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More reflections from 2014

Friends of the Centre the Dominican Republic and the Netherlands via Suriname got a taste of Centre life and experienced the magic of the Land and of Tobago!!!  Below are their reflections.4Mujeresplants_gloria

. . . When the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. . .

We—Maggy, Alta and I—got up in the dark of pre-dawn at 3 a.m., Monday, November 16, in order to catch the red-eye flight, leaving Suriname at 6 in the morning for Trinidad and Tobago. Packed with all kinds of goodies: a heavy, deepfrozen fish-pom dish, Iya’s favorite, made on a charcoal fire by Cieske, Maggy’ sister, tucked deep into our suitcases and Surinamese leaves of sangrafu and bitawiri, we feel happy to be sharing the bounty of Suriname with Tobago. I choose not to pay attention to the impossible hour of the flight, ignoring the colonial arithmetic that positions flights to the former metropole, the Netherlands, at a comfortable 7.30 in the evening. Speeding to Johan Adolf Pengel Airport, dogs howling after us, we pass on the way parties of –what seem to be—Brazilian golddiggers and Indigenous women in the open fields, in the little villages of Lelydorp, Bernarddorp and Wit’ Santi. We arrive in Tobago at 10 a.m. and are to spend the next eleven days at the Tobago Centre.

. . . When the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. . .

From the moment of our welcome embraces at the airport, we formed an egbe, a spiritual collective. We started and ended the day with meditation; whether it was working on the land, moving house, taking care of people around us, preparing meals, conversing about spirituality or about our work, readying ourselves for a tour of the island, we were a collective, getting the work at hand done in a most harmonious way. On the first day, we manage to move a heavy iron structure, meant for the planting and sprouting of plants, to a more convenient place, working in call-and-response fashion. Since it is the rainy season, we were anticipating look forward to see the seedlings grow, while we are still here.

Different as we all are, with different skills, interests, knowledges and measures of staying power, it was a rare experience to live what it means when the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. Living in different parts of the world, Amsterdam, Santo Domingo, New York City, Toronto and Tobago, we as Black women have all learned to function with a knife between our teeth. But now, as if by instinct, we know that mode of being would not get us very far in Tobago. Indeed, it would be counterproductive. Almost inadvertently, Audre Lorde’s essay “Black Women Hatred and Anger,” kept presenting itself to me: the various ways in which we as black women have learned to use our sharpest knives against one another. For me putting down my armour was no small thing. The new openness felt awkward at times, too much nakedness as it were, not being able to fall back on the usual defense mechanisms—big mouth, critical remarks, impatience, and lack of generosity. We all, so it felt, were motivated to be open towards each other and to the work that needed to be done for making the Centre a reality. This is why we had come: to help ground the Centre’s vision and to help Iya materialize her dream, which for all of us, too, held out a promise for other, more gratifying, more wholesome, ways of being in the world.

. . .When the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. . .

It becomes clear that enormous energy is liberated to be put to creative and expressive use. As Audre says, “there is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in defining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” (Lorde, Sister Outsider). At the heart of it all there is the land. On the land where our ancestors toiled as enslaved, we now find ourselves on a beautiful expanse, weaving its way low down by the roadside, to high on the mountain top. The land, sprinkled with towering bamboo and royal palms, encircled by a forceful river, now swollen by the rains is, and will be, a companion in healing and the envisioning of another way of life. We pour libations and the ancestors give their permission for each of us to enter and to use what is needed to make the place to their liking. I am once again reminded of the strength and tenacity of African religions in the Diaspora, the parallel incantations, gestures, intonations and understandins we use during libations in the Afro-Surinamese Winti religion. These understandings are beautifully described by Senegalese poet Birago Diop in “Le souffle des ancetres” a poem turned song and made popular by Sweet Honey in the Rock: “Those that have died have never, never left; the dead are not under the earth.” They are in the water, in the trees, in the shadows, in us. One day, sunflowers for Oshun will grow by the river, endless streams of them, just as in the South of France, dancing to the breath of the wind, their heads always looking up, full of hope.

. . .When the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. . .

For Maggy, the liberation of energy showed up in the intensity with which she painted, whenever she had free time during these days. There is a mystical quality to the painting “Land and Sea,”, her gift to the Centre, which she made in three sittings: a tree laden with symbols and meanings, presiding over a turquoise-greenblue Tobagonian sea. The companion piece, which she painted back in Paramaribo, is “Ceremony,” which depicts Yemoja, on the day we went to the ocean to celebrate the recovery of Ms. Merle and the completion of my book. They both accompany this reflection.

For Alta, it was the first time in seventeen years she had found the courage to bathe in the ocean again. She played in the waves like a little whale, exuding joy, mischief, as if she were the 13-year-old girl she once was. That same joy was present in her creative cooking, sustaining all of us with deliciously wholesome meals every single day: lentils, different kinds of fish, provisions, always with mango, papaya and pineapple as delightful pickle. I loved our egbe.

I was mentally exhausted when I got to Tobago, just having finished writing my book White Innocence and delivering a keynote presentation in Paramaribo. But my spirits were immediately lifted. . Even my pulling a muscle in my left back could not dampen that. Iya is the one who held it all together, by her wisdom, her teachings and nighttime Yoruba stories of Efùwàpé, who kept us up and discussing the twists and turns of her in search of her destiny. Iya who dares to dream big and fearlessly of a centre where indigenous knowledge of the use of plants and herbs is wed to a spiritual practice. As Audre says, “When I dare to put my words into the service of my vision, then it does not matter whether I am afraid.”

. . .When the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. . .

And the seedlings came up gloriously. . .

Gloria Wekker

Paramaribo, December 2014


Maggy, Gloria, Alta


Lobster Dinner



Iya and the heavy planting table








Residency Reflections Summer 2014

A mother and daughter pair teamed up for a three week stay at the Centre in August, 2014.  Their reflections follow.

By Malkah Darshana Félicité Uzima McNeilly-Abdulhamid

I was in Tobago because my mom, Mosa, was studying with Professor Alexander and she did not want to leave me behind in Canada. She wanted me to come so I could learn with her; so that we could both be students.  I am 11 years old and in sixth grade.

August 25th, 2014: I feel so peaceful here in Tobago. The hot weather is divine; up on the land is spiritual; the ocean is exciting and peaceful and beautiful; the biology is extremely fascinating!

The people are so welcoming and friendly. Every time you’re walking on the street, everyone is greeting you and calling you to come and say “Hi.” Most people seem so happy.

I’ve seen a little creature that looks like a baby wombat up on the land. I’ve seen many birds and found two feathers. I’ve helped plant, weed, water, write, pack up, keep the fire going and identify birds, plus much more. I think I’ve been very helpful.

September 20th, 2014: Everything is so connected in Tobago that if something goes wrong then everything would be in a shambles. If one animal dies then there won’t be food for another animal. And if that one dies, it won’t be food for another animal. And on and on. And if there is a forest fire and the animals’ homes are destroyed, then there will be wars between animals for the land and for homes and for food. Everybody needs food. Everything is connected in some way. One animal is food for the next. Even the top of the food chain might be eaten by something even bigger. The nutrients from one animal can give another strength.

All plants are sacred. They provide food and give us life. If there were no plants there would be no people. If there were no bees there would be no food. Bees are going extinct. We must find homes for them. This is one of the insects that is endangered. One that is very important to us.

Ants are strong little things. They can carry something up to one thousand times their weight. When I was up at the land, the ants carried lots of bits of leaves and flowers and sticks back to where they lived. They were all in a line. It was like one big traffic jam. If they were carrying something too big, they would wobble around and look like they had been at the wedding too long.

We met a man in a taxi who had maybe been at a wedding a bit too long, and could barely walk straight, just like the ants carrying something too big.

What I miss most is the ocean and the food. I miss seeing the fish and the sand and the bright blue colour of the water. I liked going way out deep and then coming back in and feeling the sand on my toes, and the smell of the salt water. I miss the salt fish and bake, the ground provision, all the fresh mangoes, the pineapple, watermelon and sugar cane. We used to get coconut water from a nice old man right at the Pigeon Point junction – and the breadfruit! How could I forget the breadfruit? And the fudge that we bought on the beach from a nice Grandma!!


By, Mosa McNeilly.

Mosa is a “celebrant and conjurer of beauty in a thirsty world.”  She is pursuing her MA in Environmental Studies at York University.

. . . The power of the Land makes me vulnerable. I succumb to Her strong presence. My senses heighten and it occurs to me that if I were to surrender, I could accept Her invitation and enter Her realm. With love.  With care.

I marveled at the stillness of vibrant life, the silent sounds of wind, insect and birdsong, the heady fragrance of the forest. In the time it took to climb the winding road up the mountainside, in the distance we covered each day on foot, I came to perceive, in fleeting glimpses, the veils of time parting like the layers and folds in Mama Oya’s skirts, yawning open in the unctuous air, in the caressing motion of the sensuous breeze, then rippling open in the swift dance of the sudden, lively wind. Lizard and hummingbird, caiman and bachac greeted us each day – the gatekeepers, the timekeepers – skittering across the leaf strewn ground; hovering and whizzing through living air; posing motionless in the muck and reed of the river so forlorn; marching relentlessly in the collaborative clockwork of the colony. These totems, they came to greet us, each day, one or the other, or two, or all, at the entrance to the Land, framed by an archway of towering bamboo.  They met us on the curve of the ascending road, deep in this verdant vegetation, at the threshold of timeless time.

They, the timekeepers, time givers away, time tricksters, time masterful makers and we, the welcome visitors, the dutiful stewards, the prayer makers and fire keepers, the laborers of love. Devoted makers of love offered to the Land, to ourselves upon the Land, through the attentive sowing of tiny, robust seeds, gingerly watering tender seedlings, reverently gathering soil, prayerfully weeding, carefully transplanting, singing all the while. We, the celebrants of seed turned to life, of miracles bursting forth, making of our presence on the Land a ceremony each time we came. In this naming and calling in of Spirits who inhabit the Land, in this giving thanks and praises to the Orisas who reign over the elements, in this Sacred communing, this daily honing of Spiritual consciousness, I beheld in Professor Alexander, a vessel of Sacred communion. We, her students, my daughter and myself, were her witnesses. She, Priest, servant, living altar, all at once and over time, at the crossroads of linear and timeless time. . .

Below are the birds which Malkah sighted  at the Center.

Blue-grey Tanager/Blue Jean

Blue-tailed Emerald/Hummingbird



White-Bearded Manakin

Short-Tailed Pygmy

White-Tailed Sabrewing


Smooth-Billed Ani

Amazon Kingfisher

Bran-Coloured Flycatcher










Fork-Tailed Fycatcher

Sharing stories of self-discovery and healing through medicinal plants

Student Books on Medicinal Plants

Student Books on Medicinal PlantsThe lounge at the Institute for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto came alive with an excited group of about 50 people, students, alumnae (Sara Mohammed and Danielle Smith) friends, (Mr. Rampersaud Tiwari, Inderpal Wig)) parents (Samina Jamal) and faculty (Alissa Trotz, Jin-Kyung Park, Marieme Lo, June Larkin) assembled for the panel discussion, Reflections: Medicinal Plants and Healing Practices.

Eight students (Shequita Thompson, Jesse Crombeen, Jenny Eun Young Choi, Jeff Tanaka, Zainab Jamal, Chelsea Fung, Minnu Tom and Simone Akyianu) represented their peers from  two courses, Migrations of the Sacred and Aboriginal, Black and Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars, both of which focused on the voice of subjects who do not appear to be subjects at all—Plants.  They talked about their three month journey over the course of the semester, the plants they had chosen to research, the sacred lives of communities of women in various parts of the world, their initial skepticism about whether plants had anything at all to teach them about gender, race, class and the politics of migration, and how that skepticism morphed into new understandings of the ways in which their own lives were mirrored in the essence of plants.

The teachings were profound.  We learned that yarrow—characterized as a weed, is a potent metaphor for showing how ‘othering’ works—how we rush to discard something that is indispensable to our healing; about the ability of gingko balboa to point to our skittish relationship to memory, having withstood, along with a handful of plants, the US bombing of Japan in August 1945; and how turmeric eased the inflammation and pain of families who were traumatized during the painful dislocations of partition.  We heard that students had to dig deep into the buried and negated histories in their families for the wisdom of their mothers, fathers and grandmothers to unearth plant stories that many believed had disappeared or were no longer needed. Each story added a strand for us to braid together the scattered pieces of living, with plants as our foundation.  Here are just a few of the reflections of that memorable evening and of those journeys:


I do not know where to begin, except to say how thankful I am for having the opportunity to engage with Professor Alexander and the rest of my peers throughout the semester, and more particularly at the Reflections gathering. Several of my peers shared their journey of writing, researching and getting to know “their” plant. Listening to those who presented before me, I realized my own story was only bits and pieces of every one else’s. I was able to see where our truths overlap, and where they became blurry and sometimes tainted by our own fears. When it was time for me to share my own experience with the willow, I was nervous, but I knew that I also had to take a risk. And I am glad that I did. Sharing what the willow taught me was one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was also a necessary part of the healing and self- care the willow had opened up for me. At the end of the night, I noticed everyone just standing around each other, not saying a lot, and yet saying so much. No one wanted to leave. Papers, exams, final tests lurking in the background, and yet no one wanted to leave. It was beautiful. I remember thinking to myself: I have just experienced something I want so badly to hold onto. I am a human being, and I crave the love, knowledge, support and presence of others. I thank Professor Alexander for this. For bringing us all together to share and to connect in a way that we did not want to separate, and where we each saw a bit of ourselves in the Other. I think that is one of the most important things I have taken from the evening and from writing the book altogether.

– Simone Akyianu


The Jujuba trees, and all other medicinal plants, embody physical, emotional, mental and spiritual restoration.  Their fluidity can mend our fragmentation and soothe the pain that arises from not remembering or not knowing what we have forgotten.. Reflections was a night where our personal journeys became a collective spiritual weave, embracing different sources of knowledge and wisdom, especially those that come from various communities, oral histories,  as well as the medicinal plants themselves. We spoke to our shared desire for wholeness and healing by acknowledging the uncertainty that accompanies all of us in the journey. I witnessed how the plants were, have been, and will continue to do the healing work that they were meant to do. . . bringing communities together and creating histories of wholeness and restoration.

– Jenny Eun Young Choi


I can’t adequately explain how disenchanted and frustrated I was with all I had experienced in the academy, but this class has really reinvigorated me, and provided me with so much valuable knowledge. I realize how much thinking I now have to do, for the sacred is something I’ve consistently discredited and I now know how much value it holds. . .The ginkgo is working to heal my amnesia, the deep ancient contours of its leaves are still bringing me to the mixed-race stories of my ancestry. Reflections allowed me to share the urgency of these stories; and created a place to put forth the forgotten stories of my genealogy. By sharing with my classmates, I was able to restore the sacred to my memory, actively contradicting the academic spaces that have long discounted the sacred spiritual knowledge of Black, Indigenous and immigrant women. The conversation allowed me to value the ginkgo’s teachings, a reminder of the ways in which I often  devalue living things, such as ginkgo, that are not human. By hearing the stories of others I was reminded of my own complicity in the [current] environmental degradation. The gingko and the evening of reflection reminded me that we must put effort into re-examining the very foundation of the processes upon which our society, our ways of knowing, and our lives are built.

– Jeff Tanaka


When my classmates and I were first assigned a project dealing with women and the sacred and spiritual uses of plants . . . I knew immediately that I wanted to explore the sacred dimensions of frankincense, familiar to me as part of my cultural inheritance as a diasporic Somali woman. I wanted to delve into the classical histories of the Horn of Africa, of the female pharaoh Hatsheput’s voyage to Somalia—the land of Punt—to collect frankincense and myrrh.  I wanted to describe the frankincense induced trances and offerings of the women of the saar cult, to cast out the spirits causing spiritual and physical pain to affected women. I wanted to acknowledge my own subjectivity as someone brought up within a Somali cultural context, without compromising the distance of the academic historian’s approach to the study of frankincense as an ‘object’ of inquiry.  This approach would change, however, when I found myself in Ottawa after the death of my 20 year old cousin Khalid and for the first time, the subject of tacsi (condolences) — now the bereaved family during the mourning period before burial, known as the geeri.  Though I mostly kept to a bedroom upstairs with my siblings and cousins, all of us unwilling or unable to sit with the mourners downstairs or greet the hundreds who came by over those days to give their tacsi, I/we could not escape the burning incense that filled the house, a reminder of death and the otherworldly.

– Safia Omar   


My involvement in Professor Alexander’s course Aboriginal, Black and Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars at the University of Toronto and as part of the Women and Gender Studies program, was an enlightening experience.  Professor Alexander carries much wisdom and brings unconventional teaching methods to the university classroom.  Students come together to learn from one another through sharing, coupled with readings that guide you through concepts and ideas that create points of intersection between different peoples in terms of race, class and gender.  The main project, the creation of a book on a specific plant, brought the elements of stories, community and healing together as part of a process of decolonization and revitalizing Indigenous knowledges.  As an Anishnaabe Kwe, from Southern Ontario, I chose to do work on my book about Giizhik, the Northern/Eastern White Cedar plant, which is also called the “Tree of Life” and is a sacred medicine of the Anishnaabe people.  Through exploring the stories, art, and ceremonial practices, as well as the uses by other Indigenous and Non-Indigenous peoples involving cedar and other plants, I was able to really begin to understand and relate plant experiences to human experiences.  In Anishnaabe philosophy everything is alive and connected, this is something I am comprehending more and more, and the experience I have had in this course has been one that has helped me along my journey in going beyond those limitations that I have had in past educational experiences. Chi Meegwetch!

–  Jessica Keeshig-Martin


So much happens when we move away from species dominance into the terrain of surrender to the knowledge that plants are poised to gift to us.

Students each produced a book on a medicinal plant of their choice, among them:

  • Giizhik (eastern or northern white cedar)
  • Oregano
  • Yarrow
  • Weeping emu-bush (Dogwood)
  • Tulsi (Holy Basil)
  • Ginseng
  • Dong Quai
  • Bloodroot
  • Woman-Piaba
  • Aloe Vera
  • Jujube (Red date)
  • Neem
  • Sweet Broom
  • Lemon grass
  • Sorossi  (bitter melon)
  • Shado Beni
  • Plantain
  • Pride of Barbados (Peacock flower)
  • Ginkgo
  • Shado Beni (Eryngium Foetidum)
  • Willow
  • Coconut Palm
  • Queen Anne’s Lace
  • Valerian
  • Guava
  • Anise
  • Strawberry
  • Ginger
  • Frankincense
  • Cumin (Jeera)
  • Turmeric
  • Moringa Oleifera
  • Cinchona Plant (Quinine bark)
  • Mugwort (Wormwood)

Alyssa Jones read on behalf of both classes:

Tonight, the Migrations of the Sacred and Aboriginal, Black, and Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars classes have gathered together to present the Tobago Center for the Study and Practice of Indigenous Spirituality with handmade books on medicinal plants.  We hope you enjoy our books, which are little pieces of ourselves that we collectively present to you.  We wish you all the best, and hope that the spiritual journeys that we have taken as we made our books provide you with the same experience as you read them.  On behalf of my classmates, thank you for providing a perfect future home for our books.  We know the sacred dimensions of our plants will be forever valued at the Center and we hope to come visit one day.

We mingled, ate, drank the tea of sorossi which Jane Montague  made, each of us taking away seeds for planting, many chosen from the very plants the students had already brought into their lives.  After some weeks, Chelsea Fung, Thuy Thi Bich Thi Truong, Victoria Frangione   and Jenny Eun Young Choi carefully wrapped the books for shipping—Mark Chatarpal, as always, the faithful photographer.

Shortlisted for an Award from The Rolex Foundation

We have been shortlisted for an Award from the Rolex Foundation of Geneva, Switzerland for The Spirit and the Garden Project. The Foundation supports innovative projects by visionaries who will change the world. The Spirit and the Garden Project was chosen from among 3,512 applications from 154 countries. Early this year, a Jury of 12 renowned scientists, environmentalists and explorers will meet to choose the 5 new Laureates for 2012! Send lots of love and good energy so that we gather the resources we need for this endeavor.


We’re grateful to have been shortlisted for the Rolex Award and extend our hearty congratulations to the 5 Rolex finalists as they continue this important collective work of transformation.  We know that we’ve come this far by leaning on each other and that we will generate the resources and cultivate enough Love to keep us moving forward.