Interview with “Sarkin Ruwa” – Master of the Waters [English]

Sarkin Ruwa or the master of the waters is the  title given to a person who has the authority over fishermen. Traditionally the master of the waters has privileged relations with the genii of the River Niger. His authority covers a portion of the river. Nowadays the masters of the waters in Niger and Mali have limited powers and rights. They still perform rituals of propitiation (Yenandi) before rainy season. The rituals imply sacrifices in order to obtain the protection and assistance of the genii so that abundant rains will allow sufficient future harvests. Yet, the practice of traditional religion is seen as uncompatible with Islam and tends to disappear. Nowadays, they often play a role of intermediaries vis-à-vis environmental officers (agents des Eaux et Forêts) when fishermen have been caught breaking laws.

Part 1:

First of all, we would like to thank you for being here to listen to and answer our questions.
It is my pleasure. [0:33-0:40]

As a Master of the Waters, there are spiritual responsibilities that you have to undertake. Nowadays with the arrival of Islam, a religion at odds with such practices, how do you manage balancing both?
With the arrival and adaptation of Islam here, many of our practices have been abandoned. But since we can’t simply give up everything that has been passed down for generations, we continue to practice certain ones so we could effectively survive. [1:17-1:34]

What specific practices were abandoned?? 
In the past, just finding the right place to settle would require fishermen to partake in consultations to see if the settlement area was right for them or not. If the consultations denote that the area isn’t good, the fishermen left to find another space which wold hopefully lead to prosperity. Our parents chose to settle here and thank God they did, because we are comfortable here. Yet, we have given up many of our practices in order to dedicate ourselves to Islam with our prayer beads on our hands. [1:54-2:37]

When was this village established?
This village was established during the time of Diori Hamani. [4:22-4:30]
(Diori Hamani was the first president of the Niger Republic, 1960-1974).

Why did you settle at this location specifically? Why did you leave home?
This was established following a war that destroyed Guiro, our village of origin located in Nigeria. All the fishermen in this village are from Guiro. We pass through Argoungou and Birnin Kebbi to get to Guiro.  [5:50-6:21]

Do you have family in Guiro? Do you visit frequently?
In the past the son of the head of Guiro used to come here and I used to go there, but nowadays the elders of Guiro are deceased; Their grand-children are in charge of Guiro. [7:31-7:46]

When was the last time you’ve visited Guiro?
The last time I was in Guiro was over 30 years ago. Precisely, it has been around 50 years since I went to Guiro and also since people from Guiro came here.  [7:56-8:06]

So you no longer associate with the people of Guiro? Do you no longer marry each other?
Yes, we no longer marry each other [8:30-8:50]
Do you marry/associate with the Kebbawa?
Yes. [8:30-8:50]
So you know the Kebbawa?
We are Kebbawa. [9:32-9:34]

There are some Kebbawa  that often go trough a long journey along the Niger River while fishing. Do you know them?
Know about the Kebbawa that partake in the fishing season. We have some of our own brothers within them. I myself used to go fishing with them at the time we were newly settled in this village.[9:40-9:58]
So it was better to go fishing with them than to fish here?
The location we fished at had much more fish than here. [10:04-10:08]

Has it been a while since you’ve stopped working? 
It has now been over 30 years since I’ve participated in the fishing season . [10:32-10:36]
When I used to fish I would do so at GaoBara and Afoudou. [10:46-10:57]

The number of people partaking in the fishing journey has significantly decreased? What do you think is causing this?
Many traveling  fishermen stopped journeying during the fishing season because of the difficulties they faced. In the past, people lived and fished in peace, there were neither conflicts nor instabilities. Nowadays it’s because of conflicts and instabilities that certain  traveling fishermen decide to stay home. Regardless of those issues, we need to fish to stay alive and so as I’m saying this our brothers are in Hara (in Mali) fishing.  [11:22-11:58]

What is the origin of the instability you’re speaking of?
This instability stems from events that occurred a while ago. One time when we were journeying to fish, we (all the fishermen) were stopped and forced to go to Afoudou. When we arrived at Afoudou, we all told to return our respective villages. We (the ones from Niger) went though Tillabéry, Niamey and Gaya to arrive to Dolé, which is our village. Regarding the fishermen from Nigeria, they were robbed of all their fish and they were forced to return home empty-handed and in tears. Ever since that incident, those specific traveling fishermen from Nigeria have yet to return for the fishing season. [12:20-13:44]

Who robbed them of their fish? Was it the environmental officers?
It was the state that took their fish, and by the state, I mean the Whites, since this occurred during the colonial era. [13:49-14:00]

Have you used engines on your canoes in the past?
No,  we traveled on traditional canoes with paddles all the way to Gao. It was later that canoes with engines became a trend. [14:49-14:55]
You did all of that with your wives and children?
We journeyed with our wives and children and we even built sheds for them on our canoes, similar to the ones on your canoe.  [15:06-15:13]

When you finished fishing, what did you do next? Did you immediately sell the fish or did you transport it with you back home?
In the past when we journeyed to go fishing, we would conserve the fish and later sell it in Accra and Koumassi (Ghana). Nowadays we stopped selling there. [16:43-16:56]

Part 2

3 thoughts on “Interview with “Sarkin Ruwa” – Master of the Waters [English]”

  1. One question that needs further research is about the contribution of ancient religion to the preservation of natiral resources. To what extent did traditional beliefs and rituals have a conservation effect on the socio-ecosystem? for example, the belief that particular animals (black crocodiles, white crocodiles, daria (fish), kairaw (fish), bau (varan)…) are possessed by geniis or are geniis prevent fishermen from killing them.
    I would be very interested in any literature that deals with that.
    Thank you

    1. The master of waters had traditionally a religious and spiritual role and acted as an authority to allocate rights on fishing activities (Fishing bans/periods or sections of the river ) which has been replaced nowadays by the state (work performed by the service for the management of Natural Resources) and Islamic religion.

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