Michael Ortiz Hill
(with Augustine Kandemwa)

Betrayed by his brothers and cut down in his youth, Sudika-mbambi dropped through the bottom of his grave, and in the red of twilight before the sky went dark, he met an old woman, half black and half white, at the side of a river. "You who must find the path through the land of ghosts," said the Grandmother, "carry close to your body this calabash of red pepper and this calabash of wisdom." Bantu folktale


(Author's translation)

It was a hot August night in the early nineties when I first caught a glimpse of the arcane and thoroughly African patterns in the dream life of a Mr. Cary, a fifty-two-year-old African-American then incarcerated in a prison in upstate New York. Straight out of Pittsburgh via the Bronx, Mr. Cary had been keeping journals of his dreams for years. His grandmother had taught him to pay attention to his dreams when he was a boy, and he had noted that some of them foretold the future.

"One of the high points of being in jail," he wrote me, "is you get to sleep and dream a lot. One thing the white man's system can't take away from me are my nightly dreams."

I had received Mr. Cary's dreams just a few months after I'd begun researching the patterns in white and black people's dreams about each other. I had dug into the scholarship on the African worlds that black Americans came out of, but it never dawned on me that those worlds could conceivably be entirely intact in their nightly dreams. Indeed, I would have regarded the idea as fairly preposterous: Few African-Americans I knew felt any essential tie to the Motherland. That long night I was riven with astonishment and perplexity as I shuffled between dreams and sheathes of xeroxed manuscripts on Bantu culture, and although I could not grasp the implications, it was irrefutable that Mr. Cary was dreaming whites in exactly the same fashion that Bantu people have understood whiteness since the Portuguese first made contact with the kingdom of the Kongo in the Fifteenth Century. In other words, Africa has kept faith with the African-American soul. In spite of the bitter historical realities of separation upon separation upon separation, black culture in America is an undeniably African culture even, if not especially, in the intimate matters of the heart.

It soon became clear that I had to seek out a Bantu medicine man to interpret the over one hundred dreams I had collected. Moreover, God willing, I needed to be initiated into the Bantu spirit world because as an author I wanted to do justice to the strange discovery of the subterranean connection between Africa and America. How else could I genuinely know the true meaning of the book I was apparently being asked to write? By a rather mysterious route that I recount in Capable of Such Beauty, I was led to a remarkable and tender friendship with Augustine Kandemwa, who initiated me into the healing tradition of the Shona and Ndebele people of Zimbabwe. This book is based on our long conversations about the spirit world of black Americans as revealed in their dreams and on my research into the African shape of the African-American soul.

I believe Augustine to be the perfect interpreter of these dreams for several reasons. His ritual tradition, the ngoma of the water spirits, played, as we shall see, a very direct role in what became African-American culture, and not a few of the dreams I presented him he recognized as "water spirit" dreams. More than any other Bantu healer I've met, Augustine's day-to-day work curing and initiating people is involved with dream-telling and interpretation, and his own spiritual life has been completely formed from the realm of dreaming. As a Shona tribesman, his people are of the "Zambezi circle," that cultural province spreading east and south from coastal Angola and Zaire that was so viciously exploited by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and one occasionally hears stories of the trade in Zimbabwean villages. Finally, Augustine is a child of apartheid and knows intimately in himself and among his kin and patients the spiritual dilemmas of being black in a world controlled by whites. The fierce kindness and uncompromised intelligence with which he held the dreams of African-Americans is evident in his words.

As a biracial Mexican/Anglo man who has labored in the morass of racial politics in America all of my life, it is a great pleasure to offer this gift from Africa. When I was a young man, I cast my lot with the Black Liberation Army during those bleak days in the late seventies when black militancy thickened with the passions of suicide and criminality. I trained in weaponry to fight in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe against apartheid. It never happened. "Your spirits are peacemakers, not warriors," explained Augustine sensibly.

It's been, mercifully, a long time since I yearned to spill blood for a just cause, but when I began working on the Mapatya trilogy, I found myself haunted by my past, every thought and written word scrutinized by the spirit of Malcolm X, George Jackson and Huey P. Newton. An honorable lot, yes, but they completely paralyzed my efforts to break out and find something new to say about race in America. I returned instead to my old mentor, James Baldwin -- his excruciating compassion and his refusal to lie. His spirit stayed close to me through some damned difficult passages.

The gift that Augustine and I offer over to the reader in its deepest meaning is the unbroken circle between Africa and America. I begin and end The Village of the Water Spirits invoking this circle because for us the story is now complete.

Section I

If you ask me about healing, I have to talk about the water spirits because they are the ones that heal. I do not. I am their servant.

-Augustine Kandemwa
Gathering in the Names

Chapter One
Traces of a Flowing Secret

Although Augustine Kandemwa and I affectionately call each other mapatya, twin brother, I am in no way his equal when it comes to stamina. The long weeks of being initiated by him and the rigor of working alongside him as his apprentice as we initiated a small group of people had completely exhausted me. Augustine as usual appeared inexhaustible and in generous good humor when we sat down on the cement floor of the house of his spirits and I cracked open my notebook with over a hundred dreams of African-Americans about white people. Passing the sacred snuff between us as I turned on the tape recorder, he said, "Dreams are a language I understand." I knew this to be true, for Augustine is a healer and dream teller, a nganga in the living spiritual tradition that is at the headwaters of what eventually became African-American culture.

What do I mean by "headwaters"? When you follow a river upstream, you eventually come to its source. A few months subsequent to the Los Angeles riots that followed the Rodney King verdict, I was quite lost in researching white people's dreams about blacks and black people's dreams about whites. In a previous volume, Capable of Such Beauty, I wrote about how I was compelled to offer the dreams of black Americans to a medicine man who would understand their deepest meanings. In ways I will never understand, I was led directly to Augustine. My own dreams became the river of images I followed upstream. I had dreamt of Augustine twice in the nine years before I met him: the words he would greet me with, a dance I would watch him do on the banks of the Zambezi. He and his wife Simakuhle also dreamt of me in anticipation of my arrival. After we had settled into our recognition of each other during my first initiation, which is to say after the three of us puzzled out the meaning of the dreams that brought us together, Augustine laughed: tender, appreciative and astonished. "That is how these spirits work," he said.

Headwaters. Again, what do I mean by headwaters? When one follows the meandering path of the river downstream, it eventually passes through various villages. African-American culture is as complex and multiple as any culture on the planet -- cultures within cultures within cultures, not to mention the particular struggles of any given soul, any given family. And yet, Augustine sees in their dreams that the various worlds of black Americans are fed by the same river, a river he returns to again and again to meet his ancestors.

Judith Gleason recalls a conversation with a water spirit priest whose family for centuries had guarded and passed on the secrets of the Niger River. She expressed her concern that perhaps the presence of foreign film makers was violating the sanctity of the rites when the spirits are called down to dance through the bodies of the initiates.

"All along the river," he said, "from sources to sea, religion -- Islam, Christianity -- will never be able to destroy tradition. All people who live near the water defend it. Contact with water by its very nature safeguards the primordial secrets."

Furthermore, he explained that the "dancers traced certain concepts of cosmic organization on the sand with their feet without explanation ever having been given to them. Highly initiated elders were even able to read invisible points in the dancers' patterns -- spaces representing spiritual beings too ancient and august to possess human beings and be danced by them. To perform such dances before the camera, therefore, would be in no way to disclose their meaning, to which even dancers themselves were after not privy."

"The patterns," continues Gleason, "replicate the beginning of things." She came to think of them as watermarks, "traces of a flowing secret."

As Augustine's apprentice, I want to offer an echo chamber so that his words fully resonate for people on this side of the Atlantic. I beg the readers' indulgence that, at least in these first three chapters, I sketch out from the angle of a researcher how any of the statements I will make alongside my twin could possibly be true. I am well aware that they go against the grain of what is regarded as "common sense" in America.

Early on in our friendship, Augustine and I refreshed ourselves at the local Wimpy's Burgers at Victoria Falls. I struggled to remember nightmares that had been given to me by my daughter's teenage friend Nikki -- quintessentially young, gifted, and black and working very hard to make sense of America.

"Those blacks you talk about," Augustine said, "many of them are children of the water spirits."

"What makes you say that?" I asked.

"They suffer so much for the sake of the world," was his simple response.

Augustine's words reminded me of what Melville Herskovits had written back in 1941 about the strong influence that priests of the water spirits had on the formation of African-American culture. Herskovits was the first scholar to see that the primary ritual of black Baptist culture in America, full immersion baptism, was African in origin. Herskovits notes that, "...the intransigence of the priests of the river cult was so marked that, more than any other group of holy men, they were sold into slavery to rid the conquerors of troublesome leaders. In all those parts of the New World where African religious beliefs have persisted, moreover, the river cult or in broader terms, the cult of water spirits, holds an important place. All this testifies to the vitality of this element in African religion and supports the conclusion to be drawn from the hint in the Dahomean data as to the possible influence such priests wielded even as slaves."

Dominique Zahan has pointed out that water is the central religious motif in black Africa. Cross-culturally and across the range of wet and dry geographies, rivers, lakes, pools, thermal springs and the ocean itself are regarded as places of pilgrimage and prayer where God and the holiest of spirits are most vividly present. The men and women who serve the water spirits carried considerable power, especially in Bantu Africa where the way of the water spirits is intimately involved with sacred kingship and queenship.

To clarify now before I move further, "Bantu" is not an ethnicity but a language group. Originating in the Nok region of Nigeria probably 2,500 years ago, the Bantu were never what is dismissively called a "primitive" culture. Likely by way of Nubia and the Sahel Corridor, presumably ultimately from Egypt, they spread the working of iron and the beauty and complexity of their worldview over rather a large section of Central, South and East Africa from Cameroon to Kenya, from the Cape of Good Hope to Uganda. There are many Bantu languages and many Bantu cultures, and at the same time, they make a fairly coherent whole. They are certainly united around the sacredness of water, and I know of no Bantu culture where water does not play a central role.

Because of his fieldwork in West Africa and among the Dahomean diaspora in Haiti, Herskovits inevitably draws upon his understanding of the way of the water spirits from the sources he lived with. More recent scholarship has shown the overwhelming Bantu shape of African-American culture. It is when one looks at the water spirit tradition through a Bantu lens that the African shape of the black American soul comes into focus.

Before I get to the gist of the matter, let me explain why Bantu culture influenced the culture of the American diaspora to the degree that it has.

I'll begin first with the numbers, the percentages, that mind-numbing and terrifying way that we have come to measure human anguish. Philip D. Curtin estimates that by the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, roughly a third of African people lived outside of Africa, making the trade the largest forced migration in human history. About 4.5 percent of these ended up in the American colonies, the United States -- roughly 430,000 people.

A rough estimate is that 40 percent of those sold in the slave ports such as Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah, Georgia and New Orleans were of Bantu origin. After the trade was made illegal in 1807, the "Congo-Angola region became more and more important because the many channels and small islands at the Congo River's broad mouth made it easier for the slavers to skulk out of sight of patrolling English and American warships," writes Richard Palmer. Well into this century, African-born Bantu speaking ex-slaves still lived in America.

Winifred Vass writes, "For every slave landed alive, others died in intertribal warfare, deliberately instigated for the purpose of raiding, or along the trade route paths worn a meter deep into the earth that I have seen in Zaire. For every slave landed alive, others perished inside the stockades awaiting shipment or in the hold of the ships that made the perilous middle passage across the Atlantic."

After 1700 Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Mississippi maintained a black majority for over two centuries. Over two hundred Bantu place names in the South give a feel for the extent of the diaspora: Suwanee, Georgia; Loango, Alabama; Tuscawilla, Florida; Kolula Springs, Mississippi; Angola, Louisiana; Zacala, Virginia.

Aside from their numbers, "Bantu speaking slaves from Central Africa," writes Vass, "enjoyed a linguistic unity and ability to communicate with their fellow captives that slaves of West Africa did not share." Michael A. Gomez concurs: "Once removed from the West Central African context and relocated to America, however, the Bantu languages and cultures, their treatment as a single people by their captors, and the need to effect strategies of resistance necessarily encouraged the Congolese-Angolans to see themselves anew and forge ties of community."

These ties of community were further reinforced by the ethnic stereotypes that slaveholders carried about different African peoples. Certain West Africans such as the Mande were thought to make excellent "house negroes." Bantu, it seems, were best fit for working the rice and indigo fields, the short-staple corn and the cotton.

Given their numbers, the commonalities of culture and language and the work that ensured minimal contact with whites, it should not be surprising that the nucleus of black American culture is strongly Bantu. However, there is a final reason, somewhat more complex and rather difficult to state, that ensured a profound and subterranean continuity between Africa and America, and it brings us once again to the mystery of the water spirits.

I will approach this from a rather odd angle, which is to say from Zimbabwe.

Although Zimbabwe was not devastated by the trade like the Bight of Benin or the coast and inland of Angola, nearly a hundred shiploads of slaves departed from the Zambezi basin, and I have noted a few Shona words (Augustine's tribe) in the creole language of Reunion in the Caribbean. Like other Africans, Augustine is given to speaking of the historical memory of those bitter years:

"It is not only white people who were the oppressors. I also look at our own African chiefs who were in power during slavery. They allowed their own children to be bought. They said you can have this one or that one because you have given me a gown, a gun or a pair of shoes. These chiefs were cruel. They were also witches who collaborated with the white witches."

Like other parts of Bantu Africa, Zimbabwe was hugely influenced by Portuguese Catholicism and more currently Protestant fundamentalism. A pattern that one finds throughout Central Africa that had a profound effect on the shape of the African-American soul is the persistent, intimate and paradoxical relationship between the way of the water spirits and Christianity.

There are at least as many Christians as traditionalists performing the rites of baptism at Victoria Falls in the sacred waters of the Zambezi. Both Christians and traditionalists share a Shona word for God, Dzivaguru, which translates as Big Pool, and Zulu Christians to the south refer to themselves as the "water church." Among our clan we dance to the Mambokadzi, the Queen of Water, but the song we sing is to Maria, the mother of God. The use of water for healing, the calling out for the falling of rain -- one could pile detail upon detail. If it weren't for the fundamentalists' vulgar and dangerous assertion that the ancestors that traditionalists honor are actually demons, one might conclude that both religious domains are centered around the presence of God in water. Augustine summarizes the traditionalists' point of view on the matter:

"Christ was a water spirit who took human form. That's why he was baptized by John. Secondly, he walked on the fish when he was possessed by water spirits. And remember, he also changed some water into wine. He said he was the living water." This paradoxical intimacy between the way of the water spirits and Christianity was driven home to me during a conversation I had with Ambuya Magumbe.

Ambuya ("Grandmother") is a holy woman who, it is said, when she was young, lived in the village of the water spirits at the bottom of a river for seven years. Frail and now in her seventies, attended by her young husband, she carries the uncanny grace of a spirit medium who has given her whole self to God. Gathering a little snuff in the palm of her hand or extending a small gift to a stranger, her beauty is evident in even the slightest gesture.

Laughing at the girl she once was, she explained what it was like to come out of the river after so many years underwater. "The spirits were very heavy upon me," she said. "Very heavy," which is to say she felt quite out of her mind. Naturally she approached a group of Christians who might be able to alleviate the burden of so many spirits.

When they took her to a river to baptize her, she was trance possessed by a very powerful water spirit, and the Christians were so frightened that they took off running. She went to another Christian group. Again they tried to baptize, but the moment she went in the river, she was again taken by the spirits, and they too took off running. Exasperated, she tried a third group, but this time when the spirit descended, the Christians didn't want to offend such a powerful ancestor. They explained to Ambuya that it is not hers to follow the Christian path, that she must hold fast to the way of the ancestors.

And so she submitted to the endless work of being a vehicle for the spirits to communicate with their children but confessed to me that she hoped to return soon to the village of the water spirits.

What, one might ask, does this have to do with African- American culture? What could be more remote, more exotic to black Americans than this strange story?

Nowhere were the traditions of the water spirits and Christianity more profoundly intermeshed than in those parts of Central Africa -- the Kongo, Angola and adjacent areas -- that supplied the greatest number of Bantu chattel for the plantations of the South.

When the Portuguese first arrived in the kingdom of the Kongo, they were the objects of a serious case of mistaken identity by their African hosts. If the consequences were not so bitter, one could even imagine humor in it. Firstly, throughout Africa the ancestors are thought to be white, not white as in white people but white as in white spirits. The pale maggots that eat of the corpse, the whitening of the bones in the grave, the radiant light of God, the fact that black infants emerging from the realm of the ancestors during childbirth are exceptionally light skinned -- there is no doubt that these things suggested the whiteness of the other world long before Europeans made contact, which is to say long before whiteness was racialized into a system of oppression. Mpemba is the Bantu word for the white kaolin clay found at the bottom of rivers that is used in the initiation rituals of the water spirit priests. It is also the name of the realm of the ancestors, and for contemporary Congolese Christians, mpemba is heaven. Malcolm Guthrie's studies of the spread of Bantu languages indicate that as a word and a concept, mpemba has named the realm of the ancestors for at least two thousand years, which is to say that Bantu ancestral spirits have always been thought of as white.

Even before the Europeans arrived, the cross was the most sacred of Bantu symbols. It represented the meeting place of the world of God above, the ancestors below and the human village between.

For a coastal people who were not seafarers, it was believed that the white ancestral spirits lived on the bottom or on the other side of the Atlantic across the kalunga line that divides the worlds. So when Franciscan missionaries arrived on boats bearing an image of a water spirit nailed to a cross, practicing what was obviously an ancient version of the traditional rites of baptism, and preaching a gospel that reflected the way of the water spirits at its very best and, not incidentally, offering the possibility of mediating economic trade with their companions on the other side of the ocean, one can well imagine the intrigue in the court of the King of the Kongo.

It is not an exaggeration to say that what became African-American culture was born out of a dream or, more accurately, out of two dreams received the same night by two of Bantu noblemen.

A year before Columbus sailed to the New World, shortly "after the first official Catholic priests arrived in Kongo," writes John Thornton, "two Kongo nobles dreamed simultaneously of a beautiful woman who beseeched the Kongo to follow Christianity. Moreover, one of them also found a stone which was 'black and unlike any others in the country' near his house which was shaped like a cross. When King Nzinga, a Nkuwu, heard these tales, he asked the Christian clergy present for an explanation. They unhesitatingly explained that the woman in the dream was the Virgin Mary and that she and the stone were 'signs of grace and salvation' and that the events were 'miracles and revelations.'" Nzinga a Nkuwu and his court soon accepted baptism and established a diplomatic alliance with his "royal brother," the King of Portugal as well as with the Vatican.

A century and a half later, Thornton continues, Queen Njinga of Angola came to the same crossroads. When she "was considering allowing priests to come to her base in Matamba in 1654-5 and convert her people, she sought the advice of the three spirit mediums (xingula) who served her. Each of the mediums was possessed with a different one of her ancestors, and she put the question of whether she should follow Christianity to each of the ancestors who spoke through the mediums. In each case the ancestor urged her to accept Christianity even though it meant that she would no longer follow the cult of the ancestors."

The story of the spread of Christianity across the Kongo and Angola is quite fascinating but also quite beyond the scope of this book. Nonetheless, few details need to be mentioned.

Perhaps to Queen Njinga's surprise, the Christianity that emerged in Central Africa simultaneously managed to preserve and encode the way of the ancestors even as it undermined and transformed it. In no way did Christianity defeat the way of the spirits. Quite the opposite: The spirits were incorporated into the ethos of Christianity, and an ancient way of knowing was preserved that might survive colonialism and the middle passage, that might even survive America. As a nganga, I have no doubt that this was the active intent of Spirit: Christianity was so completely saturated with the worldview of the water spirit tradition that it became virtually an indigenous African religion. As Michael A. Gomez puts it, "It is the Africanization of the Christian faith, not its imposition by external forces, that accounts for its success in the African-American community."

"By the Eighteenth Century," writes Thornton, Christianity was the source of Kongo identity," and "virtually all the population participated in and knew its rites and tenets." The rite that compelled the new converts most of all was, of course, baptism. Thus, he continues, "priests were regularly carried on tours through villages of the country once a year to perform sacraments (particularly baptism, which they performed by the hundreds, occasionally the thousands)."

Thornton provides a terrifying and heartbreaking image of this, that of the "bishop in Angola sitting on his throne in the harbor of Luanda and baptizing hundreds of slaves by aspersion" before they embarked on the Middle Passage. The white priests administered the sacrament, but the true vitality of Bantu Christianity lay with the grassroots work "of maintaining an understanding of the faith...performed by large numbers of catechists, who travelled more frequently, stayed longer and remained at work even when there was no priest or missionary. The fact that the catechists were African helped to ensure that doctrine was 'naturalized'...."

This Africanization of Christianity was both encouraged and punished by the Portuguese clergy. On one hand, the maxim that governed the recent conversion of the European hinterland ("Whatever the heathens do is to be called Christian") was applied liberally as long as the "heathens" kept faith with the bare bones of Catholic teaching. On the other hand, numerous diaries and letters indicate that the clergy were perpetually frustrated with the tenacity of African culture among "so-called" Christians.

Occasionally this frustration turned bloody as in the case of the "Joan of Arc of the Kongo," Dona Beatrice Kimpa Vita. Led by the spirits of two white children, she was eventually trance possessed by Saint Anthony, and as the saint she would visit God in heaven to bring his message to the people. "Although Saint Anthony generally respected the missionaries and urged people to support them and the Pope, the missionaries never had any doubt that this was a diabolic possession," writes Thornton, and so Beatrice/Saint Anthony was burned at the stake by the Office of the Holy Inquisition in 1708.

To thicken the plot, the priests both deputized themselves and were widely accepted as ngangas. As Thornton writes, this "was fully equivalent to the Jesuits insisting on the behavior resembling that of Buddhist monks in Japan or Mandarin sages in China. They performed all the public and private roles expected of such practitioners in Kongo, from initiation ceremonies (baptism), to providing individual charms for luck (in the form of religious medals, thousands of which were distributed in Kongo), protection of fields by charms, performing public ceremonies to appeal to earth spirits in case of drought (with penitent processions, and self-flagellation) and consecrating the coronation of the king." (The rites of consecration had previously been the work of water spirit priests.)

It had also been the role of the water spirit priests to hunt out and destroy those "charms" (nkisi) that might be used in witchcraft. One would like to believe that these white ngangas, unversed in the subtleties of Bantu theology and no doubt regarding much of the native worldview as witchcraft, did not comprehend the viciousness with which they were attacking the African soul by destroying nkisi. Nkisi, called in the American South "tobes," "hands," "mojo" were inspirited by the oldest of the ancestors, those upon which the coherence of the world relies. As a Catholic, I would like to believe that they did not know what they were doing, but the evidence is that they did know because they named the Bible itself Mukanda nkisi and the church nzo a nkisi, the house of the ancestors. All of which is to say that these white ngangas, from a Bantu perspective, were acting exactly like the witches they were purporting to attack, and not surprisingly, a significant portion of the local people recognized them as such.

The bizarre and dangerous antics of a few deranged Franciscans didn't greatly distract the catechists from reinventing Christianity on African terms. It was they, not the priests, who ultimately determined the shape of black Christianity both in Africa and America. This is not to say that damage was not done. I hear the echo of the damage every time I am told by a black American that Africa is uncivilized or that African religion is hoodoo, a perspective that is all too common. Nonetheless, the water spirits have found shelter within the black church, "the sole surviving institution of the African fatherland" as W.E.B. DuBois called it. Eluding both Catholic manipulation and Protestant fundamentalism, these old spirits, wise beyond telling, recognized the spirit of Christ, knew it to be compatible with African wisdom and allied themselves with it to protect an endangered people from the unnameable cruelties of colonialism, slavery, racism -- even from the church itself.

Just as the bishop of Angola blessed the slave ships as they left Luanda, so too did Father Pedro Claver dispense his blessings when the slaves arrived in the port of Cartagena, Columbia in the early Seventeenth Century. Most of the slaves believed they were victims of a form of systematic witchcraft and that they would be made into oil and eaten. The priestly robes could hardly be reassuring, having seen the behavior of the Catholic clergy in Africa. "Claver greeted every slave," writes Thornton, "embraced them and welcomed them to the New World, while constantly reassuring them that the Spanish intended to make Christians out of them and not oil." Father Alonso de Sandoval, also of Cartagena, was eager to save these wretched souls. He was surprised to find that almost all of the slaves from Central Africa were quite knowledgeable about Christianity and many of them were believers when they arrived.

One last historical "coincidence," the clincher, forever wed the water spirits to African-American culture.

The American colonies in the late Eighteenth Century were taken by a wildfire of evangelical activity known as the Great Awakening during which thousands of blacks and whites (often joined together in ecstatic praise) were converted by waves of Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists. As it turns out, the Great Awakening coincided with the greatest influx of slaves from Bantu Africa, many of which had been well steeped in Christianity and some of whom were, without question, catechists. Inevitably these became the avant-garde of black Protestantism. "Slaves were instructed," writes Thornton, "not by European clergy but by African Christians who knew their languages and cosmologies intimately, and moreover had developed formulae to convert one system to the other along the lines pioneered in Central Africa."

One of the more obscure words in American English is simbi, used only in the Georgia Sea Islands and the nearby coastal areas. Simbi has the same meaning in English as it has in Haitian Creole, in Cuban Spanish, in Brazilian Portuguese and in Kikongo. Simbi means "water spirit."

July Ann of Hatten, Mississippi sang the praises of God-in-Water when she was a slave in the early Nineteenth Century.

"I was baptized in the Tangipaho River right here in Osyka, an' all de folks was shoutin' and I went down in de water shoutin' -- I tell yo' I neber was so happy as I was dat day, an' I been a good Christian woman eber since I was baptized. I talks to de Lord an' his spirit tells me I am gwine to meet my Maker shoutin' -- He tells us to shout for joy."

To be remembered by God. To be re-membered, literally put back together again by full immersion in water: Who exactly are the water spirits? As a nganga of the ngoma (drumming) of the water spirits, Augustine understands why July Ann, even as a slave, found it in her to shout for joy.

"These water spirits are the most powerful of all the spirits. They come out of the body of God, and they return to it. They are just like his angels. They say they communicate directly with God. They do not pray to any other spirits between them. They have got tremendous power of healing and wisdom direct from the Creator. They are water, they are air, they are clouds, they are rainmakers. This is what I understand about water spirits. These are the spirits that make use of me. It is these spirits who started telling me that they are healers, and they laid down steps I should follow in my healing."