Monday, 7 November 2011

The Orisha Religion in Trinidad


“He gone Moruga Road, boy. He gone to look for obeah man - come, le we go, he gone Moruga Road.”
The old lavvay ran round and round in my head as we drove further and further into the south lands of Trinidad.
Spectacular views of immortelles seemed to explode upon green hillsides. Recalling the times of cocoa’s great expansion into the hidden valleys and deep forested places of our island. Even before the abolition of slavery, black people escaping its trap had “marooned” themselves in the high woods in pursuit of freedom.
The overwhelming need to retain the memory from generation to generation of African traditions, notions of divinity and complex pantheons of Orisha (the gods), so as to maintain meaning and purpose in lives now so terribly displaced.
The retention of African traditions and religion has defined the lives of untold hundreds who have been the culture-bearers and the culture-sharers over the first two centuries of the African presence in this island. Such a person was a remarkable man called Carrie Nelson. A powerful African, leader, a Babalao, high priest, who was orthodox to a fine point. When I met him many years ago at Mayo, he had a large family, several sons and daughters. They worked with him at the great “feasts”, serving in the various roles of the rituals. He was known as a diviner and a healer. J.D. Elder in a paper given during the Black History Week of 1987 remarked that he was a great organiser and was something of a missionary for the Orisha religion.
It was he who along with his brother spread the religion into the Oropouche district during the migration of cocoa farmers from the Montserrat Valley during the serious famine of the 1930s. Up until the 1960s, there were shrines to Orisha divinities all through Fyzabad, Duncan Village and Bamboo Creek, all established as the result of his hard work. His Mayo Hill shrine was a centre piece from which radiated his powerful intentions. Elder recounts Nelson’s “mastery of the Orisha liturgy. From Indian Trail, the old Carib footpath, to Moruga Road, scores of devotees came to celebrate the yearly anniversaries to the powers.”
There were old people who come to talk on African religious practice, the Spiritual Baptist (John work), Independent Baptist (Mt. Elvin) and about the religious jubilees (spirituals) of the Fifth Company “Merikins” people. At that time, there were still people who could remember themselves as Haussa, Yoruba, Congo, and Ibo, retaining from one generation to the next traditions handed down.
Dr. Elder recounts memories of the Congo priest Jeanvill Pierre, present with his large family at Shango feasts, ready to assist with the beating of the Bata drums for Shango. The memory of some of the most beautiful chants and orikis to Shango will forever stay with those  who heard those lovely children sing that day, now so long ago.
Corrie Nelson was a devout Roman Catholic and much involved in the work of the Mayo church. However, he did not allow his belief in Christianity to interfere with his allegiance to the ancient Orishas. To him, the supreme one, whether called Olorun, Yahwe or Chukwa Acko, was one and the same creator, known and recognised by all. To him, the supreme one, the great spirit, reveals itself to various men in various ways. There was no conflict between African and Roman traditional religions as far as he was concerned.
Dr. Elder remembers that when Corrie Nelson died, “we buried him with true African ceremonials after the Roman Catholic priest from Tortuga had performed the sacred mass for this great leader.”
The Congo people sang their own strange sacred litanies over the grave as the sun went down, the twilight lingering, the echo of the drums reverberating in the long valley which seemed to be calling “the old people” to take their “sunnyboy home”.
We took the Manyhambri Road in Princes Town and drove into undulating countryside, looking for stories of the African remnant of long ago. The road eventually took us to sleepy Lengua Village.

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