By Ngoni Shumba
Ubiquitous to all curio shops in and around Kariba, the Nyaminyami walking stick’s commercial success is the first testimony for its perfection as an artistic expression of the Tonga’s belief’s, culture and lifestyle.
It is a work of genius by sculptor Rainos Tawonameso. He created it in 1986 and registered it with the Patents and Designed Office in Harare.
Being so on point in capturing all the interesting details of the Tonga people who lived along and depended on the Zambezi River for their livelihoods it is hard to believe that it is only a piece of art and not a historical relic.
According to Laiton Kandawire the depiction of the Nyaminyami as a dragon-like creature that the Tongas worshipped is an assault on their religion as they believed in “Leza”, the Creator (Chilenga).
“How the Nyaminyami, a spirit medium, an intercessor, ended up being described as dragon-like is also obscure,” as he contends that no one has ever seen it in its full glamour.
Kandawire believes that the view which was popularised by Anthony M. Williams, Editor of the African Fisherman magazine that its graphic impression was projected into the visual thoughts of local artists through the symbol of the Italian car model – the Alpha-Romeo, which was being driven by Italians who built the Kariba Dam in the 1950s.
This, they contend, even debases the Tonga’s concept of God.
Tawonameso is not even Tonga as he comes from Bikita in distant Masvingo province and the stick is only his expression of his understanding of the Tonga’s faith and customs.
His elaborate traditionally carved walking stick from iron wood depicting the Nyaminyami – Zambezi snake spirit which was believed by locals to be their interceding medium with God, as it is commonly understood visually and its relationship with the valley’s inhabitants is brilliant artistic expression all the same.
Its popularity has transcended the border into neighbouring Zambia.
It is however disheartening that he is not earning much from the sale of the walking stick because of piracy on both sides of the Zambezi.
Each part of the Nyaminyami walking stick represents something…
The Handle: represents “Nyaminyami” who the Tonga people believe is their 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 and is sacred to the Tonga who would perform their rituals under it.
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 during their ceremonial dances.
The Wooden Rings: represents the bangles worn by the Tonga woman as a decoration which remains the culture to date.
The Magical Ball: used by the Tonga fortune tellers in casting lots as well as guarding against evil spirits .
The sign of the Hand: represents the diviner holding the “Magical Ball”.
Women’s Bubble Pipe (incelwa): is normally a long pipe made from a calabash and is used by the Tonga people for smoking tobacco. In the past these pipes where used for smoking “dagga” – Tonga tradition.