MAMI WATA AND THE BATURI GIRL
(Mother Water and the White Girl)
The first time Mami Wata saw the baturi girl, the girl had come down to the river to pray. Mami Wata, water spirit of the west and central African tributaries, knew what prayer sounded like. Bring me wealth. Bring me beauty. Bring me prestige. Bring me the answer to my lust. Now she heard the white girl sing, “I am grateful for the night breeze and the harvest. I am grateful that my mother wakes only once during the night in her aging days. I am grateful for the dim of evening. And so I send my spirit out to the wilderness to spread warmth to all lonely places.”
This is no prayer, thought Mami Wata. The girl has asked for nothing.
The second time the baturi girl came down to the river to pray, Mami Wata could not help herself.
“Who is this god you are praying to?” asked Mami Wata, sleek in her liquid shape. She let her water snake slide from its sprawl round her neck, down her reaching-up breasts, and into the water weeds. Aware of the effect of her beauty, she remained in a shadowy pool.
The girl did not seem surprised to see Mami Wata. Everyone knew of the water spirit. “I am not really praying to a god,” the girl said. “Perhaps I praise the spirit of Goodness.”
“And what does this Goodness spirit do for you?” Mami Wata wanted to know.
“Well, I don’t know. Goodness opens me up in a way that allows me to recognize its spirit.”
“Then what does this Goodness look like?” asked Mami Wata because all she had ever seen were the dreams of the wayward and the fears of the desperate. She preyed on their prayers. Sometimes in the guise of a beautiful prostitute, she lured men, made her heady love with them, and then threatened them, “If you are not faithful to me, I will tell your wife.”
At other times, after she sent men home to fill their coffers with the golden combs that had been tucked in her ebony tresses, she would come to them in dreams, “If you do not return to me the wealth I have visited on you, I will take your child, the one with the brightest smile and the quickest eyes.” Not forthcoming, Mami Wata found no space for mercy, and countless children had washed up on her shores. It mattered nothing to her, barren as she was.
The baturi girl continued, “Goodness is in the feel of infant skin, watery and fawn soft. It is in the sight of the red, red cardinal bird aloft, delightful, divine. Goodness is in the sound of ease between women at the water’s edge scrubbing their clothes on the stones. Goodness is in the taste of a mother’s milk and in the smell of a campfire and roasting bushmeat. It has the sound of comfort. And the feel of growth.”
The girl slipped her feet into the river, the current alluring.
Mami Wata had never known Goodness. She brought women to their knees as they prayed, “A child. A child. All I want is a child.” They would have to pay, of course, nothing came for free. She never let them forget what they owed.
The next time the baturi girl came down to the river to praise, Mami Wata heard the girl sing out, “Where is my friend, my friend, my friend?”
Mami Wata rose like a fountain from her watery bed, “I am with you, my friend, my friend, my friend.” She did not know if this was right thing to say, but she felt an unaccounted-for eagerness.
“I have brought you something,” said the baturi girl.
“What price have I to pay?” asked Mami Wata.
“I did not know there was a price for friendship,” the girl laughed and then from within her satchel pulled a large white cloth. The girl held it up in the gust of the afternoon. At first it looked like the surrender of a white flag, but soaring across the silk was the painting of the red red bird.
“This is the red bird you spoke of?”
“Yes, the cardinal. Sweet songbird, fiery flier. Though delicate, his red wings explode like tongues of flame. In the place from where I come, when rain falls like air in flakes of white and covers all you see, it is the cardinal that brightens the spirit. Some even believe it is the spirit of Goodness within ourselves that takes flight.”
Now Mami Wata had never had a friend before, but she and the girl made easy waves of discourse. When Mami Wata reached deep within herself and recognized loneliness, she spilled out her longing to the baturi girl. Not all the water in the world could create within Mami Wata the waters of a mother’s womb. For this, she despaired, knowing she had missed a thing that might have made her a spirit of good.
“How can I be good when Goodness is not in my spirit?” demanded Mami Wata of the white girl on the river bank.
“Goodness comes only when we recognize it.”
It came to be that Mami Wata now waited for the girl. She knew the baturi girl’s whistle song and the pad of the girl’s steps on the forest floor, and within her would rise a pleasure. The water snake that had sprawled round her neck had been replaced by the cardinal scarf.
One day she too wanted to give the girl a gift. “I will give you great beauty,” she said. “Your name would be sung through the ages.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” cried the girl. “What would I do with beauty? Women would become jealous and talk about me in whispering circles and men would forget themselves to coveting. I need no beauty. It would only bring me grief.”
The girl is right, thought Mami Wata. It is no easy thing to be beautiful.
Mami Wata tried again, “Shall I give you coins that you might have all you want?”
Again, the baturi girl laughed. “Coins would only bring beggars to my door. My children would lose their friends because they would have something others would want for themselves. My husband would become lazy and hire a woman to sweep floors in our house, and that woman would dust herself right into his bed. And then there would be wahala! If I had many coins, I would stand to lose all that is good in my life.”
The girl is right, thought Mami Wata. It is no easy thing to be wealthy
.And then Mami Wata saw Goodness. That, she thought, is what I want to be.
The last time the baturi girl came down to the river, Mami Wata saw that the girl did not even pause to praise. Instead the girl stepped directly into the chill water, calling out to the water spirit, “I am coming out to you.”
Mami Wata wrapped the girl in her water arms. “I will hold you,” she said and felt her friend relax. She watched the girl’s eyes shutter and sensed the girl’s weight bob in time to the rhythm of the water, the rhythm of Mami Wata. The white cloth with the red bird spread out around them.
“Would you like to try on my bones?” the baturi girl suddenly asked of Mami Wata. “Then you could climb up on the bank over there and see how it feels to be me.”
It had been so easy. Mami Wata received the gift of the girl’s bones, leaving the girl to settle into the current. As Mami Wata stepped out of the river, the white cloth with the red bird fell about her, light as air.
A man appeared along the water’s edge carrying an infant. “Mami Wata,” he cried out to the river. “My son is dying. Save him. He is all I have. His mother has gone to the afterworld and the medicine men have so far failed to stop him from following her. What is your price?”
“There is no price,” the girl called back to the man. “Only take this poor mother home with you. This woman who has lost a child and cries at my water’s edge for comfort. Set your child’s lips to her breast, and she will feed him life.”
The man looked now at the draped woman. Her breasts sagged from the draw of mothering. Out in the river the baturi girl rose like a spirit. Mami Wata stood still on her new feet. “This woman?” he asked, gesturing at Mami Wata.
“Yes,” said the baturi girl from her watery cavern.
“But why?” he exclaimed. “Why have you given me this gift?”
“Because. Because she is good. And when you recognize Goodness in her, so too will you find Goodness. And your children. And grandchildren. And their children after that. Then may your water prayers become water praise.”
Then the man cried out to the baturi girl with her water snake and fishtail, “I am grateful for the mercy of Mami Wata. I am grateful for the woman in white and her red red bird. I am grateful for the life of my child who will grow into Goodness. And so I send my spirit out into the water to bring you companionship on your loneliest days.”
The man settled the child gift into the arms of Mami Wata.
The man guided Mami Wata toward the forest, his back to the shore. But Mami Wata stopped. This was no longer a game. She faced the river, ready to return. She knew she was asking for too much. This is too much Goodness, she thought. Of this I am not worthy.
But from the shallows she heard the voice of the baturi girl, “Take flight, little bird. Goodness has found you. You have recognized it. Be happy. Want for nothing, give as often as you can. And I, I will be here when you return to the river to praise.”