Ubuntu – water shows the way

Development Policy05 Mar 2013Omileye Achikeobi-Lewis

In order to solve the water crisis, we need to change our definition and perspective of water from a commodity and a resource to a sacred feminine entity

Water has captured the imagination of nations, poets, lovers, and sages for eons. It dances through our veins and makes up 70% of us and our beautiful planet. Fifty years ago, during the Apollo 8 mission, astronaut William Anders took the first ever picture of Earth as it rose as an exquisite blue sphere above the lunar horizon. The picture, Earthrise, clearly showed our Mother Earth as a Water Mother who was to cement and crystalize a now fifty year old environmental movement to protect her. Today the fragility of our Water Mother once again captures our attention, uniting us in action to find collective solutions for our dying earth and dwindling fresh water supplies.

From the indigenous perspective water is a sacred feminine flowing force who must be honored, respected and taken care of. Not to do so is to invite pestilence, disease, imbalance, and poverty to plague all levels of society. The blessings of water provide protection for babies, courage for warriors, fertility for women, and abundance for individuals. Water is the wisdom mother who teaches us Ubuntu, living in compassionate caring balance with all things. For all things are nourished by one Mother Water.

The Catawba Native Americans, a water people, believe water gives us messages. They believe these messages can be heard if we sit with her for long enough. Many indigenous nations share this belief. Their sacred dances, songs, stories and verses codify her universal messages to mankind, and have done so for millennia. One such story from the Yoruba people of West Africa, when decoded, holds golden keys to collectively solving our water crisis.

It speaks of an ancient time when the world’s waters were drying, everything was dying and the extinction of Earth was imminent. This happened because the original 16 male divinities who inhabited her had forgotten about good stewardship. In a desperate bid to solve the problem they went to all four corners of the earth to seek out experts. But no one could find a lasting solution. In despair they eventually went back to heaven to ask for God’s help. God told them that he could not help them, only the woman he had originally sent to Earth with them could. “To her I gave all the wisdom of the world,” he revealed and then directed, “You must go and beg for her help”. Well, the 16 original male inhabitants were not happy with God. The woman, Osun, was nothing more than a servant to them. How could they go and ask for her help? What could she do to help the world’s problems? What they had not realized is that she was the great World Mother Waters. Eventually they swallowed their pride and begged for her help. Osun, who was pregnant, said she would help the male divinities if she gave birth to a boy. She did, and the child she gave birth to was Esu Etura – the God who opens the way. As a result, the world was restored to peace and balance.

Does the story sound familiar? Today we have gone to all the experts possible for the answers. Yet our world is still suffering from huge ecological problems, and our clean freshwater supplies are fast dwindling. The figures speak for themselves: every 21 seconds a child dies from water-borne illnesses, 780 million people lack access to clean drinking water, the icebergs are predicted to have melted completely within the next four years (faster than had been expected), and aquifers like the Ogallala Aquifer are drying up and with it, 20 billion dollars of food and fiber will vanish from the world market (with current usage rates and practices, aquifers which have taken over a million years to fill will be totally depleted within a hundred years). Like the story suggested – does the answer to the problem really lie with water herself?

In the story, the main solution to the pressing problem of a dying drying Earth was that the male divinities had to stop defining Osun, the Water Mother, as their handmaiden, and realize she was in fact a sacred feminine and powerful Goddess whom they should honor. Their definition of who she was and what she meant to them was askew – it needed fixing. Today our very definition of water defines her as a renewable commodity and a resource. A commodity means an “article of exchange”. A resource means “money or any property that can be converted to money”. Renewable means something that is “inexhaustible or replaceable by new growth.”

So if we think of water in these ways how can we solve the problem? If we keep on treating water as a renewable commodity then we will keep on seeing her as a thing that we can overuse, abuse, own, and neglect. Also, the word renewable makes us believe we have an infinite supply of water that is magically replenished. However, a freshwater supply is not quite the renewable resource that we think. A non-renewable resource is one that has a fixed amount and does not regenerate, such as fossil fuels or water. A renewable resource, on the other hand, is one that regenerates itself and can be consumed for a sustained amount of time, such as lumber and crops. Even renewable resources must be used in a sustainable way; otherwise they will not be able to renew themselves fast enough. Water is not a renewable resource because there is a relatively fixed amount of potable water on earth. There is a fixed amount of freshwater in the global hydrological cycle, and thus a limited supply available for human consumption and use.

Our water situation is forcing us to take a more humane attitude towards her. One which will liberate her and ultimately us to create a balanced sustainable and humane Earth, with beautiful free flowing, available water for all – including generations to come. So it seems that water in all her 12 billion years of wisdom is showing us that we need to collectively change our definition of how we see her. As a Buddhist saying reveals, “Where the mind goes so do our actions”. By redefining water as sacred we are able to act from a place of Ubuntu – collective reverence and positive collaborative stewardship. The definition of sacred is “something that is regarded with reverence”. When we regard something with reverence we treat it better. We find a way to protect, sustain, and honor it. As in the story the answer of changing our perspective of water seems simple, perhaps too simple, but it was and is the answer. The birth of the baby boy represented the birth of a new type of thinking, one that “opens the way” for successful outcomes. As the great philosopher Confucius stated, “Life is really simple but we insist on making it complicated”. While Einstein warned us, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Indigenous people have always maintained an attitude of sacredness towards all life which is reflected through their ceremonies. Water Honoring Ceremonies, in particular, are very ancient and important throughout all world traditions. Through these ceremonies where we extend expressions of gratitude and appreciation to water through song, dance, offerings, and prayers – we pass down sustainable attitudes and techniques learned over thousands of years. In Osogbo, Nigeria, an annual Water Festival is held in honor of Osun, the Mother Waters. Thousands of people from all over the world gather at her sacred Osun River to pray for wealth, health, prosperity and give gratitude in the spirit of collective reverence. As they do so the Osun priesthood and King of the Osogbo renew the ancient pact made between the townspeople and Osun where they promise to continue to honor and respect her. It is said that if this pact were ever broken Osogbo would fall into demise. Today Osogbo is a thriving creative center, and the inhabitants believe it is because they have never broken their pact with Osun, Mother Water.

So drawing further from the lessons of indigenous people and Mother Waters herself, we should begin with the creation of a global monthly (not annual) Water Blessing Day. We would do this to create, accelerate, and facilitate a change in our relationship with our Water and Earth to one that is more sustainable. WaterSongline is an international collaborative water awareness project supported by Humanity4Water Awards, the Center for Sacred Studies and the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. Every month a Water Honoring Ceremony is held and observed by thousands of individuals all over the world. We have found that those who partake in these global ceremonies themselves receive many blessings and insights from the experience. And they strive to continue to walk in the sustainable spirit of Ubuntu.

In summary, I believe we need to:

  • Change our definition and perspective of water from a commodity and a resource to a sacred feminine entity
  • Change our definition of water from renewable to nonrenewable
  • Hold monthly Water Honoring Ceremonies
  • Desist from actions that continue to pollute and dishonor our Mother Waters

Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, while Latin author Juvenal said in the late first century, “Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another”.