Preserving the oral literature heritage

Students of English at the University of Guyana over the past two years have been going out into the field to collect samples of Guyanese oral literature.  This is a renewal of a similar activity that was the practice some years ago when students of Adeola James and Ian Robertson were engaged in field work.  Dr James herself has documented quite a collection in the UG Library while her colleague Victorine Grannum Solomon has published a collection of Guyanese proverbs.  Earlier this year Dr Solomon produced a book of Anansi stories.

20130602ALEarlier this month the Department of Language and Cultural Studies held a public seminar in which two final year students discussed their findings after conducting research in the field.  This was a seminar on Guyanese Oral Literature which revealed interesting factors about local folk tales and oral poetry.  Particularly prevalent in the findings was what they revealed about the spiritual beliefs of the Guyanese people and how these have manifested themselves in narratives about encounters with the supernatural, and the remarkable way in which they reflect the social history of the country in colonial times.

The Seminar in Guyanese Oral Literature exhibited the research of Rosalie Seepaul and Chandranie Brijlall who collected samples on the Corentyne Coast, New Amsterdam, Sandvoort, Hopetown, Mon Repos and Kildonan. The findings correlate very closely with what was discovered by students in 2012 in different areas including Tain, Belvidere, Cotton Tree and Anns Grove.

The course of study in oral literature is a further effort to expose students to primary research, and the seminar was to give the public an idea of the kind of work that students of English do. It trains students in the scientific collection and analysis of data and presentation to an audience.  The exercise informed the public about oral narratives and oral poetry, important folk beliefs and traditions, and about research being carried out by students at the UG.  This material will add to the corpus of Guyanese oral literature, folklore and traditions while helping to preserve the heritage.

Some concern has been expressed, for example, about the survival of Balgobin Tales.  Some of these were collected at different locations, including Cotton Tree, New Amsterdam and the East Coast of Demerara. One feature of these tales that was newly discovered has to do with the intricate web of different kinds of oral narratives that exist and the way they evolve as one type or another.  Balgobin stories have always been humorous, so they belong to the category of jocular tales.  They also contain a considerable content of social commentary and satire as they laugh at the colonial education system and its officials, such as the teacher and the inspector of schools.  They are also firmly set in the context of Indians in the estate village and reflect the folk in the social conditions of that setting.

One of the tales collected is dated 1943 and seems to have originated with a man whose name happened to be Balgobin, and who told the story as if it happened to him as a boy.

Balgobin went to school and the teacher said “Balgobin, spell cow.” He wouldn’t answer, then he said “me na know teacha.”  The teacher beat Balgobin and he went home and complained to his mother who brought him back to school and said, “teacha wah yu giv mi son a big big ting lika cow fah spell, wah yu nah bin give ee a lil ting lika a Makita fah spell, man yu really stupid teacha.”  Next day Balgobin went to school and the teacher asked him to spell “ink.”  He wouldn’t answer so the teacher said, “I will beat yu Balgobin, spell ink.”  Balgobin said “beat me na; I in kay.” Teacher said “wonderful, Balgobin, i-n-k is right.”

The story reveals many things about these tales, the way they evolve and function.

First of all, Balgobin was making no attempt to spell the word.  He had been refusing to spell all along. When the teacher threatened to beat him he was defiant and actually said “I don’t care” (I in kay).  So he fortuitously escaped a beating, since he really did not know how to spell.  Secondly, the story is in keeping with Balgobin’s social background, since his mother exhibits a lack of education.  Next, this untutored condition is the subject of humour, and this story about the spelling of cow vis-à-vis mosquito has been a standard joke often told quite outside of the Balgobin context.  Further, the narrator in 1943 told the story about himself, since his name happened to be Balgobin.  Either he concocted the tale, or he appropriated it, placing himself as the hero.

It is not unusual for folk tales to develop in this way.  Additionally, Balgobin tales are often told as jokes (jocular tales).  Occasionally, people take a standard joke and insert Balgobin in it as the hero in cases where the plot fits the character and circumstance of Balgobin.  When this happens, it then gets added to the corpus.

Supernatural tales (jumbie stories) abound in the corpus and different types, as well as different versions of the same types, were found in far-flung locations.  There were remarkable correlations between what was found on the ECD and what was narrated on the Corentyne.  There is a common tendency for these to be told as personal experience or as the true experience of others, so that several encounters with the supernatural or supernatural narratives exist in the corpus as personal testimonies.  These are also categorised as ‘jumbie stories,’ and one very prevalent type is the Dutchman story.

These are among the folk tales that reflect the colonial past and draw on the history of Guyana’s Dutch legacy.  Another fossil of colonization is the great influence of the märchen and fairy tales on indigenous Guyanese folk tales.  But there are myths about Dutch planters or settlers who dabbled in spiritual practices including obeah, or other rituals.  Included are the beliefs that their spirits dwell in silk cotton trees arising from rituals that they would have performed.  In others, they hid away treasures, which they then seek to give to selected persons in contemporary times.  But generally, the narratives collected tell of restless spirits.

One first person narrative is of a housewife whose day habitually begins at three in the morning when she busies herself with several chores.  One night she was approached in a dream by a Dutchman who told her that at those early hours she was disturbing him from his rest and if she did not desist he would break her neck.  Another day during her early morning activities she actually saw a Dutchman who told her that it was his time to work at that hour and he does not wish to see her again at that time of morning.  She, however ignored the warnings.  Then her entire verandah was taken over by nests of wasps (marabuntas) and she tried unsuccessfully to remove them.  The Dutchman appeared to her in a dream again and warned her to leave the nests alone or he would surely break her neck.  Again she ignored him and made another attempt to break down the nests.  A powerful invisible force gave her a violent push, she fell over the railing onto a shed which collapsed with her.  She was lucky to escape with her life.

One minor motif in the tales of these Dutch spirits is, however, one that recurs in the narratives from the Corentyne and other different villages.  In various tales the Dutchmen always point out to persons that the surroundings were unclean or untidy or suffering from negligence and should be cleaned.

They warn persons that if the cleaning is not done they (the spirits) would reappear.  Similarly, many narratives place the appearance of these spirits in the dark early hours of the morning.

Repeatedly, these tales are recounted as true life experiences.  One of the recurring motifs is the performance of rituals to appease spirits, whether benevolent or malevolent.  Failure to comply will provoke tragic outcome.  This is widespread over several different tales and beliefs.  One narrative may be regarded as legend since it was definitely linked to an event that actually happened.  There was a horrific motor accident headlined by the newspapers in which a young man was decapitated.  The driver of the fatal vehicle told family members that he had seen a pig in the road which caused him to swerve.

It turned out that in past years the mother of the family used to perform the sacrifice of a pig whose blood was served to the “land master” or “border master” (known elsewhere as “boundary master”) in order to “keep peace in the family.”  When she died none of her children would have anything to do with that practice.  But after that road accident, the father of the family was forced to return to the sacrifice of the pig.

The converse of this is another motif which is the reward given to persons who carry out the instructions of spirits.  Many tales collected contained this element, including one in which the narrator produced as evidence, the valuable gift that was received.  Other tales that contained the offer of gifts included Ol Higue Tales and Baccoo Tales.

Another remarkable factor in the findings of the research had to do with ethnicity.  There is a close relationship between the narratives of East Indian and Black informants.  There was very little racial differentiation where the spiritual or supernatural beliefs were concerned in the tales.

And while the emphasis in this account has been on supernatural tales, there were many others.  It must be pointed out, however, that the spiritual accounted for a very significant number.  Another similarity among races was the great deal of reluctance on the part of persons to talk about these traditions or even to admit knowledge of them.

This self-suppression makes it difficult for researchers to get information and has already begun to contribute to the disappearance of the narratives and oral poetry.  Running counter to that is the abundance of proverbs and their continued wide use by different races across the population.  The research done by the students should go a long way in preserving the national heritage.  The researchers in 2012 were Michelle Fraser, Sandi Bowen, Samantha Lall, Abigail Marks and Sophia Uruena.

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