The Legend of Nyaminyami - Zambezi River God - and the Symbolism of the Nyaminyami Walking Stick

Nyaminyami - The Zambezi River God
The Legend and the Symbolism of the
Nyaminyami Walking Stick

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The Legend of Nyaminyami and the Symbolism of the Nyaminyami Walking Stick

Here is the story to be told about Nyaminyami, the Zambezi River God. 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. But he is very big! The people of Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe were protected by Nyaminyami, their ancestral spirit (Mudzimu), who fed them from his own meat in times of hunger.

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 and near that spot, that's where it all began. One season when Nyaminyami's wife had gone down the mighty Kariba Gorge to other people of the Valley to answer their prayers and bless her people, the white man came to build a wall.

It took five long years to see it through because Nyaminyami did not want to be disturbed. He caused some floods and loss of life, but at last he was kind enough to let the wall to be all complete. It is also believed that the occasional earth tremor felt in the lake surroundings is caused by this spirit. It was the work of the Tonga elders and their medium spirits to persuade the Nyaminyami to allow the Zambezi to be tamed.

But Shame! Nyaminyami was separated from his wife. When the wall was completed he was downstream, and now cannot get back upstream. Legend has it that he will only reappear to his people one he meets with wife again.

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. The Nyaminyami is the ruler of water and his symbol is worn to ward of the forces of darkness and to attract wealth.

For kayakers, rafters and surfers, the metaphor extends to a wealth of perfect paddling, surf and the avoidance of injury from bad wipe-outs.

Each part of the Nyaminyami walking stick represents something....

  • The Handle: represents "Nyaminyami" who the Tonga people believe is their spirit god (Mudzimu) 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.

  • The 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 the Tonga fortune tellers to guard against evil spirits

  • The Women's Bubble Pipe (incelwa):normally a long pipe made from a calabash and is used by the Tonga people for smoking tobacco. In the past these pipes where used for smoking "dagga" - Tonga tradition.


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 mid 1950's life changed with the decision to proceed with the construction of the Kariba dam wall. Another chapter in the Tonga history was started.

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.

According to local folklore, during hard times, the Tonga had free access to his flesh and were thus sustained by removing strips of meat.

The story of the dam wall construction and the floods in 1957 and 1958 are well documented.

The local story goes as follows:

  • 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 at the time of the sealing of the dam wall was philandering down stream towards Mana Pools

  • He's now very lonely and only the destruction of the dam will reunite him with this wife.


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Hippo in the Zambezi River Sunset cruise on the Zambezi River Challenging the Zambezi River God

The Legend of Nyaminyami and the Symbolism of the Nyaminyami Walking Stick