Growing up, scary tales of Mami Wata were told to encourage young children to stay on their best behaviour. As I grew to form my own beliefs and to question all I had been taught about African traditional beliefs and mythology, I realised I knew nothing about the infamous water goddess. I only knew to fear her. Something about this fear felt foreign and borrowed. I began the journey of unpacking messages I received as a child which taught me to fear anything that was associated with African traditionalism, which I had come to interpret and believe as ‘tribalistic’ or ‘barbaric’. In doing this unpacking I learned more than I was initially prepared for and part of this was understanding the pervasive depths and lasting impact of British colonialism, and the empire’s civilisation mission across Africa, in how we relate to African gods and myths today.
Now in my adult years and living in London I am relearning my ancestry, casting an open mind to the traditional structures and systems that were in place before the advent of European influence on the continent. I started to ask what is barbaric and who is the person labelling the practice as barbaric? What position do they hold? What power? And finally, what is the lasting impact of this? So I thought why not start with exploring the complexity of this goddess through young Fatama’s imagination and her family’s understanding of who Mami Wata is.
Who is Mami Wata?
The myth of Mami Wata goes beyond the borders of Sierra Leone where Fatama and Mami Wata’s Secret is set. Mami Wata, as an African deity, is a water goddess and known as the protector of the water kingdom. It was through my quest of unlearning some of the damaging rhetoric around African mythology and spirituality that I began to look into who Mami Wata is, the deity’s legacy and presence in storytelling that travels from its conceptual birthplace in West Africa to the Caribbean, South and North America.
The origins of Mami Wata can be traced back 4,000 years by griots (travelling poets, musicians and storytellers who uphold the tradition of oral literature from West Africa) from the Dogon ethnic group of Mali, originally calling the goddess ‘Amma’. There are many names and variations of spelling Mami Wata (Mammy Wata or Maame Wata) across the African continent and the diaspora. For instance among Swahili speakers in Central and Eastern Africa, the deity is referred to as Mamba Munti, and called Yemanja in Haiti.
There is a legend that Mami Wata resides in the Moa River which starts in the highlands of Guinea and flows southwest along the borders of Guinea-Liberia and Sierra Leone-Guinea.
Mami Wata as a deity is complex, nuanced and rich. There is the general understanding that Mami Wata is a female goddess, though there are traditions where we see male versions of the deity (such as the Ewe ethnic group from Ghana).
As a goddess, Mami Wata symbolises good fortune, bestows beauty and fertility, protects the vulnerable and is an extremely vengeful goddess. The significant responsibility of Mami Wata is as the protector of the water kingdom; water symbolises life, departure and return in the lives of Africans and people of African descent. It is said that while enslaved African people were trafficked across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, for the transatlantic slave trade in the 16th to 19th centuries, they would pray to the goddess for protection and to ease their suffering. It’s a harrowing and heavy image to hold, and demonstrates the importance the goddess has in African storytelling in connecting the continent’s global community and imagination.
The Power of Fatama’s Imagination
Recognising the complex and oftentimes contradictory portrayal of the water goddess, I began to play with the idea of how a young child would try to make sense of something simultaneously abstract and concrete. Fatama’s imagination encourages the young reader to explore the different ideas of who Mami Wata is with her own child-like interpretation. Fatama invites her family along the journey of her imagining, but ultimately these musings are hers alone. And this is important for a child to own her imagination with confidence, that instead of her imagination being ridiculed or dismissed, it is encouraged. Her imagination builds up the portal to meeting the goddess by the end of the book – it is her persisting hope and inquiry which made her wildest dream come true.
Ideas for Using Fatama and Mami Wata’s Secret in the Classroom
When reading Fatama and Mami Wata’s Secret in the classroom, some ideas that could be explored is whether the children have ever imagined something so abstract that they wished it was true? Can they describe this idea? Draw it? Also what do they think Mami Wata looks like? Can they imagine what Mami Wata would look like in the UK? It would be interesting to also explore how children imagine and relate to characters from British myths and legends.
Ultimately the story is about a young girl’s relationship with her imagination, inquiry and hope. Finding ways to include children in the process, to encourage them to follow their curiosity, opens them up to owning the creative parts of who they are.
About the author:
Marcelle Mateki Akita is an author, producer and literature programmer. She produces the Royal African Society‘s Africa Writes festival hosted at the British Library, Bernie Grant Arts Centre‘s Tottenham Literature Festival and Apples & Snakes’s SPINE Festival. Marcelle has written two books for Reading Planet: Fatama and Mami Wata’s Secret and Ama and Kofi’s International Day. Learn more about her work here.
About the book:
Fatama and Mami Wata’s Secret (Galaxy - Turquoise) follows the story of a young girl named Fatama who lives with her family in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She is fascinated by stories about Mami Wata, a water goddess from African legend. When the family go on a trip to the beach, will Fatama get to meet this famous water spirit?
Reading age: Age 6-7/Year 2
Themes and topics covered: African mythology, African culture, mythical figures, imagination, hope
Read the book here and view teaching notes here
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Learn more about Reading Planet here.
TagsEnglish and Literacy
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