THE VILLAGE OF THE WATER SPIRITS
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."
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
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
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.
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
Gathering in the Names
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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
"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."