Mami Water

Merbeing of West Africa.

Variant names: Mami wata, Tahbin, Tahbi-yin (for the female).

Physical description: Fair-skinned female water spirit.

Behavior: Represents eroticism. Habitat: Rivers.

Distribution: Ghana; Niger River delta in Nigeria.

Possible explanations:

(1) The West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis) is 7—12 feet long and found in coastal waters and rivers from Senegal to Angola. It feeds primarily at night, making chance observations mysterious.

(2) The oldest known Mami water wooden carvings date from about 1901 in riverine areas of southern Nigeria. There is artistic evidence that they derive from Der Schlangenbandinger (The Snake Charmer), a circa 1880-1887 chromolithograph of the exotic, long-haired, snake-charming wife of a Hamburg zookeeper. Copies of this popular print that were sold in West Africa in the mid- to late 1950s originated in Mumbai and England.

Sources: Edward Geoffrey Parrinder, African Traditional Religion (New York: Hutchinson's University Library, 1954); Jill Salmons, "Mamy Wata," African Arts 10, no. 3 (1977): 8-15, 87-88; Henry John Drewal, "Performing the Other: Mami Wata Worship in Africa," TDR: The Drama Review 32, no. 2 (1988): 160-185; David Hecht, "Mermaids and Other Things in Africa," Arts Magazine 65, no. 3 (1990): 80-86; "Ghanaian Scientists Unravel Mystery Mermaid's Being," Panafrican News Agency, April 5, 2001, http://allafrica. com/stories/200104050058.html.

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