Social and Cultural Anthropologist and contributor Scherin Barlow-Massay

Social and Cultural Anthropologist and contributor Scherin Barlow-Massay

Community news. When enslaved people were transported to the Caribbean and America’s during the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, they took with them their cultural beliefs and practices. Various customs that make up the African Guyanese culture have their roots in West African traditions that survived, despite efforts to stamp out all forms of African cultural identity by the enslavers.

Many of those customs survived and passed from generation to generation. One such tradition that survived in Guyana is an after bath exercise and massage regime associated with infants.  After a daily bath, the baby is rubbed with olive oil, in preparation for a massage.

After this anointing, the mother, or grandmother began a process of exercise movements on the naked infant. The infant’s face is massaged, giving particular attention to various points on the face including the nose.  Placed on its back, the baby’s two legs were crossed, and then gently brought up towards the chest, before straightening it out. The same process is performed on each arm, after which the baby was placed on its belly and the arms brought towards its back. Then, raising the baby by each arm, it is lifted up and down for a few seconds.

This same lifting process is carried out while holding the infant by the feet. Finally, the infant is thrown into the air and caught. The belief among African Guyanese is that those procedures are necessary to aid the infant’s physical structure and development, e.g., it would prevent the infant from becoming bow-legged as well as develop its motor skills and help it to become more flexible.  Additionally, such exercises were thought to improve body circulation.

A motor skill is a movement that requires an individual to use its muscle and nerves to make a movement with a part of its body.  There are two types of motor skills; gross motor skills are movements a baby makes with his feet, legs, arms or entire body.  Such movements allow the baby to lift its head, sit up, crawl, walk and all of the other skills associated with walking.  Fine motor skills include the ability to pick up small objects, tie shoelaces and to write. Unless a child is severely mentally or physically impaired, those milestones are usually indications by which normal development is assessed.

Photo courtesy www.brimtime.com

Photo courtesy www.brimtime.com

Similar bathing and exercise customs exist today among the Yoruba people from the western part of Nigeria, and the Igbos, from the southeastern part of the country.  According to Yoruba tradition, at birth the infant is sprinkled with water to make it cry.  The action of crying ignites the process of breathing by clearing the infant’s mouth, airways and lungs of fluid. Afterwards, the child is carried outside to the backyard, where its umbilical cord is tied and cut.  At the spot where the placenta is buried the infant is bathed using a loofah and rubbed with palm oil.

Finally, the newborn is held upside down by its feet and shaken three times. It is the belief that by doing so, it would grow up to be tough and fearless. According to Igbo beliefs, the palm oil was to prevent the baby from having body odours and moulding (shaping) the limbs was to loosen them and make them more agile.

Today, those customs remain more embedded in Igbo culture than in any of the other cultural groups of Nigeria. Those customs became part of the African Guyanese cultural practices because large numbers of Igbos were enslaved during the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade and taken to the Caribbean and other parts of North and South America.