19 Mar 2014

Nyaminyami

Posted by K Chikuse

He has a body like a snake and a head like a fish and no one knows how big he is, for he never showed himself in full display. The people of the Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe were protected by Nyaminyami, their ancestral spirit (mudzimu).

Although this god is often dismissed as a myth, there have been some claims that the crocodile-snake creature has revealed itself from time to time, the most recent being December 2012. A sizeable number of the locals of Mahombekombe suburb in Kariba, North West of Zimbabwe claim to have witnessed this mythical phenomenon estimated to be 100m long.

The people pledged their allegiance to him by performing ceremonial dances. For many years Nyaminyami and his wife stayed safely at Kariba, the spot which was their home. Once Nyaminyami’s wife had gone down to the mighty Kariba Gorge to visit other people of the Valley; to answer their prayers and bless her people – BUT the white man had come and built a wall.

Great bodies of water are considered sacred, for water is essential for the life of the village in an often arid land. Wherever there is water, the Africans find prosperity. Nyaminyami is the ruler of water and his symbol is worn to ward of the forces of darkness and to attract wealth.

Nyaminyami has supposedly been seen on occasion by locals – much like the Loch Ness 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. He might even be some kind of dinosaur.

Each part of the Nyaminyami walking sticks that you see sold all over the country represents something….

NyaminyamiThe Figures: represents people on the Zambezi River banks during their ceremonial dances.
The Wooden Rings: represents 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 Tonga fortune tellers to guard against evil spirits.
The Women’s Bubble Pipe (incelwa): normally a long pipe made from a calabash used by the Tonga people for smoking tobacco. In the past these pipes where used for smoking cannabis, which is a Tonga tradition.
The Handle: represents Nyaminyami who the Tonga people believe is their spirit god and that the occasional earth tremor felt in the lake surroundings is caused by this spirit.
The Tree: is a Mopani 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.

Tonga People of Zambezi River
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 1950’s life changed with the construction of the Kariba dam wall. Another chapter in the Tonga history was started which took five long years to see it through. 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. In Kariba there are still occasional earth tremors from the load of the lake on the earth’s surface. Locals claim that this is Nyaminyami who is now very lonely and only the destruction of the dam will reunite him with this wife.

In 1957, when the dam was well on its way to completion, Nyaminyami 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 Nyaminyami 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 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.

The Tonga still believe that Nyaminyami will destroy the dam, pointing to the recurring tremors and earthquakes (over 20 with a magnitude of over 5) in the area which, they say, is Nyaminyami trying to be reunited with his wife.  And if Nyaminyami is successful, it is difficult to imagine the catastrophe that will ensue.  The lake is now over 225 km long and up to 32 km in width; it covers an area of over 5500 sq. km and has a maximum depth of 100 metres, with an average depth of about 30 metres.  Not only would huge areas be suddenly flooded below the dam, but there is a chance that the huge Cahora Bassa dam downstream could be damaged.  And if it broke as well?

To give some indication of the potential catastrophe, in March 2010, the sluice gates of Kariba had to be opened to cope with the flooding Zambezi.  Over 150,000 people had to be evacuated from the floodplain. It has been estimated that at least 3.5 million people in the countries of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique are in danger should the Kariba Dam wall collapse, given that serious structural weaknesses have developed in the wall.

Should the Kariba Dam collapse, this will lead to the destruction of the Cahora Bassa Dam, a large hydroelectric dam in Mozambique, further downstream on the Zambezi, with most of the overall casualties being in Mozambique and Malawi.

HKV constructed an animation of the potential flood resulting from a dam breach in the Cahora Bassa dam. The movie shows the general inundation pattern downstream of the dam and also a more detailed inundation around the city of Tete, the largest city along the Zambezi River in Mozambique.

The flood wave reaches Tete in about 10 hours after the breach. The peak arrives after 24 hours. The maximum water levels show an increase of more than 10m, going up to 20m on some locations.

What if this or worse happened without warning? So what do you think?  Will Nyaminyami succeed?  Will he be re-united with his wife?

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