Friday, 23 December 2011

African cultural influences


Trinidad started late as a colony, which was partly the reason that it experienced several waves of immigration lasting from the 1780s to the 1950s.
The various groups of people who came contributed to the development of our overall culture and music and folklore in various ways: some to story-telling and singing, others to music, to dance, to cooking. Out of all this has come our unique way of expressing ourselves. As it is with all true folk arts, they provide an excellent method by which to gather an overview of social development. In the 1800s, these were in Trinidad a mixture of creole (that is, born in the Caribbean) slaves and African slaves. To what extent there was contact and sharing of culture can only be guessed at. We know that in a census taken in 1813, there were 13,980 people from six or seven areas of West and Central Africa and Mozambique, and 11,629 creole slaves, the majority of them French-speaking. It is estimated that just over 5,000 slaves were brought into Trinidad between 1798 and 1802. After emancipation, between the years 1841 and 1867, the African population - that is, the people who had never known slavery as the result of being taken off slave ships and freed in Trinidad - amounted to 3,383 who came from Sierra Leone, 3,510 from the Kru coast and 3,396 from St. Helena.
Between 1838 and 1931, approximately 100,000 British West Indian migrants settled in Trinidad. They came from both Protestant and Catholic islands. This was culturally important as each denomination possessed a different cycle of festivals. All these people were absorbed into colonial life, and as a result of extensive intermarriage virtually lost their identity almost immediately. However, there remained a vast assortment of words and ways of doing things, spiritually and culturally, that remained unique. This expressed itself in song, dance and lifestyle. L.O. Inniss in his "reminiscences of Old Trinidad" recalls "Bloke", a game played with a hole being made in the ground or in a wall. You played this game with dry gru gru beff seeds, hard and round like big black marbles. Bloke was highly competitive and often led to fights in school yards. It was, in fact, the precursor of pitching marbles.
Professor Phillip Sherlock tells us that bloke has a West African origin, similar to another one, called "Warri". Warri is the name of a tribe in the Niger delta. It is also a board game, not dissimilar to Backgammon. Long ago, at the end of the day, men would sit with a board between them and with small stones enjoy this game of skill.
From the African languages, other words have survived like "zami" (meaning "friends"), and "susu", which we use when we become "partners", each contributing so much a week to a savings club. When gardeners went into their fields, they would take with them a calabash full of water, known long ago as a "paki", unsing the Ashanti work "apakyi". In parts of West Africa, it is the custom to name a child by the day of the week on which it was born, for example "cudjoe" is the the Ashanti word for Monday, "quashie" for Sunday, "quaco" for Wednesday, "cuffie" for Friday and so on.
In our search for African words that have survived, we have to turn to our folklore. Here we find fascinating evidence of African survivals: anansi, the central charater of many folk tales, is in fact the spider god of the Akan-Ashanti people. In Accra, Lagos and the northern regions of Nigeria, where the land falls away into a vast ocean of tawny-coloured sand, people know all about this Anasi, the spiderman who is weak but who overcomes the strong by guile in a way that the Greek hero Odysseus overcame the cyclop.
Nansi stories brought delight, but as a boy gowing up in belmont in the 1940s and 1950s, these were jumbies living in the "big canal", in Olton Road by Papit's Shop, and at the corner of Reform Lane and Hermitage Road - a dangerous place after 9 o'clock!
Throughout the Caribbean region, a chance word used in conversation, a game played at evening time, a song chanted to still a restless child, the names given to food and plants, link us with distant times and with men and women long dead. Cudjoe, Quashie, Paki, Zami, Senseh: words like these whisper of the past, revealing our history to us - but only to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

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