Kalinago for a Day: Indigenous DominicaShana Jones November 26, 2017
Originally written for Mélange Travel & Lifestyle Magazine. Re-printed with permission.
Open your eyes. Needles of golden daylight pierce tiny spaces in the taboui roof, but dark blueness is still everywhere. Open your ears. The whistle of the crickets rises and falls in a rhythm, muted by roseaux leaves dancing in the wind’s occasional puffs. The hum of Brother’s and Sister’s breathing floats around the taboui and settles on you, caressing you back to sleep. Open your nisiru. The aroma of cassava bread baking in the ajoupa outside swirls its way to your nostrils, swelling even more as Mother puts another cake to the fire. Your tongue relishes its slightly burnt flavour mingled with the mild freshness of the coulirou that you and Father will catch in the river today. Father comes soon, so move your nocobou now. Your bed mat of woven larouma, softened after so much use, reluctantly peels itself away from the moistness of your skin as you rise to meet the day.
Fast forward 500 years. You are standing in a small taboui in the Kalinago Barana Autê, the model of a typical village of the Kalinago (Caribs), the original inhabitants of Dominica. This model village (with a central karbay for cultural performances) lies in the protected Kalinago Territory on Dominica’s northeast coast, where roughly 3000 Kalinago descendants live and still preserve their ancient culture. From the taboui you follow a circular, forested trail dotted with different lean-to structures that illustrate the unique architecture of these indigenous people. In some of these ajoupas, daily activities are carried out as they would have been by the original Kalinago: in the first ajoupa, a karipona grinds and prepares cassava (a starchy plant) to be baked into a flat bread. You jump at the chance to help mix the cassava and water in a large black kettle and then later sift the dried fibers in a giant pan, but fatigue and tiny beads of forehead sweat stop you before long. You wonder how women did this so easily and regularly so long ago! Shaking your arms back to life along the breezy, shaded trail, you are relieved to know that in the next hut, you will simply watch as women deftly weave thin, reddish-brown strips of larouma reed (sometimes dyed black) into baskets, hats, mats, purses and other everyday items.
A few steps away, you notice a curious looking plant at the side of the trail. It looks like a prickly little wallet revealing red and white buds on the inside. Your guide explains that this would have been used to make dyes. Another small yellow flower with dullish green leaves locally known as “coupie” was eaten and also used for back and digestive ailments. A slender, bright green leaf plant you see everywhere was used to lower blood pressure. Your guide explains that the Kalinago lived in harmony with the surrounding nature, using its resources in medicine, food flavouring, and religious ceremonies.
The muted sound of men shouting turns your head to a magical scene framed by greenery and golden sunlight: off to the right, a crystal waterfall emanating from a blur of forest in the distance tumbles over a shiny black rockbed to flow into the Atlantic Ocean below. To the left, a group of muscular, half-dressed men sits around a long tree trunk, carving out its insides with small axes. Today the group has felled a gommier tree (not an everyday occurrence) and is carving it into a canoe. Your guide points out the pile of rocks nearby which will be used to “stretch” the inside of the boat and help form its shape.
A dryness in your throat and the shirt sticking to your back mean it’s time to leave the model village and head back to the present-day Kalinago community where you’re homestaying with a local family in a traditional thatched hut. 15 minutes later your host greets you with a tall glass of coconut water, which you hastily gulp down after she ushers you inside. The relief from the outside heat is instant and the coolness within embraces you in a silent Kalinago greeting of Mabrika!. You lie down on your mat under a heavy blanket of contented fatigue and let your eyes narrow, shrinking the needles of sunlight overhead. Before long you have drifted off far away into a fading swirl of steaming coulirou aromas, spirited young voices playing in the river, undulating hills of fresh green stretching to heaven, and the soft whisper in your mind’s ear: “Aitina Kalinago, aitina Kalinago…”
KALINAGO (CARIB) WORDS AND MEANINGS
Caribterritory.com kalinagoterritory.com http://healingherbsofthecaribbean.blogspot.com/ Kevin Dangleben, Kalinago Tours – kalinagotours.org