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African Heritage in the Caribbean

Maureen Warner-Lewis Speaks

TriniView.com Reporters
March 13, 2007

Maureen Warner-Lewis
  Maureen Warner-Lewis

Maureen Warner-Lewis, a professor of African-Caribbean languages and orature at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, lectured on "African Heritage in the Caribbean". This lecture, which took place at the National Library, Port of Spain on 7th March, 2007, was second in a four part series put on by the University of Trinidad and Tobago under the series titled "The Classical and the Contemporary". Professor Warner-Lewis provided much historical data linking several African retentions in the Caribbean with what exists on the African Continent. Some of her work that details these African connections and survivals are documented in some of her books including: Trinidad Yoruba, From Mother Tongue to Memory (1982); Guinea's Other Suns: The African Dynamic in Trinidad Culture (1991); and Central Africa in the Caribbean: Transcending Space, Transforming Culture (2003).

Professor Warner-Lewis began the lecture by explaining that our African heritage are the things that we inherited from Africa in the Diaspora that have remained a legacy in these parts.

She stated that the purpose of Africans being brought to the Caribbean by the Europeans was to procure their labour through slavery for agricultural work. They engaged in activities such as farming and animal rearing. Africans contributed centuries of unpaid labour to the Americas and labour after Emancipation was paid for, but according to Professor Warner-Lewis, was "paid for very pitifully." Plantation agriculture involved the growing of sugar cane, the preparation of the land, hoeing, weeding, cutting, the distillation of rum, the processing of the sugar cane, tobacco cultivation in some territories such as Cuba and Tobago (which the professor explained comes from the word tobacco), cocoa, coffee and other crops. Other activities that the enslaved Africans engaged in were the clearing of land, the felling of forests, the breaking of rocks, the construction of roads, bridges, forts, sugar works, aqueducts, windmills, lighthouses, slave quarters, the reclamation of land to build wharves and other infrastructural developments.

Subsistence farming was popular apart from their regular work on the fields. The enslaved Africans were allowed to grow and harvest some of their own food supply on their little plots near their huts. These plots of land usually existed on the periphery of the estates and they worked these plots on Saturday's or Sunday's. The excess produce/surplus was traded in markets which were usually conducted on Sunday. The tradition of Sunday markets continues in Trinidad. In essence it was the labour of the Africans that was largely responsible for the development of the Caribbean and of the Americas.

The role of women as market sellers/traders was also very noticeable in the era of enslavement and even in the post-slavery epoch which mimicked the scene in West Africa where the gender division of labour in markets is quite evident. Women sell certain type of crops such as vegetables and ground provisions and the men would sell what would be termed as 'male produce' such as yam. This gender division in the market place is still very noticeable in Jamaica although this is changing gradually.

Warner-Lewis also explained that Africans contributed to the growth of a small black middle class in the 19th century as traders and artisans. This group was comprised of people who were newspaper owners, editors, pharmacists and teachers (such as J.J. Thomas). Later on women joined in as nurses, teachers, postmistresses and other professions.

Maureen Warner-Lewis is also known for her extensive research in the African language presence in Trinidad. She told the gathering that she began this research in the late 1960's and 1970's and met with people who remembered their parents or grandparents who were from Africa. Many of them had informed her that their parents were cacao farmers, small sugar cane farmers and some owned their own sugar mills. Others were involved in the lucrative trade in cocoa and coffee beans which were sold to Portuguese traders by collectors. It was the growth of a landed middle class and then later on in the century, the establishment of black professionals through the education of subsequent generations that lead to the development of a small black middle class in the 19th century. A popular trend was for some agricultural landowners to also work for the government.

In terms of foods, the heritage of foods included yam, dasheen, eddoes, bananas, plantain, ochro and ackee (in Jamaica). Quickly making the comparison, Professor Warner-Lewis pointed out that in the Dahomey and eastern Ghana regions, ackee was/is eaten with meat, whereas in Jamaica it is largely eaten with saltfish. Other foods include: bene (sesame seeds) in bene balls, Guinea corn or sorghum (popular in Barbados and Curacao), maize (especially in cornmeal foods such as kuku, oil down in Trinidad and Tobago, or rundown in Jamaica) stewed beans and pounded foods such as yam, cassava, breadfruit and ackra.

Language is another important retention that is evident throughout the Caribbean. Some of these language similarities exist in our creole expressions such as 'door mouth' which is a very West African way to express a door entrance and 'day clean' which expresses the dawn or the first light of day. In a number of West African languages the word for day is near to the word for face, so the expression of 'day clean' gives the metaphoric image of the light of the sun cleaning the face of the world. The game 'warri' which originated in the Gold Coast and which is very popular in Antigua, still carries its original West African name. 'Susu', which is from the Yoruba word, 'esusu' is both an African language retention and economic banking system where there is a rotation of funds pooled by various persons to a central banker to be shared on an agreed upon time. The person who draws a hand gets a certain lump sum of money which can be used for all sorts of things.

'You all' or 'all yuh' is a very creole expression which is derived from our West African language heritage that makes clear distinction between the singular and the plural and that is expressed in the "all you". In standard English 'you' means second person singular and second person plural so that the 'all' is understood and is not necessarily expressed verbally. Also, West African language does not make a distinction between the pronoun for he and the pronoun for she. This has remained in the French patois/creole language where one pronoun, 'e', is used for he or she.

Some other words that have remained with the Africans in the Caribbean include: 'mumu' (which in several West African languages means dumb with its correlative 'stupid'), 'bubu' (from Central Africa which refers to matter in the eye), 'nansi' (as in Nansi story) and 'anansi' (the folkloric spider), 'jumbie' (from Angola meaning a ghost or a ghostly entity that returns from the dead), 'tolum' (from Congo which means to pull out teeth or to drag one's self), 'lahay' (which comes from the Congo word 'laha' which means to be seated begging for money or in Trinidad, 'worthless'), kongorie (creature that resembles a worm but crawls on multiple legs on its underbelly), maribole (yellow wasp), 'god horse' which is a translation of a Yoruba phrase referring to the praying mantis and 'locho' (Congo word "meanness"), 'tabanka' which means to sell out completely or to go completely overboard refers to an extreme feeling of sadness usually after a breakup in Trinidad parlance, 'kaiso' (Ibibio which means 'well-done') and 'dwen' or 'douyen' which refers to the soul of a child who has died in West Africa and in Trinidad, a child who has died before having been received into the Christian church.

Grammar, which Warner-Lewis insists is not about the 'accuracy' of language but rather the sequence of words in a sentence, also has taken some pattern from Africa. According to the professor, with language in the Caribbean, sometimes called creole, the use of the subject is usually followed by the adjective, for example 'he sick', 'I late', 'he late'. In other words, what is being described follows immediately on the subject without any apparent use of a verb intervening. The descriptive word in this regard, functions as a verb. In the Caribbean we have borrowed this West African construction for the noun subject and then the descriptive word that functions as a verb.

Another West African formulation is 'is late he late' which means 'he's really late' or 'is mad he mad' meaning he is very mad or crazy. The extra late or mad which functions as an adjective in English, functions as a verb in the creole languages. In the sentence, "I done eat" the verb suggests the completion of the action and the repetition of 'good' in "it good, good" implies the degree of goodness. In standard English very or really would indicate the degree of goodness.

Idioms such as the idea of being stubborn expressed by the ears being blocked in many West African languages, "stick break in your ears" is a common figure of speech in our creole language. "Cold have me" is another way of expressing that you are suffering or that the cold 'has held you' which is a common African expression. "I is people too," meaning that the person should be respected because he/she is a person too. "You stay there" meaning you believe the thing is to your own detriment or ignorance. These are all examples of idioms that exist in the Caribbean.

In terms of folktales, Anansi stories, mainly from West and Central Africa are still very popular; characters such as tortoise, hare, spider, dwen/douyen and socouyant (from the Fula/Fulani people in West Africa and the Soninke people of the Savannah Belt) have been admired by many generations in the Caribbean and the Americas.

Musical instruments were another part of our African legacy that Warner-Lewis touched on. The shapes and construction of drums have been retained, the use of percussion instruments such as the tamboo bamboo (ntambu which the word tamboo evolved from is a Congolese word for drum) and hitting sticks on a piece of material as in the bottle and spoon tradition in Trinidad.

The 'sansa' or the thumb piano is another instrument that was brought from Africa to the Caribbean. It was played in Trinidad earlier on in our history but is not played here any more or at least not publicly. Versions of the sansa appear in Jamaica and Cuba as the rumba box. Other instruments include the 'benta' which is played in Curacao and Jamaica, the cocolute in Grenada which is a version of the 'berimbau' used in Brazilian capoeira, bamboo horns as in Haiti and also in Jamaica and the use of calabashes in nets with buttons which makes a clattering sound.

The morphology of the Steelpan and the Steel orchestra also has continental African influences. Although there was no Steelband in Africa, Warner-Lewis explained that the trend of using the same family of instruments to comprise a band is very common in Africa. There are orchestras made out of cow or elephant horns, drums where some drums play higher tones, some medium tones and some lower tones which is in keeping with West African languages which are tonal, xylophone orchestras which follows the same premise of varying tones and other such instruments. She noted that there are also great similarities in tones and methodology of the pan and the xylophone. The xylophone (in its treble ranges) is very similar to the treble sounds made in the first pan/treble pan of the Steelpan and this idea could have been considered during the early construction of the Steelpan.

Also similar to the Steelpan orchestra is that in West Africa, the main body of music starts only after the 'gong-gongs' or the metal part of the orchestra begins. In some places they use cow horns which they hit with sticks. In the Steelband, a car wheel steel rim beaten with a straight piece of steel rod is the percussive instrument to lead the band. Warner-Lewis then showed the gathering a slide showing an East African man playing the xylophone who first explained his family history before playing the instrument. The professor explained that stating their family history before introducing themselves is a very African habit which is still done today. The xylophonist hit the xylophone with a straight stick with a padded end so the sound was somewhat muted for a softer effect. The stick that strikes the Steelpan instrument also mimics this.

African religious survivals are also another element that exists in the Caribbean and in the Americas. The importance attached to dreams and people believing that spirits (especially of their deceased relatives) talking to them is an African way of relating to the world. The concepts behind obeah and the use of charms and amulets has also been transplanted into the Caribbean. According to Professor Warner-Lewis, obeah is related to the belief that some people can arrange to have done on their behalf, the exorcising of greater psychological or spiritual force over another person who does not possess that same intensity of spiritual energy.

The maintenance of rights for dead family members is also very common. Relatives of the deceased feel an obligation to celebrate their dead ancestors annually and feel that if they don't they would become ill or that they would lack good fortune. Rights such as the 'saraka' in Trinidad, Grenada and Curacao; the nation dance in Curacao; the 'cumena' in Jamaica which comes from the Congolese verb 'camama' (which is to feel obligated to carry out a ritual or responsibility), the 'etu' which is from the word 'etutu' practiced in Jamaica; and the 'Kele' which is practiced in St. Lucia where they offer unsalted food to the deceased. A remnant of this can be seen in the Rastafarian tradition where they believe that the use of salt in food will lessen their spiritual energy.

Danced religious festivals to honour nature deities and community ancestors is also very evident in the Orisha religion in Trinidad and Cuba (Regla de Ocha), 'Winte' in Surinam, 'Cumfa' in Guyana, 'Vududu' in Trinidad among the descendants of the Rada people and 'Voodoo' in Haiti. During these religious festivals there are religious sacrifice and spiritual possession by the deities that are being invoked.

Lastly, Professor Maureen Warner-Lewis spoke about the masquerade tradition in the Caribbean. The tradition of 'camboule' which she insists is not a French word, comes from the Congolese word, 'cambula' meaning a parade or procession usually accompanied by call and response, singing and percussion. In Trinidad Carnival, the 'pretty mas' comes from a French and European tradition, but the 'street' aspect of Carnival is African in origin. In the masquerade, spirits are hidden behind the mas wearing shredded banana trash, frayed rope or multi-colored strips of cloth, which in a brief clip that she showed is common in Africa. In fact, in Chinua Achene's "Things Fall Apart" he mentioned the importance of the 'egwuwu' or masked spirits in Igbo rituals. Moko jumbies are also common in various parts of West Africa and are popular here in Trinidad; dabbing the body with paint, or mud, like the blue devils is also popular in J'ouvert mas which is a carry over from Africa; and dangerous spirits being restrained by chains as in blue devil or dragon mas is also a transplant from the Niger Delta area of Nigeria. The slide that Warner-Lewis provided showed masqueraders from Igbo/Ibo country carrying whips and whipping each other which is reminiscent of our jab jabs.

After the hour-long lecture, Professor Warner-Lewis invited the members of the audience to participate in a brief question and answer session. One audience member asked about the importance of griots as transmitters of African history through the oral tradition. Warner-Lewis attested to this fact and stated that in the Caribbean, some of our African history was retained, although informally, via this method. Some of our tales and legends also had with them, pieces of our African cultural history.

Another question was asked requesting her to link the details of her lecture to the situation in Trinidad and Tobago where some individuals see themselves as African and some as Indians. Warner-Lewis expressed that there is no race because we are all human beings and the same blood runs through our veins. She went on to explain that there are different ethnicities that exist that may separate humans into groups based on cultural differences but we here in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean must recognize our similarities rather on our differences. Despite the fact that some in the audience seemed pleased with her response, others were in total disagreement with her ideas as they pertained to race, ethnicity and nationality.

Overall, Professor Maureen Warner-Lewis provided the audience with an informative lecture, though some of her views could be debated.

Trinidad Yoruba: From Mother Tongue To Memory by: Maureen Warner-Lewis
Trinidad Yoruba: From Mother Tongue To Memory by: Maureen Warner-Lewis

Guinea's Other Suns: The African Dynamic in Trinidad Culture by Maureen Warner-Lewis
Guinea's Other Suns: The African Dynamic in Trinidad Culture by Maureen Warner-Lewis

Central Africa in the Caribbean: Transcending Time, Transforming Cultures by Maureen Warner-Lewis
Central Africa in the Caribbean: Transcending Time, Transforming Cultures by Maureen Warner-Lewis