Nyaminyami…the River God of Lake Kariba

The Ba Tonga, the people of the Zambezi Valley have always felt protected by an ancestral spirit, Nyaminyami, the river god. He safeguards all those who dwell and visit his ancient valley and in time of famine he’s said to have provided food.

The name Kariba originates from a rocky gorge exposed by swirling water in the river. This gorge is now 30 metres below the surface of the lake. Legend has it that the river god, yaminyami dwelt here. The deity drowned anyone who threatened the peace of the valley.

Although not seen the river god is said to have the body of a serpent and the head of a fish. He’s extremely large and has mystical powers. He can control the water of the mighty river and the lives of the people who lived besides the river.

Nyaminyami the River god - Fish head and serpent body

The Tonga people gave him allegiance and performed ceremonial dances in his honour. For many years Nyaminyami and his wife lived peacefully. The Tonga people who occupied both sides of the Zambezi River from the Devil’s Gorge down stream to Kariba Gorge lived peacefully for centuries until…!

Cheap hydro-electricity for the expanding industries and for domestic use across Central Africa was conceived. It meant constructing a dam, a wall across the Zambezi. This was a great test of civil engineering and it was to affect a vast area of the valley floor. Both humans and wildlife was to be affected greatly. Nyaminyami the river god was not amused.

The building started in 1955. Over one million cubic metres of concrete were poured into the 36 metre high wall. The wall measured 24 metres thick and was designed to hold a pressure of nearly ten million litres of water passing through the sluice gates every second!

Lake Kariba Dam Wall

In 1957 a torrential rain caused the river to rise 7 metres. Millions of cubic metres of water surged through the gorge. It destroyed the dam’s foundations, equipment and access roads. And unfortunately it took the lives of 18 construction workers. Another flood the following year sent another unexpected deluge. This was even higher than the previous year. It destroyed access bridges, the cofferdam and parts of the main wall.

Nyaminyami the river god had made good his threat...

The developers persevered and at the end of 1958 the gates were closed. By 1963 the current level of the lake was achieved. A lake measuring 280 kilometres up stream through the Kariba Gorge and 40 kilometres at its widest point was formed.

As the dam closed the water level rose. Swarms of crickets, rodents and snakes emerged from the undergrowth and tried to escape the rising water. The skies above the lake were filled with flocks of birds. It was their field day. The birds had come to feast on the exposed harvest.

It was not just the small and crawling creatures that were affected. Many animals, including the larger carnivores retreated inland. Others, however, instinctively made for higher ground to wait out another seasonal flood. They assumed wrong. The animals were trapped on temporary islands created by the rising water. A small army of volunteers rescued many animals.

They called the rescue “Operational Noah” …but that’s another story.

However, all is not peaceful in the valley and Kariba is subjected to occasional and unexpected earth tremors. Some have registered 5+ on the Ritchter Scale. It also experiences violent and expected storms and squalls that can quickly turn the surface into angry maelstrom.

Meteorologists and seismologist remain uncertain of the exact cause. Locals continue to maintain that this is the work of Nyaminyami, the river god. But then let’s consider it as a way of life, an African art surely.

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