Informant MW’s family has a ministry based in Zambia. This ministry aims to “share the love of Jesus” and accomplishes this by “addressing these areas: hunger, education, job creation, and sustainability.” This ministry has allowed MW to spend several summers in Zambia where she has been able to observe and experience Zambian folklore firsthand.
When speaking with MW, she told me about a popular legend believed by many in Zambia.
Allegedly, there is a great river monster named Nyami Nyami who is “the god of the Zambezi River.” Nyami Nyami is said to “protect Tonga people and give sustenance in difficult times,” however many locals fear it. According to MW, “people fish, swim, wash clothes, and collect water there but only around the edges” in fear that if they were to venture too far out in the river that they could be taken by Nyami Nyami.
This legend is not unique to the smaller communities MW’s ministry serves, rather it is accepted by a large majority of the Zambian population. In fact, the legend has become so well-known that it has expanded into tourism. When talking about Nyami Nyami, MW says, “it is one of the first things you hear about when traveling there.” “As soon as you arrive in Livingston it is on jewelry.” The legend of Nyami Nyami can even be seen on a plaque when travelers/tourists visit the falls.
While I am not at all familiar with the traditions and beliefs of any of the communities in Zambia, after speaking with MW, I am inclined to consider this legend as a reflection of the life that is experienced when living along the Zambezi river, especially in lesser developed areas/communities. Scarcity of resources and unpredictable harsh weather conditions could explain the reason why this legend has become so embedded in Zambian culture. With the river being such a valued resource to the surrounding areas, it might make sense that people would worship a “god” of the river and use it to rationalize unexplainable events/circumstances. I imagine that respect and obedience are desirable qualities in the individuals of the Zambian community as Nyami Nyami seems to serve/reward people when needed as long as they keep their distance and do not go searching for it.
Another version of this legend can be found in the USC folklore archive. See here:
Giles, Matthew, and Matthew Giles. “University of Southern California.” USC Digital Folklore Archives, 30 Apr. 2017, folklore.usc.edu/nyami-nyami/.