Kanaima / Tiger

(for Richard and David)


In the darkest middle of the rubber walk

where the interweave of overhanging branches

was thick above the road, the four schoolboys

walking home (loitering in the roadside bush,

collecting shiny rubber seeds in their wooden pods)

suddenly stopped – movement, talk, breath,

all stopped: for there in the road, yards ahead,

stood a black tiger. He had appeared out of nowhere.

When I first saw him he was simply there; his cold

green eyes looked straight at us, four human statues

with shoulder-slung bookbags and gaping mouths.

He looked long, then turned his head and strode

into the bush on the other side of the road.


It was the first time any of us had seen

a black tiger. For the next two weeks they sent

the Land Rover to collect us after school,

making of the magical rubber walk

a ninety second blur of dark green gloom

incensed with the damp smell of leaves. But

we were soon walking again, collecting rubber

seeds and daring each other to step

into the undergrowth and enter the darker

realm of the tiger. “It wasn’t a tiger,”

Jude Santiago had said, the day after we saw it;

“remember how he watch at we and think?

My father say tigers don’t think. Was

Kanaima. Kanaima was looking for somebody:

lucky it wasn’t we.” And he was right,

the creature did look at us and think.

So it was Kanaima . . . And yet something

in my head made Jude’s dark certainty

impossible for me. My father was certain

it wasn’t Kanaima; Jude was certain that it was,

and mine was that painful uncertainty

that helped define my childhood plight:

Caught between their “wrong” and our “right”.


Now time and distance have tamed the memory,

and the fear has drained away: I have

long since learned to say “jaguar” instead of

“tiger” (in contexts where that kind of accuracy

matters). But whenever I rummage in the deepest

drawer of childhood memories, I still

cannot decide whether it was tiger or Kanaima

that looked hard at us that day, that

found us wanting and calmly walked away.


Mark McWatt (The Journey to Le Repentir)

Mark McWatt’s footnote to the poem declares that “‘Kanaima’ in Amerindian lore, is an avenging spirit that can assume any form it wants as it moves through the forest in pursuit of its human victims.” As we reflect in the month of September on the Amerindian Heritage in Guyana, various works of literature will come to mind in which the concept of Kanaima is treated. The treatment is quite different in each, giving the impression that these writers have different ideas about what Kanaima is. When we include the oral literature in this study, variations increase, strengthening the perceived notion that there are various unreconciled ideas that exist in the inconstant realms of myth, folklore and belief.

But that is erroneous. Belief in Kanaima is unshaken, and there is little doubt as to what or who Kanaima is.

Mc Watt’s gloss speaks of “an avenging spirit” and in many samples of the oral literature collected in the field there is always the aura of the spiritual surrounding the presence and the threat of this “avenger”. He repeatedly appears in spiritual tales. Yet an informant once corrected reference to the spirit known as Kanaima by asserting – “Kanaima is not a spirit”. The Kanaima is a man. He is real. He lives and walks among people in communities; he is no unseen spiritual existence. And indeed, that statement is supported by several tales told by informants and in the oral literature.

al creightonHowever, the most interesting thing is that these several varying definitions are not to be seen as any proof that we are confronting superstition or evasive lore about a figment of a collective cultural imagination. These varying descriptions are not contradicting each other. They are all telling us what Kanaima is in Amerindian culture. Strange to relate, but true: Kanaima is all of those things. He is protean; he can change himself; he can exist in different forms, and in fact, his protean nature is an important part of his powers and supernatural qualities.

The literature on Amerindian culture produced by the visiting or resident Europeans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries concludes that Kanaima does not really exist. The Amerindian peoples are in the habit of attributing almost every misadventure or human demise to the work of Kanaima and it might just be a way of explaining the mysterious or understanding the unknown. But the attitude among those chroniclers was skeptical.

On the contrary, the oral literature is undivided and reflects deep-rooted fear.

But far from being a response to or a fear of the unknown, it is a deep-rooted fear of the known. These beliefs are still strong at the present time and reflected in several personal testimonies, folk narratives, tales and explanations.

Mark McWatt
Mark McWatt

The Kanaima belong to a secret society network of highly-trained men. While it is not made clear how one gains membership or admittance to this fraternity, it is believed that one endures a lengthy and severe regime of training. The skills acquired are so peculiar and unbelievable that they appear supernatural, and most definitely super-human.

They are assassins who often carry out vendetta or vengeance against persons by killing them, mostly in mysterious ways. They have the ability to destroy internal organs without leaving any visible injury or marks on the body. Their victim may be suddenly found to be suffering afflictions that baffle diagnosis, resulting in death. They may be hired to avenge wrongs or to satisfy malicious enmity.

They are skilled at hunting and will seek out and stalk their victims relentlessly. It is difficult to hide from them or to run away for too long. They are aided by certain skills or powers in the pursuit of prey. One is their protean capacity. They are shape-shifters, able to change their form and this gives them considerable advantage. Next is their closeness with nature – they have the ability to exist in the forest and may become or behave like birds and other animals, and this is where they can have quite a spiritual existence. Many informants tell about Kanaima communicating with each other in the forest through whistles and other sounds.

McWatt’s poem alludes to this shape-shifting and it is common belief that Kanaima appears as a tiger (jaguar). This is reflected in other narratives as well as in Guyanese Amerindian art. Here, too, is where much of the spirituality associated with the Kanaima may be found. He is at one with the forest environment because of his ability to blend with nature and this suits him very well as a hunter (of animals as well as of men) because he can imitate them in sound as well as in form. It is here that we find a great deal that is of interest in the literature and the art and the Kanaima is not treated so much as a villain.

Pauline Melville goes very deep in the way she uses Kanaima characteristics in her treatment of the hunter as ventriloquist and as a creature of the natural environment. This is a central image in her novel The Ventriloquist’s Tale. There is no straightforward element of the plot in which Kanaima appear in the normal way, as Melville’s handling of it is post-modernist and her interest is in myth, ritual and tradition.

Similarly, Wilson Harris employs a character named Canaima in his Carnival Trilogy – The Four Banks of the River of Space who is not the characteristic murderer either, although he is utilised because of the brand of the maverick in his character and function.

Guyanese Amerindian artists are strongly influenced by the spirit of the Kanaima in their work and in concepts with which they work. Linus Klenkian, Oswald Hussein and George Simon are examples of these. Hussein’s sculpture is well known for the way it is charged with the spiritualism of the forest, its creatures and shapes, in particular birds. Klenkian admits the forest influence on his work and here we also get much treatment of the spiritual side of the Kanaima and of possession. Simon, over the past seven years, has been deeply exploring hybridity, mythology, spiritualism and the Kanaima qualities in painting. Figures and images merge into each other and his is the same quality of environment found in McWatt’s “darkest middle of the rubber walk”, the “undergrowth” and the “darker realm of the tiger.”

The fear that grips people when they speak of – or refuse to speak of – the Kanaima works as if he has a presence that will know they have spoken and will come after them. This fear observed in many informants is as much of a spiritual invisible being as it is of the known or suspected assassins in the village. The personal testimonies and narratives in the oral literature tell as much of the mysterious spiritual presence as of the real men who can be hired or enlisted as murderous avengers.

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