Friday, May 29th

You are here: Home

Discovering the Flavours of our History

DSC09271~ Bittersweet insights from the Director of NAAM ~


When delving deep into ourselves, into our collective past, it’s easy to overlook the obvious. It’s easy to accept assumptions. The challenge is to question what you think you know with a fresh perspective.


On April 9, Africa Caribbean Heritage Alliance (ACHA) hosted its first anniversary at Philipsburg Jubilee Library with an interesting celebration and a panel discussion. The keynote speaker was Curaçao-based anthropologist Richenel Ansano. Currently, the National Archaeological Anthropological Memory Management (NAAM) director, Ansano has previously held such positions as head of Curaçao Culture Department, Associate Director of John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University and Executive Director of the Global Medicine Education Foundation.


He spoke on the topic of the Role of Africans in the Caribbean, a low-hanging and well-ripened fruit, yet one left largely un-harvested. Perhaps the bitter taste of the history of slavery keeps us away, that rot is well known and spills poison. But Ansano shared with those gathered a richness, a sweetness and a subtle spice that flavour our culture and our world.


ANSANO TOLD US thatone of the first African contributions to the Caribbean was that of sailing and expertise in navigation. It is known that Juan Niño was owner and master of one of the ships in the fleet of Columbus’ first voyage. He was known as “El Negro” or “the Black One,” as he was an African or of African descent, living in Spain. He and his brothers were people of prominence and well known masters of the maritime trade. Their support facilitated that famous journey and the ones that followed. By 1499, the Niño brothers were making their own expeditions to the Caribbean, trading and making discoveries, including economic deposits of salt.


Considering those early influences by Africans in our region, it is indeed bittersweet to acknowledge that the over-riding image for most if not all of us consists of enslaved Africans. Waves of the captured people of West and West Central Africa came over and over to the Caribbean shores, bringing with them all their knowledge and cultural presence. The keynote speaker was able to present many examples of cultural and linguistic threads linking our traditions to those regions. Additionally, movement within the Caribbean mixed and morphed these memes in complex and dynamic ways. Words, grammar, syntax as well as art, dance, music, folklore and religion are carried with each migration and blended in unpredictable ways.


FOR INSTANCE, Ansano offered the Papiamentu expression “kanga saya”, which he explained as generally meaning “a noisy, public scolding that spreads gossip about someone,” but it may be derived from Konkonsan (in Ghana) word for “gossip” and tied to an early wave of enslaved Africans who arrived on Curaçao. The phrase was possibly taken over then in the languages of Krio (Sierra Leone) and Sranan Tongo (Suriname).


The original word might have disappeared with time and been conflated with a word from a later influx of Africans, the Kikongo (Congo & Angola region) word kanga, which means “to tie” and the Iberian word for skirt, “saya” (Portuguese dominated section of West Central Africa). Ansano elaborated: “This is a plausible etymology for the expression “kanga saya”, which literally means “to pull up and tie a skirt.” (This was done to avoid getting the lower part of a skirt dirty when walking outside.) The image of a woman with her pulled up skirt publicly scolding someone got linked to the meaning of nkongonsa, thus forming a new expression. Similar processes would have happened all over the region.”


The Caribbean region has many languages with African-based grammar or vocabulary, Ansano outlined, but also idioms and symbolic word use can also be traced back to Africa, often to specific ethnic groups. What might be called patois, creole or nation language can be determined to have European words with an African grammar structure.


WAVES OF migration into the region and within the region are the basis of African contributions in the Caribbean, Ansano emphasized. Africans contributed as artisans, builders, peasants and plantation workers, seafarers and administrators, soldiers and medicine people, custodians and teachers to the new societies they came to. Most roads, forts, plantation buildings, wells, ships, arable land was created by Africans. Today’s landscape is still heavily seeded with the result of this labour, he concluded.


For further reading, Mr. Ansano suggests these reference materials:


Gould, A. B. (1984). Nueva lista documentada de los tripulantes de Colon en 1492. Madrid: Real Academia de la Historia.


Josiah, B. P. (1997). After Emancipation: Aspects of Village Life in Guyana, 1869-1911. The Journal of Negro History, 82(1), 105–121.


Rupert, L. M. (2012). Creolization and contraband: Curaçao in the early modern Atlantic world. Athens: The University of Georgia Press.


Sertima, I. V. (2003). They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America (Reprint edition). New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.


The speeches of Mr. Barrett and of Mr. Burge at a general meeting of planters, merchants, and others, 18th May, 1833.


Vila, M. A. (1971). La carta del 18 de julio de 1500 [i.e. diez y ocho de julio de mil quinientos] de Américo Vespucio.


Richenel Ansano is currently working on a research dictionary of the Guene language and a book on African influences in Curaçao.