Southeastern Nigeria, 1989. A photograph captures an Ibibio priestess and her maidens drifting down a river in a canoe during a ceremony in veneration of a local water deity. The deity is only one of several West African water spirits that are generically referred to as ‘Mami Wata’, throughout the region. As a striking feature of West African religions, water deities tend to be popular in coastal and riverine communities, and in areas where large bodies of water are present and contribute to a people’s livelihood and survival.
Oftentimes, in exchange for irrigating farmlands and crops and abating disastrous floodwaters, water deities place restrictions and demands upon those who serve them. In some cases, the body of water belonging to the deity is made sacrosanct and cannot be fished, bathed in, or navigated, and permission must be sought from the spirit before its use. An example of such can be found in an event that occurred in the mid 80s in a community along the Njaba river in southern Igboland. “It all began when the German engineer was building the bridge,” began an elderly priest in the documentary “Mammy Water: In Search of Water Spirits in Nigeria”, as he was being interviewed by colleagues of the American author and filmmaker, Sabine Jell-Bahlsen. “The river god, Njaba, objected. The workers understood and all ran away. The python which lived there was pushing them out. When they started construction, the bridge always collapsed. The white man went inside the water, but Njaba didn’t allow him to proceed. Njaba said she does not know him.
A long time passed before the white man sent his boys to me. I invited the elders in the town; they are highly recognized people. They all came to the bridge. The white man asked, 'who is the custodian of the water?' The people pointed at me. We stayed and discussed with the white man. He gave us two thousand naira. We went and bought all the things that Njaba eats: fowl, chicken, ram, and goat. We offered it to the river god.
When I performed the sacrifice, Njaba told me that the white man would complete the bridge after the sacrifice, but that he would die after its completion and that we would throw away all his belongings into the river after his death. After my sacrifice, the white man built the bridge and it stood. Afterwards, the white man returned to his country and died within a year. We carried his load down and threw his belongings into the water.”