What are mermaids?
When most people hear the word ‘mermaid’ they think of a creature that is half human, half
animal. Specifically, they picture a woman whose legs have been replaced by the long tail of a
Centuries ago, mysterious sea serpents and mermaids were believed to be hidden in the world’s
vast oceans. Merfolk (mermaids and merman) are of course the marine version of half-human,
half animal legends that have captured human imagination for ages.
A mermaid is a mythical sea-dwelling creature, often described as having the head and body of a
woman and a fish’s tail below the waist.
From coastal towns in Ireland to the landlocked Karoo desert in South Africa, tales of mermaids
have permeated cultures for thousands of years.
In European legend, mermaids (also known as sirens) and mermen were natural beings with
magical and prophetic abilities similar to fairies.
The English word mermaid is a compound of ‘mere’, old English for sea and ‘maid’, a girl or
In West, South and Central Africa, a range of tales exists about mythical water spirits called
Mami Wata (meaning ‘Mother of the Waters’).
As these spirits or divinities stem from multiple African cultures with ancient roots, there is no
singular characteristic to their identity. Mami Wata’s gender is fluid, meaning she can
sometimes appear as a man or woman. The spirit is worshipped for both their benevolence in
offering beauty, healing and wisdom and as a way of warding off natural disasters.
Other mermaids with African origins range from the umndau named after Ndau in Zimbabwe,
who have sharp teeth and pull people into deep water, to the Karoo mermaid in South Africa,
who is said to live in a rare waterfall in the desert, creating storms and floods if she’s angered.
Folklore in Zimbabwe has it that mermaids not only exist, but they have supernatural powers that
may be imparted to the ordinary human beings. The mythical creatures also do have a bad
reputation, with some believing they are responsible for kidnapping, torture and even murder.
According to Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (ZINATHA), president
George Kandiero, mermaids (njuzu/umndau) is a marine spirit that manifests itself in the form of
a woman that is half human and half fish in structure.
“Traditionally such spirits are known to reside in water bodies and can only be spotted by a few
individuals. From the descriptions provided through oral tradition and testimonials from eye
witnesses to such creatures the spirit presents itself in the form of a beautiful woman from the
head to waist and the rest of the body is in the form of a fish,” said Kandiero.
He also described njuzu as a marine spirit that is just like any other form of spirit known as
midzimu in Shona culture, that has unique characteristics attached to it to set it apart from the
“When we talk of spirit mediums we talk of them being possessed by a spirit (mudzimu) which
could be that of an animal known as mhondoro or of the marines known as njuzu,” he added.
Just as Kandiero put it, other traditionalists have described ‘njuzu’ as a spirit and the physical
appearance of such being made up from an over active imagination.
Mbuya Clarah Dhliwayo (50), a traditionalist from Chipinge, claims she has had personal
experience with the mermaid enchantment at an early age as she describes mermaids ‘njuzu’ as
more of a spirit than anything in physical form.
“Put better, it is mweya wenjuzu (mermaid spirit) as this is more of something one feels
spiritually rather than physically. One possessed with or hailing from a bloodline that has the
‘njuzu’ spirit usually feels such at a tender age and this is when the spirit leads them to the
underwater world for impartation of healing powers,” she said.
Njuzu are spirits similar to family protective spirits known as ‘midzimu’, the difference being
they are not related to us and live on the water lines.
These marine spirits are the ones that give the sanctity of lakes, wells, springs, streams and
cisterns so that they do not run out.
Just like the Mami Wata, njuzu are known and revered for their wisdom and healing powers.
Such powers are believed to be transferred to normal human being who are already possessed by
the njuzu spirit from birth or to those who have a family history of the spirit running in their
According to Mbuya Dhliwayo, such spirits begin to manifest in children before they reach the
age of puberty and are taken away for several years only to return as herbalists.
“As I mentioned before, njuzu is a spirit and this is something one feels in their skin at a young
age. It is at such an age the children experience mysterious occurrences whenever they are near
water bodies. One may just feel a presence with them as they go for a swim or get certain objects
handed to them by an invisible being whilst they are in the water.
The spirit locates its intended individual before one reaches puberty or before they have become
sexually active. They are then taken to a different realm which is believed to be under water,"
Method of operation
Njuzu have been notoriously known for taking their intended 'individuals' for training in healing
through a drowning process.
The drowning incident is usually marked by an unusual occurrence such a whirlwind passing by
the waters or one claiming to be pulled down by an invisible being.
Mbuya Dhliwayo said once an individual has been 'kidnapped' by mermaids the way of life for
the immediate family automatically changes from that moment on.
‘Njuzu’ being spiritual, immediate family members can sense when a ‘kidnapping’ incident has
occurred to a family member regardless of the distance between them.
“WeDziva vanobva vatozviziwa ipapo ipapo kuti pane atorwa nenjuzu (those known to habour
the marine spirit immediately sense it when one has been taken in by the mermaids). They
immediately take action in carrying out the necessary rituals required for the safe passage of the
kidnapped individual as they await his/her return,” said Mbuya Dhliwayo.
Once a person has been captured by mermaids, immediate family is not allowed to mourn their
disappearance or effect a search party for the drowned individual. This has been known to anger
the mermaids and bring bad omen to the family.
“The moment family grieves the disappearance of an individual, usually a child, the mermaids
are angered at their disbelief in mermaid capabilities to bring good fortune, wisdom and healing
to the family and as such, the child is returned dead,” said Mbuya Dhliwayo.
According to Mbuya Dhliwayo once a person has been kidnapped by njuzu, the remaining
immediate family is supposed to change their lifestyle and imitate that of the kidnapped
individual is living under water.
The diet and clothing is expected to change in honour of the training session their beloved one
would be going through until, he or she is returned to the human world.
“They are immediately requested by village elders not to mention circumstances regarding the
disappearance of their loved one. From that very day on, their diet is expected to change in a bid
to imitate the lifestyle the mermaids and their loved ones would be living at that moment. Special
cloths are also used by the family as their form of dressing as a way of recognising the presence
of the marine spirit within the family,” she added.
According to Mbuya Dhliwayo, family is expected to go on a no salt, no oil diet. Instead they are
to use sesame and pumpkin seeds in most of their dishes.
According to a South Africa based online sangoma, Nokulinda Mkhize, she says water spirits are
related to people through commerce and conquest. She described the role of the umndau/njuzu
spirit to take care of the worldly aspects of a person which include money, sex drive and fertility.
Kandiero reiterated that one who is said to be possessed by the njuzu spirit is generally a person
of good charm, luck and prosperity.
“Since njuzu is a ‘mudzimu’ of a person, to which in Shona culture mudzimu is there to protect a
being and their bloodline, one possessed with that of njuzu is associated with good fortune,
positive charm and prosperity. Whatever they touch has an unseen blessing that goes along with
it,” he said.
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