Don Robotham, Contributor
Grace Asobo is all smiles after collecting a plaque for her contributions to the western chapter of the Association of Nigerians in Jamaica. Standing beside her is the Acting High Commissioner of Nigeria to Jamaica, Olaware Okunlola. - photo by Denise Reid
The sad events in Kenya seem to be slowly coming under control. Given the anti-Kikuyu atrocities of the last two weeks, restoring consensus to Kenya society will be an arduous one. We too, in Jamaica, face the challenge of strengthening our consensus before divisiveness throws us further into deep and violent crisis.
Consensus will not end all of our problems and disagreements. Consensus seeks to ensure that our disagreements remain civil, do not spill over into destructive violence and are channelled into constructive suggestions for the improvement of Jamaican society. This is the same challenge faced by Kenya and many other African states who are feeling the stern challenges of a globalised world economy. In Kenya, economic and political forces have created a situation where ethnic and social tensions coincide.
The business class and many of the professionals in the private and public sector are of Kikuyu origin the vast majority of Kikuyus are poor people. Likewise, Luos, Kalenjins and Luhyas dominate the urban and especially rural poor there is also a rich minority from all these groups.
This is a situation not unlike Jamaica, where rich people tend to be from the light-skinned groups there is a growing black bourgeoisie. Jamaicans assume that if you are light-skinned you are likely to be rich and enjoy privilege. Kenyans tend to assume, if you are Kikuyu, you are also likely to be rich and enjoy privilege, despite the huge Kikuyu slums in Nairobi dominated by the infamous Mungiki gangs. In Nigeria, for reasons having to do with both the slave and palm oil trades, some Igbo families from Aro got into trading activities very early in the 18th century and became rich. For this reason, many Nigerians assume that if you are Igbo you love money, even though the vast majority of Igbos are poor small farmers in their villages.
In societies of this nature, where ethnic and economic divisions coincide, the task of building consensus takes on a special importance. Divisiveness is a luxury we cannot afford. It does not take much to throw societies such as Jamaica, Kenya and Nigeria into violent and destructive confrontation and civil war. People naturally default into their mental tribes - the garrisons of the mind. This is why the efforts of the healthy elements in the People's National Party (PNP) to subordinate the lumpen and to foster a constructive approach are so vital. This is why Mr. Golding needs to return to his original policy of 'constructive engagement' and stop bowing to his own group of tribalists.
The history of Jamaica is the story of how cultural tribalism of the African sort, was overcome - to be replaced, in the 20th century, by political tribalism. In that sense, our history is the painful story of how we have overcome various forms of divisiveness and struggled to achieve consensus. Not many of us know it, but in much of the 18th century the enslaved black population still had very strong tribal identities. It was only by the 19th century that the effects of the plantation system and of slave revolts erased this cultural divisiveness and united the black population culturally. The real significance of Sam Sharpe's revolt was that it was the first Jamaican slave revolt which was truly broad and did not have an ethnic core. The spread of Christianity, especially through the Baptist influence, played a crucial role in overcoming cultural tribalism.
Jamaicans originate from all over Africa - from the Senegambia to as far away as the Eastern African coast. Indeed, there is documented evidence of the early presence of 'Indonesian-looking' people stolen from Madagascar and sold into slavery and then escaping in the Parottee area of southern St. Elizabeth. More research is needed, but this, rather than speculations about European ancestry, may be one possible explanation for the presence of light-skinned people in that part of Jamaica.
Nevertheless, Eastern Nigeria and Ghana are the original homelands of the vast majority of Jamaicans, with the Congo-Angola area being the third major source. Next to Haiti, Jamaica is the Caribbean country with the strongest persistent African influence in our culture. This is one reason why Bedwardism, Garveyism, Rastafarianism and reggae developed in Jamaica.
At the ending of the slave trade, a very large part of the adult enslaved Jamaican population - 317,000 - had actually been born and grew up in Africa. Indeed, in parishes such as Manchester, the African-born population was the majority of the adult population - so much for the fantasy self-image of Manchester as an English bastion!
In the early years of the expansion of plantation slavery in Jamaica, the English slave trade was based at Cape Coast (Oguaa) in Ghana. This is why the Akan Southern Ghanaian influence - Asante, Fante, Akyem, Akwamu - in Jamaica is very strong. This Akan influence is particularly obvious in Maroon culture - names such as Kojo and Kofi - but is widespread throughout all Jamaica. The Jamaican family system cannot be understood unless you understand the Akan one. Like theirs, our family system stresses descent or 'generation' rather than marriage. It stresses the female side, just like all Akans do.
But in the present state of research, it is not possible to say with precision which ethnic groups predominated. It is very unlikely to have been Asantes. The Asante state controlled the 18th century slave trade from Ghana and usually did not sell their own people into slavery. Many of the people sold into slavery from Ghana were not from the South at all, especially if we are talking about the period after 1730.
new name for ackee
They came from the North of Ghana from the weaker groups such as the Kusaasi, Isala, Tallensi and Dagarti. Indeed, when I lived in Ghana I discovered that ackee was not known much by people from the coast or Asante. But when you went up to the North, the Dagartis knew and ate it - they call it chiha.
In the case of Nigeria, we know that it was from the East that Jamaicans came. This was in the latter part of the 18th century, especially as the English slave trade came to an end in 1807. This is also the period in which there was a huge inflow of persons from the Congo-Angola area.
This spike in the slave trade in the early 19th century was connected to the development of the coffee industry in Jamaica, following the collapse of coffee in Haiti after the revolution. This occurred mainly in the Dallas mountain overlooking UWI, in Upper Clarendon where my family is from and in the hills of northern Manchester - towards Coleyville and Wait-a Bit in Upper Trelawny.
Eastern Nigeria is classic yam country, especially for white yam (Dioscorea rotundata). Yams festivals are an integral part of their culture, as it is in other parts of Nigeria and Ghana. I speculate that the concentration of yam cultivation in the Trelawny hills, and our own yam festival there, may have to do with this massive Eastern Nigerian inflow at the end of the slave trade. But again, much more research is needed before one can confidently make such an assertion.
It is not possible to declare that the Eastern Nigerian influence in Jamaica - apparent in expressions such as 'red ibo' - is Igbo. True, nearly all the Nigerian movies we love to watch in Jamaica are of Igbo origin. Village scenes filled with the assertive females reminds us of rural Jamaica. Most of the well-known Nigerian movie stars, such as Patience Ozokwor, Richard Mofe-Damijo and Emeke Ike, are Igbo.
Undoubtedly, there is a major Igbo influence on Jamaican culture. But Eastern Nigeria is a huge area with many different ethnic groups. Igbo from Aro were deeply involved in the slave trade. But so were Ijaws from the Delta and the Ibibios further east. Indeed, the real centre of the Eastern Nigerian slave trade at the end of 18th century was in the Efik (Ibibio) areas around Creek Town and Duke Town, on the Cross river near the Cameroon border. Again, most enslaved people came from inland rather than from the coast, and would probably have been from weaker Igbo and Ibibio groups as well as from the Ekoi and even Yako.
Despite all this cultural tribalism in our history, we succeeded in overcoming cultural divisions and developed a culturally united black population. Now we face the problem of overcoming the crisis, of political tribalism and developing a united Jamaica. If history is any guide, we will overcome this crisis too, and move on to build a better Jamaica for all.