Thursday, April 2, 2020

Mami Wata - the water spirit

I’m finding it very difficult to know what day of the week it is. I have been in formal lock down for a week and informal closer to three weeks. Every day is like every other day. There is something mesmerizing about it.

The silver lining – other than avoiding the virus – is that I have time to write. Not that it comes easily with all this time on my hands. No! Time slips by as I sit by myself, mind disengaged. However, I occasionally shake myself out of my lethargy and try to get words on paper.

The current book Michael and I are working on is set in the northwest of Botswana on the banks of the Kavango River just before it spreads out into the magnificent Delta. It never ceases to astonish me to see the verdant paradise that is the Okavango Delta embedded in the Kalahari Desert. You can drive along a road and on one side there will be water and reeds and trees and birds, while on the other side there is nothing but sand and a few scrub plants struggling for survival. The divide is that abrupt.

Since water is crucial to people’s existence in this area, we dug around to see what local beliefs existed concerning water. Are there water gods? Are there ceremonies to ensure water abundance?

Out of this emerged Mami Wata, the water spirit.

I’d never heard of Mami Wata, yet she is widely acknowledged in most of sub-Saharan Africa. Mami Wata is usually female, frequently taking the form of a mermaid, often with a serpent wrapped around her with its head between her breasts. She is often depicted as having a mirror, which symbolically is meant to represent this side and the other side, or the real world and the spiritual world.

Headdress from Sierra Leone 
Not surprisingly, she takes on different names in different places. However, the name Mami Wata or minor variants appear everywhere.

Intrigued, I started reading about her.

As with many beliefs from areas with few written records, there is little consistency. She takes on different forms in different places, and her powers differ from one place to another. She is respected and feared, and has a balance between a dark, divine, mysterious, and angelic existence.

Mami Wata appears in the oral histories of early African societies. The Dogon’s creation myth tells the stories of Mami Wata and traces her existence to more than 4000 years ago. Mesopotamian myths also tell of the great water goddess in their story of creation. There she was known as Mami Aruru - the creator of life.
African cultures believe the etymology of her name is Coptic. In the Ethiopian Coptic language, the word “mama” was used as a description of truth and wisdom and the term “uat-ur” meant ocean water. Another definition of the name traces to the early Sudanese society where the word wata referred to a woman. The name is often linked to a single entity but represents the strongest and most significant of all water spirits that exist.

However Western scholars have a different perspective, probably due to the obvious incongruities. First, the name: it is thought that it is pidgin English for Mama Water. Second, the mermaid shape also smacked of Western influence since many old sailing boats had a mermaid prow.

As far as I can see, all African cultures regard her as the guardian of water, and some cultures don’t fish or swim on certain days to give her a chance to rest.

I wonder if this is a place of worship or just exterior decoration.
She is regarded as providing spiritual and material healing to her worshippers.

For women, she is a giver of fertility and protector of women and children.

However, she has a nasty side too. With a number of variations in story, she seduces men then demands that they remain faithful to her. If they comply, she promises them great wealth and success. If they don’t, death or failure.

Man being seduced.
Worship of Mami Wata is so widespread in West. Africa that a church has emerged to worship her. Wikipedia has the following to say about the Mati Wata priesthood:
In the coastal region from Benin, Ghana and Togo Mami Wata is most prominent deity. An entire hierarchy of the Mami Wata priesthood exist in this region to officiate ceremonies, maintain the shrines, conduct healing rituals, and initiate new priests and priestesses into the service of various Mami Wata deities. 
On February, 15, 2020 at 9:00 AM in the city of Cotonou, Benin, Hounnon Behumbeza, a high priest of Vodou and Mami Wata. was officially appointed the Supreme Chief of Mami Wata. As an indication of how revered Mami Wata is in the region, Hounnon Behumbeza's coronation as Supreme Chief of Mami Wata was broadcast live on various television news programs, and featured in local newspapers. The coronation was attended by hundreds of priests from around the region, and the highest dignitaries of Vodou and the Mami Wata tradition. Also in attendance were Benin Republic's minister of culture and several local government officials.
Hounnon Behumbeza, Supreme Chief of Mami Wata

It has been fascinating reading about Mami Wata. I had no idea beforehand that she even existed, let alone that she had such a widespread following.

Where we are in the book, Kubu is heading off to the banks of the Kavango River to meet Mami Wata. As pantsers, we can't wait to see what happens.

You can listen to renowned South African trumpeter, Hugh Masakela play his Mami Wata song here.

And you can watch a bizarre short video about Mami Wata here.

And you can visit her Facebook page here.


  1. Our water sprites are called kelpies. They drown people!!

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  2. It's interesting that she's depicted with light or redish skin as often as with dark skin, at least in the photos you included.

  3. I noticed that too, EvKa. The headdress from Sierra Leone looks almost Oriental. Mati Wata is also widely known across the Carribean and South America - probably brought across by slaves. Mati Wata also drowns people like Caro's kelpies. Ugh.

  4. Hmm, from your description of her nasty side, Stan, she nay have been the inspiration for Glenn Close’s role in “Fatal Attraction.” Stay safe.