By Namwanja Margaret Chikwabi
Nyami Nyami: the Zambezi River god (2021) is the fourth novel by Preston Mwiinga. It is a story about the unfolding of events before, during and after the construction of Lake Kariba in Siavonga in the 1950s.
This is the second largest man-made lake in the world. According to Tonga and Lozi mythology, Nyami Nyami the river god, who had the torso and fangs of a snake with the face of a fish, was the protector of these two tribes which lived in the area that was cleared out for the construction of the lake.
He was also the provider for these two tribes in seasons of drought. Legend has it that Nyami Nyami allowed the chief priests of the villages to cut out pieces of his flesh in order to feed the communities until the season of plenty came around again. Hence, the name nyami nyami in Tonga is also nyama nyama, meaning meat.
The novel starts out with Nyami Nyami and his beloved goddess wife, the mermaid-shaped Kitapo, going around the Gwembe and Zambezi valleys seeing to their people’s food and security needs, as they often did. Soon, this peaceful co-existence with the people is disturbed by the white man’s arrival.
Villages were burnt, the physically strong were carried off in boats to be made slaves and plans were underway to dam the Zambezi River in Siavonga. Nyami Nyami rescued as many people as he could with the help of the crocodiles and hippos in the river.
He was separated from Kitapo as she went to the northern banks of the river to check on the people. The story recounts the many attempts by Nyami Nyami to be re-united with his beloved wife even as she searched for him. That story continues to this day.
Nyami Nyami: the Zambezi River god brings out three compelling themes. The first theme is love. The novel reveals that love compels us to do extra-ordinary things when our backs are against the wall. The love story between Nyami Nyami and Kitapo is well-told by the author. Secondly, the novel is about ‘ubuntu’ in that everyone’s needs can be adequately met if we work together. What also comes out is good leadership in that ubuntu context.
The chief priests of the Tonga and Lozi communities were responsible for co-ordinating the sacrifices made to Nyami Nyami to ensure good rainfall and plentiful harvests. They worked with the village headmen to make sure that this culture continued and tradition was passed on from generation to generation, and that the common villager was informed about all this.
The third theme that sticks out is when the author Preston Mwiinga goes into detail about the white man’s arrival in the Gwembe and Zambezi valleys and the effects of that. There is an insidious disregard for the people found there. 57, 000 people were displaced when the Kariba Dam was constructed with no restitution given to them. They were relocated to rocky and infertile land, and to this day, they long for Nyami Nyami to reappear someday so they can go back to the river banks and their homes.
There is also a dismissive stance by the white men with regards to the myth of Nyami Nyami and the religion of the people. That stance continues to this day because in the novel, the author attaches an actual newspaper article from 2019 about the attitude of Zambia’s Minister of Religious Affairs and National Guidance towards Nyami Nyami and the National Day of Prayer public holiday.
This novel would have read better with careful editing because there are a few places where the sentence structure did not make sense. Additionally, punctuation and grammar, especially when the characters were speaking, needed proofing. Where historical photographs and illustrations are used, it would have been good to include the sources.
Irrespective of the above, Preston Mwiinga is an admirable storyteller. In Nyami Nyami: the Zambezi River god, he weaved mythology, imagination and facts together to create a story that is worth the read. It is evident from this novel that he has something to say about our reluctance as Zambians (and Africans) to accept our cultural mythologies as readily as we accept Greek and Roman ones. After reading this novel, I’d like to read Preston Mwiinga’s other works, too.
Preston Mwiinga is currently nominated in the Mulher Forte African Literature Awards for his 2019 novel The Mailoni Brothers for Best Novelist and Book Club of the Year.
Full disclosure: Preston Mwiinga and I worked together on PAIN: Anthology of Poems, Inspiration and Motivation (2020). The project was his brainchild with author Pelekelo Mwiya. I contributed a poem to the anthology. PAIN: Anthology of Poems, Inspiration and Motivation is now part of the catalogue of books in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
[A1]In what dialect?