Social and Cultural Anthropologist and contributor Scherin Barlow-Massay

Social and Cultural Anthropologist and contributor Scherin Barlow-Massay

Historical commentary. Many Caribbean customs are heavily influenced by Western cultural practices but there are some that have African cultural retention. Junkanoo is a street parade that takes place in the Bahamas on December 26th and New Year’s Day. Similar parades take part in many other Caribbean countries at different times of the year. Although Junkanoo has become a fusion of African and European religious and social practices in the Bahamas, many elements of the performance are grounded in practices found in some West African countries.

Among the Igbo and Yoruba speaking people of Nigeria, masquerade dancers played an important role in their religious beliefs, where many of the masked performers embodied ancestral spirits, deities or nature spirits. Such dances were a method of teaching and passing on their religious beliefs, as well as appeasing and communicating with their gods. Each masquerade had a different name depending on which event it was tied to. Masquerades for entertainment were performed at cultural events such as marriages, chieftaincy appointments and other social functions. In all cases, the identity of the maskers was supposed to be a secret so performers wore costumes that covered their whole body so that they could not be identified.

Bahamas Junkanoo. Photo courtesy chimatli.org

Bahamas Junkanoo. Photo courtesy chimatli.org

In Guyana, Old Year’s Night is the name given to the celebration that ushers in the New Year. Apart from partying, it is believed that if a man does not take his girlfriend to the Old Year’s Night celebrations, she is not the number one woman in his life. Another Guyanese custom includes making a large pot of black-eye pea’s cook-up rice to see in the New Year.

For African Americans in the South-eastern Carolina States, “Hoppin John” a recipe made from black-eye peas, rice and collard greens for the New Year, is said to bring success and good luck. Black-eye peas were cultivated in West Africa and transported to the Caribbean and the USA as food when millions of Africans were displaced during the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. Akara, a type of bean fritter made from black-eye peas are eaten by both the Igbo and Yoruba people of Nigeria.

According to Yoruba religious belief system, one of their deities, Oya has many different roles within the Yoruba pantheon and like the Roman god Janus; Oya corresponds with transition and change. Her favourite food is Akara which is also viewed as sacred. Therefore, it is fitting for those in the West African Diasporas who have retained elements of those cultural practices, to eat such a meal to enhance good luck as they make the changeover from one year to the next.