Nyaminyami’s Revenge (ca. 1950)

6 mins read

The story of building the Kariba dam is incomplete without talking about the legend of Nyaminyami.

One legend has it Nyaminyami and his wife stayed in the Zambezi River near Kariwa gorge, where the present day Kariba dam wall is situated. One season Nyaminyami’s wife was downstream when the white man came to build a wall thus separating Nyaminyami and his wife. His desperate attempts to reunite with lover are one explanation for the freaky weather preceeding the building of Kariba dam. 

The Gwembe Tonga and Kore Kore people lived along the banks of the Zambezi River for centuries. When the Gwembe Valley became a reservoir, whole villages were flooded displacing the local population. Another legend has it that the tribe elders, in their anger, summoned Nyaminyami to stop the project and pour out his wrath upon the people who had disturbed the peace of his people.
Whichever you legend you choose to believe, this is a chronology of the freaky weather occurances .

Cyclone Kills Survey Team (ca. 1950)

  • 15 February 1950

Survey work on the proposed dam wall began in the late 1940's.


On February 15, 1950 a cyclone from the Indian Ocean swept up the valley unleashing fifteen inches of rain in a few hours. The river rose seven metres that night. A number of villages were swept away.


When rescue teams finally managed to reach the area three days later, the putrefying bodies of antelope and other animals were seen hanging from the tops of trees. The survey team died in a landslide.

Floods Destroys Dam Foundations (ca. 1955)

  • 24 December 1955

Work on the dam began in earnest in 1955 – but on Christmas Eve that year unprecedented flooding washed away the foundations of the coffer dam and pontoon bridge. The flood peaked, receded, and then peaked again. 

Zambezi Rises Six Metres In 24 Hours (ca. 1956)

  • 1 November 1956

In November 1956 heavy rains fell a month before they were due and sudden flash floods impeded work on the dam. The Zambezi swollen with water from local catchment areas, rose over a metre in a single night.


While work continued downstream, 1300 kilometres away the Zambezi was mobilising its forces. The Zambesi is fed by a catchment area of over a million square kilometres, of which nearly half is above the lake.


Heavy rains were falling throughout the catchment region. The water was being hoarded in the floodplains of Zambia and the forests of Angola. In January the Sanyati River, which entered the Zambezi very near the new wall, suddenly came down like cavalry charge. The river rose almost six metres in the next 24 hours and surged over the coffer dam.

Harnessing The Waters (ca. 1957)

  • 19 August 1957

Unexpected flood waters create problems for people building a dam in Zimbabwe.


Taming Nature (ca. 1958)

  • 13 January 1958

Massive building works underway on the Kariba Dam in Zimbabwe.


Suspension Bridge Destroyed (ca. 1958)

  • 15 January 1958

In January 1958 a flood such as could be expected to occur only once in every 10 000 years, swept down the riverbed. 16 million litres per second exploded over the suspension bridge, which buckled and heaved, tragically killing a number builders.


Some of those killed were foreign dam builders, when efforts to recover their bodies failed, the elders of the Tonga tribe where approached and asked to lend their expertise and knowledge of the river. The elders explained that Nyaminyami had caused the disaster and the builders would need to make a sacrifice to appease him.


Initially, the builders and project managers laughed off the advice, but with the impending arrival of the deceased’s kin to collect thier loved ones bodies, the Europeans agreed.


A sacrifice of a white calf was made, as dictated by tradition. Come the next morning, the foreigners were awe-struck when the calf had disappeared and the bodies were left in its place. To this day, those events are shrouded in mystery with many conflicting explanations as to why and how things transpired.

Flood Damages Kariba Dam (ca. 1958)

  • 20 February 1958

Unexpected flood waters create problems for people building a dam in Zimbabwe.


Kariba Overwhelmed (ca. 1958)

  • 17 April 1958

During the next rainy season, the region saw even worse floods than those of the previous year. The Tonga people, as was to be expected, believed that the Nyaminyami had struck again. This time, the floods swept away 11 Italian builders. Their bodies were later discovered in the partially wet cement of the dam wall.


It was at this point that, arguably, the bravest and most controversial, decision was made. After making his calculations, the Chief Project Engineer decided that it would be more structurally sound to leave the bodies plastered on the wall than to make attempts to remove them. Today, their bodies are part of the dam wall.


Race Against Time (ca. 1958)

  • 16 May 1958

The Kariba Dam in Zimbabwe is now being repaired after damage by the flooding Zambezi.


Completion (ca. 1958)

  • 11 December 1958

Finally in December 1958 the Kariba dam was completed but not before it cost the lives of 80 people.


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