A Natural Wonder
The Zambezi River
The Victoria Falls
Ecology of the Victoria Falls
Formation of the Victoria Falls
People of the Victoria Falls
Enter the Ndebele
Discovery of the Victoria Falls
In Livingstone's Footsteps
Development of the Rhodesias
Development of the Railway
Development of Tourism
Development of Victoria Falls Town
Recent History
Further Information
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People of the Victoria Falls

Tonga Traditions

The first Bantu inhabitants of the region were the ancestors of the Tonga people, and evidence of their traditions succeeds those of the Kalamo Culture. Their descendents still live along the banks of the Zambezi above and below the Victoria Falls and form the largest tribal group occupying the immediate region.

It is believed their ancestors migrated from the equatorial forests of the Congo Basin to the north, probably reaching the Zambezi Valley via Lake Tanganyika and Lake Nyasa sometime around the fifteenth or sixteenth century.

Because of their common language and culture they are grouped together with a similar large tribal group, the Ila, living in the region of the Kafue Flats (Zambia), and together they are known as the Tonga-Ila speaking peoples. This large group is in turn split into smaller groups, including the Valley and Plateau Tonga, the We of the Middle Zambezi (or Gwembe Valley), and the Toka and Leya people of the immediate Falls region.

The Tonga, Ila and associated Lenje (from the region of Kabwe) are sometimes grouped together as the Bantu Botatwe ('three people').

Unlike many Bantu peoples of southern Africa the Tonga did not have a tradition of powerful chiefdoms, but instead established a more decentralised and less warlike society. Bringing with them herds of small cattle, sheep and goats, and practising a simple form of hoe agriculture, cultivating millet, groundnuts and later maize and imported fruits, they lived in small family-based village groups, and brought with them a simple knowledge of iron forging, with which they tipped hunting and fishing spears.

They were frequent targets for slave hunters and raids from other more aggressive tribes. The Makololo, who migrated from the south in the 1830s, subjugated the Valley Tonga before being pushed further upstream of the Victoria Falls to impose their authority over the region for 40 years, before a rebellion re-installed the Lozi as the overlords of the Tonga. The Tonga people also suffered the attentions of other invaders, particularly the Ndebele under Mzilikazi.

The Valley Tonga

Downstream of the Falls, along the middle Zambezi, the Valley Tonga people (also called the Batonga, Tonka and Batonka) are a Bantu ethnic group established on both sides of the Zambezi.

The traditional homelands of the Tonga people are the Zambezi Valley and the higher country to the north, thus dividing them into two groups, the Valley and Plateau Tonga. The Valley Tonga's traditional territory once spread into Zimbabwe, but largely disappeared when Lake Kariba was formed by the construction of the Kariba Dam.

Archaeological evidence supports their presence for at least 900 years in the Southern province area of Zambia.

Being a settled tribal community seperated from other ethnic groups, they developed an independent identity to their craftsmanship skills and styles. These included wood carving, basket work and pottery marking. The manufacture of wooden beds and pillows, wooden pestles and mortars for grinding grain, baskets for carrying and winnowing grain and pots for many uses, are an integral part of their cultural traditions.

Often living in large settlements, sometimes containing up to a hundred adults and children, their living quarters were of the traditional pole and dagga construction, with strong and securely fashioned doors and the children slept in small houses on stilts, accessible only by ladders which were removed at night.

Hunting was by trap, bow and arrow and spear. As far as is known, iron was available to these people for many centuries, probably from north of the Zambezi river where these skills had long been practiced. The fishing spear, hunting spear and the arrows were all iron tipped. Iron production was technically simple, with all implements being forged and techniques like welding and riveting are absent.

Fishing was carried out by using thin barbed spears in the shallow water from wooden dugout canoes, and nets. Large fish were smoked, sometimes sundried and stored for future use.

To make their wooden canoes a suitable tree growing close to the river would be felled, branches cut off close to the trunk and left for a period to season. When dry, fires were lit on the part to be hollowed out, and when the surface was charred, small adzes were used to remove the burnt part. This process was continued until the desired shape and depth was achieved. The log was then turned over for the shaping of the hull. Then by trial and error, after floating it in the water, final balancing was achieved. Most of these canoes were made to hold only two people, but some were very much larger and were used to ferry passengers to the islands or to see their relatives on either side of the river.

Nyami Nyami

In Tonga culture, the Nyami Nyami, otherwise known as the Zambezi River God or Zambezi Snake Spirit, is one of the most important gods of Tonga people, and one of the most popular modern myths associated with the rapids of the Zambezi. Nyami Nyami is believed to protect the Tonga people and give them sustenance in difficult times.

The River God is usually portrayed as male, and is variously described as having the body of a snake and the head of a fish, a whirlpool or a river dragon. Elaborate traditionally carved walking sticks depict Nyami Nyami and show its story and relationship with the valley's inhabitants.

Nyami Nyami
Nyami Nyami

The Tonga culture was severely disrupted by the creation of the Kariba Dam, which resulted in the displacement of an estimated 60,000 Tonga people from their traditional lands and also the disruption of their cultural beliefs. Tonga people believe the building of the Kariba Dam deeply offended Nyami Nyami, separating him from his wife. The severe flooding and many deaths during the dam's construction were attributed to his wrath. After the Dam was completed the Tonga believe that Nyami Nyami withdrew from the world of men, although the area suffers many minor earthquakes which are attributed to him trying to see his wife, now cut off by the dam wall. When he can't get through he turns around with such fury that the whole earth shakes. Even today the Tonga people who were resettled in Nyaminyami, 15km from Kariba, still do not have electricity - more than fifty years after the construction of the dam which drives a power station.

Next page: The Toka-Leya

Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905

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'To The Victoria Falls' aims to bring you the wonder of the Victoria Falls through a look at its natural and human history.

This website has been developed using information researched from a wide variety of sources, including books, magazines and websites etc too numerous to mention or credit individually, although many key references are identified on our References page. Many of the images contained in this website have been sourced from old photographic postcards and publications and no infringement of copyright is intended. We warmly welcome any donations of photographs or information to this website.

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