IN a story that reads stranger than fiction, Rowai Chihwakwa of Rutavo Village under Chief Negari in Mwenezi District, Masvingo Province, has for more than 40 years lived in a world under water where she was in the realm of mermaids.
Her hair-raising story comes amid revelations that three other young girls from the same chiefdom recently went missing in a similar fashion.
But what makes Rowai’s story stand out is that she may probably be one of the first persons to stay that long in the marine world and come back alive.
She is therefore not attuned to the economic and political goings-on and is disoriented.
Rowai was taken by a mermaid while fishing in Runde River back in 1980 when she was just nine having been born in 1971 at least according to her elder brother, Mr Alfred Chihwakwa in an interview with Sunday News at his homestead last week.
She was released in December 2020 but has been undergoing various initiation rituals and is yet to “come back” and start doing what she is believed to have acquired from the marine world.
“We do not know where exactly she is. She is in the spiritual realm ‘muninga’ and she is giving instructions from there,” said her brother.
She recently instructed the family to make bricks and build her a hut from where she will be either staying or operating from. The family has obliged and the bricks have already been made.
The hut will not have cement floors but will be traditional in all aspects. It will be plastered with cow dung.
“I will not delve much into the many questions that you may want me to answer but I will tell you the little that I know and that I am allowed to say. Besides, if I am to tell you everything, you will write a book,” he said.
He said Rowai was one of his three siblings. She is the last in a family of four and the only girl child born of his parents with him being the first.
“Sometime in 1980, she was nine by that time, she went fishing in Runde River with a brother’s wife and a male relative. When they were done and going home, almost a few metres from the river, the male relative gave Rowai a small bream that he had caught. On handing the fish over to Rowai, it fell to the ground and it caught some sand. Rowai picked the fish, tried to remove the sand using her hands before deciding to run back to the river to clean the fish while the two elders walked slowly, waiting for her,” said Mr Chihwakwa.
He said when she squatted to wash the sand off her fish, she was whisked away by the mermaid and the two elders were alarmed by the sound of the water as the child disappeared into the river.
“They thought she had been attacked by a crocodile but then there was nothing to confirm a crocodile attack. There was no blood and besides, the part of the river where that happened was not deep. It was not known for crocodiles or mermaids and so it remained a mystery. We continued checking for her clothes but we found nothing,” he said.
He said there was no funeral wake at the home because there was no body to be buried and the circumstances under which she had disappeared and the failure to locate her clothes or remains compounded a suspicion that she might not have been a victim of a crocodile attack.
“My parents were devastated, and so was everyone around. We started consulting and we were told different versions. We were even told of relatives having sent a crocodile to attack her and accusations of witchcraft were thrown thick and fast while others pointed out that she was taken by a mermaid and was alive. That at least kept our hopes alive, but then we were worried about her age,” said Mr Chihwakwa.
Days grew into weeks, months and finally years and it became a forgotten tale within the village but definitely not at family level.
The search continued but it had taken a spiritual dimension.
And then began a period of coincidences and misfortunes.
“After some years of losing both livestock and money in the search where we were told truths, half-truths and sometimes outright lies a ray of hope flickered when an aunt met some women at Oreti near Zvishavane in a train and they were talking of a similar incident.
“The women were saying there was a family whose daughter had been taken by a mermaid and after they have done the rituals and went to the pool along Runde River. There were three girls who were released and the family was told to take theirs. They did. But what caught the attention of my aunt is that among the three there was Rowai and she is said to have told the gathered villagers that she is from Mwenezi and to pass the message that she was alive before she and the other girl went back into the water,” said Mr Chihwakwa.
He said the aunt came and told them and their hopes were renewed.
“The incident was followed by a period of unusual quietness that somehow threatened our hope. We did not rest, however. And after some years a young girl came saying she met Rowai along Runde River and instructed her to pass the message that she was alive. That was to be the case (where some messenger in the form of young girls would meet her and deliver the message) albeit after a number of years. We would go to the site where she would have been seen and perform rituals but it was all in vain.
“My father later died and I also lost my two brothers. They all died without seeing her. It somehow energised me to look for her bearing in mind that I was the only one remaining with my mother. I had to sell the little I had, even my house in Chiredzi to raise money to pay those who were assisting. They were charging a lot,” he said.
Mr Chihwakwa said they were now known in the village and beyond for performing rituals under the instruction of spiritual leaders who would have claimed that they could get her out of the water, especially after encounters with young messenger girls.
The rituals, he said, involved an all-night vigil of singing and drumming close to certain pools along the river.
“Nothing came out. We tried several times and at different places but we couldn’t succeed, or maybe her time was not yet nigh,” he said.
He said his daughter fell ill and she phoned him while in hospital in Chiredzi but he was not home.
He told her that he would only come to check on her after getting home from the mission to locate Rowai.
Coincidentally, their conversation was heard by a woman who was admitted to the hospital with his daughter who told her that there was a woman from Zaka who specialised in such issues.
“Contacts were exchanged from where I visited the woman in Zaka who in December 2020 came here with two others and led us to the same place where she had disappeared 40 years ago. They did their rituals and the river spat her out covered in reeds, with some looking like they had grown on her body.
“Surprisingly, she looked more youthful than her age. Time and ageing seemed to have been parked during her stay wherever she was. She looked like someone in her early 20s but she was 49 in 2020 when she came out of the river,” he said.
In all this, he said he learnt a lot of things culturally although he said he was embarrassed that they were accusations thrown around leading to acrimony in the family at the instigation of spiritual healers.
He urged families not to rush into conclusions and confront each other over things that they were not very sure of.
His story got corroboration from Chief Negari and village head Mr Isaac Moyo who all confirmed the incident.
They said the story was enough confirmation that African tradition was still alive and not all gone on the altar of other beliefs.
“Her tale is a part of the life past. It fits very well into the old fireplace stories we grew up hearing from grey-haired village elders as part of the old traditional beliefs that have somehow been overtaken by time and technology and are now believed to be part of a long lost era. If it had happened elsewhere, I was one to dismiss it, but I saw it. I even spoke to her,” said Mr Moyo the village head.
Chief Negari said there were reports that three other young girls were missing and were suspected to have been taken by mermaids.