• Annette Johnson

In-Joy-In Water: What's Your Relationship With Water?

Earth Month Thoughts of Water[1] /

Wata. Wotor. L’Eau. War’ler. Wollor. Water.

These are just some of the ways I pronounce water, depending on time, language, place and context. How many names for water do you know, and in how many languages and accents? Reflections on the personal relationship with one of our most precious resources - water.

Before people were “sipping the tea” or asking “what’s the tea;” before Kermit the Frog became a meme, I loved tea. Bread (warm and buttered) and tea was one of my favorite meals as a young child. I can never forget how much I loved lemongrass tea - although I haven’t had it in years, I crave the soothing taste...sweet memories.

In another post this month reflecting on the importance of access to water, I recall “drawing” water both from the well and from the creek, and boiling water on the open coal pot fire, all as a young girl in Liberia.

Nostalgia pleasantly overwhelms me, remembering the sound of rainfall tapping on the zinc roofs during my childhood, when we would sit in a circle telling stories and drinking hot peppeh (pepper) soup – yep! made with the main ingredient: water.

And my possibly all-time fave, when my mother would allow us kids the treat of running in the rain. I know you’ve probably engaged in or seen people “dancing in the rain,” but this was a ritual. After stripping down to our underwear and running, jumping, splashing puddles, just being joyfully wet, we would return inside to warm baths, followed by a Vicks rubdown to avoid catching a cold.

Then I think about how we had the cutest rain gear -- the matching sets that included boots, raincoats, umbrellas and hats in particular -- that relatives would send from overseas. Do they make these sets for kids anymore? I sure hope so. I always appreciated fashion, even as a shield from the heavy Monrovia rainfall.

And the fact that a former colleague and journalist referred to Monrovia, my birth city, as the rainiest capital city in the world; while I haven’t bothered to verify this bit, a couple of factoids may serve to convince you:

- The saying that Liberians are more afraid of the rain than they are of cars is gospel. (Absolute truth!). The way the streets completely clear with the slightest rain is unbelievable, yet the same person seeking shelter from the rain may casually ignore an oncoming car.

- When I returned to Liberia to live a few years back, I was unpleasantly surprised to learn I’d remembered everything BUT the heavy rains. The first time I experienced the rain, I declared that while it rains cats and dogs in some places, in Liberia it rains buffaloes and elephants. On one of my first rainy days back home, I figured that since I had lived in the rainy Northwest United States, I could handle the rainfall, so I kept walking. Let me tell you, I was DRENCHED through my trusted 7 year old umbrella and Nikes after just a few minutes. And all I could think was, Liberia is the perfect testing grounds for performance rain gear. Now, granted the presence of rainforest, climate change has definitely played a part in the increasing rainfall to detrimental effect, including flooding, which I personally observed. I once went to check on some family property to give an assessment, and flooding in this particular neighborhood, which had originally been swampland, was so terrible that fish were swimming around like they belonged. The flooding caused the area to become accessible by small watercraft, making homes inhabitable, and for those who could not afford to relocate, unhealthy.

When I think of water, I think of African spirituality, specifically of Mami Wata, the water spirit. In some parts of the world, like Norfolk, Virginia, people are very familiar with mermaids. I could not help but recognize that ancestors taken forcibly from Africa were first brought to this part of America, evidenced by the Smithsonian Institution article with an image of a carving of Mami Wata from a 1900s vessel in Newport News, Virginia. Mami Wata, Mami Water, Yemanja, Oxum and all her names is a presence and a force in Africa and the African Atlantic, who travelled along with captured Africans to the Americas including Haiti, Brazil and the Dominican Republic.

More reading on Mami Wata: here from Face2FaceAfrica and here from StoryMaps showing Mami Wata’s presence alive in Cuba as well. Honorable mention: Queen Bey has also paid homage to Mami Wata of late.

The thought of water floods my thoughts and memories. I think of how I want so badly to visit both Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina, of how according to history my maternal great great grandfather, James Skirving Smith, a past president of Liberia returned to that nation from South Carolina. I think of the coastal Gullah Geechee of South Carolina and environs and how their names sound so much like Liberia’s Gola and Kissi ethnic peoples and how Gullah people actually sound like Liberian Congor people. I equally think of Igbo Landing (Black Past), the site of a mass suicide by captured Igbos and other Africans after their ship landed on America’s shores. That line from Black Panther where Killmonger states his preference of dying in the ocean rather than being a slave isn’t farfetched at all. That they choose death over slavery is nourishing food for thought!

This my own relationship to water, it's deep oh! Growing up in Liberia with its 15,000 square kilometers of water, the word that comes to mind in our collective association with the ocean, besides the tasty variety of fish and seafood is: fear. The stories (which I now realize were few) of people drowning in the ocean instilled that fear. While some swam, I may have been to the famous pool at Hotel Africa maybe once or twice. Ironically, my father’s ethnic group, the Bassa are coastal people. My maternal grandmother is of the Kru people (known as “the tribe that refused to be enslaved”), also likely given this name because they were seafarers and literally “crew” on European ships pre-slavery, expert navigators on rough waters. But I grew up with an ingrained fear of water. When we arrived in America decades ago, my parents enrolled my siblings and I in swim lessons, in part to keep us positively occupied that first summer – we ended up taking lessons for a whole month. To this day, none of us is a comfortable swimmer. On my part, I was too scared to relax during those lessons. When I moved back to Liberia a few years ago and visited Edina, Grand Bassa County, I marveled at very young children RACING across a river that feeds into the ocean. Talk about graduating from the pool! The Bassa subgroup, Neegi might as well be descendants of Mami Wata, basically described as water sorcerers (more often derogatively given our American assimilation). But here I was, a Bassa geh (girl) afraid of water.

I should correct that – I was afraid of swimming. I LOVE the water; always have. I love the sea breeze, the misty taste of sea salt, I love the sound of ocean waves, and I love staring at the ocean. The colors are magical and ah, the variations depending on the part of the world and type of body of water. Water is joy. My fears haven’t stopped me from jet skiing, snorkeling or enjoying a catamaran ride. So, what gives, such deep-seated fear? Well, a couple years back I enrolled in swim lessons. I’m not there yet, but I plan to pick back up on those lessons. I’m going to swim. Because it’s in my blood. It’s part of me. I am going to become comfortable with that part of my primal self again.

And in recalling these stories, I see how water is life in my own life. How water has shaped my stories. Whether history, ethnicity, fears, pleasures, spirituality, so much of who we are is forever intertwined with the fluidity of the nature of water. Water is our source, our sustenance, our teacher. There’s no us without water.

By the way, did you know there was a time when people came from far and wide to purchase sea salt on Liberia’s coast?

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In-Joy-In Water. 2010 on one Monrovia's countless beaches. Photo by Paul Cassell.

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