Lakes embody unique qualities of water that are distinct from streams, rivers, waterfalls, seas, and oceans. Like streams and rivers, lakes are a source of precious freshwater and fish, both essential for sustaining life. However, unlike rivers, lakes are completely bordered by land that, combined with their ability to nurture and sustain life, liken them to the life-sustaining fluids of the womb. Therefore, many lakes are considered “mothers,” have feminine attributes, or are connected with origins.
The Luo name for Africa's most famous lake, Nalubaale (Victoria), the second largest freshwater lake in the world, translates as “Mother of Gods.” Lubaale means deity, and the prefix na denotes the feminine. A further connection between lakes and motherhood exists in the region where Nalubaale is located, which is called the Great Lakes region of East/Central Africa. The Great Lakes region is part of the Great Rift Valley, home to the world's earliest human fossil record. Lake Nalubaale is also the source of the Nile River.
The ancient Egyptians referred to the lands south of the Nile Valley as ta-kenset or literally placenta land. Today, more than 100 million people live in the Great Lakes region, which consists of 14 major lakes and numerous smaller ones, such as Tanganyika, Malawi, Turkana, Edward, Kivu, Kyoga, Rukwa, Mweru, Mobutu Sese Seko (Albert), Haya, Naivasha, Ukerewe, and Nyassa.
Although many lakes are considered feminine, there are some whose spirits and deities associated with it are masculine. Among the Buganda, Mukusa, the deity associated with Lake Victoria is male. Mukasa, the most important of all deities, dwells in the lake and is the lake itself. Mukasa is also the god of fishermen and is known throughout the region by his association with Cwezi cults, a group of hero gods who disappeared into lakes or holes in the ground made by Mukasa. Mukasa also has charge over rain, storms, increase in fish, as well as the granting of the birth of twins. His symbols include pythons, canoe paddles, and the canoe and he receives sacrifices. On the southern shores of Lake Nalubaale, the name of the high god is Ngassa, a possible variation of Mukasa, but with the similar attributes.
Lakes are a place of danger and mystery and are home to mythical creatures, numerous spirits, and quasi human beings. The people living on the mainland claim that the center of Lake Nalubaale is a dangerous place with islands inhabited by hostile natives. The Banyoro make offerings to the spirit of Lake Mobutu Sese Seko when a person wants to cross it. In Ghana, souls are said to say goodbye to God at Lake Bosumtwi. Therefore, it is forbidden to use boats on the lake. Fishermen must use flat boards or rafts, and during July and August, fishing is forbidden altogether because the spirit of the lake is resting.
Generally speaking, there is a deity, spirit, or spirits that reside in or are associated with most lakes in Africa. However, the geographical distribution of lakes in Africa varies, with an abundance of natural lakes in Central and East Africa and relatively few lakes in North and West Africa. The lack of natural lakes did not stop the ancient Egyptians from creating man-made sacred lakes around temples from which to draw pure water, in which to raise aquatic animals, or on which to conduct ritual offerings to neters. They were called she netjeri or divine pool.
- Appiah-Opoku, S., and Hyma, B. (1999). Indigenous Institutions and Resource Management in Ghana. Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor, pp. 15–17.
- Kenny, M. G. (1977). The Powers of Lake Victoria. Anthropos, pp. 717–733.
- Shaw, I., and Nicholson, R., (1995). The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press.