Flowing through seven countries and supporting millions of families along the way, the Zambezi is looked upon with a combination of awe, gratitude, and fear. Builders have taken advantage of the River’s power by building some of the world’s largest hydroelectric dams; while this does supply power, it also alters the natural flow of the water, thus impacting wildlife and wetland ecosystems at every step of the way.
Some locals near one of the largest reservoirs of the Zambezi say that these actions have angered Nyami Nyami, the river god of the Kariba Reservoir in Zimbabwe. They fear that his wrath is brewing, and that he will someday display his anger again through floods and prolonged droughts.
The Tonga tribe of the Zambezi Valley say that Nyami Nyami (sometimes spelled Nyaminyami or Nyami-Nyami) is a snake-like river god that is three meters wide -- no one attempts to name his length. He spends his time in the man-made Lake Kariba, separated from his wife by a dam constructed in the 1950s.
Before construction of the dam began, the Tonga people were told that they had to move from their ancestral lands along the Zambezi in Zimbabwe and Zambia; the dam would cause those lands to flood, so they had to relocate to higher ground. They had been a fishing people; now, they’d have to learn to grow crops instead. Unsurprisingly, the Tonga were unhappy about moving to lands that were less fertile and unknown to them. Some people say that the more than 40,000 dislocated Tonga, in their distress, invoked their river god to protect them and stop the project.
Nevertheless, construction of the dam began. In 1957, construction was stopped briefly due to a 1,000-year flood. And in 1958, things came to a halt again as the rainy season began several months early and flooded the area again. The entire dam project faced several delays and Tonga elders were called in to do something about Nyami Nyami.
Eventually, the project was completed. But locals still feel tremors around the Zambezi Valley, and they say it is Nyami Nyami angrily turning away from the insurmountable dam that has separated him from his wife.
In November 2021, Life's Journey Travel will be going to see the Zambezi River up close. For more information on our trip, take a look at our Hills of Africa page.
Author: Debra Harris
As founder of Life’s Journey Travel, I’m deeply passionate about creating custom travel experiences that allow my clients to truly savor the journey.