Maroon Culture - disappearing before our very eyes? The changing face of forest use in Cockpit South and the material knowledge that needs to be documented before its gone

By Lydia Gibson, Jan 16 2021

Maroon culture is ripe with centuries-old, place-based knowledge. It is also full of transplanted memories and syncretic practices that juxtapose west-African worldviews with the colonial encounters that displaced the diaspora. Charm plants soaked in preparations of white rum. Medicinal seeds strung onto plastic threads. Forest-based products festooning concrete homes. This knowledge is used and transmitted whilst perpetually on the brink of extinction. Hear the Maroon knowledge systems that are, and have always been, in significant danger of disappearing.

Language

Kromanti, or deep patois, is an English creole with heavy Akan (language spoken over large parts of southern Ghana) components. While few Kromanti speakers remain in Windward Maroon communities (specifically Moore Town), Leeward Maroons (of Cockpit Country) lost this language centuries ago. Captain Cudjoe led the Leeward Maroons to near-victory over the British and agreed the 1738 Peace Treaty through strategic, militaristic leadership. Alongside successful ambushes, it is said that Captain Cudjoe insisted that the Maroon communities spoke exclusively in English to foster cohesion and aid their reconnaissance (Kopytoff, 1976; 1978).

Some Maroon community leaders in Cockpit South have expressed an interest in collaborating with Windward Maroons to document and recover the Kromanti language and teach it to Maroon children in the community’s existing summer camp on traditional culture.

Place

Ongoing research by the Countermapping Cockpit team shows significant changes in the spatial patterns of forest use in Maroon communities in Cockpit South. In the 1970s and 80s, daily life and work in the agrarian village often spread as far as Saucy Train (Barker and Spence, 1988) – a patch of former pastures in the forest core (see map). Today, Saucy Train alongside former pasturelands Cowgate and Poliere (see map of Water Sources) lie undisturbed and reforested. Water bodies such as Jenny Tarbun and Riverside go unused, abandon bracken now refuge to amphibian and reptilian life, teeming with creatures little-known, under-documented, and hardly-understood.

The community no longer use the nearby streams and springs as water sources. They instead collect rain water by the plastic barrel (that once transported remittances and handed down clothes) as it drains from the zinc-topped roof of their concrete and rebar homes. This is on the one hand highly-favourable. Our stream monitoring project has shown how important these water bodies have become as niches that support the species richness and abundance of endemic, Critically Endangered rain frogs and Vulnerable terrapins. It is, on the other hand, an unmitigated disaster. The shrinking sense of place has left the Maroon communities disconnected writ large from the forest ecosystem services and with diminishing interests in their preservation. The installation of the failed development project in Jenny Tarbun is a consequence of this disconnection. Were the stream still in use today, it would have never played host to the initiative. The heavy traffic and increased stream flow may not provide ideal conditions for the rain frogs, but nor would it become a dumping ground that supports the explosion of invasive species that have infested Jenny Tarbun.

Material Objects

“Used to be a settlement, just over those hills there – yeah there. Called Dunco”, Bobby explained as we walked along an old trail through to Poliere. He believes the last inhabitant might have been born there 100-200 years ago and that the area may be full of artefacts as well as wild hogs and goats that once fed the Dunco community. It may offer clues about how livestock, feral smallstock and wild animals were kept and captured.

As part of current research with traditional parrot hunters, we have been studying the traditional trapping technologies used – specifically, a temperature-sensitive adhesive used to trap lured parrots. In the 2019 hunting season, the technology began to fail at an unprecedented scale - an indicator of changes in environmental and social conditions. Our research has shown a statistically significant difference between ambient air temperatures during successful and failed trap events. Likelihood of failure is specifically linked to the length of time the adhesive trap spends erected in the cold pre-dawn hours before crepuscular activity. We are currently preparing for journal submission an article discussing these findings in detail; check back here for announcements of its publication.

We are collaborating with a mechanical engineer to better understand the properties of this adhesive material, which is made from the sap of breadfruit trees, in hopes of understanding how indigenous technologies can be used

as indicators of climate change. We also hope to understand how changes in forest ecosystems and forest use drives innovation and change in indigenous and traditional technologies. In the case of the adhesive, adhesive-makers increasingly use the sticky discharge of jackfruit as an ingredient, because sap is becoming more difficult to acquire, with some driving hours to find trees that yield large enough quantities.

Adhesive-makers straining and boiling breadfruit sap to become the trapping technology used by traditional hunters

Diminishing forest use is beginning to impact the beating heart of Maroon culture. The traditional Maroon drum (Gumbeh) is made with wood from the forest. One of the few remaining drummakers – now 91 years old – says that the tree species he once used for the wood for the drums are harder to find. He now resorts to buying the wood from a hardware store down in town. Is there a happy medium that keeps disturbance low but retains the centuries of material and spatial knowledge that is disappearing before our eyes?

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