African Heritage in Guyana

African Heritage in Guyana                         Al Craighton

African Religious Survivals in Guyana       Eusi Kwayana

African Heritage in Guyana

by Al Craighton

THE month of February is one of two periods in the year when the country's African heritage is brought into focus in Guyana. While February is designated "African History Month" (sometimes called Black History Month), the focus is renewed in August because of the anniversary of Emancipation in that month, and the narrow interpretation that the abolition of slavery is of exclusive 'African' significance. During these periods there are several references to 'African culture' and, generally, a concentration on performing arts which are considered African.

This Guyanese African celebration, however, is hardly as rich as it could easily be because it is usually accompanied by a range of misconceptions and a fair degree of superficiality in many quarters. African culture generally, and African culture in a Guyanese context, have much wider meaning and significance than is normally appreciated. Too often, the impression is given that we are referring to a homogenous mass from one continent and one culture. Then, there is a tendency to limit this African focus to what may be contained in artistic performance. (In Guyanese English, a 'culture show' means a concert with a variety of music, dance and drama, while a "cultural item" is a theatrical performance.)

In the context of the African heritage, it is not difficult to understand this confinement to the arts. In Africa and the diaspora, the people maintain a tradition of expressing most elements of their existence through art, oral literature and theatrical performance. As it is for everyone else, art is entertainment, but it also has very powerful religious functions in addition to the secular. It is not reserved for special occasions only, but is a part of everyday life and has an important social context. Art has roles in the life cycle, in rites of passage, religion, social control and cosmology. Therefore, the African artistic expression is steeped in symbolism, spirituality and icons, and serious rituals take the form of theatrical performances. That apart, African culture is certainly not restricted to artistic exhibition. It covers the ways of life of many peoples, ranging from architecture to clothing, food, agriculture and manners. These cultural traditions as previously practised by Africans transplanted to Guyana and maintained by their descendants have faded drastically, through natural processes, socialization, acculturation and human action.

During slavery, the plantocracy orchestrated the suppression of many customs and traditions, especially language and those practices that threatened the security of the system and its ruling class. They were suspicious of whatever they did not understand. However, some theatrical acts that they considered harmless were, in fact, insurrectionary, while others had very violent rivalry among the black practitioners and were aimed, not at the white colonialists, but against each other. Through successive combinations of legislation, criminalization, political suppression, natural processes of language change, language death and acculturation, several traditions disappeared.

Despite the part played by such forces, one effective cause of the decline in African cultural traditions in Guyana was self-inflicted. This is the affliction known as self-contempt. Through centuries of socialization including a hierarchy or race and class, many blacks came to regard their own culture as inferior and degrading; as something to be ashamed of. As a result, they themselves suppressed it, severely reducing its passage down to succeeding generations.

Ignorance or indifference filled the gaps, including the notion of homogeneity, which ignores the existence of many different cultures in Africa North and South of the Sahara, including the white, the Arab and the Islamic. This particular vacancy in knowledge of the African culture has led to misrepresentation and superficiality. It is common for both audience and performers to believe that any drum or any drumming is "African," notwithstanding the loud presence of the tassa and tabla in Guyana. The same goes for dance, where performing a choreographed program with vigorous, pelvic movements to the music of drums is enough to make it "African."

There are, however, several different types of African drums, the most common in Guyana being the congo, bongo, "boom" (used in the masquerade) funde, batta and bass. The "kittle" used in the masquerade is actually a version of the "kettle" known in the European military. The African rhythms are even more varied and have actual, distinguishing characteristics. They are, of course, highly tonal. Tonality is the key to understanding the famous "talking drums" of the Akan. Most rhythms are combinations of two or more drums of different tones accompanied by other percussion instruments such as the "katta stick." In addition, these rhythms are often attached to religious ritual with distinct sounds related to specific deities and ceremonies. Examples of these are kumfa (cumfa), yamapele and the gumbay formerly associated with the obeah dances. Contrary to popular misapplication, the kwe kwe (queh queh) dance is not accompanied by drums. The pounding of the feet against the ground keeps time and rhythm. The basic 'high life' time, which is secular party music, is the root of the soca.

Many other rhythms have deep ritual or religious significance and have to be studied by the drummers since they are used to communicate with deities and to induce spirit possession. African drumming is therefore a learnt, if not a specialist, art and not any rhythm played on a Guyanese folk drum is "African." The dances, too, include the religious and the ritualistic, although it must be stressed that some of them have become secularized and no longer hold any cosmic significance for those who practice them today. A very good example of this is the masquerade whose original symbolism is no longer meaningful to the contemporary dancers.

In these African traditions, too, dress or costume holds some significance, which most often is not understood by onlookers or those wishing to perform them. Those dances that are ritualistic use colours which are important. For example, in those with Yoruba roots, bright red is symbolic of the god, Shango, dark wineûred is for Ogun, god or iron, war and the road, while blue is for the goddess Oya. Many persons performing `African' dance are unaware of the colour symbolism, which extends to several other aspects of the performance. Also in the costuming are different head-ties and waist bands, all bearing specific meaning. These aspects of the African performance are always ignored and some items thus become rather arbitrary with no particular "Africanness."

Yet another important misconception about African performance and custom, leads to pejorative attitudes and negative stereotyping. One of these has to do with sexuality. Many performance traditions are sexually suggestive because exhibitions of sexuality, including some degree of explicitness, are symbolic of fertility, continuance of the life cycle, manhood or marriage. Ever since slavery and colonial times these displays were condemned as lewd, vulgar and gratuitous. A good example well known today is the kwe kwe, which thrives on sexual reference in words and gesture. This is often judged as a sign of the AfricanÆs liberal way of life. It is a stigma attached to the Guyanese folk songs as well.

Ironically, however, the kwe kwe, like the folk songs, is didactic and is a tradition which upholds moral behaviour, chastizes promiscuity, celebrates chastity and brings African 'nations' together through a strong marriage tradition. It instructs bride and groom and serves as a means of social control. Another stereotype is the myth that Africans have no interest or skills in business. Yet in African traditions bargaining is an art and it is considered an insult to lose in a bargain. Moreover, African men are judged according to their industry, material productivity and wealth, accumulated through work.

One problem is that true knowledge of such African custom does exist in many villages and among individuals in Guyana. These remain unresearched by "African" organizations whose over-riding interest seems to be political. They gravitate towards partisan politics rather than a quest for knowledge of African traditions. At the same time many who feel committed to perform the arts, end up in pseudo û African exhibitions, shallow and arbitrary in form and content.

What is of great importance is that this nation is Guyana, not Ghana, Nigeria or Zimbabwe and should strive first for a national identity, not imitate a foreign one. This can easily be achieved by gaining as much knowledge as possible about the Guyanese African heritage. Guyana is enriched by its multi-cultural existence. Such ethnic groups as the East Indian, Portuguese, Amerindian and African have strong traditions which have evolved in Guyana. Each is Guyanese. It is nonsense to try to mix or merge them although there are important and interesting hybrid forms that have developed naturally. The African heritage has been localized, creolized or indigenized in Guyana and is therefore a part of the national culture.


African Religious Survivals in Guyana

by Eusi Kwayana

AFRICAN religion, from its earliest existence in this country, started at a disadvantage. This should be clear to all who know the agonies of exile. It had by force left behind it, in the land of captivity, its priests, priestesses its oracles and many of the keepers and teachers of tradition. It was a separation from a spiritual matrix in which every whiff of the wind had been attributed to God. Was God still present in this strange land?

Surely large numbers of them felt that they had been deserted and the Evil one had triumphed, while at the same time consoling one another with their universal certainty, "God deh." In Suriname in l956 Nana Kobina Nketsia of Ghana, said he had found a plant which he knew in Ghana. He held one of the kind as he spoke. He said that when he asked a Maroon the name of the plant, the man astonished him by saying, "God deddi, me deddi" (If God die, I die) the same name he knew it by in Ghana.

In the early seventies ASCRIA held a wake in Golden Fleece, West Coast Berbice so as to have the Weldaad drummers. The drummers drummed, and sang all night Africans songs, which they could not interpret, but remembered. They knew they were death songs. These are matters for the reparations account.


The late Joel Benjamin in a paper on 'The Water Mama Belief in Guyana: A preliminary Study of Form and Origin' in 1987 in Port of Spain, underlined an important constraint. The African ethnic groups were normally mixed together. In some cases, he wrote, they were placed together with previous enemies.
It can be guessed that when the Africans came to regroup their religious lives they were forced to choose episodes in a many staged observance, as well as between observances, or holy days. They had to select what was possible in the total circumstances. Since much of their religion is based on sound and motion, rather than contemplation, the hardships were harder than appeared on the surface from a distance.

The great point about African religious practice as it has come down to us in the greater part of the Caribbean is that an example of a whole process as developed in Africa is hard to find. Both Paul Robeson, who called what we have "fragments of a great thing" and Guyanese Rabu Aur who calls it "fragments" of an original, see the heritage as not integrated.

There are individuals and groups that have devoted time and resources to get it right, to go to the old continent and learn to reconstruct the incidents of a particular rite and have succeeded well. Others have held greater or lesser parts of a tradition intact. Still others by application, cultural contact and other means can demonstrate African institutions. In naming these people Maroons, the intention is to pay them a high compliment.

Honourable maroons are those who have lived away from the corrosive influences, as reputed in parts of Brazil and parts of Haiti, and in most balanced form in Suriname, because those communties avoided the plantation and were thus able perhaps almost instantly to begin the work of regrouping of the communal self. For the others, it was a matter, especially after the legal emancipation, of dropping off culture and picking up culture. The scholars have a name for it, acculturation. It is in this process that Africans became so called in culture, creoles. No community however is safe from the effects of acculturation.

The Heritage

The heritage was material, social, economic, cultural, therapeutic (healing) and spiritual. Briefly, the material heritage was made up of the things they could make on the African patterns. This is a special area of research but includes architecture, agriculture, drums, garments jewellery, charms and fetishes, weapons, beds, craftwork, firesides mortars and pestles. To get to the point, the spiritual includes such realities as dreams, visions, beliefs about afterlife, rituals, of birth, marriage, puberty, marriage and death, as examples.

An example of death ritual from 1931 will give some idea of the fragmentation and acculturation. My mother's mother died in Lusignan when I was in my sixth year. The whole extended family was aware that grandmother had told them she was going home when "the last train blow." I knew at the time that she died at 7:00pm, the time of the last train.

They brought her body home and kept it in the house lying on a zinc sheet, with ice around it and a plate on her abdomen with a flat iron in it.
That process might not have been African, but it was an indigenous custom.
Next day she was buried according to church rites at St Augustine's in Buxton, just as she would be in any English speaking country.


The first obeah case I heard of was through my mother who reported the courts fully to us. Either during or before our time there was the case of Molly Shultz, a European child who was sacrificed. The work man told his client to bring for his work a white child, or a child with 'blue' eyes and the client took the workman seriously. It was a magic related murder, based on nothing but greed, trickery and criminality.
Another self proclaimed workman Cotton Tree Maraj did not fool himself. He simply administered arsenic to those he was engaged to 'work' to death and was finally caught and after many trials hanged.

In the early fifties there was a human sacrifice in New Amsterdam when Fullerton and others, rightful professors of some occult thing found themselves in the dock. It was a human sacrifice of an Indian child, this time by a gang of adult work people, including one woman. Fullerton took himself seriously and even prayed and prayed aloud and fervently from the dock. Some were freed and some were hanged. Lillowattie, the victim, was expected to cause miracles to happen. A self appointed priesthood had put in effect their convenient reading of a scripture "Without the shedding of blood there is no redemption of sins." African descendants were central to this crime, but they did not claim African inspiration. They would have distanced themselves from such associations.

These references show that in fact obeah, in the sense of crime dressed in mystery, is a general human practice, not confined to or excluding any racial type.
A person who has mastered some form or forms of traditional healing may prefer the style of an obeah worker, since this adds mystery to the practitioner and perhaps raises the fee.

Recently a letter writer in SN professed the obeah calling. Since I am ignorant of it, he should be invited to enlarge on his pursuits, if he is willing to do so. The authorities have long asserted that the bearers of real Afrcan culture in pre and post-emancipation Guiana was "the obeah man." Kamau Braithwaite is a long recognised expert on African culture, who has lived for years in Africa. These authorities see culture as exotic and do not include its non mysterious aspects. \

African Religious Aspects

This article will now discuss what is known about the religious aspects of African culture in Guyana. (To me the issue is to draw the line between genuine religious belief and practice and what is called obeah.) I will simply define (obeah) in Guyanese usage as the employment of techniques, or even religious techniques for the purpose of evil, doing harm to human beings-others.

In 'religious' I include the normal religious activities and exercises, prayer, worship of a Divine self empowerment and healing, prayers for oneself or for others, for health, peace liberation, testifying, prophesying, fasting, self-denial, for prosperity, personal and community, praise of God, saints and ancestors and other matters of conscience. Many of these activities are also often attempted from a secular motive.
Perhaps because in our time of investigation we were not going to African elder and culture bearers seeking help or beset with fears, we did not discover these deep mysteries. My own focus was African values and value systems.


Comfa up to the forties in some parts was as African as could be expected in the circumstances. Even then it was in some places including Church hymns and symbols. It seemed focused on the Water Mumma, or goddess of the water. There were stories of fair maid giving combs to earth men for their enrichment and of the men being found with neck mysteriously broken when the union went sour. The full moon and black water were important in the timing and placing of ceremonies.

One thing leads to another and Comfa ceremonial often often leads to fortune telling. The star of the ceremony is the one who will "come through" and after that be recognised and authorised to read a person's future, somewhat like an oracle. It must have been in the inherited tradition. And the practice will run far beyond a race community, just as readers of other groups attract African patrons. So it is that healers, readers, workmen and women of one race attract a clientele wider than that race.

Reference has already been made to Joel Benjamin (1987), whose paper was not confined to African belief in Guyana or to Guyana, and he could already show how the adaptation of other deities by particular ethnic tradition was in full swing. The latest work on this aspect is by Kean Gibson, 'Comfa religion and Creole Language in a Caribbean Community.' She attempts to describe Comfa as practised today mainly in syncretic forms and to trace its African origins.

Kwe Kwe

Kwe Kwe or Keh Keh as it is called in parts of Berbice is not only what Creighton (above) claims it is. Most African born people do not recall a precise ceremony of that kind .and function, not in the original traditions. My sense is that Africans have created it in conditions of exile to replace the duty of initiation, which in the original communities is spread over much, much longer periods starting at puberty. That may be why it is clearly an instructive ceremony, teaching through play and drama and song.

Death Culture

In my grandmother's case, for what reason I cannot tell I had no sense of the Congo ceremony around the dead. Years after, when this same community lived in the new schemes near old villages, it was a different matter. Perhaps it was inconvenient on the estate. On this particular estate at that time the Big Manager's wife tolerated no noise at night, not even the barking of dogs! In their new schemes the death culture was again gathered together and large bits of it were used. The wake, a mixture of Church, in the house and Africa, in the yard space became vibrant again. There were both indoor and outdoor games. Indoor games were like Bird "The bird left my tree and flew to X's tree with words and tune." The words could be a short or long quotation from the Bible and the tune was a hymn, sankey or other.

In the yard it was largely Nancy, with warning "Nancy na get bad word" Anything said in Nancy is proper, including curse words. In this game sorrow is driven away by the most bizarre slanders on the dead and the living, slanders which no one takes seriously. Imagination and names run riot. Every now and then the warning comes up, "Nancy na get bad word." Young people take much delight in using forbidden words before elders, words which until recently would not be spoken before elders. The crowd rocks with laughter. I have never known of any one being annoyed because of a Nancy invention.

Nancy must be an ancient way of reminding us that we are all mortal, all equal and liable to fall. It is quite an experience. You may be brought into a round ring you know nothing about and will know nothing about. It is a philospophical game.
There are the African creolised death songs as well. They are sung in the yard or bottom house, sung or chanted; like

Congo creole
One by one
Awee a guh 'way
One by one
Bimbo,bimbo Solomon
Do like a me, You guh live, Solomon!

Many of these things, though slightly mixed are original in form and content.
Finally when one from the Congo community passes on, after the Church ceremony at the graveside, there is anotber ritual with chants. In this the people who linger circle the grave several times in an anti clockwise motion. Sometimes it is clockwise. Which is the right motion? It is said to be anti-clockwise to represent the ebbing of the tide of the present life. Hindus have a circling of the last resting place also. Their connections must be ancient. The African Americans have a name for it, the Ring Shout, according to Stuckey and others. They do not speak of it as a death ritual.

     HOME          <<< Page X                                           TOP                                  Page X>>>                       
© 2001