NATION FOOD AND NATIONHOOD: A REVIEW OF MERLE COLLINS’S
“SARACCA AND NATION”.
“The whole of nature”, wrote William Ralph Inge, “is a
conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and
passive” . We eat to live and if Brillat-Savarin the
eighteenth century French gastronome is to be believed,
“we are what we eat”. Of course the idea that there
exists a relation between food and character did not
originate with Brillat-Savarin: the Old Testament
anticipated him by more than 3,000 years. Now in
addition to being what we eat, can it also be said that
we are how we eat, the how calling attention to the
rites, customs and conventions that attend our
ceremonial and other eating? I believe it is so.
My Grenadian mind tells me that gastronomic talk of any
kind is a mere footnote to the saracca (salacca), a
ritual sharing and eating of cooked food which,
typically, is “given” in a yard or an open field. The
Saracca banquet is an offering to the ancestors; it is
served on banana leaves laid out on the ground; the
eating is usually accompanied with singing, drumming and
Saracca is an “African work” in Grenada. The word
saracca is derived from the Arabic “sadaqa”, a
Muslim practice of making donations of food to the
needy, Muslim or non-Muslim- towards the close of the of
the holy month of Ramadan; in Islam this act of charity
is known as Sadaqa al Fitr .
And how did this Arabic word get to Grenada? Let’s see:
It might have been brought here by African ancestors who
had been converts to Islam- and there were many Muslims
among the millions who were compelled to make the
dreaded crossing- or it might have been brought by
Africans ancestors who borrowed it from their Muslim
neighbours back in Africa. But let’s not get mired in
these matters- we have a bigger breadfruit to peel.
BIG BREADFRUIT AND SARACCA NATION
This breadfruit is really a big one and in order to put
our hands on it, we must go to Merle Collins’s
recently released video documentary called “Saracca
and Nation: African Memory and Re-creation in Grenada”.
Collins, novelist, poet, historian and professor of
English and Comparative Literature at the University of
Maryland, College Park, pays homage to the Saracca
Nation while deftly avoiding any explicit definition of
the terms “nation” and “nationhood”. Collins’s shyness
on this matter seems part professorial tease and part
pedagogical prompt intended to elicit Socratic
conversation. Therefore, we will take up the Collins
challenge and go to battle against the two disobliging
ghosts, Nation and Nationhood.
But first, what is a nation?
For our purposes I offer this definition: The nation is
the community that is brought into being (and held
together) in result of acts of creative collaboration
undertaken by individuals on the basis of their ties of
blood and /or other real or imagined bonds. Therefore,
the Saracca Nation exists.
Saracca is a scarified memory and here memory is at once
founding and organizing principle. Saracca is the social
expression of a Yoruba proverb which says, “However
far the river flows, it will never forget its source”.
It is the renewal of the ancient covenants between
Geenay (Africa) and faraway Babylon; between primordial
tree and stolen fruit; it is the celebration of a
citizenship that the body remembers and
recreates in its muscled responses to the syntaxes
of the drumbeat.
SARACA AND SACRIFICE
And saracca is ‘sacrifice”- my great- grandmother’s
preferred word for this sacred exercise. It is a
to the gods of fertility and that is why its portions
are so lavish, and why it excuses overeating-something
that will attract stiff rebukes at any other time; it is
also the reason why saracca dance simulates coitus.
The saraca nation turns on reciprocity and food is its
highest sacrament. The food-especially the items
extracted from the belly of the earth-yams, sweet
potatoes, manioc(cassava/yucca)-propitiate a
veritable congregation of gods and ancestor spirits.Okra
and corn (maize) are not hauled out of the living earth
but they somehow find themselves in the upper tier of
ritual significance, surpassed only by yam, the most
sacred item in the foodways of the saracca world.
“I yam what I yam”
“I yam what I yam!” exclaims the unnamed protagonist in
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. He had been
walking along a Harlem street when he happened upon a
yam seller, whose tubers kindled
in him an illuminated self-knowledge. Yam runs deep
within the souls of Black folk on the Continent and also
in the Diasporas in the Americas and elsewhere; the
Invisible Man knows this only too well.
Back on the Continent, the Igbo people hold up the yam
as the “king of all crops”. It had come down to them,
they say, as a very special gift of their chief god. It
is the spine of their collective identity; it grows out
of the divine belly of Ani, “the Igbo earth goddess who
is the source of fertility and ultimate judge of
morality and conduct”, according to Chinua Achebe in
his classic novel Things Fall Apart (1958).
Yam is revered among the Yoruba people. Indeed, Yam
porridge is the favourite food of the Yoruba god Shango,
keeper of thunder and lightning. Shango’s wife Oyo
chopped off her left ear and then cooked it in her
husband’s yam porridge, thinking that that desperate act
was going to win her Shango’s everlasting love. But it
didn’t, and Oyo lost Shango to Oshun.
Yam is also stamina food among the Yoruba, who believe
yam eating is the surest way to sire twins. The Yoruba
have the highest twinning rate in the world so there may
be some “science” in their claim.
In Grenada, those who walk in Shango’s promethean light
say the yam is not fit for the eating until the “thunder
rolls over it and make it good”. Let’s pay proper
attention here, for every use of language is an act of
confession and ultimately as experimental psychologist
Steven Pinker points out, “[Language] reflects the way
we grasp reality”. Pinker’s view makes the case for
the indispensability of the phenomenological approach to
study of these matters.
Jamaica: In August 2008 Jamaica’s Usain Bolt wins the
100 metre dash at the Beijing Olympics and his father
boasts that the boy’s lightning speed came from his many
years of yam eating.
Yam seems implicated in the “return” to Africa of the
legendary Canga Brown of Tobago. In a poem called
“The Ballad of Canga Brown”, Tobago’s
greatest poet, E.M. Roach (1915-1974), writes:
What gives Canga Brown that power?
He didn’t eat salt nor sugar
His flesh like Ibo yam
His blood like clean rain water
Yam was the most important food item on the slave ship.
John Barbot, the seventeenth century slave merchant,
tells us that the slave ship stocked roughly 200 yams
per passenger. The talk of the slave ship invokes memory
of bonds that were forged in the Crossing and the fact
that some Africans who sailed aboard the same ship to
the Americas used the term “malungu” (shipmate) to
describe each other. The word ”malungu” is derived from
Kimbundu, the language of the Mbundu people of what is
now Angola. Malungu ties were so powerful that there
developed a strong taboo against marriages between the
offspring of malungus. The idea of preserving memory
seemed at the heart of the malungu ties; that same idea
is the motive force of Saracca Nationhood in Grenada,
Carriacou and Petite Martinique.
And there seems to be two concepts of Saracca Nationhood
.There is first the nation as quilt: This is the concept
of nation-hood embedded in the Carriacou Big Drum, an
assembly of nine constituent “nations”- Arada, Banda,
Cormantee, Chamba, Congo, Igbo, Manding, Moco, Temne.
The other view of nationhood is found on mainland
Grenada and it conceives of the nation as a rich calaloo
soup, a melting pot. Lena Edgar of the village of La
Poterie offers a definition of “nation” which is both
cryptic and enigmatic, she tells Collins:
“Well, nation is nation”. What Ma Edgar is doing here is
underscoring the indivisibility of nationhood. Nation
is nation. It bears stating that the Carraicou view
of nationhood seems demonstrably more in favour of an
Callaoo or quilt, Collins gets high marks for giving
free rein to the “Saracca people” -she lets them speak;
indeed, she turns up the volume on the healing voices
of elders Winston Fleary, Augustina “Ma Gus” Collins,
Lena Edgar, Lizzy Thomas and Jerome Grant.
In the end Collins has succeeded in giving us a
beautiful gift, one which dimples the swollen cheeks of
the presiding gods. The deities have signalled their
delight and Collins’s kitchen will not want for
anything, especially yam. And it is right that that will
be so, for food is the most valuable currency in the
moral and social economies of the Saracca Nation.
For copies of Merle Collins’s Saracca and Nation please
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