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Water, Wealth, Religion: Ritualized Femininity in Oguta



Our story unfolds in Oguta. At the joining of Oguta Lake and the Urashi River, an invisible boundary separates the greenish blue of the former and the murky brown of the latter. As if held by supernatural forces, the two bodies of water meet but do not mix. According to local legend, this rift embodies the deep tension and marital strife between Uhamiri, the lake goddess, and her estranged husband, Okita, the owner of the Urashi. Where one deity proclaims the end of its realm, that of the other begins. Boaters who regularly ferry people and goods across these contentious waters make it a point to offer hails and greetings to each deity upon crossing into their domain; allegiances are exchanged for protection and safe passage. Popular wisdom finds it better to respect both from a distance than to fall victim to their entanglement.


While this mystical power scuffle rages at the town’s outskirts, Oguta itself is undoubtedly Uhamiri’s bastion. The lake goddess, whose name translates to “the shimmer of the waters”, in reference to how the essence of her beauty and majesty are said to be reflected in the twinkling of light on water’s surface, is the chief deity of the town. Described as a woman of immeasurable beauty and generosity, she is responsible for the seasonal tides that nourish crops and ensure bountiful harvests. She gracefully supports local fishermen by maintaining the lake’s supply of fish, but when angered, doles death and famine through floods and pestilence.


She is Life and Death, Poverty and Prosperity, and most importantly of all, a woman.


Uhamiri casts a long shadow over Oguta’s traditional politics. Her dual identities as a woman and power figure resulted in a strong culture of ritualized femininity within pre-colonial Oguta society, driving deep implications for local womenfolk. To this day, she is connected with ideas of prosperity and feminine independence and her veneration as a goddess birthed rituals that celebrated femininity and placed womenfolk in key political offices. The town’s Orie Market was traditionally operated and run exclusively by women; women handled the cash and credit transactions, swept the grounds, and occupied the stalls.


Oguta women have a strong heritage of economic prowess and industry. As recently as up to the early 20th century, adventurous Oguta women made good livings as long-distance traders, paddling canoes down the rapids of the River Niger to trade exotic goods in faraway markets at Onitsha and Aboh. Many cut their teeth in these dangerous expeditions, amassing enough wealth and prestige to build some of the first Western-style storeyed buildings in the town.


Uhamiri, being the source of all wealth, is believed to favor women who display exceptional success in business endeavors. When a woman’s “hands are said to be good” (an Igbo expression [aka di ya nma] meaning “she makes money easily”), she is observed closely by the townspeople. If her prosperity streak continues, it is then said to be as a sign that the goddess is inviting her to become a worshipper. Heeding the vocation, the woman would be inducted into Uhamiri’s inner circle of priestesses and would keep a small pot at her bedside in symbolism of her relationship with Uhamiri. In exchange for honoring Uhamiri’s taboos, which included performing regular sacrifices and practicing abstinence on the goddess’ holy days, priestesses gained a monopoly over the ritual functions that held their community in balance, dwarfing menfolk in power and influence. In their devotion to the lake goddess, priestesses freed themselves from child-rearing responsibilities and the envious, limiting gaze of weak men. Their relationship to Uhamiri was a marriage of its own right, and perhaps the very cause of Okita’s anger.


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