“Go to sleep or Mami Wata will come get you”! They’d say. “Whatever”! I would respond still shutting my eyes really tight in bed and praying silently for God not to let her take me away. To me Mami Wata was always this evil spirit who would come and snatch me up if I did something wrong or stayed by the water past dark. At least this was what adults and even other children said to scare me. And I can’t lie, it worked! I was mostly afraid of the mystery surrounding this figure, the fear of the unknown I guess. In the past I was too afraid to find out what Mami Wata actually was. Now I figured it was time to put my fears aside (don’t judge me) and delve into the story of this mysterious supernatural character once and for all. This could result in one of 2 things: either it would alleviate my fears by shedding light into what this thing really is OR I could continue switching off the lights in a hurry before bedtime, sprinting to my bed and curling my feet under the covers leaving nothing for any unwelcome monster to desire…here it goes…
It was interesting to learn that this spirit is not only known in Africa but in other countries in the Caribbean and in South America as well. Just as her name and story changes in each county, so does her image. For some she has straight long hair, and for others it is kinky. Either way, most would agree that she is an African beauty. For some she resembles a mermaid and to others, she simply appears as a beautiful woman. In some instances she may even appear as a man! (Now that is something I did not know!). One article states that: “Mami Wata is described as having long dark hair, very fair skin and compelling eyes. Although she may appear to her devotees (in dreams and visions) as a beautiful mermaid, complete with tail, she is also said to walk the streets of modern African cities in the guise of a gorgeous but elusive woman. Nonetheless, the spirit appears to be related to other water spirits (known in Igbo, a language of southeastern Nigeria, as ndi mmili) who have a much longer history on the continent.”
“Beautiful and seductive, protective yet dangerous, Mami Wata is celebrated throughout much of Africa and the African Atlantic world. Often portrayed as a mermaid, a snake charmer, or a combination of both, she and a “school” of related African water spirits all honor the essential, sacred nature of water” (more here).
An article shares the story of some of the tales pertaining to this spirit. The first tale has it that Mami Wata would abduct people while they were on their boats or having a swim. She’d then take them to her world under the sea or to the spirit world. If she chose to let them return to the real world, they would come back with more wealth, look more attractive and have a better understanding of the world they live in.
Another story told is that when travelers would come by the river, Mami Wata would be staring at herself in the mirror, doing her hair and making herself look pretty. When the traveler noticed her, she would flee and return to the water leaving her possessions behind. Now if the traveler took her belongings she would come to him in a dream and ask for them back. If he agreed, she would make him promise to be faithful to her. If he agreed to that as well, he was granted luck. In the opposite case, ill fortune was brought down upon him.
Another article I found states that: “Mami Wata’s colors are red and white. Those she afflicts with visions and temptations, and who experience her as an obsession or an illness, may wear the red of sickness and dangerous heat. Others who have a more positive orientation towards the spirit may show their blessings by wearing white. Most devotees wear a combination of red and white clothing. Mami Wata is also said to have a number of avatars on earth–mortal women who have the same look as the deity and who act as her “daughters.” Mami Wata may give wealth to her devotees, her “daughters” or to her (male) spouses, but she is never known to give fertility. Some Igbo stories suggest that the fish under the waters are her children, and that she uses them as firewood”.
Followers normally worship this spirit with dancing and music as they go into a trance. Mami Wata then enters their body and speaks to them. It’s interesting to see how in some cultures she is seen as a positive figure and in others like for the Cameroonians, she is blamed for misfortunes such as her causing the strong undertow that kills many swimmers each year along the coast. In Nigeria, for example, she takes the blame for everything from headaches to sterility. In other countries like In Trinidad and Tobago, “Maman Dlo” plays the role of guardian of nature, punishing hunters or woodcutters.
As for her origins, some scholars state that her persona developed between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries, the era of growing trade between Africa and the rest of the world. Her name in pidgin English translates to “Mother Water” . The mermaid image may have come into being after contact with Europeans. The ships of traders and slavers often had carvings of mermaid figures on their prows, for example, and tales of mermaids were popular among sailors of the time.
Today, Mami Wata is a popular subject in not only the arts world, we’ve also heard songs about her, read books and poems about her, and a number of Africanist art historians have written about her as well. Here is one of the songs about Mami Wata that I used to hear around when I was growing up.
So now that I have learned more about this spirit, I can safely say that I WILL be sleeping with the lights on tonight ;). What is Mami Wata like in your culture? Is there anything similar to her?