Mami Wata

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MAMI WATA (Water as Mother) is a pidgin designation for a class of African water divinities and spirits or, occasionally, for the primordial divinities collectively. Mami Wata is a complex transcultural phenomenon composed of elements from widely disparate places and traditions that coalesced on the continent probably by the end of the nineteenth century. Shrines to Mami Wata are frequently found in coastal, riverine, or lacustrine areas of the continent. The roots of Mami Wata began with the traditional water divinities that were elaborated by the fifteenth century to include European influences, including the mermaid-man that Africans adopted as a new representation of the water divinities. Light skin and non-African features (markers of the spirit realm as well as of ethnicity), sunglasses, powder, and perfume also became familiar in representations of Mami Wata. Africans transplanted by slavery to Surinam in the seventeenth century discovered there a tradition about a riverine water divinity Watra Mamma, who in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was credited with helping slaves secure their liberation. The idea of water as mother was common to many cultures despite the difference in names ascribed to the divinity. These traditions were brought back to Africa in the nineteenth century, probably by Kru sailors, and Watra Mamma was identified in peoples' minds with local water divinities. The conflation of various traditions of water divinities in nineteenth-century West Africa created Mami Wata.

Devotees established shrines for Mami Wata decorated with objects reminiscent of the various traditions. Boats reminiscent of those the slaves on Surinam used to escape captivity became familiar objects at Mami Wata shrines. A nineteenth-century German chromolith of a female snake charmer with rich black hair inspired the additional representation of Mami Wata as a dark-skinned snake charmer dressed in exotic clothing. By the early twentieth century representations of Hindu divinities and cultic practices brought to the continent by traders from India also found a place in Mami Wata representations and praxis. African devotees acknowledge icons of divinity, such as mermaids and snake charmers, as symbolic revelations of the transcendent, and they are open to these new manifestations of the divine. At the same time they recognize that the spirits they represent are traditional. So despite the obvious layering of multiple cultural traditions in Mami Wata representations, she or he is generally not considered a new divinity or spirit by Africans.

Like other African water divinities known for their dispositional fluidity, Mami Wata can favor devotees with riches of all kinds, including spiritual wisdom, healing and divinatory powers, and beauty and wealth. Or she or he can create natural disasters and reverse traditional social expectations. Mami Wata is consulted for a variety of human concerns and is considered to be well suited to dealing with the problems of modernity introduced by colonialism and postcolonialism. Mami Wata's power is considered so great that she or he is petitioned by people from all classes, stations in life, and religious traditions who seek physical, spiritual, social, and economic assistance.

Although Mami Wata evolved from multiple cultural traditions, the divinity's praxis is culture specific. African communities situate Mami Wata in an existing community of divinities in which she or he has a particular place and genealogy. Mami Wata is normally worshipped traditionally, with invocations, sacrifices, and dances as other divinities are honored, but she or he is also honored with specific dance forms, rhythms, and rituals.

The gender system of a culture also affects the conceptualization of Mami Wata. Mami Wata can be represented as either female or male; indeed it would be unusual for an African divinity not to have a counterpart of the opposite gender. The male-gendered representation of Mami Wata is sometimes called Papa Wata. In some communities, the male Mami Wata is said to marry his female devotees and the female Mami Wata to marry her male devotees.

The exercise of priesthood by a Mami Wata priest (who is also a chief) in one patrilineal culture reflects the gendered role designated for males in his society. He has a spousal relationship to a female Mami Wata but one that does not include the experience of female receptivity through possession. He nourishes his community through animal and other sacrifices to Mami Wata and the divinities. In return he receives power from Mami Wata to protect and sustain his community through healing and to provide guidance through divination. In a matrilineal culture with a dual-gender system and a matrilocal or duolocal residence pattern, Mami Wata mermaid representations are gendered not by sexual characteristics but by the traditional symbols of a pot for the female and a fish for the male. A Mami Wata priestess in this community acts as a vessel to receive the divinity through possession, thus producing sustenance for the community. She constructs her election by Mami Wata as a commitment to a matrilineage in which the divinity is her mother and exercises control over her life, rather than as a marriage relationship. Her descriptions of Mami Wata's home under the sea resemble those of the homes of important women in her community. She does not maintain her own shrine for Mami Wata; instead, she goes to the shrines and festivals where she is invited, and in a state of possession, she provides healing remedies and inspired guidance for the community.

Mami Wata scholarship has explored the origins and representations of Mami Wata and its devotional service, and newer studies have focused on Mami Wata's role and function in particular cultures as a member of the community of divinities who protect and guide the community. At the level of praxis, the global interconnections characteristic of Mami Wata's origins continue, as Mami Wata devotional service is spread outside of Africa by both Africans and non-Africans. Mami Wata has a particular appeal for diasporic African people who seek to reclaim their roots and to identify with the power of their ancestral traditions, but non-Africans are also drawn to this powerful Water Mother. It is impossible to predict how Mami Wata traditions, representations, and praxis will change in response to this global reappropriation. But as long as Mami Wata continues to be effica-cious, humans will find Mami Wata a source of solace and guidance.

See Also

African Religions, overview article.


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Kathleen O'Brien Wicker (2005)