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  • The Symbolic Function of Water in Sub-Saharan Africa:A Cultural Approach
  • Camille Talkeu Tounouga, (anthropologist, sociologist)

While water is a subject of scientific research and the object of conflicts, it is above all an element affecting humanity's imagination. Representations of water are embedded in religion, spirituality, myths, legends and rituals.

Three models for the representation of water are found in Black-African traditions: water as a source of life, as an instrument of purification and as a locus of regeneration.

Throughout Africa since the times of the Pharaohs, water—fascinating water—has played an integral role in the fertility of fields and the fecundity of beings and things. Beyond that, every kind of water—rain, river, spring, pond, lake, sea, water cupped in the hollow of a tree, dew—is invested with a particular significance. The Bantu people consider that the place of birth, of creation, is a great whirlpool of water, or a reed bed, which they situate in the Orient. The Fali people of Cameroon associate water, a natural element, with fish. Among the Bamileke people, in western Cameroon, a father blesses his daughter on her wedding day with water in which fefe leaves have been soaking (fefe is a spinach-like plant that symbolizes sweetness and harmony).

Purification, inexorably linked to initiation, eliminates inner stains, wards off malevolent forces and protects the initiated. Thus, Bambara proselytes, at the end of their initiation, are sprayed with water ejected from the mouth of the chief of the kore, the community of the initiated. Then they are washed twice: once inside the kore by an elder initiate, with water drawn from the village's sacred pond, and a second time at the village's sacred well.

Water, realm of the spirits, plays a special role in the voodoo ceremonies of Benin, Togo and Nigeria; hence the magical qualities attributed to springs, rivers and waterfalls. Hence also the custom of pouring water over altars at the beginning of every ceremony, to summon the underworld spirits. Water can also be the source of temporal and spiritual power for groups of initiates, usually formed into secret societies that use supernatural means to appropriate the magical powers of aquatic genies.

Water is a precious substance, whose scarcity is a true natural catastrophe. Peasant farmers' lives are literally at the mercy of rainfall: if it ceases, comes too late or falls too hard, they perform and repeat the rituals and invocations that have woven the fabric of their rural civilization. Numerous myths explain the origins of these practices. Thus, for the Diolas of West Africa, in the beginning there were two gods: Amontong, god of drought, and Montogari, god of rain.

Camille Talkeu Tounouga, (anthropologist, sociologist)
Association les Sources, 114 rue de Seze, Lyon, 69006, France. E-mail: <>.


Text translated by Odile Brock. [End Page 283]



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