Embracing African roots in Jamaica
The BBC’s African Perspective programme is investigating what life is like for some of an estimated 20 million Africans who live in the diaspora.
Nick Davis in Kingston finds out what made some Africans voluntarily make the former slave island of Jamaica their home.
Christopher Columbus landed on the beach at Rio Bueno on Jamaica’s north coast in 1494 and forever changed the history of this island.
The Spanish arrived and brought the Africans with them. They imported slaves throughout their 160-year stay and the practice continued under British rule.
Some of my students sometimes don’t seem very proud to be called African, they associate the place with poverty, starvation
Anthropologist Barry Chevannes,
University of the West Indies
Jamaica’s national motto is "Out of many, one people" – a description of the island’s multi-ethnic background.
But with over 90% of the 2.6m population being black, the country looks African.
But does it feel African?
"It looked like home to me when I first arrived. Sometimes I’d make a mistake and speak to people in my Ghanaian language and then I’d suddenly realise, this isn’t a Ghana," says Sophie Dawes who grew up in what was formerly called the Gold Coast, now Ghana.
‘Jamaica heads, Nigeria tails’
The 74-year-old grandmother met her husband – a well known Jamaican academic and writer, Neville Dawes – when she was at university in Ghana. They eventually moved to the West Indies with their young family more than 40 years ago.
We basically tossed a coin and said where do we go? Jamaica heads, Nigeria tails
Nigerian Olalekan Abbass
For Olalekan Abbass who came from Abelkuta in Nigeria’s Ogun state it was a similar story. He met and married his wife Arlene, who is Jamaican, in London but they had a dilemma.
"We basically tossed a coin and said where do we go? Jamaica heads, Nigeria tails. It was heads and we came down."
Jamaicans have a strong connection with Africa.
The look to the motherland started in the years of slavery. Traditions, rituals, religious beliefs and even language were all reinforced by the waves of Africans shipped in to keep the island’s sugar plantations going.
But after emancipation, it was not really until Marcus Garvey during the 1920s and 1930s that an island with wider black consciousness took hold.
He told his supporters to "look to Africa", and his message and his calls for repatriation were taken up by descendants of African slaves and became the cornerstone of a new religion, Rastafari.
"I was in college in America and whilst studying I became friends with a good brother, he would say to me why are you acting Jamaican, but I would say to him, why are you acting like an African?" says Makonnen who came from Guinea Bisseau and is a follower of Rastafari.
African and Caribbean people share a love of food
Makonnen’s dreadlocks are covered under a wicker hat.
He is always well dressed but this is a special day. He is in a silk shirt.
The face of Ethiopia’s Emperor, Haille Sellasse is proudly emblazoned across it.
Today would’ve been the 116th birthday of His Imperial Majesty – the most important date for Rastafarians.
He works as a herbalist and a counsellor out of a health food store in Ocho Rios, a busy resort town on Jamaica’s north coast but he has taken some time off to show me what reminds him most of home.
We head to a little fishing village. As we arrive the boats are heading back from sea. A scene that Makonnen says is repeated thousands of miles away in Africa.
Shared love of food
"The whole scenario here is about the fisherman – they go out in these little locally made boats, they bring in the catch and it has been cleaned.
I know what it means to everyone who would love to be in America. I had to use my opportunity to better myself, my family and my village
Kenyan Victoria Njau in the US
"The way the huts are built, look it’s just like Africa. They cook the sweetest seafood right here and down the road they turn cornmeal into what we call fufu."
A love of food is something that both African and Caribbean people share. And for the people who have made Jamaica home, many of the dishes are not that foreign.
"The food is very similar to what we eat in Nigeria. There’s a little difference in how it’s prepared but it’s so close; the ingredients are the same. I went to the doctor the other day he said you need to change your diet.
"I said change it to what? Everything they have here is the same as what we eat back home," says Nigerian Olalaken Abass.
"Nigerians talk about nyam – to eat, and Jamaicans say the same word in Patois [Jamaican creole language] so there’s lot of similarities in how we speak," says Sophie Dawes
Jamaicans are slowly identifying with African culture
But despite some of the cultural and historical links between Africa and Jamaica some people do not want to accept the link.
"Some of my students sometimes don’t seem very proud to be called African, they associate the place with poverty, starvation. They often think who’d wanna be an African," says Barry Chevannes, an anthropologist at the University of the West Indies.
But Olalaken says that the people in Jamaica need to look beyond the poverty, corruption and HIV and Aids headlines to the real Africa.
By doing so, they will be able to more easily embrace their African roots.
"There needs to be a little bit more of an introduction to the real African culture. Recently the Jamaican public have been watching African movies which have caught on like wildfire – they haven’t seen things like this before and slowly they are identifying with African culture."