It has been about ten years since I have been attending our local observance of the Maafa at the Seawall Bandstand in Georgetown. The Maafa (Black Holocaust) is celebrated every October 12th. A Kiswahili term, Maafa means ‘terrible occurrence’ or ‘great disaster.’ The Trans-Atlantic slave trade epitomises terrible occurrence and great disaster. Our history reveals that we humans have always had barbaric qualities and the world as it exists today has not been shaped by every continent uniting, breaking bread together and singing “Kumbaya.” We have never wholly stood together. We have fought for the survival of our kinsfolk; our phenotypic traits have divided us and created a false narrative that some are superior to others. The world rests on blood, sweat and tears and those who died during the Middle Passage represent a significant number of those sacrifices.
Some may see the drums beating by the ocean, the folks garbed in various patterns and colours walking on the sand and then brown water massaging their feet as strange. We place floral tributes and food in the water while reflecting on those whose names we do not know and whose bones are buried in the ocean; and if one acknowledges the spirit world, thinking that they exist in the wind, blowing across the ocean infinitely. Their energies remain in the tides we would imagine; the waves rushing against our feet connects us to them. We are reminded that as long as we are remembered after our time on Earth has expired, we never really die.
The first time I set foot in the ocean, while listening to drums and the waves as the darkness of night grew, I was not sure what to feel or think. But I recall feeling at peace as I let my mind race back to the time when those ships rested on the sea and I envisioned she who could have been my relative and he who could have been the father of many nations jumping into the ocean or their dead bodies being thrown overboard. I do believe that one should not very often allow one’s self to be drawn into those thoughts and envision those images; to get to the point where one is obsessed with those terrible occurrences of the past I am quite sure can affect one’s mental state of being and create barriers to making the best of our present and future. Nevertheless, we cannot erase our past and it would be reprehensible to forget the Maafa. It must remain in our memories that their flesh rot beneath the ocean; their bones some of which I am sure can still be found, are the evidence that they existed and were worthy.
The local Maafa Memorial Programme is usually organised by the African Cultural and Development Association (ACDA). This year’s theme was ‘Economic Parity a Just Demand for African Guyanese.’ The observance usually attracts a small crowd. One is sure to see most of same faces year after year partake in the libation, listen to the speeches, which are often based on empowerment and march around the Seawall Bandstand being led by the drums and singing, before finally walking into the ocean and placing the floral tributes on the water as the waves rush in. From my interactions with many people over the years, I have learned that some had no knowledge about the observance. Some others simply do not remember—even I have missed a couple of years because I forgot. Others want no part in such observances even though they are also the faces of their ancestors. They would rather leave the dead alone or think it strange that we should stand in the ocean and acknowledge what has happened in an effort to honour them. There are those who also diminish such experiences to some workings of what the world has labelled as witchcraft.
I assume that most of us would like to be remembered when our time on Earth would have expired. It is one of the reasons we need to work to make our life experience a noteworthy one. We cannot only stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and leave no foundation for those who come after us. Whatever skills we possess, whatever gifts we have been blessed with, whatever we discover to be our purpose, must be enriching to ourselves and others and leave a mark that we were here.
Those who died during the Maafa would have had their dreams interrupted; they would have been forever separated from their kinsfolk and forced into existing for the time they would have spent in those castles waiting to be placed on those ships, and the time they would have spent chained in those coffins sailing across the ocean, like they had no nation, no culture and no humanity. And those who were brave enough and proud enough to jump overboard because they preferred death over enslavement, their courage can be compared to the strongest waves beating against the wall and often reminding us that we are all vulnerable.
The Maafa is much more than a once-a-year event to honour those who were its victims. It is about connecting the past and present; understanding that ancestral memories do have an effect on much of what occurs in the present.
For most of my life I was fortunate to live near the ocean. There was always something tranquil about the wind from the Atlantic, especially early in the morning or late afternoon. As a young woman, I often wandered to the ocean especially early in the mornings. How many times I thought about those who died during the Middle Passage, I cannot recall, but I do know my thoughts often centered on the things I wanted to accomplish. I could visualise where I would be in years to come and be certain that everything I whispered to the wind would be sure to come to past at the right time. I miss those days. Not living so close to the ocean, now I cherish those occasions when I do make the effort to go there. I treasure the tranquility and the assurance that it offers that I can accomplish anything because the possibilities are vast, just like the ocean stretches far and wide. We have survived and continue to make strides. The sacrifices of those who died during the Middle Passage were not in vain because we remember them.