At the beginning of our field work in Suriname, one of us went up the Suriname River to study the Bush Negroes, and the other remained in Paramaribo to collect folk lore from the town Negroes and to ascertain what Africanisms could be discerned In their beliefs and behavior. When we met and compared notes, some striking things came to light, for bush and town Negroes were, as the evidence in hand suggested, much more closely allied culturally than had been realized, while both were seen to have many aspects of culture that clearly link them with West African and other New World Negroes.
Thus, in bush and town, the Negroes hold the same concept and offer the same explanations of the soul and its influence on the life of man, and both employ the word akra for soul, a word used on the Gold Coast of Africa exactly as it is in Guiana. The day names associated with the soul are Gold Coast day names, known in Jamaica and heard in the United States, as well. In the bush the Saramacca people are “possessed” by the gods and by obia; in the town the Negroes are “possessed” by winti a word meaning wind, and the use of wind as a euphemism for the gods is common in Dahomey and Ashanti. Many of the gods of both bush and town are the same, and they are African gods, invoked today in Nigeria, in Dahomey, in Togo, in Ashanti, and invoked also in the islands of the Caribbean.
Nyankompon, the Bush Negro name for the Sky God, is the Gold Coast name. The Maroons of Jamaica know this deity under the same designation. Dagowe is a snake god in the Suriname bush and in town—the Haitians and Dahomeans dance to the same snake god, whom they call Dangbe. In West Africa the silk-cotton and loko trees are sacred. In the Saramacca villages and in the town of Parimaribo they are sacred as well, and the names are Dahomean names, known also in Haiti. In bush and town the people dance to the river gods, as do the Negroes in Africa and the Caribbean, and the pattern of the ceremonies has been preserved in part in Negro baptismal rites in the United States. Bush and town invoke the buzzard, Opete, so named in Ashanti, and sacred everywhere in West Africa, and the style of dancing resembles certain of the dances of the “saints” who “shout” in the Negro Sanctified Churches of the United States.
Between bush and town there is, however, this difference—the bush is Africa of the seventeenth century. In West Africa today, for example, the roof of thatch has almost everywhere given way to the
white man’s metal roofing. In Dahomey, where thatch is still found, we discovered a strip of wall made of woven palm fronds, such as is found on the Saramacca, in a village which had been enslaved by the Dahomean kings in the early seventeenth century and had remained enslaved until the conquest of the Dahomean kingdom by the French. All other walls are of swish.
Today in West Africa the automobile and sewing machine have found their way into remote corners. But more important still than these changes wrought by [Europeans], which have made inroads chiefly on the material life of the Africans, are those resulting from intertribal wars, which followed the introduction of guns and gunpowder into Africa and which helped to establish the great West African dynasties. The result of the conquest of one native people by another was constant cultural interstimulation which made for changes in the indigenous civilizations.
In the Guiana bush, however, where these runaway Negroes and their descendants have been living, the fortunes of African kingdoms, the cultural contacts that have affected the Africans, have not touched their own tribal destinies. Neither has the [white man] nor [AmerIndian] introduced basic changes into their manner of living or thinking.
There are no roads in the Guiana bush, and what footpaths exist to connect one village with another are difficult to follow and, moreover, are not for the stranger, whether he be white or mulatto. For such as these the highway is the river, with native paddlers alert in their surveillance of a stranger’s activities. The old men on the river have made a tradition of recalling the struggle of the ancestors for freedom and survival, and it is not without significance that one of the three worst crimes among the Bush Negroes—one that ranks with incest and murder—is informing on a Negro to a white man.
In contrast with this isolation of the Bush Negroes, the Negroes of Paramaribo have known close contact with the whites, with Carib and Arawak Indians, and in more recent years with the Hindu and Javanese laborers brought to the colony. Only suggestions of the manner in which the beliefs of town and bush correspond or differ can be included here, since this account concerns itself with the Saramacca people. Yet for the understanding of this study it must be emphasized that whatever the differences, much of Africa remains in the coastal region.
Thus, to cite an instance, at a winti dance in Paramaribo one night, the drummers were grumbling about the slowness with which possession was coming on. At last the priestess, possessed by [Leba], the Nigerian-Dahomean god of the crossroads, began to dance. Whereupon an elderly drummer flung up his hands and cried out, “Praise God, idolatry is not dead yet!” The word he used for idolatry was Dutch, and he pronounced it in Negro-English, afkodrai.
Continued – Part 3