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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