The concept of Mammywater in Flora Nwapa’s novels.(Special Issue on Flora Nwapa). Vol. 26, Research in African Literatures, 06-01-1995, pp 30(12). Reference Link To Full Essay

Flora Nwapa’s home town Oguta, a market and an administrative center, is located on Oguta Lake in Imo State of Southeastern Nigeria.(1) I have spent much time there since 1978, involved in ethnographic field research focusing on women, African religion, and in particular on the ever present goddess of Oguta Lake, Uhammiri, and her women worshippers.From my conversations with Flora Nwapa, my field research in and around Oguta, and also from reading other Nigerian novels, poems, and texts, I arrived at several conclusions:
1. Mammywater and the local goddess, Ogbuide, or Uhammiri, are identical.
2. The term “Mammywater” transcends gender. It is equally applied to male and female water deities, and also to divine pairs.
3. There are many local water goddesses in Igboland besides Ogbuide or Uhammiri: e.g., the river goddesses Ava and Idemmili.(2)
4. These water goddesses represent a universal theme of the supreme “mother water” goddess in Igbo cosmology. According to Chinwe Achebe, the generic Igbo term for this supreme water goddess is nne mmiri, “mother water,” while her pidgin English name is Mammywater, spelled in a multitude of ways (15).
5. The concept of the “mother water” goddess, Mammywater, is more than of a divinity. She also embodies and manifests important aspects of womanhood in pre-colonial Igbo culture and society. Some of these aspects are still visible today, despite the assaults of missionaries, colonial conquest, and post-colonial impoverishment (Jell-Bahlsen “Female Power”).
In local beliefs, the divine woman is thought to govern fertility. In many parts of Igboland, both men and women pray to her for children. An Ukanna woman explained in pidgin English why women come from afar to Ukanna to pray to the river goddess Ava:
This is Ava, the big water…. Some women, where they find child, they will come to this place, come stay for over three months. They go fetch that water. They drink and bath. Within three months, then comes their picin child…. They will carry cow, bring goat and yams, and give the thing…. If they born picin, they will come and worship the Ava. (Jell-Bahlsen Ava)
In Oguta both men and women pray to the divine pair of water deities, Uhammiri and Urashi. In pidgin English they are known as Mammywater, both individually and as a divine pair. They give children.(3) This is evident from the many statements and oral histories I collected during my field research in and around Oguta. For example, when a man, Aguriaboria, had four daughters, he prayed and made a pledge to Uhammiri. When his wife finally gave birth to a son, they offered Uhammiri a white ram. Aguriaboria told the goddess’s priest at her shrine:
“Greetings to you Obiadinbugha the priest! Well, you see, all these things I have assembled here, because when my wife was pregnant, I came to Uhammiri and offered a chicken, and begged her that she should assist me; I pledged that if my wife delivers a male child that I should come and thank Uhammiri and offer a ram to her….” (Jell-Bahlsen and Jell Divine Earth)
When the father of a newly born baby boy consulted a diviner to determine who reincarnated his son, the diviner told him:
“Ogbuide is a beautiful lake. A woman with mighty hair on her head.(4) She is also very kind…. The riches have already come out. See the Uhammiri lake is bringing you something good. She is giving you two things…. It is a gift to you from Uhammiri. It is double clear: your father has re-incarnated as a son to you.” (Jell-Bahlsen, “Names” 201; emphasis added)
According to Chinwe Achebe, the Igbo “mother water” goddess Nne Mmiri/Mammywater/Idemili/Uhammiri/Ogbuide/Ava controls the entry and exit into and from this world (14-25). She is the goddess of the crossroads (Chinua Achebe “Sacrificial Egg”). Before one is born, he or she must cross a river. There, the individual is confronted by the water goddess (Chinwe Achebe 14-25). She challenges the pact of destiny, akara aka, made between one’s body, ahu, and one’s soul, chi, witnessed by the supreme god Chi-Ukwu. One’s destiny can be changed with the help of the goddess. But if the goddess helps a person to change his or her destiny on earth, e.g., to become wealthy or successful in life, rather than merely a housewife and mother, then that person must be the goddess’s worshipper. If this is not recognized on time, or if the person so assisted by the goddess before birth later refuses her calling, then the goddess can cause madness, misfortune, or premature death, either of the individual or beloved ones (Chinwe Achebe; Jell-Bahlsen and Jell Eze Nwata).(5)
Flora Nwapa’s early novels, Efuru (1966), Idu (1970), Never Again (1975), and also her last book, The Lake Goddess (1995), are all set in Oguta. The goddess of Oguta Lake, what she stands for, and what she means especially to women is a prominent theme in all of Nwapa’ s novels. The goddess’s husband is the river god, Urashi. In Efuru, Idu, Never Again, and The Lake Goddess, we read about Uhamiri(6), or Ogbuide, and Urashi. In 1979, Nwapa published a children’s book, entitled Mammywater. The story revolves around two children, a brother and sister from Oguta, and their encounters with the “woman of the lake” who, in this book, is called “Mammywater,” her local pidgin English name.
Initially, I wondered about the different names, Mammywater and Uhamiri, used by Flora Nwapa in her different books. Moreover, I was deeply irritated by foreign publications contrasting what they assume to be older, local water spirits and deities, on the one hand, and what they see as a “modern” figure and cult called “Mami Wata,” or “Mummy Water,” on the other.(7) When I finally met Flora Nwapa in 1988, the question burning in my mind was: “Is the spirit described in Nwapa’ s children’s book, Mammywater, identical with the goddess Uhamiri, about whom we read in Efuru, Idu, and Never Again? Or are these different spirits and deities?” Flora Nwapa plainly told me that these concepts and deities are one and the same goddess.
Locally, the goddess of Oguta Lake is known as Uhammiri. Another name for Uhammiri is Ogbuide. The goddess has many names and titles. So do the people who worship her (Jell-Bahlsen “Names”).(8) In Oguta, as in other parts of Igboland, names change and are accumulated. People, places, and deities can all have more than one name, title, and identity (Mbabuike). To the outside world, the spirit is Mammywater. Internally, she is Uhammiri, or Ogbuide, the goddess of Oguta Lake. The day dedicated to the goddess is Orie day.(9)
Why did Flora Nwapa use the local name, Uhamiri, in one book and ” Mammywater” in another? Flora Nwapa’s reply was simple. She wanted to sell her book not only in Oguta, but also in Lagos, and even abroad. People there don’t know Uhammiri. But they do know the English name, Mammywater, which is understood in Europe and America as well. The Mammywater myth is known in all of Igboland and all over Nigeria. A true daughter of Oguta, Flora Nwapa also had a keen sense of business. She wanted her books to sell, be read, and known by as many people as possible, including local people, Nigerians, foreigners, men, women, and children alike. Through her books, she wanted all these people to know about the goddess and the great women of her country, their strengths, problems, beliefs, and feelings that unite them with other women the world over.
The lake goddess, Uhamiri, is an important and recurrent theme in Nwapa’s novels, Efuru, Idu, Never Again, and The Lake Goddess, and in her children’s book Mammywater. However, while inspired by local Oguta beliefs and lore, Nwapa also deconstructs the myth of the goddess.(10) In the old days, wealth and children were considered identical. Children were more valued than money. This is expressed in the Igbo name Nwa ka ego, meaning “child is more valuable than money.” In her novels, Nwapa emphazises the notion of the goddess’s power to give money (Efuru 192), but rejects the idea that the goddess gives children (203, 208, 281). Instead of merging wealth and children, Nwapa separates these issues. She even suggests that Mammywater, albeit wealthy and beautiful, takes children away (Mammywater), is herself barren, and therefore unable to give children to humans (Efuru 208, 281). These assumptions starkly contrast local beliefs and ideology, where the water goddess is neither childless, nor forbids or destroys children. Moreover, while the divine pair, Uhammiri and Urashi, is ideally conceived of as balanced and complementary, Nwapa’s lake goddess always quarrels with her husband, and the pair is not on good terms (Efuru 156, Mammywater). The goddess is Nwapa’s source of inspiration. However, Nwapa also re-constructs the myth of the idealized divine woman and voices her own concerns and ideals of womanhood. In many respects, Nwapa’s heroine is an ideal woman, but she also has serious flaws that contradict customary ideals and norms.
The water goddess is as elusive and slippery as the liquid element itself and can assume any shape or “gestalt.” She is kaleidoscopic, sparkling, and colorful like the rainbow.(11) Like the Igbo supreme God, Chi-ukwu, the water goddess is not to be confined to one icon. She is a spirit that may temporarily take on a human form and appear in the form of a local woman or a stranger, old or young. We may catch a glimpse of Uhammiri in Oguta’s market where she is always present. In Mammywater, during his underwater exploration, the little boy, Deke, converses with Mammywater: