The Sunday News
ZAMBEZI is not just a river, it is a world within a world. Setting off from its source in the Mwinilunga District of Zambia and snaking its way for the 2 700 kilometre journey to the Indian Ocean, the river is the fourth longest in Africa and the longest eastward flowing river in the continent.
Its trajectory is not easy, but it is not called “The Mighty Zambezi” for nothing. Its robust undulations are powered by a dynamic force of nature (and probably spirit) almost similar to the energetic abdominal muscles of the python as it crushes anything standing on its way to deliver on its noble cause. The Zambezi is not a mere geographical feature, it is alive.
Six African nations lay claim to a portion of the Zambezi River as it effortlessly slithers through their territories.
In fact seven countries (Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Mozambique and Malawi) constitute a region that used to be referred to as Zambesia. The region stretched all the way from Lake Tanganyika to the Limpopo River and was renowned for its rich mineral deposits.
The river supports large expanses of healthy savannah teeming with wildlife including big game species such as elephant, lion, zebra and giraffe on both sides of its banks. In its waters one cannot miss the hippo and relaxing crocodile.
The world’s highest concentration of elephants is around the Kazungula area where Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia and Botswana converge as if to deliberate over a sip of the cool and revitalising Zambezi waters.
Along its winding journey to the ocean, the river is characterised by numerous islands, which are home to an amazing array of flora and fauna species. It is, however, not only wildlife populations that are spurred by the generosity of the great river, but for years it has been a source of livelihood for thriving human communities who interact with the river continuously on different levels from physical to spiritual.
The earliest known of such human communities are the San before various Bantu ethnicities including the Lewa, Lozi and Tonga came along and made the river an integral part of their lives.
The Zambezi is not a river, it’s an ecosystem.
The river gave the people of Zimbabwe and Zambia the invaluable gift of the thundering Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall not only in context of the Zambezi River but in the entire world.
The falls are a great attraction for tourists from far and wide. However, they are not the only falls in the river. The upper Zambezi just before the Victoria Falls is popular for sunset cruises for tourists on boats, while the middle Zambezi just below the falls is renowned for white water rafting for which the river is accorded a Grade 5 rating, which is the highest rating for that sport.
Man’s efforts to tame the giant “snake” culminated in the largest man-made water body in the world, Lake Kariba, and also the Cahora Bassa Dam, both in the middle of Zambezi. A project to construct another dam between Zimbabwe and Zambia is on the cards.
The waters of both the Kariba Dam and Cahora Bassa have been harnessed for power generation.
Zambezi is a major source of various species of tilapia fish (breams) and the Tanganyika sardine, a delicacy officially known on the table as “matemba” in Zimbabwe.
The communities in the vicinity of the river get food in the form of fish from the river, their livestock also drink from the river and get good grazing and browsing from the plant life sustained by the mighty Zambezi.
They also get medicines from the vast diversity of the plants. Kasambavezi, the name given to the river by the Tonga people translates to “the bathing place”. Literally this makes sense since the locals can wash and swim in the river but there is a spiritual side to the name.
For years, locals performed cleansing rituals to rid people of bad omens, exorcise evil spirits and deliver victims of witchcraft. The Devil’s pool at the Victoria Falls was well-known for such rituals, which in the view of the white missionaries were evil hence the name.
To the natives, Zambezi was, and continues to be this larger than life mother suckling, bathing and nursing its babies.
For centuries, peoples of the Zambezi valley viewed the river in awe and reverence.
The river was to them the embodiment of the deity.
They would go to the Zambezi to entreat the ancestors for rain and good harvest.
The changes in the condition of the river such as dryness and floods mirrored the mood and attitude of the ancestors. In fact the thunderous roars of the Mosi-oa-Tunya were regarded as the vocalisations of the gods.
The legend of Nyaminyami, the river-god who manifested in the form of a giant snake with the head of a fish is told and expressed in various art-forms among the local communities.
It is believed that the Nyaminyami would generously feed its people even to the point of giving them his own flesh in times of hunger but angering him would have disastrous effects for everyone.
To those people, Zambezi was certainly not just a river. The name Zambezi itself is translated to mean “the great river” but it is a misconception to think of the Zambezi just in the context of a river, it is a grossly complex phenomenon, the magnitude of which cannot be adequately contained and expressed in the word “river”.
- Phineas Chauke is a Tourism Consultant, Marketer and Guide contactable on email: [email protected] Mobile: 0776058523