By Chike Pilgrim
March 09, 2007
Lecture: “African Heritage in the Caribbean” – given by Professor Maureen Warner-Lewis.
The Lecture began in the National Library (Hart and St. Vincent) at 7:30pm and finished at around 8:45pm.
Prof. Warner-Lewis focused on eight (8) main areas of African contribution/heritage:
3. Lexicon (Words)
6. Musical Instruments
The 1st point noted by the professor was that work was perhaps the main legacy contributed by Africans. It was the main reason for the African presence, and it was because of our (perceived) capacity for labor Africans were brought to the Caribbean. She noted that Africans have contributed centuries of unpaid labor to the Americas, and even afterward we have been poorly paid for our labor contribution. Plantation labor/ agriculture were centered mainly on sugarcane, tobacco, coffee and coco. Clearing lands, building roads, bridges, forts, aqueducts, windmills, lighthouses, public buildings and so on were therefore all centered on agriculture and the profit to be had from it, and of course all these tasks were carried out by Africans. The reclamation of land was also done by Africans, areas such as Broadway in Port of Spain, Trinidad is an example of this. So the professor raised the interesting point, that in terms of looking at our physical landscape, we must ask ourselves: Who built it? Who carved it out?
Contributions to the food supply as well were significant – subsistence farming, commercial agricultural trade, Sunday market all have significant African backgrounds. The role of women in the Caribbean as market sellers is also a West African trait. Women selling certain kinds of crops is also West African because there would generally be a gender-based division of labor, i.e., men specialized in certain kinds of crops – yams etc, and women grew and sold green leafy vegetables, creepers like pumpkin, and so on. Inter island trade in ground provisions/ veggies is still significant today.
As farmers, traders and artisans, Africans contributed to the growth of a small black middle class – nurses, teachers and the like. The growth of a landed class (landowners) then led to an African middle class which then contributed to the growth of a black professional class, for example lawyers and doctors. So the upper and middle class black communities in the Caribbean today of course owe their positions to the African contribution of land ownership and agricultural practices.
The heritage of foods – yam, dasheen, eddoes, bananas, plantains and the ackee tree all have basis in African culture. The ackee, for example, which is extremely popular in Jamaica, was and is well liked by the peoples in and around the Dahomey area in West Africa. There the ackee is eaten with meat, in Jamaica it is likewise eaten with salt fish. Bene (sesame seeds) from which we make “bene balls” is another example of a common African food finding its place in Caribbean cuisine. The Africans of course didn’t necessarily bring these foodstuffs to the Caribbean (at least not during the enslavement period), but they were fed them. The Guinea corn in Barbados is another example of a staple African food from which we have derived our affinity for cornmeal foods. Coo-coo (cornmeal food) is cooked with ochre commonly in the Caribbean. Meals such as oil down (in Jamaica called run down) are also African based. Africans however, use much less coconut milk in their cooking and much more palm oil. The substitution is understandable of course, because of the widespread availability of coconuts on West Indian islands. Again, in West Africa, black eyed peas are popular, as well as pounded foods – yam for example, eaten with steamed vegetables. These meals are easily found anywhere in the Caribbean islands.
Foods such as the ‘ubiquitous’ ackra (fried salt fish and flour) are eaten on mornings as a breakfast food. This is an African inheritance. Another such delicacy is ‘payme’ a batter of cornmeal. Payme is the Caribbean version of the Ghanian food called ‘kenke.’
A number of words come from the West African heritage as well. “Day clean,” is a reference to the light cleaning the face of the world. It means ‘first light/dawn.” This is a West African metaphor. “Wari” is a game from the Gold Coast that is similar to draughts and is still played in Antigua today. “Susu” is a word based on the Yoruba word “esusu” meaning a rotation of funds to persons who have contributed to a central banker; a sharing of capital. This practice is done commonly throughout West Africa. A general misconception is that the word had its origins in the French word for “cent.”
The Caribbean use of “Allyuh” and “you all” also bear traits of West African language. Standard English just has “you,” which acts as the 2nd person singular AND the 2nd person plural. African languages make a distinction between the plural ‘you’ and the singular ‘you’ so therefore the “all” is inserted “allyuh”, “you all” to mean more than one. The Bajan “wunna,” which means “you all” is a version of the Ibo pronoun “unna” which has a similar meaning. “Moomoo” a word meaning stupid, or dumb, and “booboo” meaning coal in the eyes are also African based words. “Anansi” likewise is a chief character of folk tales in the Gold Coast. “Jumbi” is a word from Angola meaning a ghost, an entity that returns from the dead. “Locho” is a Congo word meaning “cheap; mean; stingy” that has found its way to the Caribbean. “Tabanka” or its variant (without the nasal consonants “n or m”) “Tabaka,” is a Congo word meaning sold out or bought out completely. So from this we have the Caribbean word “tabanka/tabaka” meaning completely lost in love. “Tooloom” comes from the word “toolumuka” which means to drag oneself or to pull out teeth. The Caribbean word “Lahe” which mean “wutless” or “good for nothing” is based in the Congo word “laha” which means the same. “Kongori” can be found in a series of languages in Africa from Gabon to the interior, and the meaning is the same – a millipede. “Kaiso” among the Niger Delta peoples is a term that means “well done!” and so at the end of a “kaiso” or “calypso” it is very suitable to hear such an acclamation. “Dwen/Douen” is also an African word which refers to the soul of a child that has died.
The sequencing of words in a language is called grammar. The placement of words in the Caribbean use of language is also influenced/ shaped by the African presence. For instance, the use of the subject-adjective, without any verb in between is very African and can be seen in Caribbean speech regularly: “He sick”; “I late.” Another concept that has helped create Caribbean speech is one called “focusing the idea.” “Is late he late” is such an example. Emphasizing through repetition is another Caribbean language trait that has African roots. For example: “It good good”; “I now now come back”; “He stupid stupid stupid.”
“Stick break in yuh ears” – West Africans outline stubbornness by using the notion of the ears being blocked. “Propping sorrow” – an action used to signify cutting oneself off from one’s immediate environment; introspection. In traditional West African society it is not desirable to be alone as this signifies one’s madness or one’s participation in the occult.
“Cold have me” The concept that a sickness is personified and has grasped you is a West African one used when a person is suffering from an illness.
“I’s people too” – a phrase in Yoruba. When disrespected by someone this is the counterstatement whcih means you have treated me as less than a human, more like an animal. “You stay there!” a West African phrase meaning “you’re fooling yourself.”
Folktales in the Caribbean either come directly from Africa unchanged or have moved around a bit, but the Tortoise is distinctly West African and Ashanti as a main character; the Spider is a West and East African character, and the hare is also African as a character.
Caribbean musical instruments are also significantly influenced by their African Heritage. The shapes and constructions of drums, the way they are made, are West African in nature. The drum making process in Surinam can be traced to Ghana. “Tambu” is a Congolese word for drum. And the tamboo bamboo, bottle and spoon and steel percussion from cowbells, iron wheels and steelpans produce tones that are very West African. The development of a steelpan orchestra: this concept is African. In Africa there are entire orchestras that are made up of a single type of instrument – similar to the steelpan concept. With elephant horns, for example, an orchestra can be built, and the major difference, like with the steelpan, is one of tone. Drums can form an orchestra as well. The xylophone from the Savannah Belt in Africa is similar in tone to the tenor pan that was formed in Trinidad.
The nearness of the spirit world and the importance attached to dreams – people believing that spirits talk to them is a Caribbean trait based in Africa. The concepts behind obeah and the use of charms/ amulets relates to the belief that some people can exercise greater spiritual, psychological and mental force over the person who does not have adequate energy to repel them. For example, if you believe someone can hurt or cure you, half the battle is already lost or won. So the concept is that it is a contest of energy fields, and the victim has to believe that such a sign will affect them, that weakens their energy and renders them fallible. Reconciliation with the dead ancestors for paths to be prosperous and for all to be well is an African concept translated into the Caribbean. In St. Lucia, unsalted foods are offered up to the dead, and remnants of this practice we can see in the Rastafarian community which believes that eating salted foods will weaken one’s spiritual force.
“Kambule” is Congo word meaning a parade/procession accompanied by call and response and percussion. The idea of spirits being hidden behind masquerades of shredded banana leaves or other materials, as well as having the body daubed with paint or mud is also African. The concept of dangerous spirits being restrained by chains is also African – the devil mas and dragon mas are examples. Moko jumbies trace their roots to Africa as well, and very many dance choreographies are almost unchanged coming from the continent to the islands.The Lecture was generally informative and was very well received. A question and answer segment followed for about ten minutes.
Professor Maureen Warner-Lewis giving her lecture
‘African Heritage in the Caribbean’ in pictures: