The River that Flows North

In Water by Winnie Lokule

Within her body, she carries tears

For she has accepted pain from those around her,

Through the ages, she has taken sorrow

And turned it into blazing water

You do not look hard enough

To see those sounds

Are cries for aid,

For the stream transports history,

Love stories, lost families, secrets

To the sea

The river that flows north.

When I was 14, I wrote a poem detailing the Nile’s long history of turning sorrow into “blazing water.” I understood the fictitious nature of my claims then and even laughed when I read the poem again at 19. Yet now, as I sift through the Nile folklore I requested from my Ugandan and Sudanese friends, the similarities between my fiction and the mythology of these communities cannot be missed. The poem was inspired by my perception of the Nile and its clamorous waters as proclaimed during my childhood in Kampala. The Nile’s love story with Lake Victoria has not only influenced my writing and regional tourism but has immortalized John Hannington Speke, the British explorer who ‘discovered’ this romance.  

The Nile is the longest river in the world. At 6,695 kilometers long, it flows through 10 countries in Northeastern Africa including Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Burundi and Ethiopia. The river holds connotations of mystery, danger and beauty to Nilotic communities, naturally making it an excellent poetic subject. The Sudanese poet Mohamed Bashir Atiq saw the river as a companion for him and his love: “You, me, the Nile and the Moon, I shall not forget the night at the river banks, when we drank love out of flowered glasses.” By juxtaposing the Nile and the Moon, Atiq elevates the river to a position of glory. Poetry of this kind, which is found in historical literature and songs, continues to be written today since the appeal of the Nile is unchanged.

As with all beautiful and ancient natural wonders, the Nile inspires myths in the countries it passes through. Hundreds of years ago in Sudan, villages would pick the most beautiful girl and throw her in the Nile. Perceiving it to be a living and ruthless force, they offered these sacrifices to dissuade the river from flooding that year. The selected girls were referred to as “ عروس النيل,” the bride of the river, epitomizing it as a human male, a powerful creature dressed in misogyny

The practice of offering “brides” to the river is illustrated in this Siddig El-Tigani Omer painting.

Folklore from the Sudans characterizes the Nile as both a source of blessings and curses. In some Nubian communities, water from the Nile is sprinkled during a birth, circumcision ceremony or wedding for good luck. The water was also believed to soothe the suffering of widows. Conversely, communities have shied away from swimming in the Nile at night due to the belief that Jinns and bad spirits live there. For example, the Bari people of South Sudan and Uganda warn children and pregnant women from nearing the river at night for fear that they would be taken by ghosts. In the Sudan’s and Uganda, these myths were present during colonialism, though the rituals may not have been. This was mainly because these countries were not settler colonies, which allowed them to retain most of their cultural beliefs.

Contemporarily, the mythic and poetic significance of the Nile are secondary to its economic importance. The Nile is a great source of tourism, bringing in thousands of tourists to Jinja, Uganda every year who wish to see the source of the Nile. In addition, it provides basic needs, such as water and electricity. The dams built along it are a source of income for countries through exports. 

The historical and modern descriptions of the Nile River accentuate its earthly value and mystical essence. They dignify the beauty of generational knowledge, linking the present to the past. It is through these accounts that one can form a full understanding of a society’s past, present, and future.