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Ocean myths: the watermeisie and other stories told

By April 19, 2024Inspiration

Reflections from the watermeisie workshop

Her tail glimmers when the light catches it at the right angle. It is iridescent, captivating and shrouded in mystery. Without a sound at first, then a splash, she disappears beneath the surface, leaving no trace but the stories told about her existence. These tales are recounted on ships, by tired hallucinating sea-farers , or by slaves shackled to the unfolding colonialism. They are also told by those living along riverbanks in the remote Eastern Cape, or in new settlements of Soweto and Cape Town. This half-human, half-fish creature is known by different names—watermeisie, mama wetu, mam mlambo, or more commonly, mermaid or siren. She is a mythical creature residing in the ocean and rivers, but the tales of her existence do not stand alone. Like these water bodies, they are intertwined with tales of other events, many of which have shaped people’s relationships with the ocean, river and with each other. History documents lineages lost at sea and across lands—the watermeisie is a basin holding together lost dreams, hopes, fears, and trauma. The watermeisie revealed this to us at a workshop held by The Beach Co-op on March 16, 2024, with The Black Girls Rising, as part of our Women and Water Programme supported by Best Water Technology.

Watermeisie workshop participant colouring in an image of a watermeisie | Image by Jamila Janna

The sea commanded my attention in the studio, the chatter echoing from the staircases as the mothers, grandmothers, and daughters entered Studio Muse, carried in a rich enthusiasm for the day. We had all gathered here on this day to talk about the watermeisie. This discussion was led by the woman who has done years of research on her, Mapule Mohulatsi. As the room filled up, I couldn’t help but look out the large windows one last time before addressing a crowd of 35 people. The turquoise blue-green calm waters, held at bay by the harbour wall from the unsettling ocean, teased me to get in after I was done with the day—I admired her, uNolwande. There were light conversations over coffee and muffins, and then I called to the crowd again: let us begin the workshop.

Warm-ups led by Sikelewa Waka at the Watermeisie workshop | Image by Jamila Janna

On that day, we shared fears, hopes, and anxieties related to the ocean, stemming from a paper Aaniyah Martin, founder of TBCO, had read. This carefully written piece shared different tales of the water-maiden, watermeisie, from Mapule Mohulatsi’s paper, Black aesthetics and deep water: Fish-people, mermaid art, and slave memory in South Africa. Mapule was present that day, the vital thread that enabled these stories to be shared by mothers, grandmothers, and the 2024 cohort of Black Girls Rising.

Sensitive stories were shared over a printed-out map of Monwabisi beach, the beach familiar to all participants. We split into two groups, one with the young girls guided by Sikelelwa Waka, the Programme Coordinator at Black Girls Rising. The second group consisted of the adults, Mapule, and myself, our ears sharp as we listened. Some recounted experiences with drowning, while others spoke of reverence for the river deity mam mlambo. To respect the sanctity of the discussion, I will only share the ‘less sensitive stories’; from whom they were shared (mother, grandmother, or daughter) does not matter.

“God created the world. He created the oceans. You can find the ocean here and there. Dirty things don’t belong in the ocean. It spews out dirty things.”

“Apartheid still exists. I went to Simon’s Town and I could see that the people were asking why we were there…”

“Monwabisi is not right as a beach. Everything bad happens there. If you are ever looking for a missing person you can go to Monwabisi…”

“I was baptized in the ocean. There were white people who were watching what we were doing and we were uncomfortable. I got choked a little bit by the water.”

Watermeisie workshop participants during one of the breakaway discussion | Image by Amy Maria Jacobs

Before concluding the workshop, we gathered once more to share our stories and open our minds. I learned that the young girls have resilience and a curiosity that triumphs over trauma. I learned that stories do die when fighting for survival. My preconceived ideas were shattered, some were reaffirmed, but I was left knowing that the watermeisie calls us again to gather and share further. Soon in April, we will gather with the young girls at Miller’s point, and explore the tidal pool’s rich and hidden diversity, subconsciously channeling our inner watermeisie.

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