Superstition and folklore are a significant part of African culture, and Zimbabweans are no exception. Stories of how the ostrich got its neck and why hippo’s don’t eat fish are used to justify how and why we do and say certain things.Whilst the truth behind these stories is debatable, the logic is, more often than not, very sound.

Tales of ancient gods and guardian angels are told vividly in the Zambezi region. It is here where you hear whispers of a great serpent-fish that is said to have the body of a snake and the torso of a fish. Whilst foreigners will say this creature is born of the imagination of the locals, the Tonga people will point to a lot of “signs” to justify its existence.

In 1955, a decision to tame the mighty Zambezi River and erect a dam wall was put forward. The Kariba Dam wall, as it was to be called, would create the largest manmade lake (in terms of volume but not surface area) in the world. The power stations that would be subsequently built would generate 700 megawatts of electricity; enough to satisfy over 90 percent of the country’s demand for power. Although this decision was largely seen to benefit everyone, it was not welcomed by everyone affected.

Arguably, the Tonga people were the worst affected as they were forced to uproot from their home for centuries and displaced to the higher safer ground that was less fertile and comfortable to live. After much resistance, the Tonga people reluctantly vacated their beloved home but vowed to return. It is said that the tribe elders, in their anger, summoned Nyami Nyami, the guardian of the river, to stop the project and pour out his wrath upon the people who had disturbed the peace of his people.

Changa Kariba Dam Wall Construction
Changa Kariba Dam Wall Construction

In 1956, the dam project commenced and the first bricks were laid. With the dam wall construction making good progress and the lake water levels already steadily rising, disaster struck in 1957. The Zambezi region witnessed a 1000-year flood in which a number of the builders were tragically killed. Some of those killed were foreign dam builders whose bodies disappeared mysteriously.

When efforts to recover their bodies failed, the elders of the Tonga tribe where approached and asked to lend their expertise and knowledge of the river to retrieve the bodies. The elders explained that Nyami Nyami had caused the disaster and if the builders wanted to appease the River god, they would need to make a sacrifice.

Initially, most of the builders and project managers laughed off the advice, but with the impending arrival of the deceased’s kin who would be expecting to bury their loved ones, the Europeans agreed.

A sacrifice of a white calf was made, as dictated by tradition. Come the next morning, the foreigners were awe-struck when the calf had disappeared and the bodies were left in its place. To this day, those events are shrouded in mystery with many conflicting explanations as to why and how things transpired.

During the next rainy season, the region saw even worse floods than those of the previous year. The Tonga people, as was to be expected, believed that the Nyami Nyami had struck again. This time, the floods swept away 11 Italian builders. Their bodies were later discovered in the partially wet cement of the dam wall.

It was at this point that, arguably, the bravest and most controversial, decision was made. After making his calculations, the Chief Project Engineer decided that it would be more structurally sound to leave the bodies plastered on the wall than to make attempts to remove them. Today, their bodies are part of the dam wall.

Changa Nyami Pendant

As explained by Narcissus Nhemachena, who was one of the construction workers present during construction of the dam wall, “It took five long years for the dam to be constructed because proper rituals had not been performed to ask for permission from Nyami Nyami to construct the dam. Cows were sacrificed and sack loads of money were thrown into the river to appease the Nyami Nyami. He caused some floods and loss of life, but at last he was kind enough to let the dam wall to be completed. It was the work of the Tonga elders and their spirit mediums to persuade the Nyami Nyami to allow the Zambezi to be tamed.”

Some members of the Tonga tribe believe that Nyami Nyami was separated from his wife during the dam wall construction. They say that he grows angrier with every passing year and it is just a matter of time before he unleashes his devastating power again so that he can be reunited with his love again. Fact or fiction? You decide!