The Legend of the Zambezi River God, the Nyami Nyami, is a story known and shared by locals of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Visitors to Kariba Dam are greeted by an imposing statue that is supposed to depict the famed River God.
An enterprising dealer may try to sell you a Nyami Nyami walking stick which is not a walking aid but rather an artistic impression of the Tonga lifestyle, but be careful not to confuse the “historical stick” with the actual Tonga cultural and religious beliefs.
On an episode of River Monsters, Jeremy Wade speculated that this invisible executioner of the Zambezi River might be a vundu catfish but whatever it may be to survive the surging might of the Zambezi river it would definitely be formidable…….
I have never given much thought to this legend, even though around my neck I wear an ivory carved Nyami Nyami pendant neck piece, an old gift.
I had been gifted the pendant by an elderly lady, old enough to be someone’s great mother, “for luck” she had said. She also insisted I wear it always. Wearing it always was easy to do since, it was very light and the fine leather thong that secured it around my neck, had been bonded together and the only way I could remove it was by cutting it off.
I met the lady during a school field trip to Kariba Dam, she was selling pricey but beautiful curios and oddities at a market stall. I had desperately wanted to buy a souvenir but I had nothing left to spare since I had bought a rare flower. A valentine gift to bring my crush back at school.
“Mlilo, she must be something special” she remarked
I was momentarily caught off-guard as she had addressed me by my clan name, then I remembered I was wearing a name tag, all the students wore them. I smiled politely and shrugged.
“I last had someone give me a flower a lifetime ago” she said, as she sighed wistfully.
Again I shrugged as I turned to walk back to the school bus, I took a step then paused, a random voice in my heard whispered “Why not”
I faced her again and without much in the way of ceremony placed the flower into her calloused hands.
“Danke” said thanking me in my mother language and proceeded to chant my clan praise which I am ashamed to admit I hardly knew, then added an unfamiliar blessing but it sounded like it roughly translated to “May your fire never go out in the storm”
That’s when she handed me the ivory pendant “For luck” she said.
I ran to catch up with the other students going back to the bus which was already hooting as the driver signaled we hurry up. I don’t remember what happened with the crush for valentine but this was a high school crush, those came and went with school terms. I totally forgot about the incident and never thought much about the Nyami Nyami
Years later, I still never thought of the Nyami Nyami even as I absentmindedly fingered the pendant around my neck wondering, why all of a sudden it was quiet and hot. The noisy desk fan had stopped rattling shakily about, the metal blades that threatened to pop off and decapitate the nearest person had stopped rotating, it did that sometimes for no reason, but this time it was because the power had gone out; again. The power utility company called it load shedding, when they scheduled electricity blackouts.
Of late, the electricity was like an errant spouse, who left the house early in the morning while you were sleeping and returned well after you had gone to bed. Today however this was an unscheduled blackout, so picked up the mobile phone to call the fault section. That’s when I noticed the mobile phone had no network I tried the landline handset and it had no dialing tone either. For as a second, it felt like those alien invasion type of movies, but then from watching Hollywood movies, aliens never come to Africa.
I went to bed in darkness, it was a moonless night, the kinda that gives one night terrors, and I had strange troubled sleep. I dreamt of two ancient souls separated by a vast dam wall and connected by a deep empty yearning and a storm raged as one formed a fist and pounded the wall in frustration, thunder crashed as cracks appeared and darkness swallowed the world while the wall crumbled down. I woke up with a start, my hand clutched tightly around the Nyami Nyami pendant and the dying tremors of an earthquake; apparently we had just experienced a seismic event.
Later much later, I would learn that the power outage had hit both Zambia and Zimbabwe. The authorities would say that “an event” which had occurred at Kariba South Hydroelectric Station had triggered the total shutdown of electricity. They blamed the drought for low water levels, which caused low electricity generation and the crack in the wall was as a result of tremors caused by shifting tensions. Strangely enough, they were gathering local elders in both Zambia and Zimbabwe to do an appeasement ceremony so that it would rain, after all it would not hurt to practise our customs.
Something must have worked because eventually it rained, breaking the drought; although no official statement was ever given, repairs to the Kariba Dam had to be suspended for a year, in some circles the word is this is in deference to the wishes of the Nyami Nyami……
Some nights on a moonless night I have the stormy dream again, I see the lady who gave me the Nyami Nyami pendant, she still has the flower I gave her, pinned to her hair,
“Tell them to remember our story” she whispers and she dives into the churning water, as the crack in the dam wall widens and water spills out to swallow everything…
That’s when I wake up.
The above is a work of speculative fiction inspired by some true events. You could read more on the Nyami Nyami on this post Zambezi River God
Blogbattle themed Flower
NB Fact the Kariba Dam is under a 300 million dollar repair project which had it not been undertaken the dam’s collapse would have happened within the next five years.
The Tonga people believe that Nyami Nyami will one day destroy the dam that displaced them from their tribal lands; in its quest to be reunited with its mate and to seek retribution.
For clarification, according to the Tonga people Nyami Nyami is not a God they do not pray to Nyami Nyami but rather pray through the Nyami Nyami for intercession