|Nyaminyami: Debasing a people’s god|
|Thursday, 16 August 2012 00:00|
Living among the BaTonga people of the Zambezi Valley can be a harrowing experience for the sentimental. Before colonialism, the BaTonga people were at the mercy of wild animals and marauding slave trade parties that took away their healthy, young and energetic ones.
The arrival of the white man meant they had to be forcefully uprooted from their ancestral homes in the Gwembe Valley (the area from Kariba Gorge upstream to Devil’s Gorge), to barren higher ground. The ground was without basic infrastructure but they had to be forced there to allow for the construction of the Kariba Dam and the subsequent, hydro-electricity scheme.
The fate of the Tonga on the higher ground is too well known to warrant mention here.
Political independence did bring much relief but they remained partially isolated, with education taking inordinately too long to reach them while at the same time they did resist it, bearing in mind the way they were handled as the construction of Kariba Dam.
Their language, until recently, was not recognised and their children had to learn other, supposedly more important languages. All this took a knock on the BaTongas collective confidence to the extent that some of them still hide their true identity — calling themselves Ndebeles.
What really irks the young Tongas, however, is the debasing of their cultural heritage, especially their unshakeable belief in the life-sustaining Zambezi River god, the Nyaminyami. The Nyaminyami, according to Tonga beliefs, resides in the Zambezi River and controls life in and on the river. It is a benevolent spirit that helped the Tonga in times of need.
Their belief worked for them and the Tonga lived peacefully. The white man who called the Nyaminyami a phantom and likened it to the Loch Ness monster undermined this belief. Having failed to understand the Tonga religious beliefs, the white man started undermining them. Calling the BaTonga God a dragon-like creature with a snake’s torso and the head of a fish did not help either.
No BaTonga had seen the Nyaminyami in its full glory and would have the impertinence to append such a description to their god. It could only be the outsiders!
Then, in the name of art, a Bikita-born man, Rainos Tawonameso, popularised a “Nyaminyami walking stick”, supposedly explaining the Tonga traditional life. The walking stick’s handle has a snake’s head, fallaciously perpetuating the white man’s lie that the Nyaminyami is a dragon-like creature.
A local, white operated tourism company proudly states on its website that “a local Mashona by the name of Rainos Tawonameso has designed a walking stick that incorporates some motifs from the area and its inhabitants”. Note that it is not a local Tonga — but a “local Mashona” from Bikita with no religious awe for the Nyaminyami, who designed a walking stick now blasphemously linked to a people’s religion. The lie just goes on and on, unmitigated.
Now, if the Tonga were religious fundamentalists, a fatwa would have been declared against some people.
Besides Nyaminyami Rural District Council which has honoured the spirit of the Nyaminyami by naming a Tonga district after their spirit medium, the rest of the people capitalising on the name Nyaminyami in their businesses are simply being blasphemous. The BaTonga should reclaim their traditional inheritance and rise against the abuse of their God’s name.
For example, a catering company in Kariba calls itself “Nyaminyummy” in a clear bastardisation of a people’s god.
There is simply too many Nyaminyami this and Nyaminyami that and if the BaTonga were not the docile and mild-mannered nation of tribespeople that they are, they would be riled beyond measure and rise up and not be seen as incapable of any effective action in our midst against those capitalising on their beliefs.
Those individuals should be made to pay an honorary subsidy to schools of their choice between Mola and Mlibizi to rectify this abuse.
In a clear example that the Nyaminyami is a god, in 1957, when the Kariba dam wall was well on its way to completion, Nyaminyami struck with his full wrath: “The worst floods ever known on the Zambezi River washed away much of the partly built dam and the heavy equipment, killing many of the workers.
Some of those killed were white men whose bodies disappeared mysteriously, and after an extensive search failed to find them, Tonga elders were asked to assist as their tribesmen knew the river better than anyone. The elders explained Nyaminyami had caused the disaster and in order to appease his wrath a sacrifice should be made.
They weren’t taken seriously, but, in desperation, when relatives of the missing workers were due to arrive to claim the bodies of their loved ones, the search party agreed in the hope that the tribesmen would know where the bodies were likely to have been washed to.
A white calf was slaughtered and floated on the river. The next morning the calf was gone and the workers’ bodies were in its place” (www.zambezi.com/nyami.html).
The white men had no problem explaining the disappearance of the white calf in a crocodile-infested river, but could not satisfactorily explain the reappearance of the workers’ bodies three days after they had disappeared. Note the three days!
They have a religious significance in other faiths, too. The white man, however, did not want to authenticate the Tonga belief in offering sacrifices to Nyaminyami and receiving answers, so he continued to denigrate it.
Further, after the river’s flow patterns were studied and it was scientifically “ascertained” that a flood of comparable intensity would only occur once every thousand years, Nyaminyami struck the very next rainy season to prove the fallibility of human knowledge, bringing further floods even worse than the previous year.
The coffer dam, the access bridge and parts of the main wall were destroyed. The Tonga elders had to be persuaded to intercede on behalf of the contractors in order for the project to be completed successfully.
After the completion of the project, the white man conveniently forgot the role of the Tonga elders in the success of the project and began, once again, to undermine their religious beliefs. Today, the Tonga god is only explained in terms of a walking stick which has no relation to the Tonga beliefs. The walking stick has become commercial but it is not benefiting the Tonga.
Religion being an emotive issue, it is not surprising that most adherents would even kill to protect the purity of their beliefs. The Tonga have been provoked enough! It is time we accorded their religious beliefs the respect they deserve. Do not invite the wrath of the Nyaminyami by blasphemous acts.