of the river.

Nyaminyami features resemble the face of a fish and the torso of a snake.

He is the ancestral spirit of the Tonga and Lozi people.

The Tonga inhabited both banks of the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe and Zambia. But in the 1950s, life changed for them with the construction of the Kariba dam at the mouth of Kariba Gorge where Nyaminyami and his wife Kitapo are believed to have lived.

Kitapo, a mermaid-like creature believed to be Nyaminyami’s wife

But no one has ever seen Nyaminyami. Different tales are told regarding him.

91-year-old Jabula Kangwenda claims to have seen Nyaminyami in the flesh.

“Every time it came out, the water would go in reverse. Mysteriously flow unnaturally. When it revealed itself, only the shoulders would be visible, never the head. Just as the hippo behaves in water,” he told.

In 1957 during the constructing of the dam, Nyaminyami was separated from his wife. Also, the Tonga people were relocated to dry places against their will and in the spirit of resistance they invoked their spiritual protector, Nyaminyami.

“We were moved to very dry lands, very rocky areas, very infertile land. So we lost quite a lot, we lost our animals. We lost the culture, our shrines, our cemeteries because of this construction,” Phanuel Simamba – resident Zambezi basin.

This made Nyaminyami angry and he used his might by destroying the Kariba dam.

A cyclone caused a mighty storm and huge floods rendered the dam into shambles, killing some of the construction workers.

This halted the construction of the dam until 1958 when Italian constructors took over.

Kariba Dam as it stands today believed to have been possible after intervening with Nyaminyami

Tonga elders claimed that the dam wall still stands today because of their intervention to Nyaminyami. But a different group of intellectuals counters this claim.

“When the Italians came they built it in a concave manner so that the pressure of the water did not easily push it downstream. And as you can see it has withstood the pressure of the water of the Zambezi from 1958 when it was finally completed up to this moment,” told Ambassador Frederick Apunda, resident Zambezi basin.

Since the second construction of the dam Nyaminyami and his wife have never been seen again.

But the Tonga and Lozi people have continued to exercise their cultural rituals in the Zambezi River. One of which is the Kuomboka spectacle, held to commemorate the migration to higher grounds from the flooding in the lower Zambezi plains.

“Kuomboka means coming out of the water. Instead of calling it a disaster they have made a ceremony out of it. As the water is flooding people start moving to the highland. So basically, the significance of the Kuomboka is really to come out of the water, wait for the water to reside so that you can go back,” told Ambassador Inonge Mbukusita, resident Zambezi basin.

The Kuomboka, a ceremony held by the Tonga and Lozi people on the Zambezi River to commemorate migration to higher grounds from flooding in the lower Zambezi plains. 

The swelling of the waters is believed by some to be caused by Nyaminyami.

“I want to believe that maybe Nyaminyami was annoyed in a way hence making those floods so that people could perish because they don’t believe in him now,” told Chief Simamba.

Even though some have shunned the existence of Nyaminyami, a few are still holding onto his mysterious heritage that once watched over the region. Whether or not Nyaminyami comes back to claim his ultimate status as the god of the Zambezi River, it is only up to the future to tell.