The sun is just beginning to set as you poll your mokoro along the panhandle of the Okavango. It’s been a successful but long day of fishing, and tonight there’ll be tilapia for dinner, enough for the whole family! Suddenly, your mokoro [traditional dugout] won’t move. Nomatter how hard you pull, it remains stuck. You notice dust and ripples spreading over the water and then you realise – with horror – that there is a Dikongoro under you; a huge snake-like monster. Although you’ve never seen it before, you’ve heard about it plenty of times. Your mokoro begins to spin and then the front of it starts to rise up out of the water for the Dikongoro to swallow. Fortunately – and just in time – you remember what to do. Scrambling for your wrist your heart sinks as you realise that you are not wearing a watch today. So you take out your fishing knife and cut through some skin on your wrist, holding your arm out so that blood drips into the water. Dikongoro lowers your mokoro again, what a relief! As he releases you there is no need to paddle as he pushes you with an almightily lurch across the water and up the bank…
This scenario was described to me by Moronga Caray, a guide at Ngepi Camp in the Caprivi region of Namibia (Okavango panhandle). Caray is an animated story-teller and I was in awe of his tales while staying at Ngepi, particularly the ones about Dikongoro. Most of his stories were told to him by his ‘grandmomma’.
Caray belongs to the Hambukushu tribe. “We are a people originating from the centre of Africa, Angola, centuries ago.” he tells me. One person of the tribe is called Mbukushu and the language they speak is called Simbukushi. The Hambukushu are one of three main Bantu-speaking tribes living in the Okavango area (the others being the Bayei and Dceriku). Their lives are centred around agriculture, fishing, hunting, pastoralism and collecting wild plants for food and medicine.
Of course, mythical creatures like the Dikongoro are not unique to the Okavango and Hambukushu tribe. The history of mankind is full of fabled creatures; North America’s Bigfoot, Scotland’s Lock-ness monster, Nepal’s Yeti and South Africa’s tokoloshe are just a few. While very few people know about Dikongoro, the famous Zambezi River god, Nyaminyami is quite famous.
Perhaps the reason Dikongoro has remained the knowledge of few is partly because it’s not very commonly talked about. The Hambukushu believe that just talking about it can bring on death or harm to a family member.
The Caprivi area is also pretty remote. Compared to many tribes in South Africa, the Hambukushu lived with very little outside European influence until about 1950, when South African officials arrived to recruit strong Hambukushu men to work in their mines. Previously it was only the German missionaries (the first missionaries arrived in the Kavango in 1909 during the German colonial era) who the Hambukushu came into contact with. According to The Hambukushu Rainmakers of the Okavango by Thomas J Larson, most of the missionaries’ Christian “converts” quickly fell back into their traditional ways. The Hambukushu are very spiritual people. They worship their God, Nyambi, and believe that he created the first people of their tribe and let them down from a rope from Heaven to the Tsodilo Hills. They back-up their story by saying that you can see the first footsteps of these men and animals on the rocks. They are also especially known for their “rainmaking” practices, seasonal rains being incredibly important to their life in the Okavango.
When Hambukushu men returned from the mines in South Africa, they brought back European clothes, ploughs for farming and many other new tools.
Although the Hambukushu continue to live in their traditional way – fishing, herding cattle and planting maize, many of their cultural practices and oral traditions have been eroded over the years. It was such a privelage to meet a man like Caray, who was so eager to share his traditional stories and beliefs. The Dikongoro is something that many Hambukushu people still seem to believe in strongly.
So, what exactly is Dikongoro?
According to Caray, the Dikongoro is a “big snake that has been staying for a long time in the Kavango* (Okavango) River and has killed a lot of people.” Dikongoro doesn’t only live in the water but also digs holes through the river bank and up into the bush. “If our chief is dead, we can’t bury him in the bush otherwise Dikongoro will come for the body and kill all the family. We need to bury him along the river bed.”
In Hambukushu Rainmakers of the Okavango, Thomas J. Larson explains how Dikongoro was once a Chief called Chief Sinyungu:
“When the people came to the Chief’s grave, they brought old Ndumba, his Rain Queen, to comfort him. Ndumba cried for her dead husband. Then the spirit of the old chief escaped from his body. It went into the Okavango River and changed into a huge monster called a Dikongoro”.
Manfred O. Hinz carried out a study on “ethno-philosophical foundation of customary water law in the Kavango region” in 2013. As part of his study he interviewed 78 Hambukushu people (mainly elders) about their belief in Dikongoro. The interviews were translated from Simbakushu to English. Here are some interesting extracts:
“Dikongoro looks exactly like a python, the only difference is that he has horns.”
“If you are stopped with your canoe by Dikongoro, the only way you can be released is by paying with your blood or something of silver or gold must be dropped down into the water. Then you will be free to go.”
“The place where Dikongoro lives is mostly covered in foam, the water is always deep and dark and does not flow.”
“I have not seen it, but according to my father who has seen it, it changes its colour as it grows. It has a different colour when it is still young and it changes the colour when it grows older.”
“Dikongoro attacked me and my friends once. Our canoe was held on the water. We tried to ride the canoe away but it was too hard! … we realised that we were held by Dikongoro. We started talking to it as we were directed by our elders. We said: ‘Fumu’ (chief), what have we done to you? We did nothing to hurt you, we are just passing by, may you please release us to go? It released us, pushing the canoe very fast to the edge of the river. My friends fell out of the canoe and I was left alone in it. Dikongoro took me back to the deep water fast … and drew me, the canoe and all our belongings, into the water. I lost my mind and … I felt the very bad smell … . I was walking in the water, but managed to breath. It took me almost six hours before I was released. I strongly believe that Dikongoro is still around in the place where it attacked me. When I reached the edge of the river, I understood that I had been swallowed. My clothes were missing and I was left with my pants only. Many people were standing at the river, wondering what had happened to me. They thought I was dead and they were surprised to see me alive after these long hours in the water. This happened in 1977.”
Is Dikongoro all bad?
“Whenever we go to the river, streams or places expected to be owned by Dikongoro, we go with respect, we humble ourselves and get water in respectful manner.”
“Dikongoro saves water and natural resources and protects them, it provides for the growing of grass by holding water available.”
“Early in the morning, you will see people going down to the river to pick up fish that was vomited by Dikongoro. When the people get to the river, they catch live and fresh fish everywhere in the water around the place.”
(according to Caray as well as Manfred O Hinz’s interviews), Dikongoro has an even more terrifying cousin called Mbava.
“Mbava is a big bird. It looks like a comorant but it’s wings span from one side of the river to the other side. If you meet Mbava it’s dangerous. You will see that the river is red and when you reach home you find one of your family is dead.”
The Importance of Dikongoro:
In many of the articles I read about the psychology of mythical creatures, the authors believed that they were (conscious or subconscious) representations of daily struggles faced by groups of people. For the Hambukushu, hippos (that turn over a lot of mokoros!) and crocodiles (that eat bathers and fishermen) are both water-based creatures and present daily challenges. On the other hand, perhaps there is a new (very secretive) species we are yet to discover?
I’m no psychologist or anthropologist, but I do find these two quotes (By Credo Mutwa) meaningful…
“Every single belief that the African holds can be traced back to some scientific fact, understood or misunderstood. The African is more sceptical and less gullible than most people think; he has not the refined imagination of the ancient Greeks who could create out of thin air all those satyrs and centaurs.” (Credo Mutwa, Indaba my Children)
“A man who lives with his soul and who lets his soul, rather than his brain, guide him, is better equipped to face the mysterious and supernatural things, because the soul understands these things while they bewilder the brain. The brain drags them into the quicksands of materialism.” (Credo Mutwa, Indaba my Children)
About the Photos:
The photos used in this blog post were all taken by Dr Maria Finch and used with permission from Mark Adcock of Ngepi camp to whom they were entrusted. In 1967 Dr Finch began working as a doctor at the German mission station in the Kavango area, and later on as researcher for the South African government who wanted to understand traditional laws and cultures of the Hambukushu people.
*The name of the river changes from region to region: in Angola, it is called Cubango, in Bostwana Okavango in Namibia Okavango and Kavango