Africa at Noon on March 11, 2015

A Tale of Mami Wata, Photography and Riches

Florence Bernault
Professor, History
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Time and Location

12:00pm, 206 Ingra­ham Hall, 1155 Obser­va­tory Drive, Madi­son, WI

Download Poster (pdf)


This paper follows the story of a mermaid in Mouila (southern Gabon) and the colonial legacies that inflect her contemporary lore.  Murhumi progressively transformed from a water spirit and a provider of riches into a palimpsest figure combining the Virgin Mary with global Mami Watas.  The tale invites to reflect on deep historical shifts in Equatorial Africa, particularly the agentive relation that people establish between technological might, access to riches and the photographic revelation of the invisible world.


Florence Bernault teaches and researches on the formation of modern identities, nation-states, and popular culture in West and Equatorial Africa from the 19th century to the present. Her book in progress, Struggles for the Sacred: An Intellectual History of Colonialism and the Occult in Gabon, revisits colonialism as a circulation of anxieties about personal and social survival, tracing key changes in how people attempted to harness spiritual forces, public authority, and the value of the body. She is also working on a collective project on Histories of Violence in Africa, and has written extensively on France’s current debates about citizenship, naturalization, and immigration.