Thursday, June 23, 2011

Will NyamiNyami be reunited with his wife?

And if he is, what will be the extent of the tragedy?

David Livingstone, intrepid explorer that he was, was probably the first white man (in the 1850s) to see the falls where the mighty Zambezi plunges 110 metres (365 feet) on its way to the Indian Ocean.  He named the place Victoria Falls after his monarch.  The locals knew it as Mosi-oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders, from the plume of spray that sometimes rises several thousand feet in the air.
If you go to Vic Falls, as they are generally known, not only will you see one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, but you will also be at the site of some of the planet’s best whitewater rafting.  A day’s rafting below the falls will take you along the bottom of a series of gorges – the falls of earlier times - over 19 rapids, many of which are rated 4.5 or higher.  When I last rafted the Zambezi, we had to portage around one 6.0 rapid – too dangerous to attempt.
Generally the rafting trips start just below the Boiling Pot, where the river changes direction at the base of the falls, from First Gorge to Second Gorge, creating a swirling, roiling, turbulent cauldron.  The Rafting Companies will tell you the Boiling Pot is the home of NyamiNyami, the river god, protector of the river, with the face of a fish and the torso of a snake.
But the Rafting Companies are wrong, according to the BaTonga people, who have lived in the Zambezi valley for centuries.  They say that NyamiNyami lives farther downstream in what is now Lake Kariba, the vast expanse of water behind Kariba Dam.  And they believe he is angry.
In about 1950 the governments of Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia) started to build a hydro-electric dam across the Zambezi, at a place called Kariva, which means trap, which was the home of NyamiNyami and his wife.
The BaTonga elders objected, not only because most of their people would have to be relocated to higher ground, but also because NyamiNyami would be angry.  They predicted that NyamiNyami, protector of the river, wouldn’t allow the dam to be built.
Kariba Dam
In 1957, with the dam making good progress and the waters of the lake beginning to rise, the Zambezi experienced a 1000-year flood, way beyond anything in living memory.  Much of the dam was washed away and a number of people died, including whites.  When the bodies of the whites couldn’t be found, the BaTonga were asked to help since they knew the river better than anyone else.  A white calf was killed as a sacrifice to NyamiNyami and floated on the river.  The next day it was gone, and the bodies of the white workers found – something that has never been explained.
In 1958, the Zambezi flooded even higher than the previous year, and again major parts of the dam were washed away.  The BaTonga knew what was happening.  NyamiNyami was angry at the disruption to his river and, to make things worse, the dam had separated him from his wife.
But construction continued and in 1960 the dam was completed and electric power started to flow.  And continues to do so even today.
The BaTonga still believe that NyamiNyami will destroy the dam, pointing to the recurring tremors and earthquakes (over 20 with a magnitude of over 5) in the area which, they say, is NyamiNyami trying to be reunited with his wife.  And if NyamiNyami is successful, it is difficult to imagine the catastrophe that will ensue.  The lake is now over 225 kms (140 miles) long and up to 32 kms (20 miles) in width; it covers an area of over 5500 sq. kms (2,150 square miles) and has a maximum depth of 100 metres (320 feet), with an average depth of about 30 metres (95 feet).  Not only would huge areas be suddenly flooded below the dam, but there is a chance that the huge Cahora Bassa dam downstream could be damaged.  And if it broke as well?  Mozambique would suffer another tragedy.

To give some indication of the potential catastrophe, in March 2010, the sluice gates of Kariba had to be opened to cope with the flooding Zambezi.  Over 150,000 people had to be evacuated from the floodplain. What if this or worse happened without warning?
So what do you think?  Will NyamiNyami succeed?  Will he be re-united with his wife?
I do.  But I hope not.
Stan - Thursday
PS.  Even though the rafters are wrong about where NyamiNyami lives, almost all of them wear his pendant for good luck on the river.


  1. As a mythical story, it is engrossing. Anthropomorphic applications make the world easier to cope with and give animals their extended lease on life. If we think Fido thinks like us, Fido is well-taken care of.

    NyamiNyami will be reunited with his wife because, unfortunately, humans don't plan for what if? What if there was an earthquake that breached the dams? What if it isn't within reason to have a man-made body of water covering 2,150 square miles? Lake Pontchartrain covers 630 square miles and it is close enough to New Orleans that there were real concerns about the effect Hurricane Katrina might have on the levees; a major breach could have sent much of that water into New Orleans.

    Pontchartrain isn't even a lake; it is a salt water estuary so man didn't have a chance to make a mistake creating it. It is 40 miles from east to west and 24 miles from north to south and when I was in the middle of the bridge that spans it, I was definitely uncomfortable. Crossing it was part of my uncle's guided tour of all things visitors needed to see when in southern Louisiana. There is no land to be seen when crossing that bridge; the lake might as well be the ocean. I convinced him, on subsequent visits, that one time was enough.

    Africa is so large that it does things in a big way. Louisiana is very small but their lake was more than big enough for me.

  2. The tremors and earthquakes in the region of Kariba have been caused by the weight of the water - over 100 billion tons and the fact that it is at the end of the Great Rift Valley with its associated faults. Needless to say no one thought about the seismological effects of the dam.

  3. Personally, Stan, I prefer to imagine the tremors reflecting a love story here--NyamiNyami driving the full force of his snake-like body behind his fish head for the sole purpose of beating his dam way through to his beloved wife.

    NOT that it's a simply a matter of water weight.

    But, hey, that's just one incurable romantic's opinion.


  4. Great story Stan. Love the bit about the calf sacrifice - how fascinating.

    Think I'll skip a rafting trip there though in the next few years...

  5. There has already been concern about cracking in the dam wall - whatever or whoever the cause. One has to wonder what sort of maintenance has taken place over the last years in Zimbabwe. Then again, how do you go about maintaining a dam wall in any case...