A Sweet Briar College Learning Resource

H2O - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water

Professor Deborah Durham

It is an odd fact that Franz Boas, who shaped the practice of cultural anthropology in America, wrote his dissertation on the color of seawater. The dissertation was in physics, not anthropology, and yet it reflected the distinctive approach that came to color anthropology: people see different things differently; moreover things appear differently to the same person from different angles and in different lights. Including seawater. Including water.

There is no "anthropology of water," as the title of the session suggests: there is only an anthropology of people and of the way that things like water (or taro, or space, or songs) figure in people's lives and their understandings of their lives. And water (or money, or gossip, or aesthetics) features in people's lives in a wide variety of ways - such that water itself (or myth, or relatives, or shelter) is as multi-colored, or multi-faceted, as the seawater Franz Boas tried so hard to understand.

In the two sessions devoted to "Anthropologies of Water" we will look at water in two African societies from two rather different lenses. On the first day, we will try to understand the political economy of water in a drought-prone country, Botswana. How does the need for water constrain where people live, how they manage productive activities, and how do changes in water technology transform options open to people? How does water, its lack and its perception, enter into political relations, to the exercise of power and authority? As we shall see, we cannot limit our discussion to water as a mere environmental factor - we must also come to understand it as pula, as the condensed sense of well-being, rain, and power that now serves as the name of Botswana's legal tender.

(image source)
Nwaanyi Mara Mma
Mami Wata, the More Than Beautiful Woman

In the second session, we will examine water further as a symbolic quality whose ambiguous and ambivalent nature gives rise, in southeastern Nigeria, to the dangerous and yet tremendously attractive mermaids known as Mami Wata. Looking closely at how the qualities of water make it a particularly potent symbol for a variety of things, we will understand Mami Wata not as a quaint but outmoded superstition to be displaced by modern chemistry, but as situated, in association with water, to address directly modernity's displacements.

With binocular vision, the two colors of water come together, and yet remain apart in their separate cultural environments: politics, religion, money and power, choices and struggles, colors of water permeate people's lives.


H20 - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water
Chris Witcombe and Sang Hwang
Sweet Briar College