Water rituals in Uganda

NAI researcherTerje Oestigaard is going on fieldwork to document water rituals, beliefs and traditions at the source of the White Nile in Uganda.

You have just completed a book with Gedef Abawa Firew, ‘The Source of the Blue Nile: Water Rituals and Traditions in the Lake Tana Region’, and now you are going to the source of the White Nile in Uganda. Why?

This is part of my long-time research on the Nile with an emphasis on culture and religion. The interesting and fascinating part of studying water from a cultural and religious perspective is that, despite the importance of the Nile, very little research has been conducted on these topics. With regards to the source of the Blue Nile, which was discovered in 1618 (or 1613), the last publication regarding the rituals and beliefs was in 1935. Speke found the source of the White Nile in 1862, but hardly anything of the cultural and religious practices have been documented. 

What are you going to do there more precisely?

The aim is to document empirically and ethnographically water rituals, beliefs and traditions at the source of the White Nile, including beliefs among farmers and fishermen along the northern shores of Lake Victoria. This has also relevance and implications for farming and subsistence strategies.

Can you give some examples of water rituals at the source of the White Nile?

This is a very good question and difficult to say! It has been quite known that the source of the Blue Nile is believed to be the outlet of the divine river Gihon flowing directly from paradise. And there have been a lot of rituals and sacrifices to the Nile. Regarding the source of the White Nile it is, however, generally held that there are not much beliefs and religious practices. But this is not completely true. There are indications that a lot of beliefs and rituals actually exist, but they are not coherently documented, and that is why ethnographic fieldwork is so fascinating. One never knows what results and data one will come up with before one has been there.

You have also studied rain-making rituals. How do they work?

This relates to my former project in Tanzania. Rainmaking was the most important ritual in the traditional chiefdoms, and it was the chief who controlled the rain providing health and wealth for his people. In rainfed agriculture, rain is of utmost importance, and the presence or absence of rain is a matter of plenty or famine – literally life or death. And traditionally rainmaking has been important in Uganda too. In this regard is the relation between water in the form of river or rain interesting.

Modern way of farming reaches Africa, how will that influence or change water utilization?

This varies from place to place, but in particular the introduction of irrigation may have deep cultural and religious impact. The advantages with irrigation are increased productivity and enhanced food-security. With irrigation and a steady water supply provided by dams and pipes, older cosmologies like rainmaking may be threatened simply because the life-giving waters come from other sources. In general, though, traditional beliefs and practices related to agriculture are also under strong pressure due to Christianity and globalization.

Can globalization also be a positive force and a source for new identifications?

The source of the White Nile is very interesting in this regard, and one may say that the source transcends cultures and religions. In 1948, ashes from the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi were immersed in the Nile, creating new and additional understandings of the importance of this mighty river in culture and cosmology. There is a statue of Ghandi at the outlet of the lake, and this place is also a pilgrimage site. And it will be very interesting to see how the Indian groups conceptualize the Nile and the source, given the overall importance of water in Hinduism.

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