To encourage my brothers and me to do well in school, our family poured water into our mouths and over our hands and heads,” remembered 79-year-old Yaba Kisra. “I used to like that.” This was just one of many water rituals practiced by the Azande ethnic group to which Kisr belongs, in South Sudan’s Western Equatoria State.
“Women’s feet were washed when they were welcomed to the house of their chosen husband,” he said of another tradition. “Back then we went to the source of the river where people worshipped under big trees, praying for the rain to pour. Songs were sung around the river source so that their gods heard and people danced, too. Within a short while, it would start to pour down.”
The Azande, a large ethnic group which spans the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, parts of South Sudan and southeast of the Central African Republic, would also make sacrifices to secure future rainfall. “If, after worship, there was no sign of rain for a long time, they would gather every- one together and agree upon which sacrifices would be best to offer,” Kisra said, adding that the elders would often sacrifice goats at the river’s source.
Water also played a role in solving conflict amongst community members. Those involved in the dispute would take water in their mouths and spread down on the floor as a sign of forgiveness to each other. “It was a must,” said Kisr. “The two parties were asked to come and take some water and spread down, saying: ‘I have forgiven you’. They were to say this from the bottom of their heart, without hiding anything. It was known that such communications were directly with the gods, which reduced hatred to a minimal level,” Kisra explained.
“We were not able to hate each other because the gods and our ancestors walked along with the people to make sure people lived in harmony and I think the spirit has continued among the Azandes,” he said, “although it has faded.”
Water in times of war
Known as warriors, the Azandes would wait at the water point to fend off any enemy and prevent them from entering their community. This approach was similar among many communities of South Sudan’s Western Equatoria State.
Silivano Kuu, an elderly man who hails from the nearby Muru community, said his people built barriers around the river sources where they believed their god was to be found. “In this way,” said Kuu, “we could strengthen ourselves and defeat our enemy.”
Bodies of water formed a focal point for his community, which gathered the ancestors around the river or well when they prepared for war.
A place of respect
“Around the river we also celebrated marriage ceremonies and the couple spread water onto the new house as a blessing,” Kuu said. But despite the water’s charms it was also meant to be respected. “In the past, my people respected rivers and wells so much that we never allowed children to throw water or play about at the water source,” Kuu said.
The Muru community interpreted sporadic floods or extended rains as a message that they should respect the area and accept that is was not meant for human activities, Kuu said. They heeded such warnings and took all their activities away from the areas suffering from flooding.
“Elders never allowed women and children to cross around those points because they would either disappear or die in the water,” Kuu recalled. Pregnant women were not allowed to fetch water after five thirty in the afternoon because they believed she would deliver a child with disability.
Kuu explained that the Muru also had rain makers. They never wanted to blame individuals for preventing the rain, but instead they would summon all the men in the area to come and shoot at a certain tree. The man whose arrow struck the tree, prompting water to come out, was noted by the elders as the person who had been stopping the rain from coming. But Kuu said the Muru was not like some communities, where those suspected of halting rainfall faced serious beatings by community members.
“I like the way our elders worked,” Kuu said. “There was the recent case where a community in Torit (the capital of Eastern Equatoria State) beat a rain maker to death. Of course, this is not good.”
But the current generation no longer shares the traditional respect for water, Kuu said. “These days you see how human activities are polluting water. Only drinking points are kept clean.”