Art and culture in West Africa and the Caribbean

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 23, 2023

The following is a lecture delivered at the Pa Gya! A Literary Festival in Accra, Ghana.

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeFirst of all, I wish to thank the hosts of this marvelous festival for inviting me to participate in it and for allowing me to share my ideas of how literature, art, and culture have helped in understanding, achieving and reimagining the histories that link West Africa and the Caribbean. This is an enormous assignment. I will speak of how the West African culture, literature, and the arts helped to shape the identity of my Caribbean people. I will pay special attention to what transpired in Trinidad and Tobago, and then relate those experiences to the larger whole.

I have been coming to Africa, and particularly to Ghana, for a long time. My visits began in the 1970s. After I stepped upon Ghanaian soil, my first act was to kiss the ground of the Motherland and declare that I was back home. It was the culmination of a journey of my spirit and my soul that I had thought about for a long time.

My surname is Cudjoe. It refers to a boy born on a Monday here in Ghana. In Fanti the name of a boy born on Monday is Kojo whereas the Asante version of the same name is Kwadwo. Hence, my physical presence, my name, and my identity suggest I have connected with Africa all of my life. It is an existentialist fact that has always been associated with my being in the world.

From my infancy, I have been surrounded by the names and practices that suggested my interconnectedness with Africa. When I was growing up in Trinidad, every year, for about a week in November, there was a Shango Feast in the village. There was much praying to the African gods, the ferocious beating of drums that broke the silence of the night, and the blood sacrifices that were made-like the slaying of a goat or a fowl-cock-to appease our deities. My grandmother always cooked the salt-less foods for that festivity, because some of our gods and deities do not take salt. Neither husband nor father could keep her away from praising her ancient gods.

Some years later, when I became a man, I traveled to Jamaica to explore the Maroon legacy in that country. I knew the Maroons had defeated the English twice in the 18th century as they fought to control their land. I had to go up to Cockpit country, one of the most inhospitable regions in the island, to meet my ancestors.

The Maroons reside in Accompong, a town that was founded in 1739 when their leaders, Captain Cudjoe and his sister Queen Nanny, defeated the British in a devastating guerilla warfare that led to a Peace Treaty with the latter. The name Accompong is taken from the Akan word “Acheampong,” which suggests that the inhabitants of that town were Akans. Cudjoe and Nanny were Akans. Queen Nanny, an invincible warrior, led her people to victory in spite of the ferocity of the British.

The Maroons still control Accompong and are led by their own officials. When I visited their state, I was greeted by the Secretary of State and his wife. During our conversation, his wife kept smiling at me. I asked her why she was smiling. With a grace and benevolence, she said: “You is one of we.” A few minutes later, her grandson brought me a carving that read, “Captain Cudjoe: Chief of the Maroons.” I bought that carving instantly. It now sits on the wall at the entrance to my house.

Yaa Asantewaa (October 17, 1840 – October 17, 1900), the Queen Mother of Ejisu of the Asante Empire, who led the Asante v British War, also known as the War of the Golden Stool, or the Yaa Ashantee War of Independence against the British colonialism, reminded me of Queen Nanny. Here again, was an African woman, following her counterpart in the Caribbean who took up arms to resist the colonizer. These were her brave words after King Agyeman Prempeh I was deported to the Shyelles Islands:

“Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our King. If it were in the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware, leaders would not sit down to see their king taken away without firing a shot. No white man could have dared to speak to a leader of the Ashanti in the way the Governor spoke to you this morning.”

“Is it true that the bravery of the Ashanti is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this, if you men of Ashanti will not go forward, then we will. We the women will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefield.”

The warrior queen, Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, also known as Mbuya Nehanda (1840-98), a spirit medium of the Zezuru Shona people, was also a part of the pantheon of women warriors. In 1889, she led the Chimurenga uprising against British colonialism in present-day Zimbabwe. Osei Bonsu notes: “Before her execution a year later, Nehanda declared that her body would rise again to lead a victorious rebellion. She continues to inspire African political movements.”

That was the spirit of our women warriors in Africa and the Caribbean. When the Asantehene, Otumfuo Tutu II, visited Trinidad earlier this year to be with us at our Emancipation Day Celebration we had a chance to relive the bravery of our women warriors and think again about our connection with our African brothers and sisters.

While the Asantehene did not tell us that in the 18th century the Asante kingdom was “a powerful slave-trading state which terrorized the weaker peoples of the area,” he was generous enough to salute the intellectual and philosophical ideas of Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and George Padmore that “fanned the flames of Pan Africanism and inspired leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, and Nelson Mandela to pursue the political emancipation of the Caribbean and Africa and the yoke of colonialism.”

This intertwining and interconnection of the two societies (the Caribbean and West Africa) has always been important to conscious Africans (that is, those Africans trying to find their identity) in the Caribbean. The Trinidad and Tobago example is important in this regard. When the British captured Trinidad from the Spanish in 1797, 15,000 of the 18,627 inhabitants were Africans and people of color. The 1813 census counted 13,984 enslaved Africans of which 2,863 were Ibos; 2,450 were Congos; 2,240 Moco from Nigeria and Cameroons; 1,421 were Mandingos; 1,068 were Fanti and Asante.

In spite of the brutality that was unleashed against them, they survived by drawing upon the religion and culture they brought with them from Africa and which sustained them during difficult times in the islands. Once they obtained their liberty, the Africans practiced their religion without restraint. They danced and sang as they pleased. They bargained for wages, formed new villages, and constructed a new way of life.

Since Africans came from various ethnic groups, the island had to accommodate the plurality of cultural, social, religious, and philosophical practices they brought with them. After emancipation these communities began to reach out to one another. As a result, a more consolidated group of Africans emerged and set in place a new dynamic within the society. It also allowed them to know and understand their brothers and sisters better.

One of the biggest festivals to emerge after emancipation was the carnival celebrations. Before emancipation carnival consisted mainly of masked balls and was practiced by the upper classes of the French-Creole society. The entrance of Africans into the carnival transformed the practice into one that fitted in with their indigenous ways and consolidated the African ethnoi in the island. R. P. M. Bertrand Cothonay, a French Dominican Father who visited Trinidad in 1883, made the following observation in his journal: “Following emancipation, which took place on August 1, 1833, they [the ex-slaves and sons of slaves] resolved annually to celebrate this day by a solemn festival for perpetual memory. The festival began at day break with a high mass, loud music, consecrated bread, a procession, etc., and it continued for three days during which, in the course of the festivities, there were indescribable dances and orgies, reminiscent of African life.”

The Trinidad and Tobago carnival reflected many aspects of the Gelede, one of the most important multidimensional art forms of the Yoruba-speaking people of Nigeria. Calypso, an integral part of carnival, also had its roots in Yoruba oral literature and culture. It later assumed a permanent place in Trinidad and Tobago’s culture. Attila the Hun, an early Trinidad calypsonian, noted that the calypso was “a particular form of folksong undeniably African in origin…[and] was brought by Africans to the West Indies.” In fact, the whole relationship between the lead singer and the chorus that one finds in the early calypso is emblematic of “the recitative or chant with a short chorus” that one finds in African social and ceremonial life.

Masking or the use of masks, which the West Africans practiced/adopted after they took over carnival, became a dominant feature of the carnival festival. It signified a commitment by Africans to continue “the tradition of his predecessors” and to maintain “the reputation of the lineage.” At the heart of West African culture, masks represent “the revelation of divinities and spirits to the world of men which at the same time is animated by a supernatural and metaphysical breath….The aesthetic truth of the African mask puts art at the service of the sacred….It allows men to make their imagination communicate while addressing the gods and things.”

Such a practice was a fit reminder that much of African rituals and culture informed their everyday lives. In other words, through “playing mas/masks,” another appellation for carnival, Africans were able to recreate, reassemble, and restructure a way of life that slavery attempted to stifle. It allowed them to use their imagination and to signify the new world they were creating.

The Yoruba religion, particularly the Orisha religion, played a vital part in consolidating the group and shaping Black identity and consciousness in Trinidad. Developed mainly during the nineteenth century, the Shango cult “combined traditional tribal beliefs and practices with elements of Catholicism.” In its theology and rituals, it bore “a considerable resemblance to the Afro-Christian cults in the Catholic countries of Haiti (Vodun), Cuba (Santaria), and Brazil (Xango). All of these syncretistic cults [I would have said religions] retain the names and prominent African divinities, include animal sacrifices, feature drumming, dancing, and spirit possession, and utilize thunder stones and swords as ritual objects.”

The adoption of these African practices to their native setting, gave them the spiritual fortitude to survive in a hostile environment, particularly when the dominant powers were intent on destroying their way of life and forcing Christianity upon them. It is no wonder that the Africans had to inculcate aspects of Christianity-a feigning device-to survive in the Caribbean. In this context, it is always wise to heed Stuart Hall’s advice when he urges us to think of identity “as a ‘production,’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation.”

Throughout it all, the Africans in the Caribbean retained their fealty to Africa and her traditions, identifying at all times with the progressive thrust of Africa. When the Haitians raised their banner against the French, under the banner of Dutty Boukman, a Haitian houngman, or priest, he stuck a pig and drank his blood. Then, with his voice roaring above the storm, called upon the slaves to rise up against their masters.

Boukman’s act may be apocryphal. However, such an act reminded me of the actions of the Ghanaian masses who, when Nkrumah was released from prison on Monday 12, February 1951, “carried shoulder-high to a car, and then took two hours to reach the Arena where a sheep was ritually slaughtered. He steeped in the blood seven times to cleanse himself of the contamination of prison.” Nomusa Makhubu remarks that in many of these indigenous practices, “water and blood are sacred mediums for communicating with ancestors or the transcended who are neither dead nor alive.”

Other Akan freedom fighters who led revolts against European rule in the Caribbean were Cuffy or Kofi in the Guianas, Bussa in Barbados, and Daaga in Trinidad. All of these freedom fighters and now are national heroes in their respective Caribbean countries.

Their tradition was then taken up by modern warriors who came together in London and other places in the twentieth century, beginning at the first Pan African Congress in 1900 that was organized by Henry Sylvester Williams of Trinidad, Du Bois, and Anna J. Cooper of the United States, and Benito Sylvain, the Haitian aide-de-camp to the Ethiopian Emperor. There would be several other conferences, but as the struggle for independence and self-government intensified, leaders such as C. L. R. James, Marcus Garvey, Arthur Lewis, George Padmore, Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea shared ideas and practices in liberation. Today, other contemporary leaders have taken up the struggle.

These interconnections with Africa have been there from “the first time they took us away from our father land,” as Bob Marley says. We have maintained the essence of this culture, the African culture, in varied and sundry ways. It may have gone underground, but it always surfaced in the time of need. In many instances, they adapted themselves to their new environment. But they were always there to see us through. One of our challenges is to continue these interchanges, exchanges and interconnections as we face the enemy whether in Brooklyn, USA, Accra in Ghana, or Port of Spain in Trinidad. As capitalism rears its head, we must always seem to maintain a sense of our own humanity. Amilcar Cabral warned us, “A Luta Continua,” the struggle continues. We forget that lesson at our peril.