Sunday, 22 September 2013
Spirits in the Guianas: a journey and alignment: part IV
Continued from Parts I, II and III below
Spiritual “mestizo” and the motley
I was awake well before dawn. This was partly because I can’t sleep late when I’m in the tropics but also because I hadn’t reset my phone’s time when it changed during the brief visit to Suriname. I think it was due also to the power of our communion with spirit. I felt uplifted, and confident that this would be a brighter day.
Our “guides” came in these forms:
• the African “caretaker” at the Indian owned hotel. He explained that taxis or buses stopped right outside the hotel that would take us to Moleson Creek where we had to pick up the Ferry. The night before, he had told me where I could find us food.
• the squatty African who arranged our transportation from the hotel all the way to Suriname (to Paramaribo), and changed our money (that he told us was his job/rather a “hustle” but a legitimate one). He had explained exactly what we needed to do to go to Suriname, the Ferry process, how much it would cost and so on. I would say he was the most lucid person we had met at this time and therefore a good ambassador of Guyana.
• the Amerindian (Raymond) who sat quietly at the back of the taxi, exuding calm and love for everyone, noting that “god made everyone beautiful” and during one of our many philosophical discussions bracing his arm beside my niece’s to emphasise that there was no difference between the two.
• the East Indian taxi driver – “sugar” –well travelled through Suriname, who played love melodies all the way to nurture his broken heart and delight ours in the singing– and who cracked us up with his myriad tales about love, hurt and take on women.
• the East Indian passenger - who laced himself with rum, beer and cigarettes as though the spirits were compelling him to consume all on our behalf. Before every sip and puff he raised the plastic cup in salutation. He had recently finished a prison sentence for (I think) beating up or stabbing a policeman! He had been repeatedly bullied by the (“corrupt”) police, who had broken into his house; so one day he simply snapped.
• the African crooner who sang every word of all the tracks on the CDs “Sugar” played. He joined the Indian passenger in consuming lots of alcohol. His scarred face held signs of a rough life through work in the interior but he was a “puppy”.
• the sister/lover – frequenter of Karaoke clubs in Suriname and Guyana - who helped to balance the male heavy contingent and mopped her lover’s (the crooner’s) brow when he cried whilst singing a tune that reminded him of his mother (“If tomorrow never comes…”).
From the moment we stepped off the ferry when we reached Suriname and into the taxi we never stopped laughing. All the passengers (the driver too) were Guyanese but they lived in Suriname. “Sugar” was a heavy bellied, full of life character. He considered himself a “sweet boy” having experienced sexual freedom “early.” It fascinates me how one can learn so much about people in a short time, how freely they share. But I appreciate that the sharing is as much for the listener’s learning (intricate wisdoms released along the journey) as for the speaker’s self-reflection. The same with “Rickey” who was sharing so much about himself that “Sugar,” his elder said “baie talk aaf lef’ aaf.” There was a lot of love in that car, on that journey and in those hearts. The Amerindian, sitting coolly at the back with my niece, revealed himself slowly, with a degree of intelligence as he took time and sussed everyone out. The other men referred to him by all the derogatory sounding names with which Amerindians are considered in Guyana – notably “buck” or “apache” (irrepressible enemy of the Hollywood cowboy). He laughed it off and told us he was “Waro” not just Amerindian, or “buck”, “uncle Buck” or “big baie” (boy). He shared a photo with my niece and I of his wife. She was a young African woman; which was why when Rickey (the chain-smoking heavy drinker) wanted to swap seats with him to try to sweet talk my niece, Raymond said “I deh good here.”
“Sugar” also shared photos of his children, his comfortable home and previous lover - she was of mixed African and Indian heritage - and much younger than him. Now scorned because she had left him, he was often negative about women. “What you think of love,” he asked us about 10 minutes into our journey; making us marvel at the unexpected philosophic posture. We didn’t have time to respond before he gave his: “love is a xxxxxxx piece of poison!” (I know that writing doesn’t adequately convey the amusing oracular inflections and the pitch of his delivery which bent us up with laughter.) He later changed this to “woman” being a piece of poison. Raymond corrected him, gently schooling him by saying he shouldn’t think that way about women. But when he later asked this other: “what can a woman do to a man?” and answered again himself thus, “fxxx up he lungs and destroy he kidney,” everybody waan dead wid laugh! Though the laughter flowed with a special kind of spirited sweetness, I didn’t fail to notice the beautiful, orderly and clean roads and landscape as we drove towards Coronie. The policeman who had turned us back, looked surprised then pleased to see us again. He told us we would have no trouble now that our passports were correctly stamped. I noticed too that whenever we stopped to stock up on supplies (of beer and rum and snacks) the supermarkets were all Chinese owned (this would be the case throughout our time in Suriname).
The wall of diverse faces in Suriname
My extended note about the people we travelled with is to highlight something that is key to understanding Guyanese Comfa and by extension Guyana’s cultural identity. Comfa is an aspect of spirituality rooted in Africa but translated in the Guyanese cultural context. When the drum is knocked, spirits manifest. They manifest by “possessing” (“mounting” if it was in Santeria) any one or many of the participants at a given ceremony. These spirits might be identified as “Congo” (meaning African), “Buck” (Amerindian), “Indian” (East Indian), “English” (or white), “Dutch” (connected with Ndjukas of Suriname), “Chiney” (Chinese) etc, all of these ethnicities have historical, cultural and political ties with Guyana. Possession might also be by an ancestral spirit that would require special interpretation and consultation with the participant who has gone into trance to find out who that ancestor is. In our taxi, there was no Chinese, or “white” passengers, but the signs of what I should like to call “spiritual mestizo” were present. I know that “mestizo” has certain connotations related to European colonialism particularly mix between Spanish and African/Indigenous groups of the “Americas”, but I’m using the term to refer generally to multiple racial/ethnic mixtures that are the consequence of slavery and colonialism. I think the basic premise of a “mixture” of racial/cultural identities makes it fit for use here.
The “symbol” of “English” (European) was present in my niece and I – for she had expressed into physical being in “England” and my life journey (and Path) had taken me there (to Scotland also, where the “Gordon” surname, as I mentioned in Part I comes from). And we were after all in Suriname, symbolic of the Dutch and carrying the powerful history of the maroons who freed themselves and established territories that enabled them to retain their African cultural practices, including that of their spirituality. Racial identity, ethnicity, physical body and appearances start to mix and blend in this context. There was an unwritten understanding and respect for our differences and mixture between the motley passengers in the taxi to Paramaribo. And for this reason I saw the moment as a spiritual one, as one of the notable signs. For unlike the geographical and racial boundaries set by European imperialists and perpetuated in the after math of colonised spaces, spirits do not have nor care for such boundaries.
We are many
Kwaku monument in Paramaribo
The heaviness of racism in Guyana was no longer in our face in Suriname, though multiple mixes of ethnicities prevailed. Indeed, in Comfa, though I am African, I can “ketch comfa” (go into trance) having been “taken” (or “jumped”) by a spirit of any other ethnicity. For example, an Amerindian spirit might be one of my guides (specifically working towards aligning me with my purpose). My chief (or lead/head) spirit may be an English man, who again is trying to align me with my purpose and for which reason I have (re)journeyed to England, as though trying to (re)trace my steps. Each spirit will have a different need from me, and mean different things to me (one a healer, one an artist, another educationalist and one an entrepreneur, for example) but all are tasked with guiding me to fulfil my purpose – that is to remember what I returned this time to pursue and fulfil. Some of us freely embrace the idea that we chose our parents prior to conception. Few contemplate that we might also have chosen the place we wanted to return to, as though something incomplete remained there. I’ve often wondered about my decision to adopt the ancestral name of “Yaa Asantewa”, who having fought with the British (England) was exiled for the rest of her life in Seychelles. I say this because names carry energy, hence the significance of ancestral/traditional naming ceremonies in Africa. Did I by adopting Yaa Asantewa also choose where my life’s journey would take me, as though somehow trying to reconcile the spiritual loss (destabilisation) I experienced in that past manifestation? The speculation is obviously indulgent, but I don’t censor myself from contemplating it in this way. Of course, the only reason I’d be contemplating this is to better understand who I am, what motivates me (for example to change my name and choose that particular one), what guides/drives me, what weakens or strengthens me and what forces I can use for my spiritual alignment. So if we express in a particular part of the world (like England) there must be a spiritual connection with that place, however we choose to interpret it.
Congo and Obia - spirits in Suriname
Suriname was better than I had thought it would be. The ethnic mix seemed more evenly spread in the society. (I am aware that this is only from our brief and therefore superficial survey.) Many of the businesses were owned by Asians, it’s true, but Africans and Amerindians were visible, and sometimes in positions of esteem (museums, hotels, warehouses, markets); in tourist areas like the Heritage site, restaurants and bars. We were told that anyone could have their own TV stations to appeal to their cultural/ethnic community (as did the Javanese, East Indians and Africans). The City was cleaner, with less people, it didn’t seem as busy as Georgetown and we felt safe (aside from the rough drivers who did not easily give way to pedestrians). I saw some litter vomited back by the Suriname River but generally the streets and neighbourhoods were clean, with dustbins strategically placed around the City. The friend we were staying with told us, it was not so a few years ago, but the government had made considerable efforts to change this and she felt pleased it seemed to be working. Litter was collected every day; people piled garbage sacks outside their houses in these square makeshift bins, visibly ready for clearing. Though they seemed to take pride they would also be fined for littering.
Calling the spirits
Sites like Independence Square, Fort Zeelandia and the heritage museums were impressive. There was a marvellous wall of faces along the square that reflected the different ethnic groups of Suriname. Old colonial buildings and the Fort where our ancestors were brought in those inhumane ships to this side of the world were kept in pristine conditions; now turned into museums. Just like the bitterly haunting experience of walking around Elmina and Cape Coast castles in Ghana, I felt my skin crawling as I walked through the enslavers palace and the cruel holding docks wherein my ancestors were shackled before some Dutch prospector sullied his/her hands by purchasing them. My heart was trembling, my gut retching at the faint but unmistakable smell (I’d smelt the same in Ghana) of, urine, faeces, and (menstrual) blood that lingered in the concrete walls (imported to the Guianas during this time by the Dutch). I was surprised at how beautiful and well maintained the place was. Guyana too has its own Fort Zeelander (at Fort Island) but it is a ruin worth visiting but not so impressive. We were told that the Dutch regularly maintained the site because for them there was some pride in memorialising this wicked part of their history. I emphasise “memorialising” in consideration of those Africans (especially Christians) who still struggle with the concept of honouring our ancestors, citing it as “ancestral worship” as though this is heinous and something worse than the misery of enslavement and colonisation which led us thus to this twisted perception of our progressive traditions.
Homage is paid to Hitler every time some new film/documentary is made about his life or the European (World) Wars. I don’t know any African who does not empathise with the “Jews”, but some of us struggle with the reality that the enslavement and genocide of millions (and much more than 6) was a “haulocaust” too. And the genocide in Africa is not over: though not alone, take Congo where more than 6 million innocent people have been killed since 1996 in a “geo-strategic” nightmare “war” over its resources. Whilst we struggle to memorialise or ancestors and to remember that our collective oppression is not over, British/American (European) war veterans are honoured (ancestrally) every year on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The Europeans have their private and public shrines that mark a tribute to their ancestors. And they tried to whip the drums and drumming and the manifestation of spirits out of Africans and told us to “forsake” our traditional practices - demonising our Vodou, our Obia and our “different ways of knowing.” But we are not physically under those whips anymore and we should try every means to destroy the mental shackles that burden us with fear about our spirituality. For it is this ultimate source of empowerment, which our ancestors used as strategies for liberation that the European sought to deny us.
Here in Suriname, as it was in Haiti, Africans understood their spiritual power and they used it for liberation. And they have retained this power as a sign of continuity with their ancestral practices. Unlike in Guyana (with the exception of spiritualists/cultural practitioners) and some places in the Caribbean, Obia (or obeah) is not scorned or feared but wholeheartedly embraced in Suriname. Obia men and women are respected as spiritualists capable of interpreting complex signs. My niece and I were delighted to be invited to a ritual on the plantation of the friend we were staying with. I had met her in London; though she was born in Suriname she had lived most of her life in Holland. We had shared spiritual experiences and her cousin had helped me with my research on Comfa. We were told to wear something red and blue as all the family, belonging to the same plantation would be. When the Dutch eventually gave up the lands to the enslaved Africans (not those that fought for their own) they left families with enormous plantations, the size of several villages in Guyana. Every member of that family owned a piece of the land and from time to time my friend’s family came together at the heart of the (Oniribo) plantation to honour the spirits.
The reason we wore red was because the ceremony would open by honouring the Amerindian spirits (red is their colour) since prior to colonisation the lands had been theirs. Music was played by the band that invited the manifestation of the Amerindian spirits. Participants danced in a circle to the music until someone or several people went into trance. When they went into trance, an Obia man (with help from others) would anoint the spirit with some alcohol at the nape of their necks; give them water from a calabash; friends and family who knew the “vessel” (or “host” to the spirit) now in trance would embrace them, a beautiful gentle gesture, welcoming the spirit to the ritual. And they would dance and dance until the “host” came out of the trance. The pictures I took in this pitch of night and scant light do not fully express the beautiful men, women and children proudly participating in the ritual. I loved the gorgeous and varied creole head ties adorning the women’s heads. Young women and elderly, men too respected the moment with seriousness and responded to the call of the music. After they played for and roused the Amerindian spirits to satisfaction, the band changed tune and called for the Congo.
Very soon all around us a magnetic power emerged. The Congo came with a force that might be considered terrifying. It walked stealthily, heavy feet planted deeply into the ground, fists tightly folded as though preparing to deliver a fierce blow at something. Embracing a Congo spirit meant enduring a hefty thumping on the back; but the spirits sought one another, squeezing and thumping and performing what seemed like slow, deliberate marching steps around the ritual space. It seemed that everyone with a Congo spirit went into trance (but I know it wasn’t so for all). Some screamed when the spirit took, when the music hit some special note and roused the spirit; some marched off into the heart of the dark plantation and had to be brought back to the centre; some danced in front of the band, saluting or basking in the energy of the music. The Obia man was busy, anointing and calming, and “powdering” (“safo safo” he would tell the spirit coming with too much force – meaning go softly with your “host/vessel” the one experiencing trance). It’s my understanding that many of the practitioners who go into trance know something about their single or multiple spirits, the Congo being one of the strongest. So there was no fear of the spirit, instead when they manifested, they were welcomed for this was a sign of alignment that reinforced the connection between spirit and host. The spirit would continue to do “work” for its “host” if that “host” continued to welcome, honour and seek to be aligned with it.
On our way back from Suriname we made a worthwhile visit to my grandparents’ village in Berbice, though it was regrettably brief. It allowed my niece the chance to alight on the specific part of the earth where her (paternal) great grandparents expressed into being. To me this part of Berbice has lost its vigour; but it holds the richest memories of my childhood experiences. And though we were determined to be less “uptight” about Guyana, I couldn’t help feeling heart broken by the depression of Linden when we visited. The killing of three young men by the police on June 18th 2012 following protests over the hiked electricity prices left an eerie feeling of desolation in the town, where I lived before migrating to London. My return to Guyana always includes a visit to Linden. There never seems to be any movement, the town feels like it’s in a perpetual state of stagnation. Everything moves slowly in the hazy, dusty air from the bauxite and fierce heat. When we spoke to some of the locals they gave us the impression that it was a matter of time before the “quiet” after the previous protests was disturbed; the need for more TV channels that were more culturally inclusive was a probable trigger. With the “lock down” of the area fresh in their memories, which had further depressed an already disenfranchised local economy (scarcity of provisions, and jobs, social and cultural outlets) there was a reluctance to revisit this scene of protest.
It was unspoken but there was a sense that nothing in Guyana could disturb or shock us as it did prior to the trip to Suriname. Yes, we didn’t appreciate the absurdities but found some way to accept that “this was Guyana.” It was at once beautiful and messed up; the biliousness of racism and corruption tampered with the beautiful sea breeze, and wistful clustering of the coconut trees, the sumptuousness of fruits and abundance of food; the wonderful, hilarious energy of the street hustlers and artists; the passion of ordinary people who tolerated but were not uncritical about the state of their country. We found time for some respite as we enjoyed the black waters at Slashmins Resort. We danced at the Soiree (“evening”) historically/traditionally held in Hopetown before the Emancipation celebrations on 1st August. The streets in Hopetown were packed with people, most of them young (limers) who didn’t have much understanding of the cultural significance of the Soiree.
We found a spot where there was a semblance of what we saw in Suriname insofar as participants danced in a circle before eventually someone “ketch comfa” (went into trance). On occasion when this happened the person (“vessel/host”) was watched but it seemed the spirit was left thirsty since no water was offered by those who appeared to be ordering the event (as would be the Obia man in Suriname); no one had Florida Water (I always walked with some so used mine) to daub on the spirit; no one gently hugged the spirit who was manifesting, though no one was surprised or shocked by what was happening – for this too was Guyana. When I brought some water to offer to the “host” (in trance) it was taken from me and roughly thrust at them. This was different to the way I observed the Surinamese offering the spirit water; which was done with gentleness, love and a kind of sacredness. The musicians played music that had similar instruments as those in Suriname; there was no dress code per se, but obviously this was a ritual to honour/welcome African spirits and some people wore African clothes. In Suriname the musicians were given time to rest, after playing at least one song. In Guyana, the musicians seemed to work hard, playing for hours before a break. Some degree of shame seemed linked to the ritual, but I was glad for the chance to witness it.
My niece and I planned to be back in Guyana for Emancipation. It was wonderful to see the array of African outfits as everyone embraced the ancestral occasion. There were a few Amerindians and East Indians participating but it was clear that this was a time for Africans to “come out.” The National Park was not packed but people from all over Guyana and the diaspora had made the effort to be there and this was joyful to see. It differs from London’s Carnival where that ancestral cord seems to be eroding. People took pride in preparing for Emancipation and it’s customary to cook “creole food” (which I didn’t fully appreciate before). I want to believe, indeed would like to hope that the “African dress up” was not for one day only. I hope, would like to believe that Africans are not solely reliant on the government (through the Ministry of Culture) to encourage their consistent respect and expression of their identity; which has a powerful part to play in the weaving of Guyana’s diverse social and cultural history.
Interpreting the signs by some way of concluding
After seeing so many people willingly (consciously) going into trance in Suriname I returned to Guyana and later London aware that I needed to be true to my spirit. In Guyana, some people are reluctant to “dance” to the beat of drums because this is a signal that the spirits are circling and likely to manifest. The drums were calling my niece and I from the moment we reached Barbados. And we never failed to dance when we heard them. I have learnt not to fear the drums, nor spirit. After all, embracing my spirit/s enables me to interpret simple and challenging signs around me. They empower me by shaping and directing my journey along the Path. A false sense of purpose (“unconscious trance”), almost being a prey to superficial forces occurs when I succumb to the varied distractions (including that of racism) that have nothing to do with spiritual fulfilment, or the building of a community of diverse human beings. The endemic, consuming racism of Guyana had the potential to divert me from the Path and my purpose – which is to love and understand all human beings. It is also to know who or what the true enemy is, whether I interpret this spiritually or physically. Spiritually my enemy is disobedience to my spirit when I embrace that which is false and distracting; it is when I fear my spirit/s, when I am unwilling to do the work of spirit. Physically, it is anyone or thing that hinders my expression of love toward humanity – it is anything or system that is anti-human, it is that which denies all human beings their right to progress.
Sadly, I know some pan-Africanists who think it’s possible and desirable to reverse racism. The Pan-Africanist who makes a pseudo suggestion of annihilating “Arabs” (invaders like Europeans), or who shun all other ethnicities does not adequately respect the complexity of our identities (the plural is deliberate). My best friend is Mauritian, a visibly light skinned Indian. She has complained repeatedly about the way some Africans treat her when I invite her some of our events. She has the feeling of being “in the wrong place,” feeling treated the way (as she tells me) “white people” treat black people. She often refers to herself as “Indian African!” because her father’s ancestors were enslaved Africans shipped to Mauritius just as ours were shipped to the Caribbean. The Pan-Africanist who overlooks this level of complexity when assigning what constitutes or embodies an “African” attempts the anti-human characteristics of racism mastered by European imperialists to justify slavery and their capitalist expansion. If I was so adamant about seeking out only Africans along my Way, I would have rejected (and thought suspect) the East Indian (“aunty”) who took the form of a guide that miserable day we were turned back from Suriname. My contention and struggle is not with “racists” but that which fosters (parents) it – capitalism and imperialism – and which ultimately blights the progress towards a better humanity. I wonder how the Shout would have looked had we made it to Venezuela where a different model (system) is in place. Socialism appeals to revolutionary Pan-Africanists because it does not exhibit “anti-human” characteristics; for its cardinal principle is humanism. To allow myself to be forever soaked in the foulness of the racism and corruption and re-enact (for that’s all it would ever be –mimicry) this against others is to lose sight of this basic principle with which I expressed beautifully into the world.
There is always a come down after the journey to and return from the source. The sunshine seems so far flung from the heart; the drums morbidly silent. But there are rivers everywhere that carry the force of Oshun, where I can commune and keep aligning. The summer sunshine that blessed England this year stayed long enough for us to feel as though we were still on holiday. My niece has her own way of expressing what the experience has meant for her. But I saw how she blossomed, how she struggled with then slowly opened to “herself” in a difficult moment of experiencing. She glows differently now, though she might not realise it. She radiated as a colourful macaw (one of Guyana’s many birds) at the London carnival; loving and accepting herself and the variations of light in everything she experiences. And I keep reading the signs for they are myriad and made complex only when I deny who I am. I accept that I am a medley of many experiences but this does not “contain” me. I have a single duty and that is to remember why I returned in this lifetime. I do not believe in whimsical existence but a purposeful one. So I listen to the rhythm of my dreams. I take my turn to dance; for the djembe knows all my tunes and awakens dormant memories. The mediations are lonely yet I am not alone. Amidst my tears the spirits comfort; the ancestors seem pleased with my meagre but heartfelt offerings. The Temple is not far so I find time to “go there.” "Unconscious trance" restricts me but calling the guides, invocations to spirit – conscious trance – liberates me. And all those wayward (distracting) experiences are consumed by the fearless trampling of my Congo spirit.
My radiating niece at London Carnival
Fernández Olmos M and Paravisini-Gebert, L, eds., Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo, New York University Press, New York/London, 2003.
- Healing Cultures – Art and Religion as Curative Practices in the Caribbean and Its Diaspora, Palgrave, New York, 2001.
Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santería, Obeah and the Caribbean, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick/New Jersey, 1997.
Gibson, Kean, Comfa Religion and Creole Language in A Caribbean Community, New York, State University of New York Press, 2001
Hall, Stuart, ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora,’ in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory - A Reader, Williams, Patrick and Chrisman, Laura eds., Harvester Wheatsheaf, UK: 1993, pp. 392-403.
Lall, GHK, Guyana: A National Cesspool of Greed, Duplicity and Corruption (A remigrant’s Story), 2012. (self-published)
Somé, Malidoma, Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual, and Community Jeremy P Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 1998