Lake Kariba

by Mike Cadman

Lake Kariba

The building of the Kariba Dam and the creation of Lake Kariba

Dominating more than 280 km of Zimbabwe’s northern border with Zambia, this vast lake plays an important role in the country’s economy, is a draw card for tourists and has a fascinating, sometimes tragic, history.

The Kariba Dam, at the time the only dam on the entire 2570 km (1596 miles) long Zambezi River, was finally completed in 1959, creating one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. It is about 280 km (174 miles) long and 40 km (25 miles) wide at its broadest.

(For the purpose of this article, Kariba Lake is the body of water created by the Kariba Dam wall).

The dam wall is 128m high and 617 m (2029 feet) long when measured along the horizontal arch of the wall. It was built in the rugged Kariba Gorge, some 350 km downstream from the Victoria Falls, to supply hydroelectricity for both Zimbabwe and Zambia (then known as Rhodesia and Northern Rhodesia).

Today tourists visit the lake to view wildlife from houseboats, relax, or partake in sport fishing for the voracious tigerfish and other species. The Matusadona National Park and vast safari areas are situated on the lake shores of the lake.

Kariba supports a large commercial kapenta (a small shoaling species of fish) fishing fleet, and many subsistence anglers also utilise the lake. Kapenta are an important source of protein for many people in the region. There are a number of villages, particularly in Zambia, along the shoreline.

The story of Kariba is interwoven with tragedy, drama, a variety of traditional beliefs, and more recently, complex ecological and engineering issues.

The dam wall is situated in the remote, hot Zambezi Valley and new roads had to be created to deliver construction material to the site and a town, Kariba, had to be created to provide housing for staff. Steel and engineering equipment had to be shipped from Europe or elsewhere in Africa and the generator units used in the hydroelectricity scheme had to be transported via Angola and Mozambique because of political issues in Southern Africa at the time.

The dam changed this stretch of the Zambezi Valley forever, not least for 57 000 Tonga people (also known as BaTonga) who lived along the course of the river soon to be flooded and who were forced to relocate to higher ground, in both Zimbabwe and Zambia. Some Tonga people actively resisted relocation, and at least eight people were shot dead by police during protests in Zambia (Northern Rhodesia).

The Tonga elders resented being moved from their ancestral homes to areas that did not suit their subsistence farming lifestyle but were also angry that the dam would flood the gorge which they believed was the home of Nyami Nyami, an important “river spirit ”or “River God”  who controlled the river and life around it. About 22 000 of the people moved lived in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and 35 000 in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia)

Despite the protests, and political disputes between the Rhodesian and Northern Rhodesian governments, construction of the dam began in 1956 but the next year the highest flood ever recorded flood swept down the river, washing away access roads and the foundations of the dam, killing several workers.

A year later, in 1958, contrary to all meteorological forecasts, an even larger flood washed away the newly built coffer dams and an access bridge, taking further lives.

Nyami Nyami – the “river spirit”

The scale of the floods did not surprise the Tonga elders who had predicted that the disaster was inevitable because of the invasion of Nyami Nyami’s home, which they believed to be a large rock in the gorge.

According to Tonga elders the name Kariba was derived from the word “kariva,” – a “trap” –  the area where the river was forced through a narrow gorge.

Nyami Nyami, who is believed to be male, still plays an important role in Tonga culture and walking sticks and other traditional items often bear a representation of a snake with a fish’s head, the image Tonga associate with Nyami Nyami.

Saint Barbara Catholic Church

Further calamity struck in 1959 when a construction platform at the hydroelectricity plant collapsed, killing a further 17 workers. Altogether at least 86 people died in the building of the dam, most of them local people. Eleven Italians, employed by the Italian company building the dam and hydroelectricity plant, also died.

Again, belief and faith came to the fore, and Catholic workers and engineers from the company built a church on a hill overlooking Kariba town to commemorate the dead.

The St Barbara Church, named after the Catholic patron saint of engineers (initially she was believed to be the patron of only military engineers, artillerymen, and similar soldiers, but this was expanded in modern times) has six concrete pillars, each representing the main valves in the dam. The names of all 86 people who died are listed on an inscription in the church.

One of the bells at the church was built from scrap metal by a worker, Edmondo Fermi, and his colleagues after he received news that his daughter, Angela, was ill at home in Italy. Fermi believed that making the bell for the church would win the support of his God in healing her.

Angela survived her illness and she and her husband visited the church in 2007 and was shown around the church and the dam by staff of the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority. (Source:

Operation Noah

As the work on the dam progressed conservationists realised that a large number of wild animals would be trapped by the rising water, and a rescue mission, later known as Operation Noah, led by game ranger Rupert Fothergill, was initiated. A similar, although smaller, operation was established in Northern Rhodesia by Tad Edelman, also a ranger.

No similar wildlife rescue had even been undertaken, and capture techniques had to be developed in the field. Fothergill and his colleagues initially used their bare hands, ropes, and nets, but later tranquilisers, to capture animals.

They used two small boats to get to flooded areas, eventually rescuing more than 6 000 animals, including warthogs, antelope, zebra and other wildlife. Later, vets, using tranquiliser darts, immobilized lions and rhinos and by 1964 at least 44 rhinos had been moved on makeshift rafts made of empty 220-litre fuel drums.

On the Northern Rhodesia shores of the new lake more than 1 000 animals were rescued.

Sadly, many other animals could not be rescued and thousands died as they became trapped as the waters rose.

Mike Cadman

Mike has worked as a journalist for a variety of international and local media organisations as well as environmental NGO’s for the past 38 years and is the author of five books. During his career, he has covered all major news developments in southern Africa and has travelled extensively throughout many parts of the continent. He spends as much time as possible in the bush and has extensive knowledge of broader environmental issues as well as the creatures that live there.