Africa’s version of the Loch Ness monster, the Nyami Nyami, is one of the Tonga people’s most important gods.

Living on the banks of the Zambezi River in Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Tonga people (also known as the Batonga) believed this dragon-like creature protected them and provided for them in difficult times. Reported sightings of the monster in the Zambezi River (which runs through Zambia and Zimbabwe) are not unusual. But for the non-believers, the most convincing proof that the Nyami Nyami may be more than just a legend, was the mysterious disasters that occurred during the construction of Kariba dam wall…

The Legend of Nyami Nyami and Kariba Dam

In the 1940’s colonialists decided to build a huge dam wall on the Zambezi River. The location of it however meant the Tonga people, who had been living on the banks of the Zambezi River for decades, would be forced to relocate from their tribal lands. Also, what the colonialists didn’t know was that the  location of this dam wall would be at the Kariba rock – home to the Nyami Nyami. The Tonga prayed to their Nyami serpent god to stop the dam from being built. However eventually the Tonga were forced to leave their homes and in 1956 construction on the Kariba dam wall begun.

Present day Tonga village – living very much like they have been for decades. Photo by Soul Bird (

The once-peaceful valley of the Tonga exploded with building machinery. Precious trees were cut down to build houses for laborers. Roads were laid to the site and workers poured in to begin construction on the wall. It looked like all was lost for the Tonga people.

But a year later the Nyami Nyami decided to strike! By this time the construction of the dam wall was well underway. As the rainy season approached rain fell and fell and fell, until the Zambezi River flooded. This was in fact one  of the worst floods in about 100 years! The water level raised by about 100 feet. The river rushed down the gorge and destroyed part of the wall, equipment and roads leading to the site. Around 86 workers were washed down the river and drowned.

Kariba Dam with lake forming in the background. 22 June 1959. Photo: Zuid-Afrikahuis.

The Tonga believed the Nyami Nyami had caused this flood to avenge the colonialists from blocking the river and disrupting their village. Although the colonialists did not believe them, families of the missing workers asked the Tonga for help to find the bodies. The Tonga suggested a sacrifice be made to the Nyami Nyami. So three days after the flood a calf was slaughtered and floated down the river. The next morning the calf was gone and some of the workers bodies were found floating in its place.  The reappearance of the workers’ bodies three days after the flood, has never been satisfactorily explained.

However that was not the end of the Nyami Nyami’s wrath. Before construction on the dam resumed, flow patterns of the river were studied to determine if there was a likelihood of another flood. It was ascertained that such a flood would only occur once every thousand years. But when the rains returned the following year, the river flooded with even more intensity, raising water levels by 10 feet more than the last flood. At 4 million gallons a second waters passed over the dam destroying the access bridge, parts of the main wall and the coffer dam.  City dwellers had mocked the stories of Nyami Nyami, the river god but by 1958 the laughter had turned to chilled apprehension.

Finally however the dam was finally built and opened in 1960. It is said that the Nyami Nyami withdrew from the world of men after this. However there are still rumors of its sighting…

In December 2012 a peculiar article was published in the Zimbabwe newspaper, the Sunday Mail. Residents of a town near Kariba had seen a monster in the water which was over 650 feet long! Reporters said the creature took 45 minutes to cross the harbor area where it was spotted, in broad daylight. The paper reported on Nyami Nyami’s “reappearance” as if it were entirely credible. Although, some claim it was just a python.

Today Nyami Nyami pendants are sold all over Zambia and Zimbabwe and adrenalin-seeking, white-water rafters believe that wearing this pendant brings luck and safe passage through the rapids!

A statue of the Nyami Nyami which now stands on the cliffs above Lake Kariba’s dam wall.


Author: Donna Van Wyk
SEO Copywriter and Content Strategist at DigiGal Marketing