Exousiance: What Rivers Teach Us About Power

Minna Salami
Nov 1st, 2020



The silencing of women and rivers in institutions of power bridges a connection between reality and myth; it is no wonder river goddesses are vengeful.

Power is to human beings what gravity is to rivers. It is the vital source that helps us flow through the meandering streams of our lives.

It is equally the force with which we build movements, effect change, and act against injustice. Power is the kernel of our becoming. 

Just as the river aims toward the ocean, so too do humans strive toward our ultimate destination: self-actualisation. You can call the destiny where streams of desire converge, by a different name—contentment, enlightenment, purpose, fulfilment, equipoise—I favour psychologist Abraham Maslow’s way of putting it in his famous essay about the pyramid of human needs, A Theory of Human Motivation: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualisation.” (Side-eye to the androcentrism.) 

 

When it comes to constructed obstacles, humans and rivers share one of the most significant impediments, climate change. 

 

Our individual journeys toward self-actualisation are obstructed by barriers. The blocks can be psychological—a person might, for example, have low self-esteem or suffer from addiction or trauma. They might struggle to find a sense of purpose at all or experience a lack of support from their family. Everyone—regardless of their social, gender, or ethnic background—faces some degree of psychological obstacles in the path to self-actualisation. 

However, collectively, obstacles are often socially constructed and follow similar patterns. Social norms, laws, customs, and political systems can stump power from flowing. When laws prevent young women from abortions and they miss opportunities to pursue desired life paths, or when same-sex couples are unable to marry legally, or when people are prevented from expressing their views because of state censorship, or when resources are unfairly distributed, or when psychosocial and spiritual life suppresses the feminine principle – then socially constructed barricades are at play. When it comes to constructed obstacles, humans and rivers share one of the most significant impediments, climate change. 

Wuhan, or ‘China’s Chicago’ as the city is typically referred to, lies at a crossroads of The Yangtze and the Han River. The two rivers divide Wuhan into three sections which each make the city central China’s most important one. Wuhan is now known for reasons other than its bustling metropolis, of course, but the city was newsworthy long before COVID-19. With over a million inhabitants already in the 1850s (London at the time the world’s largest city had a population of two million), it was the birthplace of China’s 1911 revolution; it was China’s industrial hub in the early twentieth century and; significantly, it was the city that was most severely impacted by the deadly 1931 floods in China, which took more than two million lives. When the tides swelled into the city in the spring of 1931, it turned streets into canals and filled them with floodwater, wastewater, corpses and eventually epidemic disease. Wuhan is hardly a stranger to natural disasters. 

 

 

“Power is to human beings what gravity is to rivers. It is the vital source that helps us flow through the meandering streams of our lives.”

 

The 1931 flood is the deadliest in human history, but it is not the only flood that the Yangtze has caused. In postdiluvian years, Chinese authorities expeditiously built dams along the Yangtze to prevent future catastrophes. But the world’s third-largest river has a history of devastating carnage. From its very first drops as it surges from its source on the Tibetan Plateau to its mouth at the port of Shanghai, year after year, due to violent floods, countless people take their last breaths amid its deluge. 

This changed in 2012, when the world’s largest power station was completed – the Three Gorges Dam. Yet while the dam may have reduced floods (so far, anyway), in exchange, there has been a thirty-fold increase of earthquakes in the region; species such as the Yangtze finless porpoise are endangered; thirteen cities, dozens of towns, and hundreds of villages have been submerged; and over a million people displaced. Whatever advantages the dam has brought China, have come at a high cost.

The Yangtze river has always wreaked havoc. In Nine Songs, the ancient set of poems composed by Qu Yuan as early as 343–278 B.C., the poet conjures Dongting Lake, into which the Yangtze flows from Wuhan, as a place of both temptation and death.

 

The Child of God, descending the northern bank,

Turns on me her eyes that are dark with longing.

Gently the wind of autumn whispers;

On the waves of Dongting Lake the leaves are falling.

(trans David Hawkes)

 

In the Global South, women significantly contribute to agriculture yet many are not entitled to land ownership. Both women and rivers enable life but have little influence at decision-making level.

 

As the poem shows, the Yangtze, like most rivers, is associated with the feminine. To my mind, this is not only mythopoetic; it is also logical. After all, rivers help us grow the food we need to nourish ourselves. All over the world, women too have primary responsibility for feeding. Several reports during the COVID-19 pandemic have for example shown that women are managing caring and domestic roles to a greater extent than men. In the Global South, women significantly contribute to agriculture yet many are not entitled to land ownership. Both women and rivers enable life but have little influence at decision-making level. The silencing of women and rivers in institutions of power bridges a connection between reality and myth; it is no wonder river goddesses are vengeful. 

In the above poem, the “child of god” with eyes “dark with longing” is the river goddess, Xiang Jun and her younger sister Xiang Furen (both are collectively referred to by the elder sister’s name). Xiang Jun were married to Emperor Shun and when his enemies killed him, the sisters jumped into the Dongting Lake. Every year, when the Yangtze empties into Dongting, the lake swells from 2000 to 20000 cubic metres of water causing floods in the region where Wuhan lies.

Daoism, where the Nine Songs form a crucial text, reflects this eerie, solemn and overpowering feminine principle or the 陰 (yin) in the yinyang concept. Yinyang (not hyphenated in Chinese usage) is a complex paradigm of thought where feminine and masculine are not simplistic. There are rigorous debates about the commercialisation of the concept, as well as about the consequent essentialising of the feminine and masculine within yinyang. 

This is not the place to enter those debates, but I am persuaded by feminist philosopher Robin R Wang who argues in her book Yinyang: The Way Of Heaven And Earth In Chinese Thought And Culture, that yinyang is a notion through which sex and gender roles are not fixed entities but rather points of embodiment in a spectrum which both women, men and all living entities embody. The dark feminine principle of the river in Qu Yuan’s poem is gendered but “unsexed”. 

 

 

“Both women and rivers enable life but have little influence at decision-making level. The silencing of women and rivers in institutions of power bridges a connection between reality and myth.”

 

In this spirit, if we were to compare the character of the Yangtze to human struggles for power, it would remind us of groups such as the Suffragettes, Mau Mau rebels, Black Panthers, the anarcho-syndicalist militias of the Spanish Civil War—and more recently protesters in London, Cairo, Paris, Hong Kong, Bolivia, Chile, Iran, and Baltimore—groups who, like the Yangtze, felt they had no choice but to resort to violent revolt to reclaim power.

All rivers start as tiny streams at mountaintops. As the streams trickle down, they are met by other small streams and tributaries, together growing larger and larger until their mutual flow becomes a river. The more the river widens, the more power it has to circumvent the barriers in its way. When a river meets an obstruction, it moves under, above, around, or through whatever prevents it from flowing. When blocked, a river revolts with all its weight, including that of the streams and tributaries that pour into it, until it flows smoothly again. 

Rivers flow down mountains, valleys, and plateaus. They flow into lakes, ponds, and seas. At times the process is barely visible, like the gentle, lapping flow of a river surface while deep at the river’s bottom mighty streams surge. At other times a river’s explosive movement is visible, for instance, when a dam can no longer withstand the force of water dashing against it and blazes open to a furious whorl of water. With the help of gravity, rivers swirl, surge, and push toward their final destination, the ocean. 

However, not all rivers push forward with the rage of the Yangtze. The River Thames is comparatively polite, as per British custom. The river throws its fair share of tantrums, of course. In 1928 it swelled over into the heart of central London, killing a dozen people and making tens of thousands homeless. There are no guarantees that the Thames will not overflow in the future. In fact, potential flooding of the river is one of the greatest, yet barely talked about, threats to safety in twenty-first-century London. 

 

All in all, the women’s struggle has been timid if not for unexpected eruptions, such as the fight for women’s suffrage and the eruption of the Me Too movement.

 

Yet despite human-created barriers that disrupt its flow, the Thames unfurls with the status quo, adapting to forever changing power relations. Controlled by the Danes, worshipped by the Druids, venerated as a place of ritual by the Romans, a source of strife by the Anglo-Saxons, the site of burgeoning imperialism, aristocratic festivity, and pomp and ceremony for the early Empire, “The Thames,” as MP John Burns said, “is liquid history”. 

Isis, the Ancient Egyptian Mother Goddess of fertility, is the feminine principle of the River Thames (and not the principal deity of the River Nile as one might guess – it was the deity Hapi). The river is known as “The Isis” in Oxford, through which it flows, but it is not clear how the Ancient Egyptian goddess came to symbolise the feminine principle of the Thames. 

Whatever the reasons, I find it interesting that the Thames’s patron goddess is an accommodating one, much like the nature of the river itself. As a precursor to the Virgin Mary, Isis is the goddess of fertility and motherhood. She is the maternal archetype who purposefully yet benevolently takes a backseat to nurture the great power of the men in her life. For Mary it was Jesus, for Isis – her son Horus. It is no surprise that there are over fifty churches dedicated to St. Mary along the Thames’s banks as Peter Ackroyd documents in the phenomenal book, Thames: Sacred River. 

If the Yangtze bears similarities to groups such as the Suffragettes and the Mau Mau rebels, you could compare the Thames to women at large, who have been toiling, carrying burdens, and performing labour for centuries, to a comparatively small return. All in all, the women’s struggle has been timid if not for unexpected eruptions, such as the fight for women’s suffrage and the eruption of the Me Too movement. These events are a reminder that just as the Thames may flood at any minute, so too may a woman somewhere raise her voice, and the grievance of her words may gather force and cause a flood of change.

 

 

“Just as the Thames may flood at any minute, so too may a woman somewhere raise her voice, and the grievance of her words may gather force and cause a flood of change.”

 

The River Niger, the third river that forms this piece, speaks especially to both individual and collective empowerment and to the process of circumnavigating obstacles and manifesting power. It conveys an active resistance and a life-affirming process of being and becoming that I refer to as exousiance. 

The Niger is not as belligerent as the Yangtze or as accommodating as the Thames. It is calm and unbothered at first glance; it follows its course rather predictably, and does not tend to erupt in violently deadly floods. However, as the river journeys through the terra-cotta-coloured Sahelian lands toward the Atlantic Ocean, those who disrupt its flow do so at a costly price, as the group of elite British men who, in 1788, founded the African Association would discover. The association “set off on expeditions to discover the source, course and mouth of the River Niger”. The expedition would take forty-three years and thousands of lives. 

One of the first, and undoubtedly the most famous, of explorers whom the association commissioned for its mission was the Scottish doctor Mungo Park, who learned that “travels in the interior districts of Africa,” as the book he wrote upon his return—to great acclaim—was titled, were easier said than done. Park was one of the few men who made it back to England to tell the story. The first time that is. When Park returned to the Niger nine years after his first mission, he joined the long list of men whose quest to conquer the river would be their last one.

 

The merging streams of rivers show us that there is power in the collective. 

 

The British explorers would have met a different fate if, rather than impetuously trying to conquer the Niger, they had had the forbearance to cooperate with the river and the people who had coexisted with it for millennia. Instead, they mistook its calmness for docility; and the exploration of the river soon became the exploitation of the entire river region. They may eventually have found its source and along the way conquered the city-states through which the river flowed. But what conventional history doesn’t tell, which the Niger does, is that the African Association’s story was not a story of victory. Despite standing little chance against the advanced weaponry of the British Empire, the people of the Niger, and the river itself, fought back along step of the way creating a lasting rift in the entangled “liquid history” between the Thames and the Niger. The African Association may have won the battle, but they lost the war.

The Niger proved enigmatically uncooperative. Unlike most rivers, which move toward the ocean in the most straightforward possible way, the Niger takes a mind-boggling and capricious detour to reach its destination. Instead of flowing directly from the deep ravine in the Futa Jallon Highlands in Guinea, its source, to the swampy delta of Nigeria, its mouth, the Niger ventures north from Guinea through Mali, Niger, and Benin before looping south through Nigeria, where its limbs eventually branch out into the ocean. The locals knew this but never gave away the river’s secret.

The patron goddess of the Niger in the Yoruba kingdom is Oya, the goddess of thunder and transformation. According to Yoruba cosmogony, and in the similar spirit of the Dao mentioned earlier, Oya is invoked when imbalance creates disorder. Oya is a parapsychological deity that directly represents feminine resistance toward patriarchy. She is as much the patron of women’s rights as she is of the Niger. She is disruptive and insolent but from a place of compassion and care. As I have argued, Oya is the very archetype of feminist consciousness in an African milieu. 

 

 

“The river suggests that we cannot run away from injustice, we must confront it.”

 

Critical action from a place of mindful compassion – as we may refer to Oya’s message – is also what the Niger tells us about power.  The river suggests that we cannot run away from injustice, we must confront it. After all, to flow through obstructions—as the river does—requires that we identify the obstacles that prevent exousiance, the flow of power. If we fail to recognise the accurate blockages, the movement does not run smoothly; it dashes against the barrier, risking exhaustion. There is power in clearly perceiving the obstacles in the way of self-actualisation, both individually and collectively. Still, the river also suggests that we should confront injustice with the spirit of Eros – in awareness that we form part of what biologist Andreas Weber refers to as an erotic ecology. 

The merging streams of rivers show us that there is power in the collective. Yet once a river reaches the ocean, its streams separate again, reminding us that in the end, our collective and individual journeys are interwoven. The journey to self-actualisation is ultimately, inadvertently, also one of self-transcendence. As the Indian mystic, Kabir says, “All know that the drop merges into the ocean, but few know that the ocean merges into the drop.”

The amalgamation of power and love toward an elevated co-existence is exousiance. For this reason, and building from the first essay in this series, exousiance is immeasurable. The dominant culture obsesses with measuring power as ranking and grading fits well with hierarchical thinking. After all, if power can be measured, then it follows that people will be more interested in accumulating it rather than using it positively. 

 

We must include in knowledge production those who are typically excluded – women, indigenous people and the nonhuman natural world. 

 

In this Europatriarchal paradigm, power is defined by demagoguery and oligarchy; power is a tool that deflects corruption. But in the prism of exousiance – a prism of optimal becoming in harmony with everything else in the same process of optimal becoming – if power can be assessed by anything at all, it is by a deep understanding of reciprocity. Exousiance is the optimal convergence of reciprocity. While you can’t formulaically measure power with exousiance, you can say that somebody or a group of people are in a state of power. Power has a qualitative and not a quantitative meaning. It is similar to love – embodied and uncountable.

When I think of a person who gives human form to exousiance, Martin Luther King is one of the first who comes to mind. He did not merely have power, he was in a state of power – reciprocal, automatic, resisting injustice, in active process of becoming, like a river. As he himself put it, “Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, or economic changes.”  Feminist economist perspectives such as the gift economy and Elinor Ostrom’s work on governing the commons are also shapers of exousiance. They provide reciprocal tools that can organically evolve while interweaving the feminist struggle against sexual discrimination. They are central because to change the way we think about how we shape and structure the world, we must include in knowledge production those who are typically excluded – women, indigenous people and the nonhuman natural world. 

Rivers reflect the things that we associate with power; history, economics, gender and modernity all have been shaped amid the paths of the world’s great rivers. As poet Langston Hughes wrote, “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins / My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” What we ultimately can confer from rivers, each river meandering and branching in different ways, is how to embody exousiance – the alchemical and catalytic power of being and becoming together with everything else that is being and becoming. In times of rapid transformation as these are, drawing from the old souls of rivers is more important than ever. 


Minna Salami is a Nigerian, Finnish and Swedish writer and commentator. She is the founder of the multiple award-winning blog Ms Afropolitan and the author of Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone.