History behind the great Zambezi River

The Zambezi is the fourth longest river in Africa, after the Nile, Congo, and Niger Rivers. It is the longest east flowing river in Africa.

The name Zambezi comes from the Tonga phrase “Kasambabezi”, which means “only those who know can swim or take bath”. This was mainly because you were supposed to be careful when taking bath on the banks of the river as it is infested with crocodiles. The name is made up of two words, “kasamba” – meaning “those who bath”, and “bezi” – for “should know”.

It flows through six countries on its journey from its source in north-western Zambia to the Indian Ocean, an amazing 2 700 km. It is actually from this river where Zambia was named. It flows through the greater part of Southern Zambia and Northern Zimbabwe. The river had been the major economic hub for trade for centuries with the Tonga and Shona tribes being the major beneficiaries and “owners” of the great river for years. The descriptive Tonga and Shona names that were used to describe the “gigantic river” was “Donga” and “Gova”, hence the name of the tribes “Ba Donga or Ba Tonga” and “ma Gova”. Gova falls under Korekore which is northern Shona/ Karanga. These two tribes co-existed and lived in harmony for centuries with the Tonga having been the first to occupy the valley and welcomed other tribes who were fleeing from tribal wars from central and southern Zimbabwe. It is also important to note that Mutapa kingdom’s headquarter was based along the Zambezi river and stretched from Zambia, Zimbabwe through to Mozambique .

This river evokes mystery and excitement with few rivers in the world remaining as pristine or as little explored.

The source of the mighty Zambezi River lies at about 1 500 m (4 900ft) above sea level in the Mwinilunga District, very close to the border where Zambia, Angola and the Congo meet.

From there it flows through Zambia, Angola, Namibia and Botswana then back along the border of Zambia and Zimbabwefinally discharging into the Indian Ocean at its delta in Mozambique. The area of its catchment basin is 1 390 000 square km which is half that of the Nile.

The Power of the Zambezi River has been harnessed along its journey at two points, the first being Kariba Dam in Zimbabwe and the second Cahora Bassa Dam in Mozambique. Both these dams are sources of hydroelectric power and supply a large portion of power to Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

For years there has also been talk and plans of another Hydroelectric Dam to be built in the Batoka gorge just below Victoria Falls, of major concern is that these plans are very much alive again. The river’s beauty has attracted tourists from all over the world and provides great opportunities for game viewing and various water sports. Hippopotamus, crocodiles, elephants and lions are some examples of wildlife you will find along various parts of the Zambezi River.

The amazing river can be better analyzed in three sections:

Upper Zambezi

From the source the river flows to the south-west out of Zambia and into Angola for about 240 km (150miles). When it re-enters Zambia it is approximately 400m (1300ft) wide in the rainy season and is fast flowing at Cholwezi rapids and the Chavuma Falls.

The river runs south now for a distance of about 800 km (500miles) and in this distance only drops about 180m (590ft). It is very slow flowing for most of this section as it enters an area known as the Barotse Floodplain where the width of the river reaches up to 25 km (16miles) in the rainy season.

The upper part of the Zambezi River is only sparsely populated by pastoralists, farmers and fishermen. During the rain season when the plain is in flood a ceremony known as the Ku-omboka Ceremony take place as the local people move to higher ground to escape the flood waters.

One local folk law is that the Zambezi River has a spirit called Nyami Nyami – this spirit brings them water to grow their crops and fish to eat – and so they call the river “the river of life”. The name is believed to come from “Nyama Nyama” for “meat”. This Tonga River God is believed to have been moving from the Indian Ocean and passed through different locations to Victoria Falls area. Nyami Nyami is believed to be a snake-like creature with the structure of a snake but the flesh was like fish. It is said that whenever Nyami Nyami reached a place inhabited by people along the river, it could stop and emerge, showing only the back part of it and people would rush to cut the meat from its body, they were calling each other “Nyama nyama” has come and that’s how the name Nyami Nyami came about. After people got the meat it would immediately disappear and it was believed it would recover immediately and go to the next village.

The river then turns easterly and forms the border between Zambia and Namibia this is at the Katima Mulilo rapids.

Eventually it meets the Chobe River and briefly forms a border with Botswana, before becoming the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. It is at this point that the four countries; Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe meet. The river then flows about another 80 km down towards Victoria Falls.

This section above the falls is where tour operators run lots of exciting actitivities including kayaking, canoe trips, river cruises and daily floats on both the Zimbabwe and Zambian sides. This is a spectacular section of the river with many islands and channels, crystal clear waters and sandy beaches. It teams with birds and wildlife.

The Zimbabwe side is a national park called the Zambezi National Park whilst on the Zambian side there are many small lodges which blend into the banks of the river, plus about 20kms of the river’s shoreline lies within the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.

The Middle Zambezi

The Victoria Falls are considered the boundary between the upper and middle Zambezi. For the next 500 km the river serves as the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Below the Falls the river continues to flow due east for about 200 km (120miles), cutting through gorges of basalt rock between 200 to 250 metres (660 to 820ft) high. It is in these gorges where the commercial white water rafting now takes place. The Zambezi River is graded as a grade 5 river. This is the highest grade that a river can be graded for white water rafting meaning this is as wet and wild as it gets. The Victoria Falls also serves as a backdrop for many other adventure sports including the famous bunge jump from the Victoria Falls Bridge.

The river drops 250m over the next 200 km before entering Lake Kariba. The Kariba Dam which was completed in 1959 is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. The hydroelectric power generated at the dam provides electricity for much of Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Lake Kariba is 226 km long and in places up to 40 km wide and supports a thriving commercial fishing industry and is a fantastic tourist attraction.

More on the Lower Zambezi  in the next article…

By Misheck Samanyanga

9 Replies to “History behind the great Zambezi River”

  1. This is pleasant Samanyanga. It shows u took your time researching. We are waiting for more on lower Zambezi

  2. I have noticed that most if not all literature concerning the Zambezi river omits to mention anything about the Victoria Falls Hydroelectric Powerstation on the Zambian side any reason why ?

  3. Very much informative and interesting! However, the story concerning NYAMA NYAMA should have come under The Middle Zambezi River if I am not mistaken. Are the Lozi people associated with this spirit too?

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