BaTonga Spirit of Kariba Dam
The Nyami Nyami is a legendary spirit creature of the Tonga people, said control life in and on the Zambezi River. According to tribal lore, the spirit of Nyami Nyami dwells in the Kariba Gorge. Local people have reported spotting the creature over the years but there has never been an official, recorded sighting.
Of all the stories surrounding Nyami Nyami, the legend of Kariba Dam is the most documented and widely known tale.
For centuries, the BaTonga People have lived in the Zambezi Valley in peaceful seclusion with little contact with the outside world. They were simple folk who built their houses in kraals along the banks of the great river and believed their gods looked after them
This pastoral lifestyle was soon to be shattered. In the early 1940s, the possibility of a hydro-electric scheme was put forward. This massive undertaking would supply power for the growing industries that colonialism had brought to Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia, now Zambia and Zimbabwe, and in 1956, construction on the Kariba Dam project began.
With the Kariba Dam construction juggernaut thundering into the valley, tearing out thousands of ancient trees to build roads and settlements, the BaTonga’s peace and solitude was destroyed. They had to leave their ancestral homes and move far from the river to escape the water that would flood the valley when the dam was finished.
Unenthusiastically they allowed themselves to be resettled on higher ground but secretly believed Nyami Nyami would never allow the Kariba Dam to be built and ultimately, when the project failed, they would move back to their homes.
The name Kariba – from the word Kariva, meaning trap – refers to a rock projecting out from the gorge where the dam wall was to be built. The BaTonga believed this was the home of Nyami Nyami and that anyone who hazarded going near the rock would be dragged down and never found.
It took a year before Nyami Nyami struck. In 1957, the dam was well on its way to completion, when the worst floods ever known on the Zambezi washed away most of the construction and heavy equipment, and killed many workers.
Some of the dead were white men whose bodies disappeared mysteriously. When an extensive search failed to find them, BaTonga elders were called on to help because their tribesmen knew the river better than anyone. The legend of Nyami Nyami was told and the elders explained that in his wrath, he had caused the disaster and now sacrifices would have to be made.
They weren’t taken seriously, but in desperation, because the relatives of the missing workers were due to arrive to claim the bodies of their loved ones, the officials agreed.
A white calf was slaughtered and floated on the river. The next morning the calf was gone and the workers’ bodies were in its place. The vanishing calf is no mystery in a river crawling with crocodile but the reappearance of the workers’ bodies in a crocodile infested river three days after they had disappeared, has never been satisfactorily explained.
After this, the river and weather patterns were studied to determine if another flood could happen. Experts were in agreement that a flood of comparable intensity would only occur every thousand years. But the next rainy season, Nyami Nyami struck again, destroying the coffer dam, the access bridge and parts of the main wall.
Eventually the great river was controlled and since 1960, the generators have been supplying electricity to Zimbabwe and Zambia.
The BaTonga still live on the shores of Lake Kariba, above Kariba Dam, and many believe, one day they’ll go back to their old homes on the river banks. They believe Nyami Nyami was separated from his wife by the wall across the river, and one day he will destroy the dam. According to the BaTonga, frequent earth tremors felt in the area, since the dam was built, are caused by the spirit trying to reach his wife.