The Inkanyamba – legendary water monster of South Africa

Howick falls

A while ago I was working on a return trip (fourth time!) for some of our regular clients – this specific tour will be in KwaZulu Natal. As I was putting the trip together, I decided to add a visit to Howick Falls on one of their day tours. This got me reading up on a great local Zulu myth – the Inkanyamba of KwaNoggaza (“Place of the Tall One”).

howick falls

The Howick Falls is approximately 95 meters high (310 feet) and lies on the Umgeni River. The Umgeni River and its tributaries follow the course of gorges and steep crags, forming volleys of water that rush into pools until the water reaches the Indian Ocean, 95 kilometers away.    The view from the top, in particular, is pretty inspiring, and the volley of water mesmerising. And you needn’t come for the view alone. There are also a series of interesting walks and trails, some to the bottom of the falls. The official Howick Falls Gorge Walk begins at the bottom of Harvard Street and makes its way to the seat of the falls.


According to local legend the pool at the bottom of Howick Falls is the residence of the Inkanyamba, which is a giant serpent like creature with a finned mane, huge fore-flippers, a horsey head and a fierce temper.  It is said that the Inkanyamba is most active in the summer months, when its anger causes the seasonal storms, but it is hardly ever seen in summer.  This would support the Zulu’s assumption that the creatures are migratory in nature.


Only Sangomas are said to be able to safely approach the falls – and then only to offer prayers and other acts of worship to the Inkanyamba, the ancestral spirits and the Great God.  According to the Xhosa beliefs the Inkanyamba takes to the sky once a year, in the shape of a giant tornado, so that it can find its mate.

Howick Falls

Listening to some of the stories it’s no wonder that the Inkanyamba have inspired awe and terror through both the Zulu and Xhosa communities for centuries.  There are even some cave paintings found in KwaZulu Natal depicting these animals.  Archeologists have referred to them as ‘rain animals’ because of their association with the extreme summer storms experienced here.  Cryptologists think that they might be a type of freshwater eel.  Personally I hope the Inkanyamba is in a good mood when our precious clients visit 😉

Sangomas, the African Shamans

A sangoma is a practitioner of herbal medicine, divination and counselling in traditional Nguni (Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele and Swazi) societies of Southern Africa.  In effect they are the African Shaman.  They perform a holistic and symbolic form of healing, embedded in the beliefs of their culture that ancestors in the afterlife guide and protect the living.  Sangomas are called to heal, and through them ancestors from the spirit world can give instruction and advice to heal illness, social disharmony and spiritual difficulties.

The philosophy is based on a belief in ancestral spirits.  Both men and women can be called by the ancestors, though sangomas are usually female.  A trainee sangoma (called a twaza) trains under another sangoma, usually for a few years, performing humbling service in the community. At times in the training, and for the graduation, a ritual sacrifice of an animal, such as a chicken, goat or cow is made.  The spilling of this blood is meant to seal the bond between the ancestors and the sangoma.

Sangomas function as the social workers and psychologists in their community.  They know the local dynamics and can counsel appropriately with this background knowledge.  The formal health sector has shown continued interest in the role of sangomas and the efficacy of their herbal remedies.  Western-style scientists continue to study the ingredients of traditional medicines in use by sangomas.

Sangomas have many different social and political roles in the community such as divination, healing, directing rituals and narrating the history, cosmology, and myths of their tradition.  They are highly revered and respected in their society, where illness is thought to be caused by witchcraft, pollution (contact with impure objects or occurrences) or by the ancestors themselves, either malevolently, or through neglect if they are not respected, or to show an individual her calling to be a Sangoma.  For harmony between the living and the dead, vital for a trouble-free life, the ancestors must be shown respect through ritual and animal sacrifice.

Sangomas are steeped in ritual.  They work in a sacred healing hut or Ndumba, where their ancestors reside.  They have specific coloured cloths to wear to please each ancestor, and often wear the gallbladder of the goat sacrificed at their graduation ceremony in their hair.  They summon the ancestors by burning a plant called Imphepho, dancing, chanting, and most importantly playing the drums.

The Sangoma possesses a collection of small bones and other small objects like seeds, shells etc., each with a specific significance to human life.  For example a hyena bone signifies a thief and will provide information about stolen objects.  The Sangoma or the patient throws the bones but the ancestors control how they lie, and the Sangoma then interprets this metaphor in relation to the patient’s life.  In the same way, Sangomas will interpret the metaphors present in dreams, either their own or patients’.

Sangomas will give their patients Muti, medications of sand, plant and animal origin imbued with spiritual significance, often with powerful symbolism – lion fat is given to promote courage in the younsters.  There are medicines for just about everything from physical and mental illness, social disharmony and spiritual difficulties to potions for love and luck.  Road Travel arrange tours which include visits to the best Sangoma in town, so get in touch with us to find out more.