This article examines the forms of knowledge that existed between Africans and Europeans regarding local indigenous religious beliefs, focusing particularly on the case of Nyaminyami, a water spirit that is part of the belief systems prevalent among some BaTonga people of northwestern Zimbabwe. The article briefly outlines the “traditional” BaTonga beliefs and practices relating to Nyaminyami, which were diametrically opposed to those of the Europeans. It then scrutinizes the ways the beliefs have been exploited and appropriated by different interest groups and races from the 1860s to the 1960s. The BaTonga people, who held strong beliefs in Nyaminyami, and European colonists used the idea of Nyaminyami for different social, political, and environmental agendas prior to, during, and after resettlement. Nyaminyami played changing sociocultural and economic functions for the BaTonga people over time. They revered Nyaminyami as their river god in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; they also appropriated the beliefs by rallying behind the river god for protection from their displacement in 1958 following the construction of the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River. Nyaminyami was also appropriated by European interest groups who used the idea of Nyaminyami to cast Africa as the “dark continent” and to stereotype the BaTonga people as primitive. This article relies on data obtained through a reading of European explorers' texts and by gathering oral traditions among the BaTonga and Shangwe.

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