Seductive, powerful, rich. This scantily clad, snake embracing, charismatic spirit is the central figure of the fastest growing cult in Africa today.
The myth of a water spirit ordaining grace or destruction according to whim, is a theme common to cultures throughout the world. This was also an entrenched construct in Africa but until colonial times this deity lacked a marketable “image”. The arrival of Europeans changed that, as they brought new visual ideas and forms, influencing the way in which Mami wata was first portrayed.
Representational forms such as the figureheads of ships, biblical depictions of Eve and the serpent, Images of mermaids and particularly a print of an Indian snake charmer gave West Africans the impetus necessary to conjure their version of Mami wata.
In 1900, an Indian print of snake charmer appeared in West Africa displayed in trading stores. It depicted the upper torso of a beautiful light skinned woman, with long wavy hair, wearing large gold earrings and body adornments. She was depicted holding a large python, with the snake tightly coiled about her body. Today, signage or sculpture advertising this cult draws consistently on the original image. The fact that only the upper portion of the snake charmers body was portrayed, gave artists and sculptors creative opportunities for the solution of the lower bits. Sometimes a fishlike tail, scaly legs or a human form with fashionable high heel shoes was added. The naturalistic depiction portrayed today is a departure from traditional stylized sculpture.
Snakes are believed to be harbingers of the water spirit, a reason why this imported image was originally interpreted as the manifestation of Mami wata and commonly accepted in West Africa. However, she was perceived as a foreign deity, relevant in today’s urbanized world, requiring contemporary solutions to pass school examinations and secure university places. Most items related to cult practice are imported or modern. Libations of gin, fanta, expensive perfume and powder, are used to honour Mami wata and in turn she is believed to bring wealth, success, good fortune and abundant children to those worshipping her. Alternately she is capricious and transformative when angered inducing sickness, infertility and disaster.
Mami wata cult practices sprang up all over West Africa and also spread to the South. They are also found in the Caribbean and South America where notions of Mami wata gained a foothold. Like other organizations proffering solace to the masses, and hope of change, water spirit organizations developed shrines, spirit houses, guilds of priests and ceremonial practice for their worship. One may say that Africa has fallen hook, line and sinker for the lure of this watery siren!
Priestesses and acolytes are identified by wearing red and white fabric. They can be seen in the beautiful photographs taken by Phyllis Galembo which are really worth viewing!
Refer to photography of Phyllis Galembo.
An article termed Mami Wata written by Delia Jenkins, that may originate from African Art magazine
Mami wata image courtesy of wikipedia