Misconceptions of the nyaminyami walking stick

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Misconceptions about the Nyaminyami Walking Stick and the BaTonga tribe.
One of the most aesthetically appealing, cherished and enduring artistic items to come out of Kariba in particular, and the Zambezi Valley in general, is the iconic Nyaminyami Walking Stick.
Laiton Mkandawire who has previously lived with the BaTonga sheds a different light on the Nyaminyami walking stick. Laiton states that it is not a Tonga creation but an artistic impression created by a gregarious and extremely talented carver named Rainos Tawonameso who is not a muTonga but hails from Bikita. The walking stick has no relevance or role in Tonga culture, save as an artistic representation of their lifestyle.
Whilst the BaTonga can lay claim to the Nyaminyami as their spirit medium, they have not claimed the Nyaminyami Walking Stick as their own or as part of their tradition. As a spirit medium, the Nyaminyami is revered and no Tonga would carve an image of it. Rainos Tawonameso has been careful enough not to accord his creation any religious or cultural attributes. He calls it a “historical stick”, detailing the Tonga way of life as he perceived it, based on their mythology and way of life. His stick, which he launched in 1986, is registered with the Patent and Designs Office in Harare.
As someone who has previously published work on the Nyaminyami which has been drawn upon by other writers and researchers of having lived among the Tonga and got a good grasp of their culture, Laiton felt duty-bound to correct this misconception of what actually is the Nyaminyami. The Nyaminyami is a BaTonga spirit medium, not a god. Various literature on the Nyaminyami has described it as the Zambezi River god or Zambezi snake spirit. This is a mistaken view which should be corrected forthwith. The BaTonga believe like most African tribes, that their ancestors lived with God and that they would share with God misfortunes of the family left behind. They did not speak directly to God; they spoke through spirit mediums. Nyaminyami was one of the prominent spirit mediums of the BaTonga people who, until the damming of the Zambezi at Kariba, lived along the Zambezi River banks in present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The BaTonga did not pray to the Nyaminyami; they prayed through the Nyaminyami. The Nyaminyami is, therefore, an intercessor, not a god. The BaTonga did, and still do, believe in one omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God, just like most Africans. Another widely held misconception is that the Nyaminyami has the head of a fish and the body of a snake. He believes that this cannot be true as BaTonga folklore is very clear that no one has ever seen the Nyaminyami in his full glory.
The BaTonga believed that Nyaminyami would send Jama Kutendwa as a gift to sustain them in times of hardships and would expose a portion of its body for people to cut meat in times of need. Jama Kutendwa never exposed itself in full, it would then submerge itself and move on to the next recipient village to offer its life-sustaining benevolence.
Each part of the walking stick represents something vital and important within the BaTonga way of life.
The Handle: represents “Nyaminyami” who the BaTonga people believe is their River Spirit Medium (Mudzimu) and that the occasional earth tremor felt in the lake surroundings is caused by this spirit.
The Tree: is a Mopani tree which is found in the Zambezi Valley, the Spirals represent the waves on the Zambezi River, the fish is representative of the staple food of the Tonga people, who prior to the building of Kariba Dam, fished daily on the Zambezi River.
The Figures: represents people on the Zambezi River banks the BaTonga during their ceremonial dances.
The Wooden Rings: represents the bangles worn by the BaTonga women as a decoration during ceremonial dances.
The sign of the Hand: represents the holding of the “Magical Ball” used by the Tonga spirit mediums to guard against evil spirits.
Women’s Bubble Pipe (incelwa): This is normally a long pipe made from a calabash and is used by the BaTonga people for smoking tobacco. In the past these pipes where used for smoking marijuana a Tonga tradition.
Rainos Tawonameso recently returned home to Zimbabwe after some time away in foreign lands and found his way back to Kariba where he has set up his base. With an art gallery and museum in the pipeline, Rainos has very little time left to carve these sticks. Before he left the country Rainos had trained 200 carvers in Kariba alone to carve the walking sticks in his absence. Should you desire a stick from the master carver himself, only twenty-eight special edition issue walking sticks were left as of the end of June 2019.
Kariba currently does not have an art gallery or museum of the stature planned by Rainos. This new addition to Kariba’s tourism repertoire is expected to spice up things for tourists visiting Kariba. Already the Municipality of Kariba recently unveiled prime, lake-facing stands for tourism developments in Kariba making the return of Rainos perfect.
Needless to say, these walking sticks are a sight to behold and extremely beautiful pieces of art.
Credit: The Sunday Mail (Laiton Mkandawire), Wozza Works Designs and Gem Nation News.
Photo credit: Laiton Mkandawire and Gem Nation News

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