Every Easter weekend, we laughed in loud relief when our father’s best friend, the easy-going Uncle Kamel strolled in smiling, as we dashed across the thirsty stretch of cracked earth to greet him with news of our design selection usually the “star point” or “pointer tips.” He had come from the nearby “green” turned brown in the dry weather, to sit and stay with us until late, chatting and labouring with Dad to create the medium kites or gentle “singing engines” we so loved.
Ensuring everything was neatly laid out on the spotless desk that usually served as our chaotic dining and homework table, my three siblings and I hovered impatient and ready to point out our single pair of heavy iron scissors swiped from the manually pedalled ancient Singer sewing machine, long abandoned in a dark corner by our father, who had trained as a tailor while a teenager. When the apprenticeship ended, Dad shuddered, immediately decided he was unsuited for a life of careful cutting and custom clothing, and fled to a career in carpentry and construction.
Purchased from the nearest pharmacy, cake shop or parlour, a fat roll of crisp, clean greaseproof paper held by a rubber band lay in a straight line next to the reused wooden frames and balls of twine, and the delicate, smooth sheets of fresh translucent kite paper and expensive cellophane. The material caught the slanted sunshine from the jalousie window, so the dazzling colours we had chosen that year, bounced in wavering bejewelled bars across the plain walls and sooty ceiling brushed by the acrid smoke of the kerosene and bottle lamps we lit during blackouts.
My brothers would scour the city, for the bunches of the plump mucilaginous berries of the cordia tentandra/obliqua trees known as “passey”/ “pacee” or the clammy cherry mispronounced locally as the “gamma cherry” that was a free, seasonal source of a potent, non-toxic glue.
Tall and thin, with big, black sideburns, the skilled Uncle Kamel had several better-behaved and less demanding children of his own. Yet, he knew how much we looked forward to the traditional kite flying excursions on Easter Monday that crossed religious and racial boundaries symbolically celebrating the resurrection, in joining thousands picnicking along the miles of the north-east windswept Guyana coastline. Agreeing that making the kite was as fun as flying it, he always set aside up to two dedicated days to fashion us the best, custom-made beauties with all the fancy frills he could think of. Kite-making remained a popular all-family activity for years and we scorned the commercial substitutes, pitying those who had no Uncle Kamels and were forced to rely on the non-personalised versions from vendors around the country.
Our centre stars particularly proved so complicated, it took ages to individually fold and cut them from contrasting, coarse Barbados paper. As Uncle Kamel concentrated on his artistry, another snip here, a careful curve there, we stood silent, breaking out in gasps and smiles when he slowly opened the completed intricate piece and it expanded, as if like magic, into a profusion of pretty petals and perfect points.
In the weeks before, we settled for the smaller variation, furtively tearing out pages from our exercise books, recycling brown shopping bags and even dull newspaper to make the frameless “caddy old punch” the simple, everyday kite that I can still cobble together in about a minute.
Known as the “dinkie” or “chickichong” in Trinidad, after the whistling red-bellied finch, favoured as a cage bird that is now rare in the wild, the basic kite was made from the “pointers” or single stems of the resident coconut leaf or “cocoyea” broom, a haphazard rag tail and a “catta” cotton thread reel. My two brothers would try the slightly larger better finished homemade version complete with a proper “pointer” outline, a pair of wispy frills, a guiding “nose” and an essential “tongue” that produced the distinct airborne buzzing as the sliver of loose paper vibrated.
The loudest and sometimes the biggest kites that were left tied up overnight to hum and sing in the starlight, swayed from a special mounting loop tied to enable the contraption to soar far. My father did not allow it, but the most ruthless kite makers and fliers secretly glued ground glass or attached a new razor blade to the “marlin” or tough twine to take out the unwary and any cheeky challenger who got too close.
Flexible pieces of bamboo, or smoothened, slim pieces of light wood would be selected for building the supporting skeletons, that lasted several years if well-constructed, ending up stacked and hanging from a corner of the bedroom after each exhausting outing, until the following Easter.
Living in a time when most things were hand and homemade, and people got by with what little they had, buying only the mere essentials, we would thank our volunteer kite maker, gaze in awe at him and each unique, completed masterpiece and then safely hang it up high on the wall. Sunday night we would be unable to sleep for hours.
The next day, on arrival at our favourite flying spot, really a sprawling, open pasture scattered with the twisted, thorny acacia and dunks trees, adjoining the curving sea wall along the East Coast of Demerara we would keep far from the giant kites or “mad bulls” while watching out for the occasional angry animal of the same name and the wild multi-tailed octagonal or decagonal “kankawas” that cavorted crazily threatening to take out interlopers.
Our mother would have been up early, cooking for hours to finish a range of snacks and foods such as fresh cassava and egg balls, “pholourie” and “sour,” dhall puri and curried chicken, and cook-up rice/pelau. By the evening, we would have devoured the lot, including leftover cold cross buns, in between playing cards and cricket, and running behind cut kites.
Kite flying, and other Caribbean Easter customs are on the wane. It is rare that anyone cuts the trunk of the physic nut tree to “bleed” the symbolic “bloody red sap” at midday on Good Friday, or bother to break an egg and wait to see the shape to forecast their fortunes. Mirrors are no longer covered, and fears that bathing in the sea at noon on the said day have long disappeared like the flying fish in certain parts. Now, a trip to the beach is a popular part of the holiday, as brave campers stay out for the duration.
One tradition that survives in Trinidad is the beating of the “bobolee,” an effigy of Judas fashioned from old clothes stuffed with rags and straw, and placed in a public space, either hanging from a post or sitting in a chair. Anyone passing by the “bobolee” on Good Friday took the opportunity to beat it with a stick, bat or any other object that they may have at hand. Now used as a symbol ranging from controversial issues to unpopular personalities, the “bobolee” has also evolved into a term for someone who is not smart or is lovestruck. “Bubulups” means fat or ungainly and “bobol” or “bubol” comes from the Kikongo word “lu-bubulu” related to graft and corruption used in the Bantu languages spoken in the Congo, according to the linguistic expert Lise Winer in her “Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad & Tobago: On Historical Principles.”
ID believes Guyana needs to adopt the Easter effigy custom given the extent of “bull” and “bobol” by successive governments, who have grown “bubulups” with proceeds, while the populace seems increasingly “bobolee.”