Mudheads in Barbados: A Lived Experience

By Linden Lewis

Linden Lewis is Professor of Sociology at Bucknell University. This is an adapted version of an essay, ‘Jack Muh Nanny Gap,’ that appeared in the most recent issue of “BIM: Arts for the 21st Century,” Volume 4, no.2. First published out of Barbados in 1942, Bim Magazine ran until 1996, and was relaunched in 2007.  For subscription and other information, e-mail Esther Phillips at ebcci@uwichill.edu.

(This is one of a series of weekly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guyana and the Caribbean)

My father, Winston, was born in what was then British Guiana to Barbadian parents.  They were missionaries, who were assigned missionary work in Guyana.  My father’s ties to Barbados are strong even if he were born outside of the island.  Missionary work was itinerant, so having come to Guyana where the Christian mission had led my grandparents, it was not long before they moved on to Trinidad and then back to Barbados.  My father returned to Guyana in 1942 where he met and married my mother, Florence, in 1944.  My siblings and I were all born in Guyana.  My father was a printer.  He worked at the Chronicle in Guyana, until he heard of job opportunities in Barbados at the Advocate.   In 1960 my father responded to a recruiter from Barbados, who was soliciting people to work at the Advocate.

In 1960, movement of labor from one territory to the other was fairly common.  Once the opportunity presented itself, one was able to travel and work in a neighboring country.  There is a cruel irony in this fluidity of labor movement.  Labor mobility was permissible when we in the Caribbean all lived under the yoke of colonial bondage.  Currently however, now that we are almost all independent, sovereign nations, protection of local jobs and national borders is vital, even as we herald the lofty ideal of regional unity.  My father had moved from Guyana to Barbados, but there was a prior movement of people from Barbados to Guyana, beginning from the period of emancipation onwards.

The period between 1863 and 1886 was the most intense period of Barbadian emigration to Guyana, but even as late as the 1920s and 1930s there were still Barbadians leaving for Guyana.  The majority of Barbadians who migrated to Guyana were cane-cutters.  The then British Guiana was a safety valve for a densely populated island such as Barbados that had limited job prospects for the mass of working class people, and little available and affordable land for the development of an independent peasantry.  The genealogies of Guyanese and Barbadians are so intertwined that it is not uncommon to learn of Guyanese who have grandparents from Barbados, and vice versa.  There are deep families ties in which, in one family, half of the children could be born in Guyana and the other half in Barbados.  My own extended family embodied this split national profile.  The familial ties are enduring, but the vicissitudes of development have been more favorable to Barbados, while the fortunes of Guyana have rendered the country less attractive by comparison in the contemporary period.

My family and I moved to Barbados in 1962 from Guyana.  We were to be reunited with my father who had left Guyana two years earlier.  After a short stay in my grandfather’s house in Grazettes, we moved to the middle part of Wavell Avenue.  Wavell Avenue – a street that had been renamed sometime in the 50s before my family started living there.  The avenue used to be called Jack Muh Nanny Gap, a colorful, Barbadian name, rich in culture and resonant with working class life and aesthetics.  According to Addington Forde, in Place-Names of Barbados, the street was named after a brother and sister, Jackie and Annie.  The contraction of these two names must have happened over time and from constant usage.  For whatever reason, this name was replaced by Wavell Avenue, so named in honor of Sir Archibald Percival Wavell, 1st Earl of Wavell, a British field marshal, and Commander of the British Armed Forces in the Middle East during World War II.  It is still not clear to me what is the relationship between Lord Wavell and Barbados, let alone a tributary avenue off Black Rock, a major traffic artery in the parish of St. Michael.  Perhaps, people were ashamed of too folksy a street name, or perhaps the name Wavell Avenue just sounded more respectable to the authorities with the power to name places, but regardless of the necessity for the name change, people who lived on that street could not recall being asked either about retaining the name or changing it.

The first house we moved to in Wavell Avenue was not to the front of the street but nestled in the bowels of a long gap, which at night required good vision to wend one’s way to where our house was located.  You did not exactly get to the house by chance but at night, in the absence of a lit pathway, intuition was an important skill.  Our house was a classic Barbadian chattel house – one gabled roof, a shed and a kitchen.  In the post-emancipation period, the Located Labourers’ Act permitted the ex-enslaved to build houses on the land owned by the plantation.  The term chattel is given to these houses because they represented movable property.  These were very basic wooden structures, with gabled roofs, and set on blocks.  The people who lived in or owned these houses, did not own the land on which they were located, so that the houses had to be built in such a way that they could be relocated from one lease-holding site to another, or on a spot that permitted the chattel house-owner some respite from usurious land-owners.

The Barbadian chattel house was architecturally designed to facilitate assembling and dissembling of its structure.  The house itself was not built on a solid concrete foundation but on blocks, which made moving the structure relatively easy.  Depending on how much land was being leased from the landowner, the lessee was often forbidden from building any permanent structure on the land they were renting – no pig pens, cow sheds or sheep stalls, that would require dismantling after a person moves to another location.   The lack of permanence that marked the relationship of the chattel house owner to the land was directly related to the vulnerability of the poor, working class Barbadian.  It was in effect part of the hidden injuries of social class that the poor in Wavell Avenue and across the island felt in relation to the power of private property.

By about the middle of that year, 1962, we moved once again, to another house, this time, on the main road of Wavell Avenue.  Here we began to build a more solid family unit, and settled in our adopted homeland.  I started to attend St. Stephen’s Primary School and began to develop a network of friends both at school and in my immediate community.  It was about this period that I learned for the first time that I was a “mud-head”.  Understandably, this was never an issue in Guyana.  It was a nickname that was hurled at me often, but not so much by my peers, who were perhaps not as knowledgeable about the geography of Guyana or about the leaves and mud that made its water brown and murky.  My peers just thought then that I talked ‘funny’, and that I had a different vocabulary, for certain things that they called by different names.  I said gineps and dongs, they said ackee and dunks; I talked about a ‘bottom house’, which was totally foreign to people in a country which was not below sea-level, and did not at the time, have much of a problem with flooding but with hurricanes, hence, the architecture of houses was built lower to the ground than the average height of a house in Guyana.  In other words, there was normally no area under the house in Barbados that could be utilized as a social space in dry weather conditions.  In Guyana, assuming that there was no flooding, children played under the house, adults slept in hammocks there, played cards and dominoes, stored things under there, or just relaxed in the ‘bottom house’, while chatting with friends or relatives.

The coastal plain occupies about five percent of Guyana’s habitable land.  It is where most of the people of Guyana live.  This area is made up of alluvial mud that is swept out to sea by the Amazon River.  The term “mud-head” is a reference therefore to this muddy area.   Unfortunately, because of the azure blue waters of the beaches of Barbados, the older boys held nothing but contempt for the murky creeks and rivers of Guyana.  A story is told by a friend of seeing an advertisement in the Barbados Observer, a local newspaper at the time, of a man who claimed that they were selling land in Guyana at $5 a gallon!  This tale is a measure of how much of a swampland Guyana represented to people in Barbados.   By the sixties, the pivotal role played by Guyana in absorbing Barbadian labor was but a distant memory.  These were hardly more than petty, national differences, which were not yet burdened by sentiments of insularity fueled by regional prejudices, and infused with the meaning of xenophobia, threats to job opportunities, or the presumed devaluation of Barbadian labor.

Insularity intensified when Guyana played Barbados in the annual regional Shell Shield cricket competition.  It did not help that from time to time when Rohan Kanhai and Basil Butcher tamed the fury of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, or when Lance Gibbs proved way too much for the normally elegant stroke-play of Seymour Nurse, who incidentally hailed from Wavell Avenue as well.  Cricket is a very serious sport of national pride, passion, and masculine performance, so that the bragging rights of the two principal countries that dominated West Indies test cricket at the time, was not a matter of polite discourse.  Admittedly, we were never silent in our support for the Guyanese cricket team, which did not make matters any less tense.  Understandably then, regional rivalries tended to intensify the ardor of nationalism and insularity, and as the only Guyanese family around, we became the quintessential “mud-heads” from B.G. – a country associated in the Barbadian imaginary with bacoo men, obeah, rioting and looting, and muddy waters.   For as long as I can remember, Barbadians have never taken ownership for possessing of any expertise in the occult or supernatural world.  Obeah men and women are believed to come from Guyana or St. Lucia.  Presumably possessing no local practitioners, Barbadians have always retained the right to employ the services of a Guyanese obeah man or woman to do their bidding.

Baccos have always originated in Guyana, and consequently must be put back in a bottle and put out to sea, so that they would find their way back to Guyana. Barbadians have never made claim to preeminence in these areas of the spirit world, so that the Guyanese and to some extent, the St. Lucian, have always been loved and hated at a certain level, because of this knowledge and these skills they are presumed to possess.

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