Eritreans and Water: two times, seven days cures illness & the story of Mai Bahria

About Eritrea - Art & Sport

In the Judaic tradition there are two types of water: one situated above and the other below the firmament. The former is a source of bounty and blessing. The latter is the liquid counterpart of Hade or hell, the ocean of oblivion where dead souls float until they are washed ashore by God’s mighty waves. The former, manifested in the seasonal rain that pours down from the windows of the heavenly vault, contains constructive forces, while the latter expressed in seas and lakes hides within it the evil that men abhor.

The old seem to have this early Judaic mentality towards water. For most of them, the water that remains below is a killer of our children and our cattle. Seas and oceans are the abode of the fearful denizens of the deep that swim in its murky bowel and crawl in its dark retreats.

Ponds or small seasonal lakes, including wells, claim many young and precious lives every winter; and rivers are considered treacherous as they carry the unwary wayfarer far away from his native village to be eaten by ravenous hyenas.

You want a free ride to the Sudan? Just plunge into Mai-Bela in Asmera during the heavy July rains and you are in Khartoum in no time,” used to joke some Asmarinos. What’s more you go all the way laughing.

“People that drown in rivers are carried away to their death laughing,” says a popular belief. What a ghastly way to travel a river of no return.

As for the water that comes from on high, it is the same that makes our crops grow and cause our cattle to jump for joy and bestow a new lease on life for the poor and destitute. It is sent by Aba Gigo, our rain god, and everybody loves it except the tourists who come from the north in search of the mighty sun. Very strange, indeed, I thought when I was a student. For us Eritreans, it is fine weather only when it rains. And it is bad weather when the sun shines in its vernal glory. Ye sun worshiping tourists from the northern climes! How do you like that?

When we were kids, we performed rain dances just like the Navaho or Plain Indians of America only that we did it whirling and spinning in the manner of the devout Oriental Dervish:

Aba Gigo

Eater of Gogo(Rock hard local bread)

Send down the rain

And pour it everywhere

In our tradition, the rain is an answer to a long prayer. “Better to have what remains after torrential rains than what remains after a blazing fire” goes a certain saying. In other words, better for property to be destroyed by water than gutted by fire.

And our forefathers were part-time meteorologist as well. If the wind blows from the north and if there is a halo around the moon at night, and if the sky remains deep red during sunset, then there is a possibility of rain.

But ponds and small lakes are the abodes of the devil. I remember when I was a child listening to elderly relatives telling us not to try to bathe in such and such places because Satan is waiting to snatch our souls for good. In the Eritrean tradition there are either fairies or evil spirits in and around ponds, lakes and slow moving rivers. The lake-devil is supposed to drag you by the feet as you try to cross the lake by swimming. Some superstitious people have tried to appease the lake-demons by slaughtering oxen or sheep in vain. “Can one get butter by churning water?” goes our proverb to express the futility of hopeless trial.

There was once a small lake (or laghetto in Italian) built in the northern suburb of Asmara by Italians for some factory nearby. It was known as Mai Bahria by Asmarinos. With the passage of time the Italian Middle class used it as a recreation, an imitation of the Bois De Boulogne in Paris. They knew better than to swim in its muddy water and left sirens of Mai Bahria to snare young kids by their false sound and lead them to their untimely death.

How is one’s life snuffed out by the evil demon that hovers over the waters of Mai Bahria? As one is swimming about splashing the water left and right with their legs-strange style adopted by Eritreans and which has the capacity to brave crocodiles scampering for safety-he[devil] first makes your muscles feel like lead in the lake. He then causes you to lose control and before drowning he causes you to bob up and down three times (the Trinity?) and your last bobbing is a way for saying good-bye to the cruel world. And those on the shore would begin to cry and shout for help. People run towards the man-eating lake. Some people try to rescue the victim by plunging into the murky water. Most of the time without success. When all is tried in vain, the fire brigade arrives and hand over the inert body to the wailing family for a proper burial in dry land.

The water below becomes useful only when used for drink and as holy water by priests. Once a water source is consecrated as a sacred place, one can notice a remarkable change in people’s attitudes.

The water now becomes a cure-all and more or less a latter-day River Jordan where in the past Naaman the Syrian got cured of his leprosy by washing seven times in its cleansing waters.

For better results, our tradition prescribes a double dose. For total cure from spiritual or body ailments it is two times seven days. The medical bill is settled with the giving of a sheep, a goat or a chicken.

Water is also used for baptism, for ablution by Moslems ready to pray to Allah, as a means of exorcism to drive out demons and evil spirits, to wash ones maladies away, etc.

Whenever I listen to news that in such and such place so many people died following torrential rains and flush floods, I am reminded of the Eritrean proverb that goes: Some die because of water and others die for lack of it.

Bathing in streams or ponds is so rare in a country like ours which is not blessed with rivers and lakes that some peasants have only a once-a-year bodily encounter with water, that falls on Pagomen (Intercalary days), the thirteenth month according to traditional Christian calendar. The idea is to wash last year’s sins away before embarking on the next.

In case of madness or schizophrenia, Eritreans use a treatment consisting of hydro-shock therapy which is quite revolutionary. The alleged schizophrenic is made to stand stark naked at the foot of a falling mass of cold water about ten meters high at 4 o’clock in the morning.

If schizophrenia is at all caused by unruly molecules whirling in the brain, the freezing holy liquid hurtling down like a meteor to bash your scull is sure going to maintain some internal cerebral order in the mind.

In Eritrea it is unthinkable to refuse anyone, even your enemy, who asks for water to drink. Your refusal is equivalent to homicide. Water is life and any living thing has absolute right to demand it of those who have it.

But there are some do’s and don’ts regarding the consummation of water. For example, in our tradition, one is discouraged to drink water while eating one’s meal. The idea is that one day that person may find him/herself travelling in waterless places and whatever he/she eats may get stuck in his gullet.

Again little boys or girls are forbidden to drink much water at one go. They can do so only at the risk of suffering from a disease known as Kurumba, a bloating of the stomach cell that only amphibians know how to avoid.
How about bathing in a river or pond from waist down only? The spirits will slice your body into two halves apparently.

When Eritreans began to use Massawa for Christmas recreation, the fear they had for water began to wane as they stood before the clean and majestic body of water with no record of snuffing out children’s lives. But, splashing and wading all their childhood days in muddy ponds did not help them to swim like fish in the Red- Sea. When they saw small local boys swimming like fish without making noise they felt betrayed by Mai Bahria and other small lakes of the highlands.

Young Eritreans of the past learnt nothing from their encounter with Mai-Bahria. This small lake, fifteen minutes’ walk from their school, taught them neither how to swim, save themselves, or not how to save others in time of danger. Highlanders that they were, their fear of water and its treacherous image persisted in their minds for a long time to come. On the other hand, if Mai Bahria did anything at all to pass to posterity it was snatch away from their midst many of their dearest friends in their prime age. It did it before their very eyes and without remorse in cold blood. Damn you to eternity Mai Bahria! They would curse each time they thought about it.