“Nanny” review – Anansi & Mami Wata: West African Myth or Reality?

Nanny, an American psychological horror film written and directed by Nikyatu Jusu, in her feature directorial debut, brings to light the dilemma of being inflicted by Anansi and Mami, the mythologically revered divine companions. 

Anansi, the Akan trickster deity who goes by many other names across west African borders, is known to be totemised as a mysterious yet ever-present spider. Its ancient union with mami wata (mother water), in which they are believed to have a primordial love affair, has been a well-circulated myth, and in some other circles, they are believed to have a divine pact, like in the Igbò world view where Anansi could be more readily identified as Ududo Okwanka an Ekwensu spirit (face) known to be a divine weaver of stories and consequently the master of trickery as well as custodian of secrets, an unspoken divine partner to Nne Mmiri (Mami Wata). They are perceived within indigenous communities to not be able to be influenced even by the divine. However, they can influence each other as they are cut from the same cloth of being divine. To attempt to separate these ancient realities, which are believed to dwell in the dark webs of the unseen and in the deepest parts of the ocean, would be futile as they are several sides of the same coin.

In Nanny, we see one of the main characters; Aisha, faced with a conundrum concerning her son, Lamine (the chosen one), who she longs to bring overseas to be with her. But the difficult realities of surviving as a francophone West African immigrant in the white man’s world plague her and eventually delay her plans to bring her only son, Lamine, abroad to live with her. As is common in West African, a child’s name usually indicates their path, who they are, where they came from, where/how they will go with their life or simply a prayer to accompany them in their life’s journey. Lamine, as identified by Aisha, means ‘the chosen one’. That, alongside the hypnogogic hallucinations involving water, the encounters of seeing apparitions in the water-bodies (that include mirrors), and the water-flooded dreams experienced by Aisha are all clear indications that Lamine is no ordinary child.

They are no ordinary people. Especially as signs of the paranormal persist in Aisha’s life. The more she strives to make her son feel loved by fulfilling her promise to bring him over, the more the signs reminding her of the occupants of her bloodline, like her mother, persist. Those signs which we see in the film become stronger and move into actual incidents that plague her everyday reality.

Anansi is seen to exert its influence on the child she cares for as her job. Mami Wata shows her hand by taking over her senses and pulling Aisha into the world of the irreconcilable to remind Aisha of its available tools. Mami Wata wants what it wants. It gives, and it takes. Where there is water, there is life; where there is life, there is mami wata. It pulls Aisha back into her spiritual heritage, by virtue of belonging to a Wolof family of Senegal, of being West African, whether or not she relocates to places thousands of miles away, whether or not she believes the magic of spirit stays with her, showing its hands in her bloodline and even that of her lovers, whenever she starts to forget or take it for granted. Aisha learns the hard way that when you ignore those signs, you pay the price.

In the words of Nikyatu Jusu as voiced by Katleen, the mother of Aisha’s lover, “the spirits equipped us with resilience, but the tools of the spirit are not always kind.” 

It’s hard to ignore other symbols of reference to West African heritage employed by Nikyatu Jusu, like the visitation of the snake, which is a well-revered totem of West African deities, especially Mami Wata. The background colour placement of sea blue in many scenes in the film. The art placements, as seen with a large framed photograph of a boy with fire behind him, which comes to life at some point in this film and a painting of Mami Wata, both carry strong messages and histories. Jollof rice, our star food, also honours us with its presence in the movie. Aisha’s Nigerian best friend who runs a hair salon, the use of Wolof in communication by Aisha and her family etc. All of these expertly portrayed and executed references point to a job well done by a stellar cast and a production team deserving of accolades.

Nanny, is the film to see for anyone even mildly interested in West African mythology.

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