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19th century German poster similar to the one that gave rise to the modern popular image of Mami Wata.

Mami Wata is venerated in West, Central and Southern Africa, and in the African diaspora in the Caribbean and parts of North and South America. Mami Wata spirits are usually female, but are sometimes male.[1]

Attributes of Mami Wata


Mami Wata possesses an inhuman beauty, unnaturally long hair, and a lighter-than-normal complexion. The appearance of her hair ranges from straight, curly to kinky, and either black or blonde, and combed straight back.[2][3] In many parts of West and Central Africa, "Mami Wata" serves as a slang term for a gorgeous woman.

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.[4][5][6] In other tales, Mami Wata is fully human in appearance (though never human). 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.[2] She may also manifest in a number of other forms, including as a man.[3][7][8][9]

In the Yoruba tradition, the mother goddess Yemaja has been recently associated with Mami Wata in popular culture. Traders in the 20th century carried similar beliefs with them from Senegal to as far as Zambia. As the Mami Wata traditions continues to re-emerge, native water deities were subsumed into it.[10]


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.[2] 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.[3]

Van Stipriaan further reports that other tales describe 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.[2]

Her worship is as diverse as her initiates, priesthood and worshippers,[10] although some parallels may be drawn. Groups of people may gather in her name, but the deity is much more prone to interacting with followers on a one-on-one basis. She thus has many priests and mediums in both Africa, America and in the Caribbean who are specifically born and initiated to them.

In Nigeria, devotees typically wear red and white clothing, as these colors represent that particular Mami's dual nature. Igbo iconography, red represents such qualities as death, destruction, heat, maleness, physicality, and power. In contrast, white symbolises death, but also can symbolize beauty, creation, femaleness, new life, spirituality, translucence, water, and wealth.[3] This regalia may also include a cloth snake wrapped about the waist.[10] 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.[3][10]

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.[2] 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.[10] Modern worshippers usually leave her gifts of manufactured goods, such as Coca-Cola or designer jewelry.[2]

Nevertheless, she largely wants her followers to be healthy and well off.[3] 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.[3]

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.[3]

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.[3]

Other associations

As other deities become absorbed into the figure of Mami Wata, the spirit often takes on characteristics unique to a particular region or culture. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, Maman Dlo plays the role of guardian of nature, punishing overzealous hunters or woodcutters. She is the lover of Papa Bois, a nature deity.

Origins and development

It is believed that all of ancient Africa possessed a multitude of water-spirit traditions before the first contact with Europeans. Most of these were regarded as female, and dual natures of good and evil were not uncommon, reflecting the fact that water is both an important means of providing communication, food, drink, trade, and transportation, but at the same time, it can drown people, flood fields or villages, and provide passage to intruders.[11]

Owing to Mami Wata's light-skinned mermaid-like appearance, Van Stipriaan suggests that she may be based on the West African manatee;[11] in fact, "Mami Wata" is a common name for this animal in the region. Salmons argues that 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.[12] In addition, the spirit's light complexion and straight hair could be based on European features. On the other hand, white is traditionally associated with the spirit world in many cultures of Nigeria. The people of the Cross River area often whiten their skin with talcum or other substances for rituals and for cosmetic reasons, for example.[3]

Van Stipriaan Liberian traders of the Kru ethnic group moved up and down the west coast of Africa from Liberia to Cameroon beginning in the 19th century. They may have spread their own water-spirit beliefs with them and helped to standardise conceptions in West Africa. Their perceived wealth also helped establish the spirit as one of good fortune.[13]

Van Stipriaan this period also introduced West Africa to what would become the definitive image of Mami Wata. Circa 1887, a chromolithograph of a female Samoan snake charmer appeared in Nigeria. According to the British art historian Kenneth C. Murray, the poster was entitled Der Schlangenbändiger ("The Snake Charmer") and was originally created sometime between 1880 and 1887. Dr. Tobias Wendl, director of the Iwalewa-Haus Africa Centre at the University of Bayreuth, was unable to confirm this after extensive searching (as Der Schlangenbändiger is a masculine term, the title seems rather suspect), but he did discover a very similar photograph titled Die samoanische Schlangenbändigerin Maladamatjaute ("the Samoan Snake Charmer (fem.) Maladamatjaute") in the collection of the Wilhelm-Zimmermann Archive in Hamburg.[14][15] Whichever the original image, it was almost certainly a poster of a celebrated late 19th-century snake charmer who performed under the stage name "Nala Damajanti" (apparently a combination of the names of two husband-and-wife characters from the Indian epic the Mahabharata, which appeared in several variations, particularly "Maladamatjaute") at numerous venues, including the Folies Bergère in 1886. Despite various exotic claims of her nationality, she was later identified as one Émilie Poupon of Nantey, France.[16] This image—an enticing woman with long, black hair and a large snake slithering up between her breasts—apparently caught the imaginations of the Africans who saw it; it was the definitive image of the spirit. Before long, Mami Wata posters appeared in over a dozen countries. People began creating Mami Wata art of their own, much of it influenced by the lithograph.[17]

Reemergence in contemporary times

Priestess of Mami Wata in Togo, West Africa in 2005.

According to photographer Van Stipriaan and some western anthropologists, the various West African religions came to resemble one another during the 20th century, especially in urban areas. The homogenisation was largely the result of greater communication and mobility of individuals from town to town and country to country, though links between the spirit's nature and the perils of the urban environment have also been proposed. This led to a new level of standardisation of priests, initiations of new devotees, healing rituals, and temples.[2]

The 20th century also led to Mami Wata's reemergence in much of Central and Southern Africa. In the mid-1950s, traders imported copies of The Snake Charmer from Bombay and England and sold them throughout Africa. West African traders moved her to Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in that same decade. There the spirit became a popular subject of Congolese folk painters, who placed her on the walls of bars, stores, and marketplace stalls. Senegalese traders and Congolese immigrants probably brought her worship to Zambia by the 1970s. Meanwhile, Congolese and Zambian artists spread Mami Wata images throughout public places in Zambia. Further diffusion might have occurred during the Biafran Secessionist War in Nigeria, which began in 1967. Refugees fled to all parts of West and Central Africa, bringing with them their belief in the water spirit.

Modern DRC, Lesotho, South Africa, and Zambia today form the current boundary of the Mami Wata cult, albeit a blurred one. The pan-African water deity is assimilating native water spirits in this region, many of them serpent figures. Some examples are the Congolese-Zambian chitapo or nakamwale, the South African umamlambo, and the Sotho mamolapo or mamogashoa. The most visible evidence of this absorption is that many of these creatures are today viewed as mermaids rather than snakes, their traditional form. These adoptions often lead to confusion when aspects of more than one being become amalgamated under the name "Mami Wata". In Southern Africa, for example, Mami Wata is sometimes said to be able to fly around in the form of a tornado, an adopted aspect from the khanyapa water spirit.

Across the Atlantic

The new environment only served to emphasize the enslaved's connection to water. In Guiana, for example, slaves had to fight back swamp waters on the plantations they worked.[11] She was first mentioned in Dutch Guiana in the 1740s in the journal of an anonymous colonist:

It sometimes happens that one or the other of the black slaves either imagines truthfully, or out of rascality pretends to have seen and heard an apparition or ghost which they call water mama, which ghost would have ordered them not to work on such or such a day, but to spend it as a holy day for offering with the blood of a white hen, to sprinkle this or that at the water-side and more of that monkey-business, adding in such cases that if they do not obey this order, shortly Watermama will make their child or husband etc. die or harm them otherwise.[18]

Slaves worshipped the spirit by dancing and then falling into a trancelike state. In the 1770s, the Dutch rulers outlawed the ritual dances associated with the spirit. The governor, J. Nepveu, wrote that

the Papa, Nago, Arada and other slaves who commonly are brought here under the name Fida [Ouidah] slaves, have introduced certain devilish practices into their dancing, which they have transposed to all other slaves; when a certain rhythm is played . . . they are possessed by their god, which is generally called Watramama.[19]

Native Americans of the colony adopted Watermama from the slaves and merged her with their own water spirits.

By the 19th century, an influx of enslaved Africans from other regions had relegated Watermama to a position in the pantheon of the deities of the Surinamese Winti religion. When Winti was outlawed in the 1970s, her religious practices lost some of their importance in Suriname. Furthermore, a relative lack of freedom compared to their African brethren prevented the homgenisation that occurred with the Mami Wata cult across the Atlantic.[20]

Mami Wata in popular culture

Mami Wata is a popular subject in the art, fiction, poetry, music, and film of the Caribbean and West and Central Africa. Visual artists especially seem drawn to her image, and both wealthier Africans and tourists buy paintings and wooden sculptures of the spirit. She also figures prominently in the folk art of Africa, with her image adorning walls of bars and living rooms, album covers, and other items.[21]

Mami Wata has also proved to be a popular theme in African and Caribbean literature. Authors who have featured her in their fiction include Patrick Chamoiseau, Alex Godard, Rose Marie Guiraud (Cote d'Ivoire), Flora Nwapa, and Véronique Tadjo (Cote d'Ivoire). Mamy-Wata is also the title of a satirical Cameroonian newspaper.

The character Mami Watanabe from the comic book Factionalists is the physical manifestation of the spirit entity Mami Wata. The author utilized a number of features to convey this. Her name Mami Watanabe is a play on Mami Wata. Despite being Japanese her skin is darkened in Japanese ganguro style. She also has a tattoo of a snake on her body and receives a watch and a mirror as gifts in the series, two items generally associated with Mami Wata.

Names of Mami Wata

State/Territory/Region Name used
Benin Mawa-Lisu (sometimes seen as an aspect of Mami Wata)
Brazil Yemanya (or Yemaya; becoming popularly identified with the spirit)
Republic of the Congo Kuitikuiti, Mboze, Makanga, Bunzi, Kambizi
Colombia Mohana, Madre de agua
Cuba Yemanya (or Yemaya; becoming popularly identified with the spirit)
Democratic Republic of the Congo La Sirène, Madame Poisson, Mamba Muntu
Dominica Maman de l'Eau, Maman Dlo
French Guiana Mamadilo
Ghana Maame Water
Grenada Mamadjo
Guadeloupe Maman de l'Eau, Maman Dlo
Guyana Watramama
Haiti La Sirène, Erzulie, Simbi (latter two becoming identified with the spirit)
Jamaica River Mama, River Maiden
Martinique Lamanté, Manman Dlo
Netherlands Antilles Maman de l'Eau, Maman Dlo
Nigeria Owumiri (Igbo: Lady of the waters),[22] Obanamen or Oba n'amen {among the Benin of Edo State, means King/Queen of the waters,}, Yemoja {yoruba version}
Suriname Watermama, Watramama
Trinidad and Tobago Maman de l'Eau, Maman Dglo, Maman Dlo, Mama Glow



  1. Drewal, Henry John (2008). "Introduction: Charting the Voyage". in Drewal, Henry John. Sacred waters : arts for Mami Wata and other divinities in Africa and the diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253351562 , p. 1.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Van Stipriaan 325.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Bastian, Misty L. "Nwaanyi Mara Mma: Mami Wata, the More Than Beautiful Woman". Department of Anthropology, Franklin & Marshall College.
  4. Higgins 1836, p. 105-106,113, 117.
  5. Griaule 1997
  6. Winters 1985 p. 50-64
  7. Keya 1988, p.15.
  8. Asamoa 1986, p. 2-8.
  9. Ajayi 1967, 160-161.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 "Modernity".
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Van Stipriaan 324.
  12. Paraphrased in van Stipriaan 324.
  13. Van Stipriaan 329.
  14. Hamburg 1887, from Paideuma XI, 1965
  15. Tobias Wendl, "Trajektorien einer Ikone, Hans Himmelheber und die Erforschung des Mami Wata-Kults", About Africa, Accessed 19 January 2010.
  16. Edmond Antoine Poinsot, Dictionnaire des Pseudonymes, Slatkine Reprints: Geneva, 1971, p. 486
  17. Van Stipriaan 329-30.
  18. Anonymous. Ontwerp tot een beschryving van Surinaamen, c. 1744. Quoted in van Stipriaan 327.
  19. J. Nepveu (c. 1775). "Annotaties op het boek van J. D. Herlein 'Beschryvinge van de volkplantinge Zuriname'". Quoted in van Stipriaan 327-8. Emphasis in original.
  20. Van Stipriaan 328.
  21. Van Stipriaan 331.
  22. Nwaorgu, Andrew E. (2001). Cultural symbols: the Christian perspective. T' Afrique International Association. p. 95. 
  23. Oluwgbemiga Ogboro-Cole . (2009) Mami Watan - Short Stories in Nigerian Pidgin English. Antena Verlag . Germany


  • Nicholson, Paul and Ian Shaw. British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press, 1995. ISBN 0714109827.
  • van Stipriaan, Alex (2005). "Watramama/Mami Wata: Three centuries of creolization of a water spirit in West Africa, Suriname and Europe". Matatu: Journal for African Culture and Society 27/28, 323-337.
  • Oluwgbemiga Ogboro-Cole,(2009). "Mami Wata - Short Stories in Nigerian Pidgin English" ATHENA Verlag . Germany ISBN 978-3-89896-354-1

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Mami Wata. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.