By Marianne Betts
The Zambezi River is one of the legendary rivers of the world, rising in Zambia, flowing through Angola, along the edges of Namibia and Botswana, between Zambia and Zimbabwe and to Mozambique before emptying into the Indian Ocean.
The 2,574-kilometre-long river tumbles over the Batoka Gorge to form the Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, but lesser known is its cultural significance.
Melusi “Mpisi” Ndlovu, headman of Monde Village, near Victoria Falls, and its surrounding area, says the Zambezi River is home to a spirit called the Nyami Nyami, which people turn to with their problems.
“People from all over have long gathered by the Zambezi River, in Victoria Falls, for one main ceremony, to correct all of their mishaps, whether they be disasters or diseases, or anything else,” Mpisi says.
Every year in September the local priesthood, of which Mpisi is part, lead the ceremony which lasts one or two days, but takes a week to prepare for, consisting of dancing, rituals and appeasing the spirits.
They ask for good rains before the rainy season starts, and if the rains have been poor, a rainmaking ceremony is performed. Other plights, such as disease, are also considered.
He believes the problems visited upon humanity are revenge for sinful behaviour, such as damaging the environment or promiscuity, and they may range from many drownings in the river to disease and drought.
“We should sit down, accept our mistakes, be apologetic, and cleanse the environment,” he says.
“The river unified Africa, as in the process of solving problems, and even healing people from certain diseases and plagues, they were using water from the Zambezi River, and people were brought there to be cleansed forever.”
The Tonga tribe, who have lived along the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe and Zambia for centuries, are the custodians of the Nyami Nyami, which is described as having the body of a snake and the head of a fish, Mpisi says.
“They were not involved in wars, they were priests whose role was to correct all mishaps, cure diseases, and cleanse those people who went to war,” he says.
“People believe that the Nyami Nyami is the demi-god of the Zambezi River. When you have problems, the spiritual leaders take you there, they consult the Nyami Nyami and all of those problems can be solved.”
Mpisi says everyone from individuals to large organisations should consult the Nyami Nyami, which assists all of humanity, across different tribes and races.
“The Nyami Nyami is the mediator between people and God, taking all problems to God to be answered and corrected.”
There used to be two Nyami Nyami – a male and a female – but when Kariba Dam was built on the Zambezi River to provide hydroelectric power in the late 1950s the male died after being “electrified”, he says.
“The surviving female Nyami Nyami is leading a stressful life, isolated and alone. What is surprising is that although they lived together for a long time, they never reproduced,” he says.
The Zambezi River may be renowned for the Victoria Falls, the world’s largest waterfall, and sunset cruises, but it is legendary to the local people for the spirit that inhabits its waters, the Nyami Nyami!