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The God of the Zambezi River

By Ilala Lodge on October 8, 2014

Folklore is an integral part of African culture, having been passed down through many generations.  Even today, most Africans retain a sense of superstition and awareness of their original traditions and customs.

Similar to the well-known Aesop’s Tales and other fables of our youth, stories and folklore often have a moral or survival element to the tale with animals as the main characters. One of the most well-known creatures of the Zimbabwean mythological landscape is Nyami Nyami, the God of the Zambezi River.

This serpent-like creature is said to reside under a rock in Lake Kariba and is thought to be about three metres long, although it is taboo to speculate about this. Wooden representations of this deity are usually to be found on sale close to the hotels in Victoria Falls, at the Falls themselves, and all along the roadside nearby.

Tribesmen who have ventured close to the resting place of the River God have found themselves sucked down into the surrounding whirlpools, never to be seen again. This site is known as Kariwa, ‘the trap’, and lends its name to Kariba Dam. The locals believed that the building of Kariba Dam would anger Nyami Nyami, but the contractors put this down to superstition and work pressed on regardless, although it was fraught with difficulty.

Tentative survey work on the dam began in the late 1940’s but a few months in, a cyclone from the Indian Ocean swept over this landlocked country, with 15 inches of rain falling in a few hours, killing all of the surveyors in a landslide.  The river rose seven metres overnight, sweeping animals and villagers away in its wake, and totally disrupting the peaceful valley.

In 1955, work began again in earnest, only to be halted by an unexpected flood which washed away the foundations of the coffer dam and bridge.
Again in November 1956, heavy rains caused another flash flood, which swept away machinery and men in its path, seriously hampering work on the dam.
In 1958 yet another flood raced down the river, with 16 million litres of water surging over the suspension bridge every second, destroying the north tower and buckling the bridge.

Eventually Nyami Nyami’s perceived efforts to stop construction ceased and the dam was completed at the cost of 80 lives. Up until today, earth tremors are occasionally felt in and around Kariba which the locals see as an indication of Nyami Nyami’s ongoing wrath.

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