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Monday, May 31, 2010

LINDSAY SELBY: The Nyaminyami

The Nyaminyami is a river creature who lived in the Zambezi River and controlled the life in and on the river. It is worshiped by the Tonga people and said to be a dragon-like creature with a snake's torso and the head of a fish. The Tonga claim sightings of this creature in the Kariba lake. The lake is known for the tigerfish that dwell in its waters but there are over 40 fish species that live in the lake including nkupe, chessa, bottlenose, vundu, barbell and several types of bream. So the waters are very fertile and probably enough to feed a dragon!

In 1950 the Kariba Dam project was started. The Tonga people were told they would have to be relocated and they asked the Nyaminyami to protect them. In 1957, when the dam was almost completed, Nyaminyami struck. The worst floods ever known on the Zambezi washed away the partly-built dam and the heavy equipment, killing many of the workers. The next rainy season the Nyaminyami struck again and brought more floods even worse than the previous year. However, the dam builders refused to give in and 1960 the dam was officially opened. The Kariba Dam is a hydroelectric dam and is one of the largest dams in the world, standing 420 ft(140 metres) high and 1,900 ft (633metres) long. A lake was formed that measured 280 kilometres up stream through the Kariba Gorge and up to 40 kilometres wide.

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 feasting on the insects. Many animals retreated inland or made for higher ground only to become trapped on temporary islands created by the rising water. A rescue called Operational Noah run by volunteers and game wardens rescued as much of the wildlife as possible.

The Tonga still live on the shores of Lake Kariba, and still believe that one day Nyaminyami will destroy the dam and they will be able to return to their homes on the banks of the river. They believe that Nyaminyami and his wife were separated by the wall across the river, and the frequent earth tremors felt in the area since the wall was built are caused by the creature trying to reach his wife. Kariba is subjected to unexpected earth tremors. Some have registered over 5 on the Ritchter Scale. The lake also experiences violent and expected storms and squalls that can quickly turn the surface into a dangerous place.

The resettlement of the Tonga people is said to be the worst dam-resettlement disaster in African history. Anthropologist Thayer Scudder, who has studied the people of the area since the late 1950s, described them 'development refugees.' Many live in areas, some of which have been so seriously degraded within the last generation that they resemble lands on the edge of the Sahara Desert. So no wonder they hope for the dam to be destroyed.

The locals and tourists of Kariba look forward to September each year as the Nyaminyami Festivals are held to venerate the river god.

So the question is what could the Nyaminyami be if it was a living creature? Could it be a giant eel? A snake’s torso and the head of a fish maybe fit the description but what about a giant catfish? They have large fish heads and often taper to a narrow end to the body. It is quite possible that some large fish or eel did live in the river many years ago, which gave rise to the legends and the fact there are claims (none I could find documented) that it is still seen in the lake, could point to a large fish. The lake is well stocked with fish of all kinds so a predator large fish or eel would have lots of food. It is a great story and I just wish it had a happier ending for the Tonga people.

Some links of interest:



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The really interesting thing about the Nyaminyami is that its name is related to those of various other African Water Monsters otherwise identified as sabertooths, giant otters, smooth crocodiles or "Brontosaurs", including Nyame, Nyamala, Nsanga, Yamala and so on down the line. Ordinarily it seems to mean the water lion or giant otter type, but the creatures under these names are generally described as composites (and that also counts in the case of the Dingonek and many others) So that saying "head of one animal, body of another" is absolutely typical of the series. The Ancient Egyptian Ameimat might also be linguistically related and tales of such creatures could have travelled down the Nile in ancient times. That one had the head of a crocodile and the body of a lion or hippo, or both combined.

Because of this common motif of confused-characteristics, the zoological nature of whatever creature might be at the bottom of the stories is extremely difficult to figure out. It also seems that there are several different creatures described as "Congo Dragons" otherwise, but the stories about them will also attribute the traits of one to a completely different type (hence adding a crocodile's tail onto a Water-rhino, a jagged crocodile's back crest and armor onto a sabertooth, a long neck onto a Water-elephant, and so on)