From Spain to Britain, Trinidad and Tobago, like much of the Caribbean, has a history of colonisation. That shared experience of occupation and near erasure was so brutal that its ripple effects are still evident centuries later, but there are some bright spots, many of them connected to West African traditions and culture.
One of the strongest representations of that connectivity is religion. While people who follow the Orisha faith account for about one percent of Trinidad and Tobago's population according to a 2011 census, the community has become much more visible, and attracted more practitioners, in the 10-plus years since that census was conducted. The diasporic manifestation of the Orisha faith was formerly called Shango in Trinidad and Tobago, where it is considered a syncretic religion.
Each year, Orishas participate in the Obatala Festival, which pays homage to the figure in Yoruba mythology who was charged with the task of creating the earth. The story goes that as Obatala began to mold humans from clay, he drank copious amounts of palm wine. In his drunken state, he became cavalier with his creations, causing them to have shortcomings. When he realised what he had done, he was repentant and became the protector of those with disabilities. Humans were then bestowed with Àṣẹ (the Yoruba concept that defines the power to produce change), as well as a copper knife and wooden hoe, tools that helped them prosper.
In Trinidad, an Obatala procession took place on January 28 in Woodbrook, on the outskirts of the capital, Port of Spain. Artist Jason C. Audain was there, and captured both still images and video. His reel of the procession was captivating, made even more so towards the end of the clip, which zooms in on a trio of moko jumbies.
A stilt walking tradition that has West African roots, whereby the figures are looked upon as gods whose towering perspective allows them to easily keep watch over their villages and foresee any potential danger, moko jumbies form part of the cast of traditional Trinidad and Tobago Carnival characters, parading on the streets in a reminder of how enslaved Africans had to fight for their freedom. The figures are still regarded as defenders and guides in Trinbagonian culture, and always command great awe and respect.
Their inclusion in the Obatala Festival is a great reminder of their origins, purity and sacred powers, and the festival itself underscores the deep connections Trinidad and Tobago continues to have with West Africa. It also emphasises the profound spiritual and ritualistic aspects of the Carnival tradition, with the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts noting that “Christianity, Hinduism and Ifa/Orisa cultural forms can all be found in the celebration.”