While living in the first-world I found there was residual from my carib-centric roots that remained steadfast. Superstition. Trinidad is still raw and primitive in many ways, still a relatively young nation rife with unique traditions and a bento box culture. Within that culmination, imparted from our African ancestors sprinkled with French dialect, was born a deep reliance on folklore, of course today the intensity of belief is relative to community and age bracket yet, it finds it’s way into our day to day. I know my grandmother was quite superstitious and traditionalist, i.e. She hated the colour green because of a familial curse. I think i inherited some aspect of her belief system in the unknown and what bumps in the night. Also, we island kids grow up with bedtime stories in the alternative; instead of Red Riding Hood we learned of Douens, gender neutral spirits of dead children who weren’t baptized before their death and now walk the earth with backwards feet and a large straw hat covering their eyes. Story is, they lead un-baptized children into the surrounding forests never to be heard from again. Moral, subscribe to a religious denomination and you’re safe from demon kids in big hats. Better to start mass opium on the younger sect, agreed? The Little Mermaid was Mama D’lo, she’s linked to the virtue of fidelity, a woman’s torso with a snake’s body who lives in the freshwater ponds in our rain forests. She lures married men into her pool and persuades them into cheating, falling for it meant drowning by her hand. Hans Christian who?
Walking through our rain forests, with it’s wild, unkempt mystery, i often felt uneased by the thought of these characters. I know it’s not true and it’s only lore meant to promote morality and safety but still, swimming in those deep, cold ponds i’d almost wait for her tendrils around my ankles. Brr.
My first school was in the South Trinidad countryside, amongst the sugar cane and long stretches of land. The actual school building was atop a hill surrounded by cane and brush. The students had access to the back of the hill which was cleared away for play, but i’d avoid one area in particular for some reason. At the bottom of said hill was a singular silk cotton tree, and i was terrified of it. In my head i attributed cotton with jumbie/duppy or in the western translation, a freaking ghost, ok. You can now understand my trepidation. Silk Cotton Tree’s are home to spirits, cut one down and they roam the earth. How did i attain such knowledge at six years old? I have no idea. To this day, i’m still scared of the things.
As i grew up and left the douens behind for the first world, my superstitious nature revealed itself many times in different ways, it’s funny how once out of the familiar our roots rise to the occasion. As much as i tried to quell my island expressions and conform to droll western values and manners, I always felt conflicted. Should i tell my new friends to not look behind them after we walk past a cemetery because jumbie will follow us home. Should i not mention Papa Bois a.k.a faun keeper of the forest, on this very Americana hike in Maine? On that self-same jaunt i found an old house with my hiking partner, we climbed in and explored. I love old houses as they give me the jibbers in the best way so was eager to knock around it, after exiting i found an old bullet shell in the dirt and picked it up, my partner took it from my hand to put in his pocket as a keepsake. No! I shouted and snatched it from his American hand furiously putting it back in the ground. He looked at me puzzled, my explanation? “The jumbie will follow us back, bad JuJu.” Yeh, not sexy. But still, in my depths is a gnawing West Indian sensibility. A child of old tradition and insane belief. I can’t deny it, especially in a setting such as that, we were just asking for jumbie to stalk us, come on.
There are certain sects of Trinidad who still believe deeply in these canon of characters. In our crime soaked island, it comes in handy at times. Thieves are scared of dogs with dark fur as they associate them with the devil. Black magic or obeah is still practiced in certain northern villages. The air crackles with this knowledge, at least it does for me, it’s a temperate sort of magic that lives among us. A fellow citizen and i were having a conversation recently that sparked my re-interest in said magic. She mentioned a problem in her building; “I’m being bitten,” she said. “Mosquitoes?” I asked. “No, Soucouyant.” I blinked at her, stifling a laugh, she wasn’t kidding. My writer brain in a flurry, i probed. “How many?” I asked. “Three old hags living in my building, they bite me bad, the mark stayed for months. I tried to put salt on my window ledge but it rusted the metal and now i have to replace it.”
I should mention Soucouyant are our vampires, they take the form of an old woman during daylight hours but come nightfall they turn into fiery balls and shed their skin, leaving it behind as they torment their surrounding neighbors by sucking their blood. Salt or rice is a deterrent.
I don’t refute her experience because i choose to live in the unknown, it’s the best place for an artist, i’m limited otherwise. We can go into the rational cultural, historical and socio-economic factors behind such long held beliefs confined to the third-world but why sully the thrill of it all? I am utterly fascinated. I’m also proud to throw salt over my shoulder, knock on wood and lookout for jumbie at every turn and cotton tree. You should too.