The Snake That Rules the River

The Snake That Rules the River

On January 10, 2016 an earthquake struck the southern African nation of Zambia near Kariba Dam.  It wasn’t very big, with a magnitude of 4.6, and it didn’t cause any damage that was reported.  But it did lead to a lot of talk about what caused the earthquake – and while tectonic plates and fault lines make for interesting scientific discussion, it was far more exciting to discuss the various ways in which the Zambezi river god Nyami Nyami had been offended.

A carved NyamiNyami - Snake that rules the river
A carved NyamiNyami, photo by Mangwanani

Nyami Nyami is a snake spirit, and he lives in the area of the Zambezi River where the Kariba Dam was built.  In fact, the dam separated Nyami Nyami from his wife, who lives in the Kariba Gorge – and this is where all the troubles began.

The Tonga people had always lived in the Zambezi Valley on the banks of the river.  It was very peaceful there near the thundering of Victoria Falls, Mosi-oa-tunya – “the smoke that thunders”.  It’s a beautiful place.

But the powerful river also presented a unique opportunity for a developing nation to expand their power resources, and in 1956 construction on the Kariba Dam began.  

The local villagers warned the workers, even as they were forced to move from their homes, which were going to be submerged under the water of the new lake.  “Nyami Nyami will be very unhappy,” they said.  “He will never allow this project to finish.” 

But no one listened to the villagers, and the construction went ahead.  They settled on the higher banks, watching, expecting that they would soon be allowed to return to their homes.  Nyami Nyami was not a god to fool with.
Heavy machinery was brought in, and hundreds of workers.  The progress was quick, and by 1957 it seemed as though the dam was nearly complete.  Perhaps the villagers had been wrong, or maybe Nyami Nyami had moved.  

Construction on the Kariba Dam
Construction on the Kariba Dam

But no – suddenly with no warning a flood such as only happened once every thousand years came roaring down the river.  In a flash much of the heavy machinery and many workers were caught in the waters.  The nearly finished dam washed away – almost all of the progress on the dam had been destroyed.

The local Tonga people nodded their heads – they had warned the government.  Nyami Nyami was not to be toyed with.  

To their surprise, the project continued.  Another rainy season came and this time the flood were even bigger – floods that occur only once in every ten thousand years.  The coffer dam washed away again, along with most of the work that had been accomplished in the last year.  

Surely now the government would have learned its lesson!  Nyami Nyami had taken terrible revenge, and he really shouldn’t be pushed any further.  

But the government plans continued even after the deaths of 80 people – and by 1960 the dam was finished and began supplying electricity to Zambia and Zimbabwe.  Nyami Nyami had been subdued.

The finished Kariba Dam
The finished Kariba Dam

Or had he?  

Earthquakes now strike around the Kariba Dam area, usually minor – but sometimes there is quite a lot of shaking. And whenever it happens the locals can be heard to say that Nyami Nyami has tried to see his wife, but was blocked by the dam.  


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