Mythology of the people of Lake Tanganyika, Zambia

There is something mysterious and magnetic about Lake Tanganyika in Northern Zambia. Little traveled and little known to the outside world, the people still hold old beliefs true. Its a place where Christianity and Witchcraft live hand in hand and the best knowledge is carried over by word of mouth from the village elders.
Its almost like time has stood still.

There are two tribes here, the Tabwa Tribe – around Ndole Bay, Nsumbu and to the south and the predominant Lungu Tribe- East of the Lufubu River and north along the shores of Tanzania.

The Tabwa are more local to the Nsumbu / Kaputa area and their main belief is that of the ‘Fishing God’. The scared site where he resides is in Nsumbu National Park at a place called The Balancing Stones, a pile of stones that can be seen from the shore. Fishing here is seasonal as the fishing village located inside the Nsumbu National Park’s borders and is restricted to operate only 3 months of the year. Fishermen camping here can build only temporary grass huts this is to reduce the impact of human habitation. To reduce the number of people living there women and children are not allowed to stay overnight and must return back to Nsumbu village.

At the beginning of the fishing season, a witch doctor performs a ceremony to the deity, wearing white cloth, he visits the Balancing Stones to sacrifice a white chicken to ensure a bountiful fishing season. Only then is the season open.

The Fishing Season Ceremony at Balancing Stones in Nsumbu National Park

The Lungu have their own distinct northern language and are largely lake dwelling people. The name ‘Lungu’ comes from the name ‘Ilungu’ meaning ‘people of the kiln’, originating from the Congo.

The Lungu believe in ‘The spirit of the lake, Kapembwa’. Its a deity residing on the high escarpments of Kapembwa Village. A shrine exists there where prayers and offerings are made to allow safe passage across Lake Tanganyika. It is said that there are two shrines, the shrine made by men, round with two doors and there is another shrine, made by the Spirit and visible only to those who are pure. It is a shining house, square in shape that reflects all the colors of the rainbow. This is where the spirit Kapembwa lives.

It was also rumored that in ancient times, human virgin sacrifices were thrown from the cliffs to appease the lake god.

An interesting common practice from Lungu and Tabwa is that they observe matrilineal descent of choosing the royal families, meaning that if the chief dies the next chief in line will be chosen from the sister of the previous chief. This ensures the royal bloodline perseveres.

One cant speak of Lake Tanganyika mythology without mentioning Gustave, the giant crocodile that is rumored to have killed as many as 300 people from the banks of the Ruzizi River and the northern shores of Lake Tanganyika. Though the actual number is difficult to verify, he has obtained near-mythical status and is greatly feared by people in the region.

Gastave the Giant Crocodile (

Since Gustave has not been captured, his exact length and weight is unknown, but in 2002 it was stated that he could be “easily more than 5.5 m long, and weigh more than 900 kg. Some estimates have put Gustave at 7.5 m or more in length. He was estimated to be around 100 years old in order to achieve such outstanding size; however, further more careful observation of Gustave revealed a complete set of teeth when he opened his mouth. Since a 100-year-old crocodile “should be nearly toothless” (according to the documentary), he was estimated to be “probably no older than 60, and likely, still growing”. (Wikipedia)

This image went viral with many claiming it to be Gustave.

One last myth that still circulates here is that of the Tanganyika Mermaid. In Lake Tanganyika in the small East African country of Burundi, the Mambu-mutu is very much the classical mermaid, half attractive woman and half large catfish. In her case, however, she does not fancy humans, and her only intention is to drag them under the lake’s surface and suck their blood. (

Its unsure where this myth came from but some think it originated from early white travelers who visited the lake.


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