On each anniversary of Emancipation the African presence in the Caribbean is celebrated; whatever can be exhibited of the cultural traditions is highlighted and the performing arts pay tribute to the African vestiges that they can claim. And in Guyana, as celebrants pour libation in memory of ancestral spirits, two things become repeatedly evident as the 175 years since freedom from slavery are commemorated – the very strong and ubiquitous presence of the spiritual, and the very weak and obvious element of knowledge or the lack of it where these spiritual traditions are concerned.
Although this is not the case in other parts of the Caribbean, there are huge lacunae in the available knowledge in Guyana about the African heritage, making the subject area a rich minefield for research. In this country information and knowledge about the culture and religions of other ethnic groups are readily available and promoted, but this is not the case with the African. For example, several volumes exist which document Amerindian folk tales, mythology and spiritual beliefs. There are many agencies promoting Indian culture, including the Indian High Commission with its Cultural Centre, the many Hindu religious institutions, dance and the widely practised performing arts, the very popular Bollywood, and Islam.
The same is not the case in Guyana for information and promotion of African cultural traditions and religions. The Museum of African Heritage does not compare, and does not command popular attention. Although Islam is as much African as it is Indian, and Muslim Africans were prominent among the immigrants, there is really relatively little of this or vestiges of it in general cultural circulation. The same is the situation where the spiritual traditions are concerned.
There are very interesting factors that cut across the races. For instance, the term ‘Fulla Man’ is known in Guyana to refer to Muslims in the popular culture and many belonging to the Indian race are called ‘Fulla Man.’ But the Fulanis are African. The Fulani are a nation of people in West Africa whose dominant religion is Islam. One prominent Guyanese painter, Prof Doris Rogers, has produced Fulani art, which is identifiable by the use of slender, elegant figures, especially female forms, which are elongated in artistic reproduction. Members of the Fulani would have arrived in British Guiana as slaves or perhaps indentured labourers bringing their Islamic practice with them. But several interesting things happen in the popular culture. There are ancient wars between Hindus and Muslims, and these also played out in Guyana among Indian descendants belonging to both religions. ‘Fulla Man’ became known as a term used on the Hindu side which could identify an enemy.
Also cutting across ethnic lines is the state of research in Guyana, still focusing on the ethnic spiritual and religious roots. For both the Indian and African heritages, what exists in the folk and indigenous culture has still not yet been thoroughly researched. Despite the powerful machinery that has been driving the Hindu religion and culture, the deep local roots in the villages are largely neglected. These include such traditions as folk tales, dance and music such as the Ramlila and ‘matikoor’ or ‘dig dutty,’ whose religious and spiritual roots are virtually unknown, and the chutney. It is the same story for the indigenous African traditions, especially those with a spiritual or religious component.
Over the past two years students at the University of Guyana have started to research these, and their findings so far reveal how many of them transcend racial barriers. These include the pervasiveness of spiritual beliefs and practices, the strong influence of the supernatural and of religious ritual that cut across the folk beliefs and narratives. The students collected narratives and tales, prominent among them being what they classify as ‘Dutchman Tales.’ These were told by persons from different ethnic groups and are dominated by the supernatural, the same ghosts, spirits, spiritual beliefs and rituals reappear.
What is also remarkable in the findings so far in this investigation, is the prevalence of mythical characters of folklore such as Ol Higue, Backoo, and the Fairmaid. Such creatures are popularly known in Guyana as belonging to African tales and lore. But the investigations show that they are as strong in the personal narratives of many villagers of Indian descent who claim to be giving testimonies of personal belief and experience. What is far more significant is the way these mythical creatures are tied by the informants to stories of sacrifice and soul-selling for the attainment of wealth and material things, as well as for protection.
However, the point being made here goes much deeper than any claim that belief in these supernatural beings is multi-ethnic. The point is that, while they do transcend race in Guyana, they exist very seriously in the African traditions and are more deeply affixed in spiritual practice than is widely known. People tell these stories for entertainment, for their humour; they are laughed away and brushed aside as superstitious nonsense and comic relief. But they have much deeper and more serious spiritual connections than are carried in the average Ol Higue or Backoo story. Like the Fairmaid, these beings are tied to ancient religious and spiritual beliefs in the African heritage.
There are some interesting details not common in the stories or even in the several things that people say should be done to ward off the Ol Higue, to prevent her sucking the baby’s blood, or to catch her once she visits, or to identify her in public. There is a real belief that Ol Higues exist as ordinary people. They have supernatural powers, and the blood-sucking practice is a curse. In order to exist they must pass the curse on to chosen persons through generations before they die. Among the beliefs is that the power is transmitted through silver objects, something as innocuous as a spoon.
Many things beyond normal mortal knowledge are passed on in this way, including wealth. In fact, the acquisition and keeping of wealth is behind many Backoo stories. The creature is either a source, procurer or protector of wealth. Rituals, properly kept, will allow persons to live a normal life of prosperity with no suspicion that a Backoo is secretly behind it. Rituals are known to be performed in contemporary Nigeria for the same purpose, sometimes involving sacrifices.
The theme here is also that these factors with their spiritual significance are largely unknown. They have always been there but not really unearthed by research and not brought to the surface in most of the popular stories. To go further, there is the great irony that these same spiritual factors that give laughable Backoo tales deeper meaning and others that truly reflect elements of the African psyche, cosmos and identity, are some of the very reasons that have caused them to fade away. Many of those things in the African heritage that help to define it and are worth knowing, play a great part in its disappearing from knowledge.
The contemporary descendants of the enslaved Africans are just as guilty of killing off the traditions that their ancestors brought to the Caribbean as the colonial governments. The colonials acted out of fear of the unknown, suspicion of plots and insurrection, and prejudice, which caused them to criminalise practices and condemn them as savagery. The contemporary descendants suppress knowledge of them out of self contempt, because they are ashamed of them and consider their own traditions to be backward superstition. The argument here, however, is that the self suppression came out of those, but they to a large extent were driven by fear of the unknown.
These very pervasive spiritual elements in the African traditions are feared by modern African descendants in Guyana who do not know enough about them and do not believe in their religious content. The spiritual elements gradually faded out of several traditions even though the people continued to practise the traditions. Furthermore, if they were aware that those spiritual components were there, they would stay away from them.
Fear and distancing of self from obeah is well known. Then there are the other things that people think are obeah or associate with obeah such as kumfa (cumfa), kali mai puja, African feasts, spirit possession and dreams. Those do not belong to obeah, but people, particularly the uninitiated, know little about them, and shun them out of fear. The practitioners of these things, however, although they do them, are ashamed of them and do not consider them respectable as are Christianity (or Hinduism). Moreover, knowledgeable practitioners will also refuse to impart knowledge of them to others because they feel they must guard them as ancestral secrets to be protected from outsiders. Some traditions are actually practised by secret societies. These lead to them becoming moribund.
Another example might help. There is the matter of names. In many of these societies, persons are given names as infants, which are very meaningful and connected to their identity. Such names are not to be used by outsiders and must remain secret. If enemies or the wrong persons get hold of the secret name, they can use it to harm or destroy the individual. So, people have a real name (a ‘true-true name’), not commonly known, and a ‘call name’ or (as known in Jamaica) a ‘pet name,’ which is never the person’s official name. Names are used in obeah to harm the owners. The obeahman takes something with the person’s name on it and uses it in rituals. He takes possession of the name which represents the being, and therefore has possession of the person. This is known in obeah as ‘shadow catching.’
As simple a thing as a name, therefore, has spiritual connotations in the African ethos. It is just another example of the importance of the spiritual in the African heritage. Examples can be outlined from several other African derived traditions. These include notorious ones as well as normal everyday things. Obeah, of course is the most notorious and well known; but it is also misunderstood, discredited and wrongfully blamed for many ills. Then there are those such as the maskarade (masquerade) also known as Jonkunoo in Jamaica; the old tradition of flying back to Africa; the wake (nine night in Jamaica); and African drumming.
These are considered harmless. Their real meaning is mostly unknown; the spiritual component that they have or had is no longer practised, or it is unknown. If it were known, though, these African Guyanese phenomena would be shunned or feared.