Some strange things have been happening lately in various parts of Zimbabwe.
Last month a man was hounded from a Bulawayo neighborhood over claims he possessed goblins that were raping his wife and his neighbors’ wives, and otherwise wreaking havoc in the suburban community.
This week Water Resources Minister Sam Sipepa Nkomo told a senate committee that mermaids have been hounding government workers off dam sites in Mutare, Manicaland, and Gokwe, Midlands.
The minister’s stunning revelations add to the many sensational stories that Zimbabweans have over the years passed on about supernatural manifestations in their communities.
Though many are skeptical, some do firmly believe that mermaids exist in Zimbabwe.
Nkomo told a senate oversight committee that traditional chiefs are going to perform rituals to exorcise mermaids believed to inhabit reservoirs in Gokwe and Mutare where workers are afraid to tread.
Mermaids are supposedly mythological water creatures with a female body and the tail of a fish. Those tales were mostly in circulation hundreds of years ago – but stories continue to make their rounds in Zimbabwe.
One version says mermaids carry humans underwater and if there is a public outcry their relatives might never see them again. But it is also said that victims can return as spirit mediums if their disappearance is not mourned.
Such creatures are said to be terrifying workers at the Gokwe dam in Midlands and the Osborne dam in Manicaland.
Nkomo said all the workers he sent to work on the dam sites to install water pumps had dumped the project vowing not to return to the areas because of the mythical water creatures.
Local Government, Rural and Urban Development Minister Ignatius Chombo, who also appeared before the senate committee, backed the call for traditional rites to be performed at the dams to allay workers’ fears.
Nkomo said the government is prepared to give the population the water it needs, but is unable to do so until the rituals are performed and necessary repairs can be carried out.
He said he tried to hire white personnel to do the work at Osborne dam, supposedly because they had not been exposed to the mermaids reports, but they too refused to undertake the project alleging they had seen suspicious creatures.
According to the minister, workers report that people have disappeared mysteriously while some have been chased away by the legendary creatures.
Traditional leader chief Edison Chihota of Mashonaland East said there is no dispute about the existence of mermaids.
“As a custodian of the traditional I have no doubt," chief Chihota said. "For anyone to dispute this is also disputing him or herself.”
Cultural activist Prince Peter Zwide Khumalo, a descendant of King Lobengula, said mermaids play a central role in spiritual beliefs and they are thought to mainly inhabit the largest dams, such as Lake Kariba.
“They are said to exist in water particularly in big dams like Kariba. I haven’t heard of mermaids in small dams.”
But Khumalo said it is important to weigh reality against what people believe because development can be delayed wielding traditional beliefs that cannot easily be disproved.
“I do not believe that they need to be used to hinder development. This needs to be looked into very seriously by the minister because they might go and do cultural rituals but find that people still do not continue to work,” Khumalo added.
Minister Nkomo, a Seventh Day Adventist Christian, said that while he does not believe in mermaids in this part of the world, he would not meddle in the traditional beliefs of others, including witchcraft.
Witchcraft is a controversial subject in Zimbabwe: Some see it as a source of trouble, others believe it can bring good fortune.
It is so widespread that it is recognized by the law – for instance the Bulawayo goblin man sought police assistance after he admitted that the goblins he bought from a n’anga to bring him riches were allegedly raping his wife and those of neighbors.
Cultural experts and traditionalists note economic basis of some beliefs - poverty turns many to turn to witchcraft to gain riches or to hurt enemies.
Chief Chihota said he believes political opponents were killed and thrown into the reservoirs said to be inhabited by mermaids, hence the need to appease the spirits.
The traditional leader said: “I think let’s go back to the late 70s when the struggle was being waged and I understand a number of people were thrown in those dams and nothing was done and a continuation has been happening. So we have to start from somewhere.”
But Nkomo offered another theory: He suggested that unusual water pressures in the reservoirs could be creating hazardous currents and perhaps illusions.
“In Mutare what I think is happening is that there must be a sanction underneath there which creates a hole and the water will actually be swirling violently that if you fell in you will not come out, even if you had an oxygen mask.”
Nonetheless, the minister said this is no laughing matter so traditional rites will be performed to comfort some powerful African beliefs.