…The caged bird singswith a fearful trillof things unknownbut longed for stilland his tune is heardon the distant hillfor the caged birdsings of freedom.
Poem Caged Bird by Maya Angelou
I stood in the square looking at the colourful buildings surrounding me as I listened to the tour guide speak of the throngs of slaves brought here and the countless many that died en route. My finger froze on the shutter.
As an African-Canadian, I wondered the impression most tourists get when they come to the picturesque and quaint town of Trinidad, Cuba, walking its cobblestone streets, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the colonial architecture and sipping canchanchara.
Many Caribbean islands today owe a significant portion of their population to the descendants of the African slaves who were brought here to work the sugar plantations that made their European colonial rulers rich and powerful. Some of these countries…Jamaica, Cuba, Hispaniola, Trinidad, Barbados and the islands of the Lesser Antilles.
There exist tours in Canada and the US where one can visit remnants of the plantation era, the path ways of the Underground Railroad and significant sites of the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement. Heritage tours, tracing the lineage of one’s family through travel, are also becoming quite popular. Combine the two and you have Slavery Heritage Tours, visiting the ports of the Atlantic Slave Trade in West Africa. It may not be as ‘glamorous‘ as traveling the Silk Road but an experience, nonetheless, for those wishing to see how the African diaspora developed.
Santeria the legacy.
This is a religion practiced in Cuba that combines spiritual beliefs and traditions of West Africa (primarily Yoruban) with some aspects of Roman Catholicism. It involves rituals (e.g. animal sacrifices, dancing), multiple deities (e.g. Olorun the creator; Orisha, the second in command) and various materials (e.g. herbs and potions) used by practitioners. Santeria is mostly shared amongst those initiated into the faith and you’d have to be very lucky to witness it in action.
I literally stumbled upon a Botanica (store selling Santeria supplies) on a side street in Santiago de Cuba. I was greeted with much suspicion by the locals and nearly accosted by a woman who wanted to know what business I had doing there. With my broken Spanish I was able to ascertain that the vendors were out in full force to prepare for December 17th the Feast of Babylu Aye and Saint Lazarus of Bethany.
The Hollywood version of Santeria is that of ‘voodoo’ but there is more to it than its celluloid portrayal. Read more.
In spite of the many lives lost, there still survives, through Santeria (and salsa), the spirit of West African people in Cuba.