Dreaming Africa by Lennox Honychurch
The people of Africa who were brought across the Atlantic ocean to work on the sugar and coffee plantations of Dominica from the early 1700s up until 1807 came from West Africa, from areas inland beyond the coast in a region that extended from what is today Senegal down to Angola.

Two other periods of African arrival refreshed the cultural influences from across the Atlantic. After the first stage of Emancipation in 1834, a small group of workers from West Africa voluntarily agreed to contract themselves to come and work in Dominica for wages and settled near some estates.

Then in 1837 and at other times around those years, ships carrying enslaved West Africans across the Atlantic Ocean and destined for colonies and states where slavery had not yet been abolished, were captured by the British Royal Navy. The slaves on board were disembarked on the islands including Dominica and were liberated. Areas where these persons were placed included Soufriere, Woodford Hill, Castle Bruce, Portsmouth and St.Joseph. Some African family names still with us that were handed down are: Akie, Cuffy (Kofi), Carbon (Gabon), Quamie, Quashie and Africa:

Africa: A family name originating from the village of Woodford Hill. The descendants of West Africans brought to Dominica after slave emancipation and who were landed as free people. They did not experience plantation slavery. The British Royal Navy had orders to search the seas, and to capture and liberate the people on any vessels carrying enslaved Africans that were heading for Brazil, Cuba, the USA and other destinations where slavery had not yet been abolished. Some of these vessels were seized near Dominica and the people on board were set free here. The Dominican ‘creoles’, born and brought up on the island for many generations, called the new arrivals ‘The Africans’. A group of them at Woodford Hill took the name as their surname. Other places receiving free Africans were Portsmouth, Castle Bruce, St Joseph and Soufriere.

The West African influences in Dominica remain in aspects of:

Language: certain words that are still used, see below, and the syntax of speech which is the way that sentences are constructed.

Dance: The Bele and other dance forms (see below) were transferred from West African dances.

Music: Drum music and the rhythms associated with drumming. The building of drums

Song: The type of  songs with call and response, known in Creole as "Lavway" that is used in Bele, in Carnival songs and years ago in work songs , wakes for the dead, songs used when sawing wood or hauling boats. For Carnival see below.

Food: Root tubers such as yams (see below), ackras and "one pot hold all". Pounded food called "Ton-Ton".

Dress: Ornate dress to show status as described below in the Douillette; The use of gold chain and jewelry and today; The use of heavy gold adornment by men as well.

Spiritualism: the original religion brought to Dominica was Animism, the belief that there are many spirits inhabiting the world, which bring good or evil and are associated with the ancestors such as ancestor spirits. This remains in some form in the obeah (see below), but even in the adaptation to Christianity there is still a great reverence for the dead and the ancestors in the importance of funerals, wakes "nine night" and the annual Fete La Toussaint, to remember the souls of the dead.

Use of plants and herbal medicines: Tropical plants provided many uses for the African arrivals. These were used to cure and ease sickness taken in the form of teas, baths and poultices. Some were used for spiritualist purposes to ward off evil and as charms.

When studying the African words still used in Dominica we can get an idea of some of the tribes who came here. Look through the words below and list the tribal languages from which they come:

Some are:

Fula, Twi, Yoruba, Ibo, Ibibo, Ewe, Akan, Bantu - Kikongo, Nembe, Wolof.

West African Influence

What is written here applies to Dominica and can be adapted from the wider Caribbean outlook to relate particularly to Dominica:

The majority of the people of the Caribbean are the descendants of West Africans originating from a wide range of tribal groups, whose members were captured along the West African seaboard and from the interior and who were exchanged for trade goods, enslaved, and transported across the Atlantic to work on the plantations of the islands and mainland colonies of the circum Caribbean. The cultural variation was as immense as the geographical area from which these people were drawn. It spread from present-day Senegal in the north, southwards along the Gulf of Guinea to Angola.

This range included as many as fifty main cultural groups and their numerous related sub-groupings. The diversity of language reflected this complex merging of cultures as people whose origin on the coast could be as much as two thousand miles apart were thrust together in small controlled communities in the Caribbean. Tribal languages that appear here and there in Caribbean speech range from Hausa, Kru, Ibo, Edo, Bini, Nembe, Yoruba, Ashanti, Ibibo and Ijo to Fulani, Ewe, Kikongo, Efik, Kwa, Fon and Twi and a couple dozen others. The shreds of cultural patrimony transported in the mind across the terrifying waters of the Middle Passage were pieced together on the shores of the Caribbean into a patchwork of cultural practices, traditions and skills. Their origins became blurred, picked up and pinpointed here or there during the twentieth century by linguists, folklorists and the early anthropologists of the region.

Traces of what was Igbo, Ibo or Ibibo lingered in a word here, a song pattern there, or a character of the spirit world, whose African roots had survived but who had acquired a French or Spanish name in the process of Creolization. The destruction and recreation of the shattered cultures of West Africa in the form of a variegated collage of influences is the main feature of the African cultural remnants in the region. For much of the five hundred years, ever since the first Spanish ship transported the first boatload of Africans direct from the Guinea coast to Hispaniola in 1518, the validity of this African remnant has been rejected. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries its presence was seen as a socially negative undercurrent of West Indian society that was better suppressed, covered up or denied. Only in the latter half of the twentieth century, during a period of great social and political transformation, did the African element in Caribbean culture have its renaissance, manifesting itself in the work of academics, artists, dancers, writers, cultural activists and the Rastafarian movement.

Stripped of everything but the contents of the mind, the African who arrived in the Caribbean carried only memory and skills. And yet it was from these intangible possessions that a new world was recreated, transformed and reordered. For all of its apparent confusion it was anchored by key lifelines of cultural security that helped to give stability, aid survival and make sense of a world gone mad. The plantation system and the regimen of work and mental stress and personal degradation associated with enslavement did not allow for the replication of the structured tribally determined patterns of life as had existed in Africa. Despite their condition they wove these lines of survival wherever possible into their plantation existence. Spaces of cultural opportunity were taken advantage of at every available turn. Subterfuge, sarcasm, innuendo and bitter humour became the antidotes to the circumstances in which they had found themselves. In folktales, songs and dances these threads were woven, providing a pliable ever-changing mask to the reality that lay beyond. The scraps of religious beliefs, once rigidly defined from tribe to tribe became a composite. Some elements were stronger on one island than another depending on the majority of influence from one group of Africans rather than others. But there were general themes associated with a spirit world where good and evil were in contest and whose balance had to be maintained. Spiritual possession and respect for the ancestors ran through it all in spite of the variations.

The African religions and beliefs were outlawed from the earliest days of plantation slavery, not merely because they were seen to be pagan, primitive and generally unchristian but more so because the plantocracy feared these practices were a cover for revolt. Paranoia against any form of African religious spiritualism rose sharply after the Haitian revolution, during which messages and plans of insurrection were passed on during such gatherings. But despite these restrictions certain forms of traditional religious practices survived under a blanket of secrecy. Those who professed to control spiritual powers were respected and there existed a network of shamans whose skills were called upon to cast spells, make charms and call up the spirit world. They were consulted for their knowledge of the use of herbs to cure illnesses and destroy enemies. These ‘obeah’ men or women were visited for help and advice and legislation survives on the islands up to today criminalizing obeah and those associated with the practice.

There is a certain degree of historical continuity in the ceremonies linked to these religious beliefs. A few are still practiced in the different forms of voodoo that survive in Haiti and in the shango of Trinidad and pocomania of Jamaica. Voodoo, for instance originated from Dahomey, based on the worship of the good, poisonless serpent spirit, Dangbay. The priest or voodun communicates with this spirit and makes Dangbay’s will known to others. Dances such as the Kalenda, Chica and Voodoo are part of these religious rites where spirit possession accompanied by intense drumming and chants forms the climax of worship. Transformation has taken place over time and voodoo has been exported with the Haitian Diaspora to New York, Miami and other cities in North America. In the tourist enclaves of Haiti itself, voodoo ceremonies are presented as floorshows and as such have been stripped of all of their original meaning.

A host of tribal languages were quickly lost as people from one part of West Africa were mixed with others on the plantations. Soon slaves of each European colony were speaking their own form of English, French, Spanish or Dutch, depending from which nation their colonial masters originated. In cases were islands changed hands regularly between opposing European powers and where colonists from both Britain and France were resident, as in the case of Dominica, St. Lucia, and later Trinidad, parallel Creole languages developed in the same place. Many of the ‘patois’ or Creole forms of speech still exist. One can tell which island someone is from by listening to his or her accents.

Gradually the old African folk tales were being remodeled and retold in these new languages. Here and there particular African words or the names of spirits and folktale characters survive. The spider hero of the Akan people, Ananse, lives on in the Anansy stories. Tales involving magic and forests and rivers were also common. But here the spirits had merged with European folklore and had Europeanized names. One hears of the River Mama or Mama D’leau, the water spirit, and the forest spirit Papa Bois. Such characters are common in the former French colonies along with the Loupgarou a male werewolf and the La Diabless, the she- devil.

Text Box:  Changes in belief systems over time can be exemplified by a study of the currently used word, Jumbie or Duppy as applied to an evil spirit. The word Jumbie or Jombie originates from a branch of the Bantu language especially of the kongo-ngola group in which there is the good nsambi ‘God’ and the evil nsumbi ‘Devil’. Carried across from Africa to Caribbean in various Central and West African language sub-groups, nsumbi became Jumbie or Jombie in its Creole form. Good and evil were under the same spiritual power constantly tussling for a balance between the two. Songs and religious practices celebrated the contest, but over time only the Jombie, the evil spirit, was remembered. In early folklore this Jombie could affect your health while you were asleep at night or wreck your good fortune. Practitioners of Obeah were supposed to be able to drive the spirit out or make it affect others. The Jombie is now largely used as a bogeyman in stories to frighten children into obedience.

Music traverses language and so it survived more strongly than other art forms. It was also incorporated into work and periods of festivity and lamenting and so had a continuity that evolved over time from slavery into freedom and further into the twentieth century emerging in forms of reggae, calypso, zouk and soca. Holes for sugar cane planting were dug to chants and the beat of drums. There were songs of sadness, joy, worship and revolt. Later in the post-emancipation period hauling of boats, sawing of wood, moving of houses and gathering of fishing nets was done to song. Much of the music was accompanied by dancing, some of these like the bele and kalenda had strong African retentions whereas European dances such as quadrilles, polkas, reels and lancers were given an African transformation, speeded up and choreographed anew with a flare which transformed them into something distinctly Caribbean.

The tunes for such dances incorporated the fiddle, accordion and banjo with a variety of drums and percussion instruments, which had their roots in Africa. Flutes, rattles, ‘shack-shacks’, scrapers, tambourines and ‘bamboo-tamous’ were among them. Goatskin was stretched across hollow wooden frames carved from tree trunks and casks from the sugar factories were utilized to form drums, the tamous or ‘gro kas’ of the French territories. The Spanish islands of the Greater Antilles and influences from Venezuela added an Iberian flavour to African rhythms and were complimented by brass instruments and guitars and quartos. In the British Caribbean, the island of Trinidad was particularly influenced by this, transforming the back-up music for its calypsos and it is even more strongly evident in the ‘parang, music of certain communities.

The times of great celebration and festivals were Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and "Crop-over" when the last canes were brought to the mills for crushing. In the French influenced colonies, the Roman Catholics celebrated Carnival for two days before Lent. From this there developed a lively tradition of street bands with colourful characters dancing and singing in costumes. The songs that accompanied these revelries often told of some recent scandal or some momentous event and this custom lives on today in the calypsoes which are composed and sung during these occasions.

Some African words still used in Dominica

Ackra  A small fritter made of flour batter fried in oil, usually with a base of shredded salted codfish or titiri. Introduced by West Africans. Originates from the Yoruba word: akara, "an oily cake made from beans ground and fried."

Bélé A dance performed in Dominica from the earliest arrival of West Africans to the island. Of all the folk dances it has the strongest African roots and has its origins in festivals associated with mating and fertility. A male and female (in Creole, the "Cavalier" and the "Dam") display each other’s dance skills and hint at their sexual is in the form of chants led by a "chantuelle" with the refrain or "lavway" given by a chorus of spectators. The French adapted the name of the dance to "Belaire". 

Da-da: Nurse or elder female who takes care of a child. It comes from the West African Ewé language: da-da or da: an elder care taking sister.

Doucouna (dukuna):  A small pudding made of a variety of mixtures of grated sweet potatoes, cassava, grated coconut, cornmeal, plantain flour, spices, sugar and essence, wrapped and tied in a balizier leaf and steamed. From the West African Akan language: doko na: "sweet mouth" or doko no: "sweet thing". Also called cankie.

Jombie: An evil spirit. The word originates from a branch of the Bantu language especially of the kongo-ngola group in which there is the good nsambi ‘God’ and the evil nsumbi ‘Devil’. Carried across from Africa to Dominica in various Central and West African language sub-groups, nsumbi became Jumbie or Jombie in its Creole form. Good and evil were under the same spiritual power constantly tussling for a balance between the two. Songs and religious practices celebrated the contest, but over time only the Jombie, the evil spirit, was remembered. In early folklore this Jombie could affect your health while you were asleep at night or wreck your good fortune. Practitioners of Obeah were supposed to be able to drive the spirit out or make it affect others. The Jombie is also used as a bogeyman in stories to frighten children into obedience.

Okra: A young green pod about 4 to 6 inches long, noticeably ridged and pointed with slimy seeds and flesh used as a boiled vegetable. It grows on a flowering shrub with lobed, hand sized leaves: Hibiscus esculentus (Malvaceae). The plant was brought from Africa and the name is from the Igbo word okworo.

Obeah:  A set or system of secret beliefs in the use of supernatural forces to attain or defend against evil ends. It is African in origin but on its arrival in the Caribbean certain aspects of Christian ceremonials and sacraments were integrated into its activities. It varies greatly in kind, requirements, and practice, ranging from the simple, such as the use of items like oils, herbs, bones, grave-dirt, blessed communion wafers and fresh animal blood to more extreme ingredients. Obeah men or Obeah women are names given to its practitioners. The term Pyai, from the Carib for shaman is also used in Dominica relating to the casting of spells. Origins for the word Obeah come from the Twi: o-bayo-fo (witchcraft man). From the Nembe: obi (sickness, disease), and Igbo: obi (a mind or will to do something) and the Ibibo: abia (practitioner, herbalist).

One-pot-hold-all: A whole meal cooked in one pot. The practice was common in West Africa. The Wolof word benacin means "one pot" and "a meal made by cooking everything together".

Sensay Costume: A costume of West African origin worn at Carnival time in Dominica. It is made of frayed rope and other fibrous material such as pounded leaves of the agave, ‘langue beff’ (Furcraea tuberosa) that grows mainly on the west coast. The material is tied around the body in layers so that it cascades from the head to the feet. A mask is usually worn on the face and cow horns form the headpiece. Sensay costumes are also made of strips of paper, cloth, frayed plastic sacks and dry banana leaves ‘pai fig’. They are similar to costumes used in West African tribal ceremonies. The word comes from the Twi language, senseh, which is a type of fowl with curled or ruffled feathers. The costume is named after its resemblance to the fowl, which also has special spiritual properties among the Twi people.

Su-Su (Sou-Sou): A friendly co-operative savings scheme originating from Africa whereby each person in a small group contributes every week or month, as agreed, an equal portion of money. The sum of the group’s total contribution goes to one member of the group in rotation, so that every month, week or fortnight one person benefits from a large sum of money that can be put to a particular use. It comes from the Yoruba word esusu, meaning: "a fund were several persons pool their money". In Dominica the practice is more often called a "sub". Although still used, the system was far more widespread before banks openly welcomed small-scale savers and before the Credit Union movement established itself throughout the countryside in the 1950s and 1960s.

Tosh: A small round piece of padding made of a coil of cloth or dried banana leaves, which is put on top of the head to act as a pad when carrying heavy loads on the head. Associated with the verb -tuta, -tota: "to carry, pick up, load" in Kikongo, Ci-Luba and other Bantu languages common to West Africa.

Wawa: A species of wild yam (Rajania sintenisii) found in the forests at lower and middle elevations and called by the Caribs bihi and kaiarali. But it is now known by its African name ‘wawa’ from the Twi language for ‘large tree’ in that it is a tree-climbing yam with a widely spreading root system. It was the main food for the Maroons in their camps in the mountains and was mentioned in the reports of British governors as being one of the reasons for their survival. Although it was much used by the Caribs they never cultivated it because of the belief that if they did so it would cause their family to die out.

Yam: (Dioscorea spp.) A tuberous root of which there are many varieties that are cultivated and eaten in Dominica and throughout the Caribbean. The word comes from a variety of West and Central African languages such as Fula and Twi in which words such as nnyam, nyiama, enama also mean ‘meat’, ‘food’ and ‘eat’. Some of the yams cultivated here were brought from Africa in sailing ships during the time of the Slave Trade (Old World Yams) while other yams are indigenous and were used by the Caribs long before the arrival of Columbus (New World Yams). There are over 600 species of yam in the tropics, however only ten of these are of any importance as food and there are great variations in the size and shape of yams. In Dominica the African Old World yams are: the greater yam (Dioscorea alata), the yellow Guinea yam (Dioscorea cayenensis) known here as yam jaune, the white Guinea yam (Dioscorea rotundata) yam blanc, and the lesser yam (Dioscorea esculenta). Among the New World yams are the Cush-Cush (from the Carib, kúsu) and the Wa-wa (Rajania cordata) a wild yam in the forest. The Creole names for the different varieties of yam sometimes vary from one part of Dominica to another and they include names such as: yam d’leau, yam batard, yam marron, yam a piquants noir, yam bonda, babaoulay, yam Antoine and lady’s yam etc. Yam is generally peeled, cut into chunks and boiled, but is also roasted or pounded in a ‘mash pilon’ and made into ‘ton-ton’ or mashed and made into a pie.

Influences in Dress -

                              head ties, use of colour, jewelry etc.

Douillette (Dwiyet): (F) The traditional costume of Dominica, now popularly referred to as The National Dress. From the French douillette in its 17th century meaning of "dainty, delicate". It evolved from the African adaptation of the 17th and the 18th century French colonial gown, the "grande robe". In its Creolized form it consists principally of a full-length dress of brightly printed cotton which was cut with a train at the back, the laché. This was worn over a lace or embroidered petticoat often decorated with satin ribbon. A shawl or foulard is laid around the shoulders and an elaborately tied and starched Madras headkerchief, the tete en lé or tete cassie (from chassie, the gum used its preparation) forms the head piece. Every form of jewelry, mainly gold accessories, including necklaces: collier choux and gwais d’or, earrings: zanneau chenille, bracelets and brooches with moving parts: zepingues tremblan is displayed. In former times there were set dress colours for the various shades of skin tone of the wearers. Different messages as to the wearers’ marriageal status and availability were encoded in the form of the head ties.

Later African influences in the 20th century which was not present before 1838 is:

Rastafarians: (A) Members of a group whose lifestyle, ideology and religious beliefs emerged in Dominica during the early 1970s influenced by the growth of the movement across the Caribbean from its roots in 1920s Jamaica. The Pan-African teachings of Marcus Garvey and the "folk" religions of rural Jamaica fused with the inspiration of Ethiopia as a symbol of an unconquered Africa. In 1930 Ras Tafari Makonen was crowned the 111th Emperor of Ethiopia in a line traced back to the union of King Solomon and Queen Makeda of Sheba. His new title was His Imperial Majesty the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God. Tafari took a new name: Haile Selassie - ‘Power of the Holy Trinity.’ Several preachers in Jamaica began to pray to Selassie as the living God and the hope of African redemption. Worshippers of Selassie became known as Ras Tafaris or Rastamen. The Rastas began wearing long hair and beards because of a teaching in the Old Testament, also followed by orthodox Jews, that no razor shall touch the hair of the faithful. The corruption of society and the police, who were seen to protect it, was ‘Babylon’, and nature, the countryside and future peace was ‘Zion’. The belief in pursuing a life close to nature, spurning imported and processed foods and depending more on vegetables, ‘I-tals’, had an influence even on non-rastas. Although the whole lifestyle, beliefs and appearance associated with Rastafarianism is widely accepted today, there was fierce reaction from the social and political establishment of 1970s Dominica.

West African culture in relation to Carnival

Here we come to the other more powerful branch of our Carnival tradition: - the influence of the music, costumes, songs, dance patterns, rituals and attitudes of the West Africans who were transported across the Atlantic to work on plantations in the West Indies.  We are dealing with an area of influence, which ranges in an arc from the edge of the Sahara sweeping around as far south as Angola, sinking deep into Central Africa.  We tend to forget that it is an area lager than Western Europe and includes some five hundred tribal groups along with their languages, dialects and individual cultural forms.  Each major group considers themselves as different from each other as Poles Danes, Germans or Irish.  Looking at it this way we may get an idea of the wide variety of influences which converged on the Caribbean and are simply covered today by the term "West African,"

West African religion has been compared to a pyramid, of which the top is a supreme being, the sides are gods of nature including those of water, forest and crops, while at the lowest level are magical beliefs and practices.  There were countless festivals and ceremonies associated with these beliefs and the costumes worn by the participants had varied meanings. The mixture of all these beliefs, languages and tribal customs in the Caribbean with Christianity and four main European languages:  Spanish, French, English and Dutch created Creole cultures that became a colourful calalloo of everything. In Dominica the traces of African influence in traditional masquerade were obvious if you knew what to look for.  The type of songs, the instruments, the tone and tempo of music and the street performances of revellers were among the clearest links between the street bands of Roseau and Portsmouth and dusty village centres along the Guinea coast.

 Every year these ties are weakened as the modern Caribbean man swamps himself with what can be called the "International culture" of the consumer age.  Soon the Japanese Hi-Fi and cloths made in Taiwan and Korea may be all that will be seen on the streets at Carnival time.

Two hundred years ago Dominica was a colony of Britain, but had a population strongly influenced by France.  The French absorbed exchanged and influenced the ways of the West African slave more than the British.  The attitude of the two colonisers was difference, the French controlled by absorbing and mixing the foreign culture with their own while the British, through laws and subtle social rules attempted to control by wiping out everything foreign and replacing it totally with their own culture.  The French families in their scattered estates triumphed over the British officials huddled in Roseau as did Roman Catholicism over the Church of England.

Onto The Streets

The plantocracy of both nations however, were wary of revolt, and would not allow the free movement of slaves or the gathering of large groups in any one place or at any one time.

Only on the Sunday market days in Roseau and Portsmouth were such crowds to be found and, as the old paintings show, red-coated soldiers wandered prominently among them.  On feast days it was alright for the slaves of two or three estates in one district to gather in the estate yards, but with active maroon gangs roaming the hills, particularly at the end of the 18th century, a wary eye was kept on such gatherings by the authorities.  Street Carnival was out of the question and although the use of the drum was tolerated, the use of masks was strictly limited, often in some cases by proclamation. These restrictions and the punishments involved are all too clearly stated in a notice appearing in "The Dominica Chronicle" (no relative to the present newspaper) in several issues in early 1825:

Whereas it hath been represented to us that Slaves are frequently parading in the streets of Roseau, to the annoyance of the inhabitants of the said Town. We do hereby give notice, that in future any Slave who may be found dancing in the Town of Roseau without written permission from his or her Owner for such purpose, or who may form in, or whom may form in any riotous or noisy procession in the Streets thereof, shall be punished for such offence by public whipping agreeable to the 19th Clause of the Town Warden Act.

Signed - Town Wardens - Edward Dowdy, A. Patterson, Henry Nisbet, Ralph Ashton, Justin McSwiney.


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