Healer praying to water gods, Itanda Falls. Photo by Terje Oestigaard.

River gods at the source of the Nile

NAI researcher Terje Oestigaard is interested in a relatively unexplored area of ​​research. During a three-week field work in Uganda on the White Nile, he interviewed healers who are chosen by river gods.

– I've been blessed by several river gods, says Terje Oestigaard.

The river gods are said to have power over the Nile and have settled in different healers' bodies. They choose which humans they are going to be reincarnated through and are telling them that in their dreams for example, or by allowing them to feel a physical presence of them by a snake. Other healers acknowledge that these people really are chosen and are used as the medium of the river gods. People are then seeking them to be healed.

– If the patient gets well or get lucky in love, you can sacrifice an animal as a gesture of gratitude to the river god . Whoever is declared healthy and not sacrifice anything will be punished, for example by getting sick again, says Terje Oestigaard .

– It's been exciting to meet these healers, not only because it is a fascinating river cosmology but because they have an important role in today's politics and dam building.

Terje Oestigaard’s project examines water rituals and traditions of the White Nile's source at Lake Victoria in Uganda. One part of his studies is the controversial dam at Bujagali Falls, which is largely funded by the World Bank. Many activists have tried to stop the construction. Their main argument was that the dam would destroy the river god and the religion in general. This led to a long conflict between the healers about who the actual river god was .

In 2007 a healer performed a ritual to move the river god and the strongest argument for stopping the construction disappeared. Dam builders and the government argued that the traditional cosmology and modern technologies were combined. But it led to further conflict. It was the wrong healer who performed the ritual and many claim that the river god never has been moved.

– It is not possible to move a river god in the same way that one can  move a goat, and it is the gods themselves that decide if they should be moved, not the people. Today the river god is angry at the construction of the dam, which destroyed the water falls where he previously lived, says Terje Oestigaard .

White Nile flows through several neighboring countries to Uganda and in Khartoum in Sudan where the White Nile meets the Blue Nile. Terje Oestigaard has previously conducted research on the Blue Nile and published the book ”The source of the Blue Nile” tillsammans with Gedef Abawa Firew.

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