06 Sep 2014 | By Sun International

Zambian Water Spirits and the Mermaids of Africa

Africa has many interesting stories and legends, especially Zambia. Because the Zambezi River and the Victoria Falls are such big features in Zambia, it is no surprise that water gods and spirits feature heavily in Zambian folklore. Let’s have a look at some of their water elementals.

Traveler’s tip: Check in and check it out… The Zambezi Sun and the 5-star Royal Livingstone are both conveniently located just a few minutes away from the glorious the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls. Both hotels offer guests free, unlimited access to the Victoria Falls.

Mysteries of the magical waters of Zambia

Water spirits appear in many cultures and mythologies around the world. However, only one country has both the Zambezi River and the Victoria Falls. Zambia is a mystical country that rewards all visitors with a glimpse of magic. You only need to look beneath the surface of the water…

Let’s explore some of the time-honored Zambian stories of gods beneath the water, royal ceremonies and mermaids unlike any of those found in your average fairytale…

The legend of Nyami Nyami

One of the most powerful gods, Nyami Nyami is also one of the most mysterious. Also known as the “Zambezi Snake Spirit”, Nyami Nyami is usually portrayed as a dragon-like creature with a head of a fish and a body of a snake.

While some stories have labeled this elemental as a river dragon similar in appearance to a whirlpool, all accounts agree that Nyami Nyami protects and sustains the Tsonga people. Giving sustenance during hard times, a talisman of Nyami Nyami is often worn as a lucky charm.

When Nyami Nyami is angered, it is the role of tribal elders and spirit mediums to communicate on behalf of the inhabitants of the river. Not to be taken lightly, Nyami Nyami controls life in and around the Zambezi River.

Legend has it that Nyami Nyami and his wife, the goddess of the underworld, once lived in the Kariba Gorge. During this idyllic time, the people of the river lived in isolation and had little or no contact with the world outside. However, by the 1940s the grasp of colonialism was extending to unexplored terrains and by 1956 the construction of the Kariba Dam had begun.

This disturbed the harmony of the river irrevocably and Nyami Nyami was deeply offended by the construction and the dam wall that forcibly separated him from his wife. The subsequent floods and deaths were attributed to his vengeful wrath and once the dam was completed Nyami Nyami disappeared completely from the world of mortals…

Kitapo, the river mermaid

Perhaps as a survival mechanism, Katipo (a lesser-known Zambezi river spirit) was said to have adopted the identity of a mermaid. Witnesses of Kitapo claim that the mermaid usually demands offerings from the fearful inhabitants on the riverbank.

Not quite a Disney-type mermaid, Kitapo has also been known to pull human sacrifices down to the bottom of the river in order to feast upon them. However, those who are innocent and pure of heart need not fear, Kitapo is said to be somewhat of an odd hero. Rescuing children from the rapids and punishing criminals, Kitapo is equally feared and loved.

The Kuomboka ceremony

While Zambia’s very own mermaid is somewhat erratic in her schedule, you can be sure that every April the most famous traditional ceremony in Zambia will take place. The Kuomboka ceremony is an ancient ritual of the Lozi people. The Lozi of western Zambia have been practicing this ritual for over 300 years and each year the ceremony attracts thousands of tourists from around the world.

Tellingly “Kuomboka” means “to move out of the water”. The ceremony was in response to the annual floods of the Zambezi that turn the farmlands into a grand lake, making it necessary to move to higher ground. Beginning with heavy drumming of the royal Maoma drums, it is impossible not to feel a sense of anticipation. The king and the royal family, along with their entourage, travel across the water in Nalikwanda, a large barge that transports them to the king’s rainy season palace.

Although we cannot guarantee that you will catch a glimpse of Kitapo or feel the slippery tail of Nyami Nyami as you swim in the Devil’s Pool, the Kuomboka ceremony is a sight to behold and one you can be sure of witnessing, if you pack your bags and head to the Royal Livingstone or Zambezi Sun at the right time of year.