One feature and legacy of colonization is objectification of everything: humans, land, animals, trees, air, etc. They all are seen by the colonizer as objects or “resources” to be capitalized. These are all inanimate objects put on Earth for the colonizer to exploit. Resources do not have conscience, therefore it makes no sense to consult or discuss with them your intentions. As a person of European descent, this is something of which I am very aware. Its my default habit to see everything for its utilitarian value. “What use is this to me?” “Is this valuable?” I am consciously trying to unlearn this and to value all just as they are (including myself), but it’s a conscious effort, not my default state – at all.
The importance of protecting watersheds has been widely publicized recently, especially with the Dakota Access Pipeline being so heavily in the news. But what does it mean as an individual to protect a watershed? If someone wants to run a gas pipeline through the farm, or open a toxic waste factory in this vicinity, obviously I’ll resist it. I’ll avoid clear cutting, especially on sloped land. But what else? I recently had several experiences that showed me that I can start by developing a relationship with water. Rather than seeing water as a scarce resource to be protected, what if I developed a personal relationship with it? What if I could see it as a conscious being?
There are 3 lakes on the farm. Cláudio and I always referred to them as “the first lake”, “the second lake” and “the third lake”. One day, I overheard some of our employees referring to them by name. I asked more about the names. It turns out that they call each lake after the name of the rivermaid who lives in and takes care of the respective lake and the creek which feeds that lake. I have a completely different feeling when I call a lake by a random name which some person gave to it, versus speaking to the lake by the name of the rivermaid taking care of it. It feels more relational, more intimate, more motivation to treat it with respect.
The “first lake” is Mofile.
The “second lake” is Kangonga.
People fish regularly in these two lakes, but especially Kangonga. Recently though, there have been reported sightings of a crocodile in both of these lakes (not sure if its one walking back and forth, or two or more). Since the sightings, we rarely see anyone fishing in them. Cláudio and I were concerned that the lakes could be overfished. We are now actually a bit thrilled that no one is fishing anymore. Did Kangonga bring a crocodile to her, to protect her fish? Or did she use magic, to make something look like a crocodile to keep the people away, without actually having a crocodile?
The “third lake”, which is closest to the house is named Banda Makawa. The stream which feeds her often runs dry. Upstream, it goes underground and goes to Kibobo (another rivermaid, whose lake is off the farm). Whenever this happens, the staff go and do something and the water runs to Banda Makawa again. It seemed a bit random to me, “What makes the water go underground?” “What do they do to make it stay above ground?” But I never gave it too much thought. Recently, Banda Makawa’s water again went underground and the stream went dry.
The staff went to “fix the stream”. They assessed the situation and then assembled the necessary supplies: cement, stones, sand … among other equipment. Knowing that the water has consciousness, I privately questioned how smart it was to force the water to flow into Banda Makawa’s lake. If the water wants to flow elsewhere who are we to insist where it must flow? The night before the work began, as the staff were confirming that they had sufficient stones, cement, etc, they asked Cláudio to bring wine. Cláudio confirmed that he would bring wine and promised them he would bring it before they started working. He also confirmed that they already had sufficient rice. Yes, they do. I later asked Cláudio what the wine and rice were for.
He told me that before they begin the work on the stream, they will have a conversation with Banda Makawa and Kibobo to ask them to work out their differences, share the water and allow the water to continue to flow into Banda Makawa’s lake. They would need to offer her wine and rice. Fascinated by this development, I asked if I could witness the ceremony. Permission granted.
The morning before the ceremony, Cláudio and I stopped at the gas station to buy the wine. Standing in front of the wine display we were discussing, “Does Banda Makawa like expensive wine? Portuguese wine? South African wine?” The clerk approached us to offer his recommendations. Cláudio shyly stopped him to explain what the purpose of the wine was. Before he even finished, the clerk understood and said, “Oh! Its an offering to a rivermaid? You can get the cheap box wine then!” But neither Cláudio nor I felt comfortable with that. We bought a mid-range Portuguese wine.
I found what happened next absolutely fascinating. Western portrayals of African indigenous beliefs tend to show weird ideas, devoid of scientific backing. This was an amazingly beautiful hybrid of it all. We arrived at the place where the water was going underground. The workers had previously diverted the water so that they could do work. They showed Cláudio and I places where, due to flooding, parts of the channel had eroded to the point where water was now able to enter underground channels, which led to Kibobo. All of this sounded and looked reasonable enough and followed what I know of the laws of Physics. But then the last sentence of the explanation. This is happening because Kibobo wants to take the water from Banda Makawa. The way I was taught the laws of Physics, there was no conscious. Large quantities of water traveling at high speed will cause damage to rocks or soil in its path. Mathematical formulas can be used to calculate the exact force that the water will exert and how strong an item in its path needs to be to not be damaged. I learned all this in a very objectified impersonal manner. But why not add that beautiful last sentence, explaining the “why?”? You can still do the calculation, but add that last little bit to allow for the beauty, the intelligence, the mystery, the conscious in what you are observing.
The work plan was to fill the holes with stones and put concrete over them. Then they would also rebuild and expand the brick walls which were built by the colonists to hold the water in its channel, to avoid further erosion. But first, the request was made to Banda Makawa and Kibobo to sort out their differences. Albino started by making a sign of the cross “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”. He proceeded to speak to Banda Makawa and Kibobo, explained the situation and made our humble request. He ended again with the sign of the cross. He then poured wine and rice in each of the holes. The employees all then proceeded with the work. I asked Albino if Banda Makawa minded that I was present for the ceremony. He replied that she recognized my energy as that of the colonists which moved her in the first place. Apparently the water used to all just flow to Kibobo, but the colonists created this channel and a dam which now forms Banda Makawa. (Banda Makawa was seasonal previously, but now is perennial.) I assume the colonists were simply looking for a way to have more access to water on the farm and I wonder whether they considered conversing with the rivermaids about this? Its doubtful that they did. Did Banda Makawa feel heard then? Does she feel heard now? Even though we talked to them and offered wine and rice, does it make sense to continue to force Banda Makawa to flow where she did not before?
But the bottom line that I’m left with after all of this is, its not that embracing indigenous beliefs systems means throwing away the laws of Physics. We can embrace what we understand about water pressure, gravity, strengths of materials, etc. But recognize that that does not describe all of it. These beings have consciousness also which needs to be recognized and honored. Because sure, a rainbow can be explained by the refraction of white light which consists of light of varying wavelengths being separated into its component parts when it passes through a prism, but that doesn’t explain why its so beautiful and awe-inspiring. And why not throw in a Sign of the Cross while you are at it?