Mami Wata (Mammy Water) is a water deity venerated in West, Central, and Southern Africa.
The appearance of her hair ranges from straight, curly to kinky black and combed straight back. Incorrectly, mostly western sources have suggested the name “Mami Wata” is pidgin English for “Mother Water”.
This is impossible as the deities existed in Africa long before colonization on the continent allowed English to infiltrate. The Mami Wata name is Ethiopian and Egyptian in origin and is linked to ancient African culture, spiritual belief systems, and folklore. The Ethiopian words “mama” indicated wisdom or truth while “uat-ur” meant ocean water. Additionally, in some early languages of the Sudan “wata” referred to a woman.
Commonly thought to be a single entity, the term actually refers to a pantheon of African water deities. These African cultures were matriarchical and though “Mami Wata” can refer to males and females, they are most typically thought of as feminine and often take on a female form in art.
Mami Wata is often described as a mermaid-like figure, with a woman’s upper body (often nude) and the hindquarters of a fish or serpent.
In other tales, Mami Wata is fully human in appearance (though never human). The existence and spiritual importance of Mami Wata is deeply rooted in the ancient tradition and mythology of the coastal southeastern Nigerians (Efik, Ibibio and Annang people). Mami Wata often carries expensive baubles such as combs, mirrors, and watches. A large snake (symbol of divination and divinity) frequently accompanies her, wrapping itself around her and laying its head between her breasts.
Other times, she may try to pass as completely human, wandering busy markets or patronising bars. She may also manifest in a number of other forms, including as a man. Traders in the 20th century carried similar beliefs with them from Senegal to as far as Zambia. As the Mami Wata traditions continued to re-emerge, native water deities were subsumed into it.
Traditions on both sides of the Atlantic tell of the spirit abducting her followers or random people whilst they are swimming or boating. She brings them to her paradisiacal realm, which may be underwater, in the spirit world, or both. Should she allow them to leave, the travellers usually return in dry clothing and with a new spiritual understanding reflected in their gaze. These returnees often grow wealthier, more attractive, and more easygoing after the encounter
There are tales as described by river travellers (usually men) chancing upon the spirit. She is inevitably grooming herself, combing her hair, and peering at herself in a mirror. Upon noticing the intruder, she flees into the water and leaves her possessions behind. The traveller then takes the invaluable items. Later, Mami Wata appears to the thief in his dreams to demand the return of her things. Should he agree, she further demands a promise from him to be sexually faithful to her. Agreement grants the person riches; refusal to return the possessions or to be faithful brings the man ill fortune.
Her worship is as diverse as her initiates, priesthood and worshippers, although some parallels may be drawn. Groups of people may gather in her name, but the spirit is much more prone to interacting with followers on a one-on-one basis. She thus has many priests and mediums in Africa, America and in the Caribbean who are specifically born and initiated to her.
In Nigeria, devotees typically wear red and white clothing, as these colors represent that particular Mami’s dual nature. In Igbo iconography, red represents such qualities as death, destruction, heat, being male, physicality, and power. In contrast, white symbolises death, but also can symbolize beauty, creation, being female, new life, spirituality, translucence, water, and wealth.
This regalia may also include a cloth snake wrapped about the waist. The Mami Wata shrines may also be decorated in these colors, and items such as bells, carvings, Christian or Indian prints, dolls, incense, spirits, and remnants of previous sacrifices often adorn such places.
Intense dancing accompanied by musical instruments such as African guitars or harmonicas often forms the core of Mami Wata worship. Followers dance to the point of entering a trance. At this point, Mami Wata possesses the person and speaks to him or her.
Offerings to the spirit are also important, and Mami Wata prefers gifts of delicious food and drink, alcohol, fragrant objects (such as pomade, powder, incense, and soap), and expensive goods like jewelry. Modern worshippers usually leave her gifts of manufactured goods, such as Coca-Cola or designer jewelry.
Nevertheless, she largely wants her followers to be healthy and well off. More broadly, people blame the spirit for all sorts of misfortune. In Cameroon, for example, Mami Wata is ascribed with causing the strong undertow that kills many swimmers each year along the coast.
According to Bastian, Mami Wata’s association with sex and lust is somewhat paradoxically linked to one with fidelity. According to a Nigerian tradition, male followers may encounter the spirit in the guise of a beautiful, sexually promiscuous woman, such as a prostitute. In Nigerian popular stories, Mami Wata may seduce a favoured male devotee and then show herself to him following coitus. She then demands his complete sexual faithfulness and secrecy about the matter. Acceptance means wealth and fortune; rejection spells the ruin of his family, finances, and job.
Healing and Fertility
Another prominent aspect of the Mami Wata deities is their connection to healing. If someone comes down with an incurable, languorous illness, Mami Wata often takes the blame. The illness is evidence that Mami Wata has taken an interest in the afflicted person and that only she can cure him or her. Similarly, several other ailments may be attributed to the water spirit. In Nigeria, for example, she takes the blame for everything from headaches to sterility.
In fact, barren mothers often call upon the spirit to cure their affliction. Many traditions hold that Mami Wata herself is barren, so if she gives a woman a child, that woman inherently becomes more distanced from the spirit’s true nature. The woman will thus be less likely to become wealthy or attractive through her devotion to Mami Wata. Images of women with children often decorate shrines to the spirit.