Guyanese wakes are the best part of dying. Gyaffin galore. To gyaff is the Guyanese-Creole English equivalent of chatting, storytelling, gossiping. I come from a family of people who like fuh gyaff, storytellers. Gyaffin at wake houses take on a different nature than everyday gyaffin. Gossip that rivals any high school or college campus, card games that mask the flirting going on between the young people. Hormones have no mercy, no sense of what mourning is, no care for grieving. I learn of failed attempts of women I encounter to elope—on wedding days—with a man I just greeted hello with a double kiss on the cheek and a how yuh do. They throw glances at each other when they think no one is watching. Whispers send snippets of the past whizzing by me. The deeper one gets into the wake house the more scandalous the gyaffin becomes. Then there is chup chal, a card game that I only remember how to play when I sit down, cross-legged, in the wake house.
But the best part of gyaffin during funeral times is the retelling of the jumbi stories. A jumbi is the generic term for the myriad demonic spirits which form the pantheon of Caribbean ghostlore. These spirits still live, still roam the realm of the living, a shadow of what they once were, now used exclusively for evil purposes. To turn into a jumbi after death meant that one possessed the same evil qualities amplified in their afterlife before they died. Jumbis never escape, rearing their heads in stories, mirrors and between tree branches. What I loved about these stories, displacing me by means of the sheer horror they evoked, was how much history lurked beneath and between the words. As a child I tried to catch glimpses of Guyana’s colonial history from these jumbi stories and store them in the jars of my memory.
My father will talk of trees which bleed, trees which can break the metal blade of a cutlass and the hand of the fool who wielded it in the first place. The sounds of horses galloping on empty streets and graveyards that if pointed to will result in the decapitation of one’s finger. But it is my grandma who is the keeper of the family jumbilore.
“Meh tell Lana husband do not urinate pun dee coconut tree in dee front yard,” my grandma will start.
“Why,” someone asks, even though we’ve heard this jumbi story time and time again. It never gets old.
“Because dee Dutch man live there,” she replies with the utter conviction, as if it were obvious.
According to family lore there are two Dutch men living in the front yard of my grandma’s home in Nandy Park, near the fruit trees, Back Home in Guyana. The first Dutch trading posts established along Guyana’s many rivers was in 1580. By 1620 the Dutch West India Company had armed bases and imported African slaves to work their sugar cane plantations, created by draining Guyana’s swampy areas on the coast and near its many rivers.
“And after he did exactly what I tell he nah fuh do, would you believe he had to go to a doctor before he could urine again?”
“And yuh know, meh neva did like dat bai,” my grandma will add in the midst of the raw, infectious laughter which ensues every times she tells this story of the man whose punishment was not being able to urinate.
“Columbus first discover Guyana, yuh know,” my grandma will continue, sitting up in her rocking chair, becoming more animated with each word, each foray back into the past.
Columbus did reach what is today called the Caribbean in 1492. His explorers were in search of the Golden City. The coast from the Amazon to the Orinoco River was deemed Guyana, but the Spaniards showed little interest in exploring the region. It was in 1595 when Sir Walter Raleigh declared in his book, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guyana, that “whatever prince shall possess it, that prince shall be lore of more gold, of more cities and people than either the King of Spain or the great Turk.” Guyana changed hands between the Dutch, the French and the British between 1780 and 1831 when Guyana was officially declared a British colony until independence in 1961.
“The Dutch use fuh live in dee interior. Yuh know, at dee bottom of dee Pomeroon River—and dat river is dee deepest river in Guyana—there’s a punt,” my grandma tells me, starting another story.
“What’s a punt?” I ask.
“It’s like a boat. Wid a flat bottom. And on top of dis punt dey would put logs and send dem upriver. Anyway. One day when me and yuh Papa were still livin’ in dee Interior, we learned of dis punt dat once a year does rise up from dee very bottom of dee Pomeroon river,” she says.
“The whole thing rises up from the bottom?”
“When I went with yuh Papa I looked ova and saw the punt was connected to a chain hook on to a tree. And when you try to see what is on dis punt, would you believe all yuh can see is snakes? Snakes covering the riches and jewels of dee Dutch people. It was in dee Pomeroon I first learn dis story.”
It is Guyana’s many rivers whenever they are brought up in these jumbi stories which haunt me the most, long after listening to my relatives paint a picture of deep rivers inhabited by alligators, piranha and mermaids who roam the fish markets in the day time kidnapping children underwater and letting them go only after taking away their ability to talk.
“Have you ever seen the Dutch man,” I ask my grandma, half joking and half not. My grandmother is one of those people who sees the impossible, who has lived the kind of life that even words cannot do justice to.
“Me? Of course. But dee Dutch man like me. And whoever me nah like, he does trouble,” she’ll say laughing every time.