Continued from last week
Any study of African culture in the Caribbean at this time, 171 years after Emancipation, will confront an overarching theme of waning traditions. In spite of that, there is in existence a prevailing cultural fabric contributed by the African ethos that is of infinite and unfathomable power. Much of it is not generally appreciated. There have been processes of natural/normal cultural change; there have been forces of acculturation; historically, there has been forced suppression in the colonies during and after slavery; there have been severe psychological damage and forms of racism. But most significant have been the local attitudes that have caused self-suppression, diffusion and acculturation.
Further limitations come from the fact that every year on August 1 there are several Emancipation greetings “to our African brothers and sisters” or to “the African community” rather than to the whole nation or to all the people of the whole Caribbean region. This does not acknowledge the international or universal importance of Emancipation, its impact or its contribution to the building of the nations (see also, David Granger, SN ‘A Special Advertising Feature: The Meaning of Emancipation,’ August 1, 2009).
As far as Guyana is concerned there is a need for more information about the African factors in Guyanese culture and then proper acceptance of them, including those suppressed, ridiculed, disparaged, criminalized or otherwise legislated against. Others have just been misunderstood.
They are there in the villages and the customs, the surviving vestiges, but too much under-researched. There are no cultural institutions that have done the work to discover, draw them out and highlight them. The same cannot be said for historical research, however, since the political and social (if not the artistic/cultural) traditions have been covered by historians. There is the Museum of African Heritage, the National Trust, and the many publications. These include David Granger’s Emancipation, the Free Press publications on the free villages, the University of Guyana History Gazette and Journal of Guyanese History, as well as Themes in African Guyanese History by Granger, James Rose and Winston McGowan.
However, of major importance is what remains in the communities, the culture and the minds of the people. There is where survival matters. Today, there are traditions that have already faded, others that are moribund, and those that strengthen Guyanese nationhood.
What are some of the strong, positive factors, cultural institutions and survivals in Guyana’s national culture contributed by the African ethos?
One of the strongest and most amazing of these traditions is also one of the most misunderstood, trivialised and disparaged. This is the kwe-kwe (queh-queh) tradition performed in song and dance. Despite the depth and range of this as well as its extended social contribution to the Guyanese psyche, it is often given superficial treatment. The songs and the dance are popular, but it is less known as a social institution. Furthermore, it is viewed as vulgar because of sexual content in some lyrics and gesture.
The kwe-kwe is a wedding custom; a pre-nuptial rite indigenous to Guyana. Although of African derivation, there is no known equivalent in African society and it is a practice that evolved in Guyana. But as a tradition and a social institution it is a good example of the nature of a Guyanese society with African structure, style and values in the way it handles marriage, the family and social order. The supposed sexual explicitness in the lyrics makes it a popular event, but far from this perceived “vulgarity,” it is used to maintain social order, provide instruction, promote and praise chastity while criticising and satirising wayward or errant behaviour. While many revellers delight in the erotic content, which they invariably exaggerate, the kwe-kwe songs discourage and warn against promiscuity. The entire tradition as it is known in some rural villages is much larger and more complex than the singing and dancing on the night before the wedding. It celebrates the uniting of families, the making of a marriage in African customs and the promotion of positive social values.
Another tradition with a few similarities to the kwe-kwe is the Nansi Tori which seems to be rapidly fading away. It is also a part of the satirical tradition so well known in African societies and also serves as a means of social control, promoting values and being very critical of unacceptable behaviour, including sexual misconduct. Such traditions are outstanding contributions to Guyanese society which still makes use of techniques for social control including satire, theatre, speech events and performance traditions. This is undoubted African culture. In these institutions the community takes responsibility for the well-being of its members, for instruction and reprimand, and this is administered through poetic or theatrical techniques.
The use of proverbs, folk songs and folktales serves similar purposes. Proverbs are not unique to African culture but they are definitely part of an oratorical tradition continued in Guyana. Like many folktales and folk songs they provide instruction and transmit wisdom, and such techniques were valuable to an oral tradition in which writing played no part. That is one reason so many folk songs have meanings not overt or explicit and have to be interpreted.
There are several traditions that make use of spiritualism and spirit possession, which have their roots in religious ritual. Among these are some of the most misunderstood, disparaged and ridiculed African institutions in Guyana. They would be readily disowned, made fun of by Guyanese who are generally ashamed of them, and some of them were criminalized by the colonial authorities and remain “illegal” today.
Obeah is the most outstanding example of these. Although obeah was a powerful African cultural form, it is virtually unknown and mistrusted in contemporary society which does not know the difference between true obeah and a confidence trick. Like ancient alchemy, the latter is often put in the place of the former. But historians including Franklin Knight, Verene Shepherd and sociologist Orlando Patterson have recorded the importance of obeah (obias) in slave societies. It was a power possessed by leaders, a weapon against the enemy in times of war, a protection and a cure. Colonial lawmakers took the trouble to make detailed records of its practice (see Bumbury, The Obeah Book). It had many forms and practices, including the use of different drums, dances and songs (as recorded by Martha Warren Beckwith).
It might be difficult for contemporary western society to properly understand the role and importance of the spirits, spirit possession and attempts to control a sometimes hostile environment to the Africans who brought their obias to the Caribbean. It is part of ancestor worship. It helped to sustain the maroons who fled and fought slavery. Contemporary Guyana, therefore finds this culture of spirituality laughable. Other possession rituals like the kumfa are disparaged and the kumfa, in particular, is often confused with or “lumped” with obeah as a practice to laugh at or be ashamed of. Yet it is not obeah, but a powerful tradition of its own structure in the same vein as Trinidad’s Shango or Jamaica’s Kumina.
Wakes and Nine Nights are other parts of the social fabric which involve spirit possession, but they are not denigrated. Perhaps this is because they have been affected by cultural diffusion and the possession element is not widely known to contemporary practitioners and has long been dispensed with. In these cases lack of knowledge of the original rites makes the wake more acceptable to contemporary society.
These are all parts of the cultural heritage of Emancipation. They originated in slavery and became more pervasive in post-Emancipation societies, although most of them had a history of struggle in the development of the colonies. The use of the artistic, the theatrical, the ritual and the poetic as means of social expression is a well known factor in Guyanese society. Such practice is known in Africa and is part of that cultural contribution to a Guyanese nation. Just as in the case of Creole (Creolese) Guyana’s first language, the Guyanese nation still needs to find out more about it, and to appreciate its power, and its positive value.