CIVICS, CULTURE & COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT
By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
October 31 is around the corner. The streets of New York City will be filled with children of all ages dressed in costumes and buzzing on doorbells for candy. When I was a kid, I remember getting an adrenaline rush while waiting for doors to open, especially those where the home had no lights on or where a dog could be heard barking in the distance. There were houses to avoid – some where the owners were so mean they’d open the door, say they have no candy, and put a penny in our baskets. There were others you knew to visit every year – the ones that tended to have the best candy were creatively decorated with ghouls, witches and…. jumbees!
I’ve heard from many West Indian parents that they don’t allow their children to celebrate Halloween because it’s “not our culture.” For all the horror stories you might hear about Halloween night, there’s a lot of fun and festivity to the holiday, which traces its origins to Celtic harvest traditions and was later Christianized as All Hallows’ Eve, literally the night before November 1 which is All Saints’ Day and two nights before All Souls’ Day on November 2.
Caribbean culture features its own spooky folklore and tradition which deserves a mention as we prepare to celebrate Halloween. Practically every Caribbean country has its own type of jumbee. What’s a jumbee anyway? Growing up, I always heard talk about jumbee, but never could pin down exactly what the word meant, except to think that it’s some scary creature. There’s good reason a visual was difficult to narrow down. Jumbee is actually a catch-all term for any type of West Indian entity, including ghosts or apparitions, particularly in folklore. Many Caribbean countries have their version of a jumbee. The term often connotes negativity and evil. In the French islands, the word is “zombi.”
In Guyana alone, folklore reflect different types of jumbees drawing upon African, Amerindian, East Indian, Dutch and English mythologies. Some of the stories from various parts of the Caribbean are similar but the names are different. In Guyana, there’s the baccoo, which arguably originated from a Nigerian Yoruba figure called “Abiku,” the spirit of a baby who died before being given a name. Abikus are usually depicted by small wooden statues which honor the spirit of the deceased baby. The Guyanese baccoo may be derived from these statues. There is also the theory that Baccoos originated in Suriname. Baccoos are described as short men with large eyes, long arms and legs, and no knee caps. Legend has it that Baccoos throw stones at houses and have the ability to move objects within a house, living on bananas and milk for sustenance. Some believe that a Baccoo’s spirit is trapped in a corked bottle, until it is released and wreaks havoc on the person whose body is possessed by the spirit.
It seems that variations of vampires are also common in Guyanese folklore. There is the “choorile” of East Indian origin, considered to be a “bhoot” (a supernatural creature, often the ghost of a deceased person). A choorile overall looks like your average woman. The only difference? Their feet are turned backwards. Chooriles can change their form to look beautiful at any given time, to tempt young men to their deaths. Like the bhoots of India, chooriles are afraid of water, so you’d find them near crossroads and open fields.
There’s also the ole Higue, who feasts on human blood. It is said that an ole Higue is an elderly woman who lives openly during the day as a harmless, quiet person, but at night removes her skin, places it in a calabash, and travels across the sky as a ball of fire until she reaches her victim. In the past, some Guyanese have allegedly seen such balls of fire in the sky, and firmly believed those balls to be sightings of the ole Higue. One way to keep her away? Leaving a large amount of rice grains in front of your house will force the ole Higue, said to be miserly, to count each grain in her hands until the pile gets so large, the grains slide through her fingers, and she must recount, tiring her until she gives up. Similar to the old Higue is a “Fire Rass,” supposedly a woman who was killed in childbirth and feeds only on the blood of babies.
There are many other jumbees such as the Massacooramaan, a giant hairy man-like creature who lives in Guyana’s rivers, known to turn small boats over and feast on humans who travel on the boats. There’s the Canaima, allegedly an Amerindian witch doctor who can transform into a Jaguar. There’s the Moongazer, a very tall man who emerges to stare at the full moon.
Jumbees are also reminiscent of the Caribbean’s colonial roots. Arguably the scariest jumbee to some Guyanese is the “Dutchman Jumbee.” Legend has it that during the 1500’s the Dutch used to murder slaves in Guyana and bury them alongside their treasures so the slaves could guard those treasures. Dutchman Jumbee aren’t the murdered slaves, but rather the Dutchman who perpetrated the killings. Their supposed ghosts linger in Guyana, even if they ultimately died in another part of the world. There are some trees in Guyana said to be “Dutchman trees.” If a person climbs one of these trees, axes it etc., it is said that the Dutchman jumbee will cause them to fall and break their neck or spine, or inflict terrible bad karma upon them.
Not all Jumbees are evil, though most are. In Trinidad, there is the “Moko Jumbee” a colorful benevolent version of the Jumbee that stands on stilts as a dancer, particularly during the carnival season. These Jumbees are considered healers, and god-like. They originate from the West African tradition that was brought to Trinidad.
While our foreparents may not have taken their children to the store to pick out costumes, or place gravestones and ghouls in their front yard, they had their share of fun scaring each other with Jumbee stories. This week, as we celebrate Halloween in New York City, we can also fondly invoke our heritage.
Reference: Rustom Seegopaul, “A Study into Jumbies.”
Kaieteur News (2008)
How To Celebrate Halloween in Richmond Hill/South Ozone Park, Queens:
Several events commemorating Halloween are happening around town. On Friday, October 26th, Vijah Ramjattan hosted a Halloween Costume Bash at Liberty Palace and Roopesh Ramjit, alongside other community members, organized a Halloween Spooktacular at Rockaway Hall. The 4th Annual Jumbie (a Caribbean LGBTQ Halloween Party) will be held on Saturday, October 27th from 10pm – 4am at Impulse Lounge on 129-04 Liberty Avenue. If you have kids, take them trick or treating on Wednesday, October 31. Be sure they’re supervised at all times. Troublemakers are known to make mischief, but that should not take away from your Halloween experience!
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.