This graphic novel starts with a dreamy text and image that refers to rumuko; the mythical ritual of the river snake Nyaminyami dying and being reborn again. After this introduction, the story begins with two men, Tongai and Rock, whose adventures on the Zambezi river to hunt for a treasure lead them to the entrance of the ancient hidden kingdom of Rhutapa. To their bewilderment they find a baby girl, and Tongai becomes the foster father of this girl. At the age of eleven, the girl, who is now called Siku, starts having visions of a giant snake and discovers that she has special powers. She can be under water for long periods of time and has command over large animals, for example. Tongai goes to consult the spirit medium Maalila on this, who indicates that Siku must die in order to complete the rumuko ritual. Tongai refuses, stating that he would prefer to kill Nyaminyami instead.

Nyaminyami lives in the Kariba lake where currently a dam is being constructed. Tongai leaves for the dam and together with engineer Dr. Keigwin tries to destroy Nyaminyami. But they fail and Tongai is taken into the water during an enormous storm. Siku wants to go look for him, and meets with Amadeo, the son of a female Italian engineer working at the dam construction. Together they end up in the hands of a group of pirates, led by Rock with whom the story started out with. After a pretty wild escape from the pirates, Siku and Amadeo meet with Shonga villagers who will be forcibly moved from their ancestral lands because of the dam construction. Through the advice of their chief, Siku meets Maalila and she is informed that she is the daughter of Nyaminyami. She refuses to act on this: she just wants to find her father Tongai.

Only at the end of the narrative does Siku see the larger responsibility she has to take. At this point, Dr. Keigwin uses the magical power of the woman Mulozi in his attempt to finally kill Nyaminyami. All starts falling apart and everybody tries to flee from the enormous floods caused by this attempt to destroy Nyaminyami. But Siku and Amadeo make it to the entrance of Rhutapa, and while Rock and Amadeo keep the entrance open, Siku fulfils her task. The water finally calms down and all are rescued as the rumuko has been carried out. Her foster father Tongai – who returned from the waters alive – thinks that Siku has paid for Nyaminyami’s continued existence with her own death, but Siku returns from the water through the call of Italian songs and the watch of Amadeo’s father, now a strong and resourceful young woman.

This graphic novel has a lot to offer. The style is aesthetically well-developed in warm and bright colours in the images as well as dreamy language use. There is much beauty and variation in the images, a good example being that Siku’s visions are rendered in rounded panels with stunning under-water landscapes. At the same time, the characters are offered space for more down-to-earth jocular interaction (Latin-speaking pirates for example!) with expressive facial and bodily features, and graphic depictions of the dramatic events. The same delicate balance holds for the plotline: it is mythical and reflective, but also dynamic and full of action.

Under the surface lie many significant details that add to the layers of the novel. The characters’ names, for example, have been chosen with care. Thus the references to Nyaminyami as the river god, Maalila as a spirit medium, and Keigwin – who sees only potential in the dam construction – are historical, while Siku means ‘day’ in Tsonga; Murogi ‘witch’, and Rock – together with Amadeo – effectively holds up the Kariba rock that forms the entrance to Nyaminyami’s dwelling place. The ritual called rumuko is related to the Tsonga and Shona word for resurrection or morning prayer. Such details render this a rich and compelling narrative that speaks not only to a youthful audience, but can also draw in experienced readers.

On the one hand I greatly appreciated the nuance in the book. There are clear heroes and villains, but no character is entirely faultless or entirely inhuman. Even Dr. Keigwin allows for his adversaries to be rescued at the end of the book: ‘Alright, damnit! We’ll take as many as we can, but hurry!’ Also, the development of Siku as a character is noteworthy. It is already mighty interesting to have two very different young protagonists who form the main motors of the plot. And especially Siku’s growth in the story invites for reflection. She at first feels fear and just wishes to be ‘normal’, while she only considers her immediate environment. Yet in the end she stands tall as an impressive young female hero and has found herself. Obviously I have some reservations here, female heroism often seems to stem from women’s fulfilment of societal expectations in the realm of ‘sacrifice’. This is not restricted to this graphic novel, but can also be found, for example, in the work of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (The River Between, This Time Tomorrow, Petals of Blood, Matigari) where rather some female characters drown in a river or lake in order to fulfil their revolutionary potential.

Furthermore, the nuance can also be seen as ambivalence. Why is Siku teaming up with the son of the Italian engineer? Is this to say that engineers working on a colonial mega-project could also be nice, caring mothers with a ‘pure heart’ (p. 219), and their sons could have similar eyes to the chosen one, Siku? Siku concludes the book as follows (p. 223):

When I was gone, I realized what I was scared of. But now I know that if we are going to keep the past, to keep it from dying, we also have to accept the future. Maalila has a lot to teach me, but he couldn’t accept that.

Chief Chisaba, if we want to stay here, we cannot destroy this dam! But we don’t need to accept everything it brings, either. We need to work together, to find a new way. that is why Maalila must teach me, that is why I will go to school. I am not here to destroy the old ways, but to make them true again.

Help one another! The river’s power flows through everything – through the Shonga and through the dam. Through you. That power will feed us.

At the end of the book the Shonga people still have to move from their ancestral lands and the dam is built. This is historically correct: in the 1950s the Kariba-dam was built on the border of what were then called North- and South-Rhodesia. A large number of people were indeed moved from their land and this is still a politically charged subject in Zimbabwean politics.

In the afterword (p. 225), the authors stress that ‘This is not the story of the Tonga, or the many others whose lives were uprooted and homes destroyed. Nor is it an account of the ongoing trials of those who continue to live on the banks of the river and the dam. Least of all is it a polemic against dams in general. This is a work of fantasy, and it is our intention that it be read not against History (itself contested), but alongside it, as one interprets a dream after waking: not checking its correspondence to one’s life, but how its features, in their relationships with one another, may be seen to have meaning.’

I am also not against ‘dams in general’ and the authors certainly took care to have the historical references right. Again, this is not limited to the broader framework (the Kariba Dam construction, Salisbury, etc.), but also in the details such as Italian engineers being crucial indeed during the construction. But the building of the Kariba Dam led to the loss of more than 80 workers’ lives, some of their bodies still plastered into the dam walls. It meant the forced removals of over 55,000 Tonga people, with colonial police killing at least 8 people who tried to resist. The construction meant the loss of thousands of animal lives, some 7,000 of whom were rescued during Operation Noah. It meant ‘unprecedented destruction’ (Hughes 2007: 823). Of course, this is not to say that this should have been mentioned in the book. But to then state that in the end the river’s power ‘will feed us’ as Siku does (p. 223), seems sour, and to refer to the possible meaning of the ‘features of fantasy’, as the authors do (p. 225), too limited in terms of authorial intention.

Just a final note: at first I could not read the book. People with good eyesight can skip this remark, but when enlarging the pages of this graphic novel in its E-book format, the letter font remained the same size, rendering the book illegible to me. It is only a technical issue, the intended audience of this work has much younger eyes than me, and the publishing house immediately sent me a pdf-version of the book that I could read, so no problem, but I still feel it is worth mentioning.

So this is an attractive book, and it invites to reflect on power, responsibility, ecology, disaster, internal conflict, etc., but the historical references in combination with the books conclusions tend to euphemise a past of colonial violence.

Daniel and James Clarke, Kariba (El Paso: Catalyst Press 2023)

Hughes, David McDermott, (2006) ‘Whites and Water: How Euro-Africans Made Nature at Kariba Dam’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 32:4, 823-838


Inge Brinkman, Professor African Studies,Ghent University (

This review was published in Africa Book Link’s newsletter, Spring 2024