On Being a Pagan

Shiva murti at Shango shrine, Block 22, Laventille. 
Attillah Springer, March 2014.

My first awareness of Lord Shiva came from the late Iyalorisha Melvina Rodney. She kept a large framed image of Him in the inner sanctum of her shrine, between Ogun’s cutlass and Yemoja’s wooden boat brought with a Yoruba woman to Trinidad after Emancipation.

Behind the disguises of white saints, she had called on the spirits of her ancestors for strength, for healing and wisdom.

On the days I spent in prayer and meditation in Iya’s shrine, I looked into Shiva’s half-closed eyes, and was drawn to that look, that dream state, the dreadlocks, the crescent shaped moon, the drum.

Iya never explained to me why Lord Shiva was there, and I was too young to ask.

One of the few times I talked at school about African spirituality, there was awkward silence and a similar tone of fear and contempt reserved for when the good and saved were discussing Hindus.   I understood then why so many of my Hindu friends would stay silent when religion was being discussed.

Pagan was a word that got thrown around a lot.

It was just another word for weirdo. The other, the outsider, the misfit. The one who didn’t belong.

As I got older I realised that I was less interested in belonging and more interested in finding a way to define myself on my own terms.

Much of what I saw as a child started to come back to me in visions, in fragments of memory. 

The imperialist imposition of a young white man on a cross continues to dismiss and diminish everyone else’s spiritual consciousness to arbitrary definitions like pagan, heathen, un-saved.

But if to be pagan means to feel connected to nature then I’m okay with that. If to be pagan means to feel a sense of community, a part of a living ecosystem that cycles from unborn to child to elder to ancestor and back to unborn then I’m also okay with that. If to be pagan means looking at the landscape and seeing yourself as part of it, part of shaping it and making it better, then I’m okay with that too.   If to be pagan means to see god in your image and likeness then I’m okay with that. If to be pagan is to understand that your mother is your first notion of what god is, then I am okay with that too.

In 2015, after spending the day playing Black Indian, I went to my first Shivratri and finally understood what Iya saw in those eyes.

I can see now how our ancestors shaped their spiritual reality from dreams, from visions, from fragments of memory.

They danced and sang and prayed themselves into this new existence. It was the only way they knew how to be.

And in the same way that quantum physicists claim they can still hear the echo of that first big bang, it is the same way that Lord Shiva’s drumming of creation and destruction still echoes in our consciousness today.

To be pagan means that you live your spiritual reality daily. It means that every molecule of your being vibrates with a frequency that existed before somebody dreamt up Adam.

To be a pagan is to remember your personal divinity. Remember what it was like before people told us how to believe.

And perhaps more important than what they remembered was what they created with that knowledge.

What only exists in this space and time, in this reality.  To be an example to the world of what civilisation could be. We can only be stronger by understanding each other. The shame and fear that was and still is associated with both African and Indian spiritual beliefs is part of the shared reality of life in a place like this, that can be so freeing in one moment and so imprisoning in the next.

Our ancestors, our Orisas, our Devas would have it no other way.

In these recession times we are suddenly being told go back to our gardens, to go back to our bush medicines, to heal ourselves with yoga, use drumming to heal mental illness.  All the so-called pagan practices have now been repackaged by the west. The neo-pagans are making money from the shame our grandmothers felt for teaching us to make coconut oil.

But there are no accidents in this life. Nothing happens by coincidence or chance and it is not by accident or chance that this place called Trinidad exists. That we are here having this conversation.

That we are learning and remembering our obeah. That we are owning it. Understanding it. Claiming it and ultimately defending it against those who would use our own fears against us.

Presented in April 2016 at Varsha Pratipada Sansad, Chinmaya Ashram, Couva, Trinidad.

Moko Jumbie performance this Saturday at British Museum

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This Saturday August 15 at 12 noon, please join us for a special performance in the Great Court at the British Museum, Great Russell Street London WC1B 3DG. As part of the Museum’s Celebrate Africa season and lead up to Notting Hill Carnival two Moko Jumbie sculptures by Trinidadian artist Zak Ové have been installed in the Great Court. This Saturday we celebrate this first commissioned work by a Caribbean artist with performances from Touch D Sky, featuring Stephanie Kanhai, reigning Trinidad and Tobago Carnival Queen. At 1pm and 2 pm join us in Room 25 for Tales of the Orisha; Myth, Legend and Lore with Storyteller Jan Blake and Master Drummer Crispin Robinson.

The Moko Jumbie is a key figure in the carnival and festival celebrations of the Caribbean. The moko jumbie is a dancer, healer and symbol of ancestral protection.

Spread the word and see you on Saturday!

Support Community Healing in Haiti

AR-Rising

I’m planning my first trip to Haiti next month as part of Ayiti Resurrect a collective of artists, farmers, holistic healers and cultural workers who have come together to contribute their skills to healing the trauma of post-earthquake Haiti.

We’re just $500 away from our goal of USD10,000, which goes towards supporting community based programmes in farming, the arts, women’s empowerment, computer literacy, sustainable energy.
I’m excited about this project because it represents a critical shift in the approach to ‘charity work’. It’s not about giving handouts and being the saviour, it’s about being there and asking the community what their needs are and doing the work that leads to sustainable livelihoods.
So if you have please give and if you don’t please share the info with someone who might. Also if you’re in Trinidad we are hosting an event on April 9th at Big Black Box at which you can contribute cash and/or essential needs like First Aid items, women’s sanitary wear, small toys (no guns please).

Letter to Senators from the Citizens Assembly

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Dear Senators,

We write to inform you that an Assembly of Citizens drawn from a number of civil society organisations has joined the call for a halt to the parliamentary debate on the Constitution Amendment Bill, 2014.
The Assembly, which was held under the auspices of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies on Sunday 24 August, 2014, wishes to alert you to the fact that the proposed amendment to the Constitution has been brought before you without input from the public. This is in direct contradiction to the Prime Minister’s pledge of engaging “a system of participatory democracy” as the basis of the Commission’s work. Specifically, we point you to her statement on the occasion of the launch of the Commission on March 02, 2013:

“We believe that the Constitution should reflect the collective will of the citizens of this country.We have learnt from the failings of some previous attempts at reform, which did not truly take into account the concerns of the most important stakeholders in this country, the people.We recognize that change must come from the people.We therefore are not adopting a “top-down” approach. Instead, through the consultation process, the views and expression of the people will be considered and will then become the basis upon which a draft document is prepared. “
We draw your attention to the fact that the proposal of a run-off vote as contained in the Bill before you, was not the subject of any public discussion before being tabled in the Parliament. We therefore urge you to exercise your judgment and authority to ensure that this omission is properly repaired before the Bill is taken to the vote.
We feel certain that you have a clear understanding of the difference between what is legal and what is right in the context of a representative Democracy. As custodians of the public interest, we urge you to utilize your Constitutional power and responsibility to ensure that this amendment to the Constitution, which is being brought to you unprotected by the requirement for a special majority vote, does not move past the Senate without the benefit of broad public consultation in line with the mandate given to the Constitution Reform Commission.

In trust

Winston Riley
Chairman

On Becoming a Warrior of Huaracan

You eh see nothing until you see a man pull feathers from a dead cobo. That trip to Icacos on Sunday was a lot more than I had bargained for. 
About two years now I’ve been singing a song about how I want to play a Black Indian mas big big on Tuesday, because sometimes youse have to go back to the root to move forward. Anyway it so happen in the way that only Esu could manage that powers align and next thing you know it having a band called Black I and we wanted to link up with ‘real’ Black Indian to get a sense of the tradition to build on that and help inform the mas we, the Vulgar Fraction, going to play.
It was a rough journey. Andy who responsible for the band Warriors of Huaracan talk for the whole road. And I listen with a mixture of horror and fascination as he would be talking and then scream from a place that has no name and then break into a chant and then go back into a story about the clash of Indigenous beliefs, Congo magic and Orisa practice that then came to live in this Black Indian masquerade.
I had to walk away as he pull out the cobo feathers. And it took me a few days to realize that mas, like life is about ability to take even death and make it beautiful.
Mas is beauty and horror. Mas as a whole can’t and shouldn’t be a version of reality that edits out the blood and pain. 
I real excited to be becoming this mas this year. I real excited that this evening at 6 in Belmont I get to listen to the great Nari Approo talk about mas and all that it could possibly be. Come nah, if you able. 

Got My Hair Un-did

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It took three weeks, a pack of broken combs, some tears, a fair amount of cursing.
But I did it. I combed out all 169 locks on my head and am now the proud owner of a little awesome Afro.
It’s been a few years in the making, the desire to start again. But I couldn’t just cut off 17 years of living and loving and travel and jouvay, you know?
I’m actually really happy I chose to unlock it. It gave me a chance to say goodbye to my locks. To let go of all that I had been through and experienced for all those years.
Hair is emotional.
I talked about it for a couple weeks with my sisters (who gave me the look specially reserved for my frequent mad ideas). On Christmas Eve I started at the centre of my head. My arms hurt. I cried. A few days in I lost all zeal to continue. Somehow I kept going (I started to run out of headties).
As my hair started to emerge in all its mad curly glory I became overwhelmed by a sense of how completely we have been made to hate ourselves.
A thing as fundamental to your sense of being as your hair gets undermined from the time you are born. This was not the case in my house and thank the goddess I had two older sisters to comb my hair for me.
I realized last year that I missed those times with my sisters when they would comb my hair. I think the loss of those rituals between women of different generations is part of the further destruction of community and a sense of (haha) rootedness.
The more of my hair I saw, the more I became excited that I would have those moments again. When someone would show care in my appearance and give me a bad ass hair style that didn’t come out of a bottle or a heating appliance.
When I was in India last year I got questioned about my hair a lot, given that the only people there who wear their hair in locks are Saddhus and the warrior ascetics known as Nagas.
I tried to explain that locks were a totally acceptable way of women wearing their hair, to which the response was ‘and men find this attractive?!’
In truth, locks for me have been a kind of anti-beauty. A deliberate subversion of an idea of what hair should look like for a black woman. Some men find the idea of that attractive. That you are determined not to fit into what society says is beautiful.
But my time with my locks taught me that what is most important is to be comfortable enough in your skin, in your sense of who you are, in your sense of where you are going and where you have come from. I was never a ‘Revlon Rasta’. I wasn’t one of those compulsive groomers. My hair was wild (and still is) and occasionally depending on my mood I tried to tame it into what may have been loosely construed as a hairstyle.
But I feel like I’m into another phase now. One that gives me the room to play with my image. I’m really enjoying my afro, like getting to know a new friend. My hair is so fricking awesome!! I’ve been spending a lot of time just playing with it. Loving it. Anointing my scalp with coconut oil. The variety of textures, the need for care.
Your hair can teach you a lot about your own complexities. I’m loving getting to know myself in a totally different way.

Azonto Lessons

There is a pause when the lights go at 1 a.m. and the fan stops whirring. Until the generator shudders to life and the air returns to the room, the fan whirring reassuringly over your head again. In that pause you hear the world of other sounds that exist outside the electric drone. A neighbour’s child, the thunder of a storm making its way across the night, the dying moments of an evangelical service, a lone dog barking in the distance, insects whose names you do not know. The sounds of nighttime Accra are so familiar that in those seconds when I wake up in the sudden and unbearable stillness I get confused about where I am.

There are many moments of confusion during my time in Ghana. It is déjà vu for something I have not yet seen.

Excerpt from Azonto Lessons, a piece I wrote for this month’s issue of Caribbean Beat.

Read the full piece here