Food and Folklore in African Guyanese Culture

| April 26, 2013
Scherin Barlow Massay

Social Anthropologist – Scherin Barlow Massay

‘Culture… consists in those patterns relative to behavior and the products human action of which may be inherited, that is passed on from generation to generation independently of the biological genes.’ (Parsons)

At different stages of an individual’s life, various kinds of socialization take place and through that socialization, culture is absorbed.

Those values eventually pass onto the next generation through concepts of moral values, traditional folklore, food and clothing, and it is by those methods that an individual’s cultural identity begins to be formed.

The earliest forms of cultural socialization are taught to children during feeding and nurturing by their mothers. Before the globalization of fast food restaurants, the foods people ate were linked to the cultural identity of their ancestors.

In Guyana, this link manifests itself in foods such as fufu, conkey and cou-cou, whose Ghanaian name is banku. Cou-cou, made from cornmeal and okra, is usually eaten with a fish stew.

Banku and fish.

Banku and fish. Photo courtesy haunsinafrica.com

This dish is popular throughout Ghana and Togo, where banku and okra soup is a traditional recipe. Moreover, among to Ga people living along the coastal areas of Ghana, banku is usually accompanied with a fish stew.

Fufu another Guyanese staple was made from boiled green plantains, which had been pounded in a mortar to make it pliable. Nigerians, Cameroonians, and Ghanaians, all eat fufu, according to regional variations.

Yet another cornmeal dish is conkey. Conkey derives from kenkey, made from fermented maize, which is normally cooked in banana leaves. Kenkey is eaten throughout Ghana, Togo and Benin and in other countries in Western Africa.

Another way in which traditional beliefs are passed down is through folklore. Normally a mother first introduces her child to such stories and in doing so, pass on specific cultural practices and beliefs.

Brer Nancy, backcoo’s, and jumbies are all elements of Guyanese folklore. A backcoo is a small malevolent man with magical powers who resides in a bottle and feeds on bananas and milk.

There are several possibilities about the roots of the backcoo, all originating in West Africa. Baku in many West African languages means little brother or short man. It is also related to the word Bacucu meaning banana.

In parts of West Africa, people believed that the short races such as the Baka of Cameroon and Gabon had such magical powers.  In Yoruba tradition, Abiku is the spirit of a child that dies before puberty.

Legendary story teller Paul Keens Douglas who in many way brought Ananci to life on stage

Legendary story teller Paul Keens-Douglas who in many ways brought fictional character Ananci to life on stage. Photo courtesy queenshalltt.com

In addition, it is also an evil spirit that manifests itself by its extreme thirst and hunger. Given the lack of adequate food and high infant mortality during slavery, it is easy to see why this concept would have significant meaning to enslaved people.

Anancy, the spider trickster, was originally Ananci Krokoko (the great spider), the Ashante-Akan’s god of wisdom. This Ashante god was renown throughout West and Central Africa. See Paul Keens-Douglas performance on Jumbies, Duppies and Spirits:

Other pranksters were hares, which featured in Yoruba folklore, and tortoises that featured in Igbo story telling traditions.  In West African tradition, animal tricksters were usually small vulnerable creatures who managed to outsmart bigger animals.

Oral traditions and customs have influenced many African Guyanese and in so doing, are identifying marks to their African heritage.

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Category: African Caribbean, Culture & Society, History

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