Legend Of The Nyami Nyami Walking Stick
In Conversation With Test Malunga
This walking stick is a piece of art that can be found at Makweti, and it has an incredible story behind it. It is beautifully crafted and is representative of the Nyami Nyami, who is the Tonga tribe river god that inhabits the Zambezi valley.
The walking stick resembles a snake at the top because the Tonga tribe’s god (the ancestral spirit) exists in form of a snake or a serpent-like creature living in Kariba Dam. The snake is so big that nobody can guess its size, and it is believed that when the Nyami Nyami swims past, the water turns red.
The gorge where Kariba dam wall was built was called Kariwa, which means “a trap”. It was so named due to several fisherman who went close to the location and were sucked into a whirl pool, never to be seen again. When the English arrived, they mispronounced the name as Kariba, which is how it is known worldwide today. The district is known today as Nyami Nyami district. The then chief Musampakaruma is the only person who believed that he once saw their river god.
There is a man and a woman depicted on the walking stick, both of whom represent the prayers that were said by man and woman, whenever there was a drought. They would ask the river god for rain by brewing opaque beer that would be left to ferment for seven days before consumption. They would then spend the whole night playing drums and singing. During this ceremony, the clouds would gather and it would start to rain as a response from the river god.
The arrival of the Europeans caused a lot of disruption in the area when they built the dam wall. It is believed that this construction separated the male and female, with the male getting trapped on the upper course and the female on the lower side. Kariba residents experience tremors occasionally, which is believed to be the male angrily pushing against the dam wall in the hopes of reaching his wife trapped on the other side.
In February 1950 after the construction had started, the river god got angry and a cyclone from the Indian Ocean swept the valley, which had never happened before. Subsequently, there were three more disastrous events, where they found dead animals hanging in the trees, and homes flooded and washed away. The dam wall foundations were washed away several times as well.
The ball trapped inside the cavity on the walking stick explains the cultural preservation and protection by the Tonga people. Sadly, the missionaries worked so hard to erode this culture and belief system, that the stories are not known to the new, younger generations.
Storytelling is such an important part of cultural longevity, which is why we are so honoured to keep this artwork and be able to tell the story behind it.
Words: Test Malunga, former Head Guide, Manager and great friend of Makweti.