Saturday, May 31, 2014
The Africans of Tobago
By Biko Agozino
An African Tobagonian sister once took me on a trip from Trinidad to the beautiful island of Tobago to learn more about the culture and traditions of the predominantly African people who live there (Trinidad and Tobago is probably the only country that officially identifies people of African descent as Africans). I was expecting to stay in a hotel but similar to the African tradition of hospitality, I was given a bed and home cooked meals in the home of a then 81 year old artist aunt of hers who raised ten children in that three bedroom house the way many African parents do raise large families back in Africa.
When I asked her how she could raise so many children in the home that size, she explained that it was not just her ten children but also the children of others who were sometimes dropped off by their parents for all of the summer holidays and she would care for all of them as if they were hers. Once, an immigrant from a different island stayed with her for one month prior to delivering her baby and then left the baby with her for a week but never returned until eight months later to pick up the baby just because the host herself was due to deliver her own baby in the hospital. All this sounds very familiar to an African like me who grew up in the Nigerian countryside.
The sister that took me to the island advised me to have a heavy breakfast because I was going to walk until I dropped but I smiled knowing how much I walked while growing up in Africa. In the end, the sister was the one complaining of being tired from all that walking. First, we walked up to upper Scarborough where the Tobago House of Assembly was located. In front of the Assembly I saw the monument to Mr James, a nationalist politician who allegedly committed suicide after he lost the first independence election. We walked up to the top of the hill to enjoy the breath-taking views of the coastline and view King James Fort which was started by the British in the year 1777 but completed by the French after they defeated the British only to lose the island to the British again around 1831. In those days, the British administered Tobago and Grenada together as one colonial territory until 1854 when it became linked administratively with Trinidad. The hospital that was located at the fort was said to be manned by mostly Nigerian medical doctors at the time of my visit in 2008.
In the evening, a retired son of my hosting mother volunteered to drive us to meet a 91 year old school mate of his mother to hear more about the culture of the Africans who live there. First of all, we stopped to speak with Mr Wendell Buckley, the local member of the House of Assembly who was also the Assistant Secretary for Culture. Although it was a Saturday evening and his constituency office was closed, he invited us to his office and gave an informal interview that I found fascinating. Again, this reminds me of the concept of African time which is known as Trinidad time over there, the idea that time can be flexible and so office hours do not have to run by the clock, that the office can be opened at odd hours to serve the people without demanding for overtime payment or any other reward other than the joy of sharing your own culture with a visiting brother.
Mr Buckley (the name of the Irish priest in my home town, Awgu) told me that he returned recently from a visit to Guinea where he went to study Balenke drumming and where he wept to see the misery and poverty in which his fellow Africans were forced to live in this day and age. He wondered how the chief of the village could be allowed to suffer from leprosy in his 700 year old hut when there is medication in the world to eradicate the disease, why a woman was left to wander about with open lesions on her chest, why the people are made to live in such little huts decades after winning their independence from France under the inspirational Sekou Toure, and whether there is anything his country could do to help his fellow Africans back in the motherland?
But he also wondered how the people could suffer such material deprivation by day and still find the joy to celebrate and honour their ancestors with drumming, singing and dancing by night. Just as I was not allowed to lodge in a hotel during my visit, he was also provided accommodation in the hut of one of the families during his visit to Guinea. He wondered why our ancestors suffered such unimaginable cruelty during slavery only for their descendants to enjoy a much higher standard of living than many of their fellow Africans back in Africa today.
Then he described in detail, the ‘salaaka’ feasts honouring the ancestors that I am so familiar with in my Igbo culture. He said that you will find similar feasts throughout the Eastern Caribbean where it goes by different names like Communa festival in Jamaica and Congo festival or salaaka in Tobago. The people of Tobago known as Congo people originated from Igbo, Ashanti, Congolese, Mandinkes and Dahomey enslaved people. He proudly asserted that his grandfather was a ‘Congo Boy’ - a reference to the belief that he was a pure African who did not mix with the other ethnic groups unlike the ‘red people’ who descended from Igbo women that the Europeans raped while they worked as enslaved people in the houses of the masters. He suggested that most enslaved people in Barbados were Igbo and Congolese while Jamaicans were mostly Ashanti but Tobago is more diverse.
Part of their cultural tradition from Africa was the strong belief in ‘obeah’ or protective rituals and invocations that are done under the strict guidance of elders. The water for libations is usually left for seven days in the dew and then taken to a crossroad with four junctions to pour libations to the ancestors. Anyone who grew up in the African countryside will be familiar with the significance of the cross roads as a preferred site of ancestral offerings while the symbolism of the number four in Igbo cosmology with four market day week was not lost on me. From the road intersection, the ritual moves to a sacred compound where some animals are slaughtered and sometimes the blood is poured down a hole in the ground although some no longer allow the sacrifice and insist only on the feast.
There is drumming and chanting until the spirits of the ancestors seize someone and makes the person to ride with them until the person is exhausted and drops. The person speaks in tongues, as many Africans back home continue to do even in churches today, to reveal the wishes of the ancestors who might counsel against a certain course of action or support it as the case may be. Following that, the people would give thanks to the ancestors for their guidance and feast on roasted pork until the morning.
Mr Buckley later took us to see the 91 year old woman who lived above Congo Hill but we traveled along a road called Top Hill Road which translates literally to Enugu, my home state in Nigeria. The English would have said Hill Top but the Africans were probably translating from their own language when they named it Top Hill or Enugu. As soon as we got there, the old woman asked us to show some love by giving her presents and the politician explained that Africans consider it rude to visit an elder without presents. What amazed me was that as soon as I put my hands into my pocket, the old woman correctly mentioned the amount of money I was going to give her!
She offered us something to drink and we each had a glass of water. Brother Buckley brought out two drums and gave one to the elder. They both started playing and chanting and I was almost convinced that some of the words were Igbo words that I could recognize and the words meant the same thing in Igbo (although the sounds could mean something different in other languages too)! For instance, in a fertility chant in which women were supposed to call for salt water (sperm) to be given to them while gyrating and the men were supposed to follow by chanting ‘Mama Kalukalu (penis in their local dialect) Keliwe (erection in Igbo), I was simply amazed. As if reading my thoughts, the old woman launched into the most energetic drumming that would shame many young men, chanting ‘Igbo lele’ or simply; be vigilant. the Igbo, in my language or something like that (and I understand that this was one of the rallying chants of the Haitian Revolution). Her final chant was about Jonah surviving in the belly of the beast on his way to Nineveh and Mr Buckley explained that the enslaved used such metaphors to deceive the slave-holders into thinking that they were worshiping the white man’s God while they were performing their ancestral rituals.
Finally, the old woman told the story of Gangan Khan who is a mythical figure in Tobago and who was said to have flown from Africa to the island but could not fly back because she ate too much salt. The symbolism of this for excessive salt consumption by the enslaved who were fed salt-fish by the Europeans and the high incidence of hypertension among people of African descent was noted. They said that there is a grave where Gangan Khan was buried but I did not visit it on that occasion. Mr Buckley said that he regretted that he could not learn how to fly when he visited Guinea and I told him that there is always the airline. When next I visited I planned to try to see the grave of Gangan Khan and perhaps attempt a documentary film about the narratives or the people.
Fuss a August: Emancipation Day Commemoration
My hosting mother told a story about an old African woman, Mamu, who lived on Congo Hill and who did not speak a word of English. She always celebrated Emancipation Day on Fuss a August (August First) every year by dressing in royal African garbs and running down the streets only to put the clothes away until the next Emancipation Day commemoration. This sounds like a scene out of a movie and I was amazed that an island with such magical tales does not have a thriving film industry. I was tempted to start filming all the wonderful scenes that I encountered there but I did not have a camera that time around. Sadly the then 91 year old drummer passed away before I could return to film her.
Dr Biko Agozino was a Professor of Sociology and Acting Head of Department of Behavioural Sciences, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago, at the time of writing in 2008.