For the typical American, the Nile River may evoke images of ancient mummies or a Steve Martin novelty song from the 1970s. James McCann is not your average person. A historian of Africa’s ecology, food and agriculture, and culture, he delivered Boston University’s 2015 University Lecture on a key Nile tributary—the Blue Nile—as both a 21st-century energy generator and as a talisman of spiritual significance for millennia.
Speaking on November 2, 2015, McCann probed both aspects of the Blue Nile, which coils from Lake Tana in Ethiopia through Sudan, toward Egypt. His talk, “Sacred Waters: Historical Ecology, Power, and the Soul of the Blue Nile,” introduced the wonders of the waterway, positive and negative. To wit: the Blue Nile carves a gorge that rivals the Grand Canyon, it will soon power Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam, and it has been a source of equally staggering danger (Tana’s mosquito-infested wetlands have long incubated malaria).
“My interest in this topic came first from the fact that I lived in the area, near the lake and the source, for two years and have continued to visit those sites in my research,” says McCann, a BU College of Arts & Sciences professor of history. “It is very much an emotional engagement that has lasted for over 30 years. It is based in my intense curiosity about how people, water, and the physical landscape interact.”
McCann, who is also the BU African Studies Center associate development director, earned a doctorate from Michigan State University. He is the author of six books, Historical Ecology of Malaria in Ethiopia: Deposing the Spirits (2015); Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine (2009); Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500–2000 (2007); Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land: An Environmental History of Africa, 1800–1990 (1999); People of the Plow: An Agricultural History of Ethiopia, 1800–1990 (1995); and From Poverty to Famine in Northeast Ethiopia: A Rural History, 1900–1935 (1987). McCann has received a John S. Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship.
BU’s University Lecture dates back to 1950 and gives faculty engaged in outstanding research the chance to discuss their work with the public. The lecturer is chosen by the lecturers of the preceding five years from among nominations by BU’s faculty.
BU Research spoke with McCann before his lecture about the Blue Nile and what he means by the words “soul” and “power.”
BU Research: What do you mean by the “soul” of the Blue Nile?
McCann: “Soul” is a reference to the changing beliefs about the Blue Nile, its source, its cultural meaning to the peoples who have lived at that site, and the high modern national meaning. It also plays on the painted signage on the only fish collection truck near Lake Tana, the river’s source. The sign says that the truck is the “soul [sic] proprietor of lake fish.” I will show a slide of the truck in the lecture. It is a bit of whimsy that I will use in the presentation.
Can you describe the multiple meanings of the word “power” in your lecture’s title?
“Power” in this case is about spiritual power that comes from rituals performed by different groups at the river’s source, but of course also the expectations of the modern national government about the hydroelectric power potential of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam nearing completion on the Blue Nile near the Sudan border. And also that dam as symbolic of the power of the modernizing nation.
Do the dangers of the Blue Nile suggest we should avoid romanticizing this natural wonder?
The lesson is not about avoiding romanticizing the image and reality, but recognizing the various ways that imagery has taken place over time.
Is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam vision for the river in keeping with a proper understanding of its soul and our relationship to it?
Yes. The use of soul is about beliefs that have changed over time, leading up to the modern, current imagination.
Will climate change alter the river’s soul?
The UN climate change group’s estimates for the region of northeast Ethiopia are for a substantial change in the seasonal rainfall, as much as a 25 percent decline. The vision of the dam’s capacity is idealized by the engineers, given possible scenarios for how much or how little water will be available to the dam’s reservoir.