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  • Writer's pictureJon T. Peterson

The Dam and the River God

As we slowly glided along Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe, my guide and I watched a group of BaTonga villagers. They were casting nets out into the lake in hopes of securing some protein to supplement their diet. Almost chest deep in water, they waved to us as we tried to find a suitable spot to do some fishing of our own.

It was late afternoon and finally starting to cool down in the Zambezi Valley. Beer tastes great on days like this so I opened the cooler and handed the guide a sweating can. He opened his, looked at me and poured some out in the lake. “An offering to Nyaminyami”, he quietly explained. “It has always brought me luck”, he said and gestured for me to do the same. I’m a firm believer in both luck and following local customs so I paid tribute as well.

Nyaminyami is regularly depicted as a dragon like creature with the torso of a snake and the head of a fish. He is said to reside in the Zambezi River and control the life in and around the river. To the BaTonga people Nyaminyami and his wife are the god and goddess of the underworld.

The BaTonga (or Tonga) people had lived for hundreds of years in seclusion along the Zambezi river. They had little contact with the outside world until the 1950s when they were told they must leave their homes. They were resettled away from the river to avoid the rising waters caused by the construction of the Kariba Dam.

Reluctantly they allowed themselves to be moved but believed Nyaminyami would never allow the dam to be built. In 1957, heavy flooding washed away much of the partly built dam and killed many of the workers. Construction on the dam was immediately restarted because the odds of another flood occurring were placed at 1 in 10,000. However, in 1958, a flood did occur and 11 Italian workers were swept away and their bodies plastered to the dam wall. The chief engineer of the project made a macabre calculation and determined that it was more structurally sound to leave the bodies there than to remove them. Their remains are still part of the wall today.

The name Kariba comes from the word “kariva" meaning trap. It refers to a rock jutting out from the gorge where the dam was built. This is where Nyaminyami is said to live and anyone who ventured near the rock would be dragged down to spend eternity underwater. The BaTonga believe Nyaminyami and his wife were separated by the dam wall. They remain convinced that the frequent earth tremors felt are caused by Nyaminyami trying to reach his wife by destroying the dam.

In 2014 it was determined that the dam was facing a possible collapse. If the Kariba Dam fails, the water will continue down the Zambezi River until it reaches the Cahora Bassa Dam in Mozambique. It is likely that the flow would cause this dam to be breeched and the devastation would be unimaginable.

I am more than willing to sacrifice some beer to keep Nyaminyami happy.

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