Chapter 1 [1 of 2]
DEATH AT GANKWE
WE HAD not thought to come upon death on our first night in the Suriname bush. What had killed Sedefo’s brother no one could as yet say, for the time had not come to call upon the spirit of the dead man to speak. Death, said the Bush Negroes, was ravaging the family. Kunu, the law of retribution, the tool of ancestors and gods, had found this latest victim an easy prey to the black magic which had been invoked against him. In whispers they talked about a quarrel at work with a man who had a powerful snake god.
“The man’s family kunu and the enemy’s Aboma god,” we heard as a refrain to the low muttering.
There would be dancing all that night for the spirit of the dead, the natives told us, and they asked if we did not wish to come and honor the dead. But an old man objected.
“Let them wait until tomorrow,” he said, “let them wait until they are rested. To face the spirit of the dead their own spirits must be strong.”
That night whenever we stirred in our sleep we strained for the sound of the drums, but the wind blew from the east, and though Gankwe, where the dead man lay in state, was but a ten-minute run down the rapids, we could hear nothing. In the morning, however, we heard them plainly, heard the invocations drummed by the grave diggers on their way to the burial ground deep in the bush on the opposite bank.
Osio be’e dyo.
“On the sacred apinti drum we speak to the spirit; we tell it we go to dig the grave.” So the drum spoke. From the shore we could see five figures in the small corial, and, as they came closer, we saw also the drum, the food the men carried, and the muddy hoe. They would do this the next day and the next, for to dig a grave takes a long time.
Although separated by many generations from their African places of origin, the Bush Negroes of Dutch Guiana have held to the traditions and beliefs, of their aboriginal home. In the Suriname bush, as in Africa, the responsibility which an individual bears toward his social group does not end with death. His clan, his village, and his family look to him, when he has joined the spirits of his ancestors, to protect them against the magic of their enemies, to help them in time of drought or pestilence, and at all times to intercede for them with the gods.
As in Africa, the spirit of the dead is powerful for good or evil, and the rites of death must be carried out as tradition demands, so that the dead man may feel he has received honor among the living and proper introduction to the world of the dead. As in Africa, we found that the first care for the dead is to place the body on the central portion of a broken canoe; that rum and tobacco are included in the water with which the body is washed; that in washing the dead, the back must not be touched; that the number of those who wash the body must not be an even one—five is the number preferred, though three persons are used, and seven; that those chosen must not be young, for It takes age and the knowledge of controlling the spirits which age brings to approach the dead without suffering harm.
While the body lies in the open house of the dead, relatives and the village elders are in attendance on the spirit night and day. It is they who all night tell stories about the trickster, spider Anansi, to amuse the spirit, and they who play traditional games. The dances begin when the body has been put into the hexagonal cedar box which is ornamented with the cross-like design called by the natives kese-oyo, the eye of the coffin.
“How many days to make the coffin?” we asked our informant.
“One day only, but they do not start the first day. They must go into the bush and hunt out a cedar tree and cut it down, and then there must be prayers.”
It became clear as we talked with this man, who so reluctantly spoke of these rites, that death cannot be hurried.
“It takes time,” he said, “hammocks and cloths must be gathered, and other articles to put into the coffin. It takes time.”
Before the body is put into the coffin, the ears and nostrils are packed with tobacco and cotton, and the head and face are swathed in white so that the dead man may be recognized when he walks abroad.
As we sat and talked of death, we heard the discharge of guns and were told that the coffin was being closed and that these shots were to honor the spirit. “They dance well at Gankwe,” said our friend, casting an eye in the direction of the village and showing very plainly his eagerness to be off. But we detained him and brought the conversation back to the digging of the grave.
To dig a grave takes a long time, we heard again. The digging party first goes out to select a fitting place in the “big bush” where the dead lie. Though it is not considered imperative—some villages do not follow the practice at all—it is considered good form to consult the spirit of the dead man whether or not he approves of the spot chosen. Then all has to be done softly—safri—without haste. The men who go to dig the grave must be in the prime of life, for they must not tire easily, and even these strong young men must work slowly, that no drop of perspiration fall into the upturned earth. If one drop of perspiration were to fall into the grave, then the dead man would in time claim the companionship of the living spirit of him from whom it had dropped. The same belief in the identification of the essence of one’s being with any part of one’s body which actuates so many primitive peoples, and is so characteristic of West Africa, exists among the Bush Negroes. It is for this reason that when an African or a Bush Negro dies away from home some of his hair and nail parings are sent to his native village for ceremonial burial. And it is for this reason, too, that for three mornings we saw the party of five young men go out from Gankwe to dig the grave of Sedefo’s brother and heard the drum’s invocation,
Osio be’e dyo.
The night was still and dark. The natives said the moon was dead and this was the time for the dances to the river gods, but since there was a death in Gankwe all the gods might be danced to, for in times of important rituals, like death or the breaking of mourning or harvest festivals, it was not necessary to wait for the day sacred to each god to dance.
“They dance well at Gankwe,” said our informant, as he sat by, and then after listening for a few moments he added, “They’re dancing already.”
We, too, walked out on the path to listen, and gradually we separated the sound of the falls above our camp from what seemed like the pulse of the night itself.
“It doesn’t boom, does it?” we asked each other, remembering the accounts of impressionable travelers. Soon Sedefo himself appeared and another, and we started for Gankwe.
“Waka koni, Sedefo,” called our host at camp as we put off. He was evidently uneasy about us and asked the paddlers to be careful, for it is not safe on the river at night with the rapids below and the spirits that hover about.
The paddles cut the water so soundlessly that it did seem as if the spirits were carrying the boat downstream. Ahead of us and all about were the various shades of darkness which go to make the jungle darkness on a moonless night—the dark water, the dark branch of a liana which our paddlers skirted as if by magic, the dark wall of forest, and the dark horizon. But soon there was foam on the water, and then all the darkness seemed to break and come to life. We heard the drums plainly, and the rattles, the singing voices, and the chorus of approbation from the young onlookers, breaking into the song. We were nearing the rapids and Gankwe.
Up the bank, through the spiritual guard of palm fronds which stretched across the path, and up the path we went to the great village clearing, where the principal houses are grouped and where stands the house for the dead.
In this open palm-thatched house the cofhn, covered over with a white striped cloth, rested on a rough bier. Underneath the head of the cofhn a calabash dish stood to receive the fluid of the putrifying body, while in front of the coffin a fire smoldered and to one side a hammock was slung where Sedefo, or in his absence an elder of the village, lay to guard the dead. The drummers and some elders sat in front of the house facing the phalanx of singers seated on their low stools some ten feet away from them. There were perhaps fifty women singing, and as many standing about to the left ready to begin dancing again, or just standing by to mark the rhythm with hand clapping and a slight swaying in place. Here and there, hung upon forked sticks which had been planted in the ground or placed on the ground beside a stool, were a few lanterns. They cast a pale shadowy light and brought into relief the ceremonially oil-anointed shoulder of one, the shining anklets of another, a brilliant red strip of cloth, the intricate pattern of another’s hairdress.
With our coming the singing and dancing had stopped. The children grouped together moved toward us in a body, and then took to their heels, repeating this again and again, until the two or three we had already talked with at our camp took courage and squatted down at our feet. The older people kept their distance, and among them some pithy proverbs were spoken to bear upon the shortcomings of the white man. One or two of them turned to repeat to the dead what had been said, and there was great laughter. Sedefo came to assure us that the dead man liked it very much. For the dead, it appeared, were especially susceptible to humor and to exceptional occasions.
About us, or edging their way toward us, were the younger men in their ceremonial dress, the toga-like cloth covering their bodies, but leaving one shoulder bared for respect, and the women in their knee-length pangi, or cloths, hanging from the waist, and their shining brass rings reaching from wrist to elbow and from ankle halfway up to the knee. Among the dancers, but standing somewhat aloof, could be seen a man or woman with seed rattles about the ankles. These were the fine dancers. Of them our informant had spoken when he said, “They dance well at Gankwe.”
Carved stools were placed for us facing the coffin a little to the left of the singers, where we could best see the dancing. One or two lanterns were moved to give us better light. The drummers, who had not left their places, took up the rhythm again—one of the women had us know that the spirit of the dead man had communicated to the spirits of the drummers that he wanted to see the dancing resumed. The singing began—a woman’s falsetto voice and a chorus; the hand clapping of the singers and bystanders emphasized the basic rhythm. It was slow at first, then quickened, and the dancing became more animated.
“They dance seketi,” whispered our friends. “Later they will dance awasa.”
The dancing was confined to a comparatively small space. It began with a barely perceptible motion of the feet of the dancers to the rhythm of the drums and the hand clapping. Then the feet began to execute figures in place, without leaving the ground, the arms hanging loosely at the side. This was continued for some time, until, arms flexed and held rigid at the elbow, and knees bent but rigid, too, the intricate steps began. The movement of the feet, angular and precise, was reiterated by the outstretched palms, while all the muscles of the hips took up the rhythm. Now one of the men with the seed rattles at his feet danced facing a woman who also had these rattles, and the dance became theirs with a chorus of dancers moving more and more to the side, keeping the rhythm with the feet. The drums beat faster, the hand clapping became louder. Those two balanced their bodies as they bent their knees lower and lower, all the while executing the figures with feet, arms, and hips, and how unaware they seemed of the audience! And even of each other, for what awareness there was to quicken the pulse of the dancing was more than one man’s awareness of one woman. It might have been a dance to Asaase—the great Earth Mother—but it was, in fact, dancing for the dead, for the two would turn again and again to face the coffin, as the others had done, except during the intervals when they recalled the white man and woman in back, and turned to dance to us and our flashlights.
Seketi, awasa. . . . The dances changed, and the songs, and the drum rhythms changed, too. The children at our feet had fallen asleep and lay doubled over, their heads resting upon their toes. More men joined the dancers. It was long past midnight. The women who had infants on their backs moved away silently in the direction of their huts, but when an elderly woman tried to go, too, she was reprimanded and sat down again.
There was another leader for the singing, and another. A man’s falsetto was heard in a long recitative that preceded the dancing to the massed voices of the chorus. He faced now the dead, now us, as he improvised. Once more it was gay.
The dancing became more and more spirited, but when a dancer had continued in the circle for some time, an older woman coming forward from among the bystanders would put her arm about her and exclaim the singsong, “Adoo! . . . Adoo! . . . Adoo!” Others came forward to con-gratulate the dancer, while another had taken her place in the dance, only to be brought to herself again when her dancing had become so abandoned that there was danger of falling or tripping. For it is always a bad thing for one’s akra—soul—to fall from exhaustion or even to trip while dancing, and it would have been especially dangerous to have fallen with the spirit of the dead so close.
As time passed, figures were seen edging away into the darkness. The knot of dancers thinned. Now there were but two young women dancing. They wore identical cloths of a new material, a pattern resembling the cloth over the cofhn. They were related to the dead man. When all were wearied, they had to go on dancing. . . . Dawn would not be long in coming.
We knew that it would not be long before the spirit of the dead would be called upon to tell his family, fellow villagers, and clansmen how death had come upon him. For, in the Guiana bush, except for the very old, there is little natural dying. The deceased has been killed either by the gods whom he has offended or by the black magic of a powerful enemy, and it is of this which he must tell before his burial. When Sedefo came to our camp the next afternoon, we asked him about the “carrying of the corpse,” as the ceremony is called. We told him that his people in Africa — for the Bush Negroes know that their origins are African also asked the spirit of the dead why death had come upon him, and we plied him with questions. What would they do to be sure the answer was right? Who would ask the questions? When would they establish the facts of the killing? And might we come and see?
There would be no trouble, he told us amiably enough. The spirits of the dead liked attention, and for the Bakra— the white man—to come so often to his brother’s bier was a compliment. We could return with him, but we must make haste—and it was evident that important ceremonies were about to take place.
And so once more we were In Sedefo’s canoe running the rapids, and once more we pulled up at the landing place.
It was quiet enough there, and no one passing would have noticed anything out of the ordinary in the behavior of the one or two women washing clothes at the riverside, or of the children playing about in the water. Again we climbed the path to the village, this time to the delighted shrieks of the children, whose cries brought others, until we were surrounded by a fearless, clamoring group, shouting, calling after us, “Bak’a, Ame’ica’ Bak’a!” Sedefo took us to his house, where we met the senior of his two wives, and turned us over to a young man, who had played one of the drums in the ceremony of the evening before, to show us the village. This was the routine of courtesy due any visitor. Nothing more tangible than a slight reserve marked the tension which made this village different from what it would have been on any midafternoon.
In front of the house of mourning all was quiet. Three elderly men sat on their low stools, talking in low tones. They greeted us as we passed but neither engaged us in conversation nor offered us a seat. Inside the house the small fire still smoldered, and, where the hammock had been, now crouched, soundlessly, an old woman who, we later learned, was the dead man’s maternal aunt. We were struck with the number of houses that had symbols of spiritual protection over their doors—obias, they are called—magically treated to keep the spirits of death from harming the occupants. As we passed one doorway, a woman holding a baby hastily threw a covering over its head, but not before we saw that it had special markings of sacred white clay on its face. The child was under treatment for some illness, and the mother, in these days when spiritual danger stalked about, could take no chances of the Bakra’s magic obstructing the cure.
On the other side of the village, farthest away from the house of death, life flowed on yet more evenly. But as we looked about, our guide stiffened, and soon we too caught the sound of the drums which rapidly became louder. He hurried us toward the river and had quite got away from us as we came to the principal shrine of the village at the head of the path. As we started down the hill to the river an elder of Gankwe stopped us with an imperative, “You must not go.”
Very loud and very fast the drums now sounded—it was the rhythm to Kediampo, the Sky God—and a moment later the grave diggers appeared. They came not by the usual way and not under the spiritual guard, but along an overgrown side path. There were ten or twelve men, five of them muddied from their labors, carrying drums and cutlasses, the others, villagers who had awaited them. The men who had been digging wore green parrot’s feathers in their hair, and they walked briskly and silently in single file to the house of mourning. There was a great stillness along the path of the diggers. The children had disappeared and the women sought shelter in their own doorways. Stools were not offered us—there was serious business at hand.
All the men in the village had gathered here; they stood in a semicircle about the front of the open shelter. The old woman slowly arose and, taking a small strip of white cloth, passed it once along each side of the cofhn and once over the back as though she were ceremonially cleansing it. Four of the earth-stained young men now took up the coffin, lifting it from the bier and placing it on the ground in front of the house, raising and lowering it three times before it was finally set down. A fifth brought out two pads of green leaves, and two of the bearers put these on their heads. The questioning was about to begin.
As they raised the coffin with the putrifying body within it on their heads, their muscles stiffened. With eyes half glazed, and expressionless faces, they seemed there but to do the bidding of the spirit of the dead man whose body they supported. They swayed forward and back, from side to side, without moving their feet, and the coffin swayed with their swaying. And then they began to advance, slowly at first, but after a few steps briskly, to a group of three elders who stood to the left of the death house. Three times they advanced, and three times retreated, and each time as they reached the three men, one of the elders would put up his hand, touch the end of the wooden box, and the bearers would retreat.
Sedefo took his place with the three and asked a question. The coffin advanced, retreated. Sedefo spoke again; what he said we could not hear, for his voice was so low that it reached, us as a murmur. The response to the second question was disquieting; the men retreated without moving toward the questioner, step by step they moved slowly backward in a circle before us, and then, without any hesitation, they started on a run into the village along the path to our left. Two of the grave diggers followed them, for when the dead speaks, his replies to the questions asked him must be interpreted and attested.
Serious consequences may follow the expression of fact exposed by the dead. Repeated visits to a given house will point the finger of suspicion to the one who lives there, and a heavy fine at best, or expulsion from the village to certain death in the unprotecting bush at the worst, may be his fate. Supernatural forces are beyond control; here some man’s destiny was being sealed by the automatic movements of two others under the hypnotizing influence of the spirit of the dead. Back came the coffin and the questioning was resumed. This time the man who took up the inquiry stood upwind, and we could hear his low voice.
“Did a white man slay you?” he asked. We watched anxiously. What if the answer should be that our coming to the bush had brought death in its train? But the bearers retreated when they came where the questioner was standing.
“Did someone at Gansee slay you?” Again the advance, and the backward steps to the mourning place.
“Did someone at Gandya village slay you?” The answer was “No.”
“Did someone at Gankwe slay you?” And with the question, the corpse and its bearers once more disappeared from sight into the village, the women fleeing before it and herding the children before them so that they would be upwind from the coffin and the stench of decaying flesh.
As they returned the rear bearer was relieved; the tension eased for a moment, but there was one man who did not smile. And it was whispered that he lived in the part of the village where the corpse invariably went. The scene changed slightly; Sedefo, who had stopped questioning, resumed his efforts, and five, ten, fifteen times the bearers advanced toward him and retreated from where he stood. Sometimes we caught our breath; the corpse was coming toward us; but always the bearers swerved before they reached us, going no farther than the grove of thorn palms that grew near the house of death. Then once more they broke through the ranks of questioners and, followed by the watchers, were off in the direction of the village council house and the dwelling of the chief.
The bearer who had been relieved came forward; the corpse, he said, wanted to speak; he must be allowed to carry the body again. This time there was little relief while the change was being made, for the man was possessed, and the air vibrated with the intensity of the spirit which animated him. But apparently there were still difficulties. Again and again the questions were asked, again and again the bearers advanced, retreated. Sedefo kept insisting “Yu mu taki. You must speak!” and again the coffin advanced, retreated, and then once more went to our left into the village.
Clouds were rising to windward; the sun was low on the horizon. The bearers returned, advanced to the village head once, twice, again, and again, and then the coffin was placed on the ground, raised three times, and left there for a moment before others took it Into the house and replaced It where It had been when we first saw it. The ceremony was over; the elders of the village went to hold council and to interpret what the dead man had said.
In the swift tropical dusk, Sedefo and his son came to take us back to our camp. The drummers were adjusting the drums for the night’s dancing. “He spoke, ai,” he told US when we asked him. But what the pronouncement had been we were not to learn.
“It takes a strong spirit to stand before the spirit of the dead,” said our host when we returned to camp. “I don’t wonder that you are tired.”