Divining Water


By Maniza Naqvi

“Say: Just think: If your water were to dry up in the morning who will bring you water from a fresh, flowing stream?”

A sunflower yellow plastic container caught my attention as my cab weaved its way through morning traffic in DC. Exactly the kind carried every day of the year on the backs of camels, mules, women and children from Addis to Lemo to Jijiga to Woldia to Mekele-and all the places east, south, west and north of them. The kind like a jerry can used for selling cooking oil and recycled by millions to fetch water often over long distances and difficult terrain. I walked back later in the day in search of it. There it sat, just around the corner from the White House gracing the ledge outside a vending kiosk. The yellow color, radiant and hopeful in the sunshine set against the chrome exterior, of the tiny shop. There perhaps, as a memory or a talisman, or an offering. Inside, the kiosk, an Ethiopian woman selling hotdogs and chewing gum– and bottled water from New Zealand to passersby.

Thousands of miles and days later in Addis, my eyes focus on the yellow container strapped to the back of a slow moving woman in the crowd milling about a construction site, my eyes train on her, she is pregnant. Hundreds of dilapidated and messy kiosk sized houses, cafes, businesses have been removed, to find livelihoods elsewhere on the outskirts of attention, to make way for organized, tall and sprawling shiny corporate sized realities. Inside, one such air conditioned conference room, where I sit gazing out the window, the speaker has been talking about climate change—the rising temperatures, more rains, more floods and more droughts: this subject will lead all others from now on, he says, and will be the new theme for attracting financing for those whose business it is to reduce poverty. The answer is charismatic carbon— programs which have the potential to attract financing to support food for the poor through dispensing carbon credit to growth industries.

Someone whispers in my ear: “New theme? Nothing new at all! It seems like hostage taking of the poor by holding their condition up for their own ransom. We won’t create the conditions to allow people to grow their own food—and we won’t stop polluting or thinking only about growth and we’ll keep shoveling food aid at people whose weather risk we’ve increased because of our pollution. We’ll keep thinking of indebting further, credit this and credit that—now can you believe this? Carbon credit! Charismatic carbon! Burning up our planet–drying up our water for greed.!”

A polluter somewhere else can continue to pollute if he finances schemes which deliver food to the most vulnerable to climate change, the poorest who are dependent on agriculture and are most affected by the rising temperatures. This rich polluter can buy the carbon credit of these non polluting programs and for that amount of credit can be allowed to continue to pollute. “Charismatic carbon, ashes of the poor!” All theologies seem to carry within them the same anxiety, the same sense of fear which needs the same pathology and practice of hostage taking of the poor.

Burnt offerings—of the poor, sacrificed at alters of greedy Gods — and paltry alms to appease are thrown at the poor while there are feasts for the high priests. I reach for the plastic bottle of water on the table the label says YES! It has a picture of a woman carrying a clay water vessel on her back. I think of the Goddess I saw in the National Museum in Addis on the day I stroll by the displays–trying to pass the hours—looking for meaning—looking for what might matter. Thinking of the delayed rains—late this year. Rain is mentioned forty-two times in the Koran—so is the word Mother. I think of water, love, matter — all our matter—mostly water. Do all the gods and their religions revolve around rivers, water and empty vessels? (Sura 67: Al-Mulk 30). “Say: Just think: If your water were to dry up in the morning who will bring you water from a fresh, flowing stream?” Water and its forms rain, rivers, floods, streams, torrents, rivulets, are mentioned over and over again in the scriptures and in the Koran these words are mentioned more than the words life or death or any prophet or the words good and evil.

The vessels held by Yamanat maybe are, symbols of a hopeful womb, of earth, waiting to receive life or a grieving womb—or are they clay pots allaying anxiety, managing risk, waiting to be filled with the most precious and essential thing to be prayed for—water, the harvesting of the rain—water to be stored—to be buried to be saved—to bring moisture to the land when the rains will not come. For children are plenty and rain scarce. Are the vessels that Yamanat cradles for the ultimate harvest of water that ensures all other harvests? Water is harvested by burying clay pots full of water inside the womb of the arid lands of Sindh and Baluchistan for moisture to seep out slowly. A natural time released irrigation system. Surely this practice, this ritual, this belief system, so wise, is widespread?

In the National Museum in Addis Ababa, Yamanat sits encased in a glass cage. Somewhere in the basement is a model replica of Lucy—for she has been taken away to the US for research and to work for museums as a profitable exhibit gawked at by millions and thus she too has been unable to avoid Diaspora or homelessness even 4 million years after her death.

Yamanat made of terrocota clay is from Yeha, Tigray from the tribe of Myrb. She holds two vessels in her lap her ankle length dress, is decorated with sprays of flowers and a border: seven dots around a single dot. The inscription is Southern Arabic, translated, reads: “For the god grants a child to Yamanat. 6th-5th C.B.C.” This inscription is from around the same time as when another mother Tomyris lost her son in battle, and defeated Cyrus the great on the Banks of the Amyu Darya, the Oxus, five to six hundred years before a child was granted to Maryam besides a stream and then taken from her—and another six hundred years later, as a thirsty Zainab, in the wilderness, surrounded by empty water vessels, lost her family, on the Banks of the Euphrates. How closely related are all of them to Yamanat and to Manat and Allat, I wonder?

I look at the two clay empty vessels Yamanat holds in anticipation and I am reminded of the Indus in flood. I think of Soni, another goddess of sorts of folklore. I don’t belong here in your thoughts of climate change, water and Yamanat, she says to me and I hesitate, but you do I say. You do. You belong here: the wife of a potter who, night after night used a clay pot such as this to float across the Chenab to reach a forbidden love, a man, an immigrant from Bukhara. Doomed, to be, found out, by a jealous sister-in-law who replaced the clay pot with an unbaked one. And so on a moon lit night you are doomed to drown with your lover who swam out to rescue you. To have been drowned for love, amidst, the currents of a river, in flood. You belong here, your body and his washed away in the Chenab into the Indus, rescued by people downstream. The thirsty—those in the desert—those without water—the poorest of the poor who retrieved the bodies built a shrine to you and to your lover. They revere you.

Are these vessels for water or are they for love? Do they signify abundance or absence? Or do they signify that all that matters in matter is water, that life and death are water, that we are forever to be, transformed and absorbed as water. Soni drowned in the abundance of love and Yamanat in its thirst?

“The answer is charismatic carbon—to sustain economic growth—it has the potential to attract carbon credit and support risk mitigation schemes and food for the poor.” But Yamanat urgently whispers otherwise.

More Writing by Maniza Naqvi (here)