Nyami Nyami: The River God of the Zambezi

Nyami Nyami (also known as the Zambezi Snake God or Zambezi Snake Spirit) is one of the most important gods of the BaTonga people who are native to southern Zambia, northern Zimbabwe, and western Mozambique. Nyami Nyami is regularly depicted with the head of a fish and the body of a snake, resembling a dragon or giant snake. The river god is also often seen as a form of jewelry found in the Zambezi area, serving both as a good luck charm and as a fashion accessory. Historically, the BaTonga people believed that Nyami Nyami controlled all life in and on the 2,574-kilometer-long Zambezi River. However, this all began to change in 1956, with the construction of the Kariba Dam (started by Impresit of Italy and completed by Mitchell Construction of the UK), a project which resulted in the forced resettlement of nearly 60,000 BaTonga people.

According to BaTonga folklore, Nyami Nyami was greatly angered at the construction of the Kariba Dam because it separated him from his wife Wasi, also a god. Less than a year after construction began, a severe flood struck, killing many dam workers and destroying the nascent project. Flooding was a consistent problem during the length of the dam venture, and many locals attribute the difficulties to Nyami Nyami’s wrath.

The dam was finally completed in 1977, and with it, the BaTonga people believe that Nyami Nyami subsequently abandoned the human world for the time being. Nevertheless, locals attribute the recurring tremors and earthquakes in the Zambezi region to the Snake God trying to reconnect with his long-separated wife, and that he will one day return and destroy the dam.

By Tre Hunt

(Image: Farm 8)

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