Written by: Louisa Beejay
Do you hear the call?
It is an invitation
To honour our ancestors.
They live on inside us
We carry their history, suffering, joys
In our blood, breath, body and bones.
Each of our lives
Rests on the foundation
Of their sacrifices
Let us recognize them
Heal the pain and wounds
And find the light and gold.
This is in honour of all my ancestors from Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago; and all Indo-Caribbean ancestors.
For a moment, let us step into the shoes of our ancestors from the Land of Many Waters, Guyana, and Land of the Hummingbird, Trinidad and Tobago. Imagine a coastline full of luscious palm trees swaying gently in the light wind, the touch of soft, fine sand under your feet, and the warmth of the sun caressing your face. The moreish taste of ripe Julie mangoes as you relax in a hammock, the sound of the hummingbirds flapping wings, the blue sea swaying back and forth and the smell of tropical flowers and orchids all around. This is paradise. As you get up from your hammock and walk inland, the bright sunlight becomes duller with each step. You find yourself in a different world. There are hundreds of men, women and children labouring in the sugar cane fields of a large plantation. They are breaking their backs cutting the sugar cane and loading it into carts. The sweat pours down their brows as the hot West Indian sun beats down on them. Men stand over them making sure they are working hard. There is little time to rest and they won’t finish until dusk.
They will return back here the next day and the next day after that.
During the period of indentured servitude, the new homes of our ancestors were portrayed as an exotic paradise. A place where they could flee from poverty, famine and social unrest in India. They’d have an opportunity to start a new life on the other side of the world. This was a choice for few. However, behind this tropical allure was a darkness. For many, they were kidnapped, coerced, and manipulated into making the journey across the much feared Kala Pani as assets for the ultimate profit gains of the plantocracy. And especially women who were disproportionately represented.
Our ancestors had a complex family dynamic— a tyrannical Father Great Britain and a submissive Mother India. That means as part of our ancestry, we too are intrinsically linked to Britain and India. As Indo-Caribbeans born in Great Britain, perhaps our ability to face and heal our collective cultural trauma is more challenging as we live in the country of our Ancestral Father. With a past as a colonial oppressor, he may not want to take responsibility for his role in this 87year period of indentureship. Together with not recording much of our history with care and respect leading to a significant loss of our identity, these can lead to rage and anger on a deep level within our culture. Perhaps too, the cultural shame we may have inherited from our Ancestral Mother means we simply don’t want to talk, deal, or process much of this wounding. Toxic shame feeds on silence and secrets.
I can speak to this. I have inherited shame and anger that wasn’t linked to my personal story.
Seven years ago, after my first ever trip to Trinidad and Tobago, where my father was born (my mother was born in Guyana), I began to wake up more fully from a cultural amnesia. I had worked on my trunk with time in personal therapy and training as a therapist and healer. However, I had not fully delved into fortifying my roots, and without these how could my branches grow? I began to unearth all that was forgotten, lost, buried, hidden, repressed and neglected. This was not only in my personal family shadow, but the collective Indo-Caribbean shadow as well.
I asked questions to both my parents, located death certificates, visited graves, learned to cook more Indo-Caribbean food and preserve the recipes. I created family trees to identify names, details and patterns. I listened to and recorded family stories that went back to my great-great-great-grandparents. I created an ancestral altar of photos and objects as a specific place to honour and show gratitude to my ancestors. I unpacked many archetypal themes; secrets such as murder, poverty, violence, rape and neglect.
These emotions, themes, beliefs and traumas can present in later generations as ancestral and/or transgenerational trauma. Anything ranging from depression, anxiety, physical illness, addiction and relationship difficulties, to sexual abuse/assault, domestic violence, post traumatic stress disorder, colonialism, self worth, misogyny, issues with neighbours, land or employment.
My grandfather was only 10 months old when 102 workers were shot in Rose Hall Estate in Canje, Guyana by colonial police for protesting and refusing to work on days they were granted leave.
This has been proven through epigenetics— the study of how our behaviours and environment cause changes that affect how our genes work. Unlike genetic changes, these changes are reversible and do not affect our DNA sequence. Essentially, this means that working through any psychological, relational and emotional issues we have has a lasting affect, not only on us, but ripples back energetically to our ancestors and forward to our descendants. Some Native American traditions believe our actions affect seven generations in both directions. We are all connected energetically in the web of life and so the entire lineage evolves.
There are so many ways to honour an ancestor; events, plays, films, books, articles, celebrating our food, music, culture and asking family members questions. As well, it is asking those searching and difficult questions both of yourself, your family and your ancestors to explore the hidden layers and territory. It can be challenging and uncomfortable to hear, feel, and process these deep personal and collective wounds. However, once unearthed, there is gold to be discovered in what can be referred to as post traumatic growth; psychological, energetic, spiritual transformation and resources.
I have discovered these ancestral gifts in strength, survival instinct and resilience.
Also my connection to nature has deepened as a gift from my ancestors. They were so connected to their land; the trees, fruits, animals, the elements and nature in a way we are not in our modern and technological lives. I have discovered my great-grandmother, Ma, as an ancestor spirit who guides me. I’ve only met her once and she died on my 13th birthday.
Our ancestors are calling on us to do them a service and honour them. It is our job to throw light on the still obscured shadows of indentured servitude, to face and heal our personal and cultural wounds and hidden scars. Talk the talk and walk the walk. This will serve as a gateway to cultural transformation and evolution; for us, them and their/our descendants.
Huge gratitude to all Indo-Caribbean ancestors for their many sacrifices; it is because of them we have our lives, the many opportunities and choices. We are able to thrive more than survive. Together, let us go beyond our inner coastline into the depths and finally discover and reclaim the cultural gold in El Dorado.
Carl Jung, Volume 7 Collected Works
A myth of El Dorado as a lost city of gold in South America