May 2008

Barbara J. King


Travels with Tooy, in the Company of Gods and Spirits

God, gods, and spirits: I spend a lot of time thinking about the final pair in this supernatural trio. Anyone who wants to understand the human propensity for religiosity had better Think Beyond God. (And anyone who likes to play with multiple meanings might make a decent bumpersticker out of that phrase.)

One of Anthropology 101’s basic teachings in that, in many cultures past and present, what we today insist on calling “religion” is woven seamlessly into everyday life, so that the actions or potential actions of gods and spirits drive people’s emotions and affect many daily decisions.  

Sure, I get all that: the need to think beyond monotheism, the ubiquity of spiritual forces in certain societies. The truth is, though, I get it theoretically, as a set of abstract ideas to turn over in my mind. During my years in Gabon and Kenya, I no doubt lived among people for whom gods and spirits were full partners. But, back then, I put into effect the required laser-beam focus of a graduate student funded to do primatology: I watched apes and monkeys, and thought not too much about the sacred.

Now, I hunger to witness god-life, spirit-life: that is, to get at least a feel for how thoughtful people live vitally in partnership with these forces. As with most things, books can help. It’s not the bony skeleton of an anthropology-of-religion text I seek, but the well-muscled and all-enveloping immersion of an ethnography. One of the best is Richard Price’s Travels with Tooy: History, Memory, and the African American Imagination.

Tooy lives in South America -- perhaps a surprise, given the book’s subtitle. Tooy left his native country, Suriname, to live in French Guiana (here called Guyane); there, in a town called Cayenne on the Atlantic coast near Brazil, he works as a healer. Trained by ritual specialists, he aims to cure illnesses and misfortune, or to “settle” gods in people’s heads.

The thing to know about Tooy Alexander is that he’s a Saramakan man, and, therefore, a Maroon. Richard Price, an anthropologist (and a colleague of mine at William & Mary) who has studied the Saramakas with his fellow anthropologist and wife Sally Price for over forty years, explains: “Saramakas -- today some fifty-five thousand people -- are one of six Maroon peoples whose African ancestors were brought to the Dutch colony of Suriname as slaves. Individually, in small groups, and sometimes in great collective rebellions, they escaped plantations into the rainforest, where they created a new society and culture, drawing on their diverse African heritages. For nearly one hundred years they fought a war against the colonists and, in 1762, were granted their freedom, a full century before general emancipation in the colony.”

Maroon history provides a good backdrop for the story, but at its heart is an elegant and “unfamiliar but immensely rich reality.” The book glows with knowledge, Tooy’s as much as Rich’s, as Rich is the first to say; he writes of Tooy with love, as a friend, but also with respect, calling him “a fellow intellectual.” (I follow Rich’s practice in the book of using first names.) The most compelling sections of Travels with Tooy tell of worlds where I have no foothold. Wanting to understand, I read slowly at first, but soon gave up a struggle to wrest the definitive meaning from every paragraph and allowed the words to wash over me. This decision led to intense pleasure in reading and to the creation of a space for the “unfamiliar reality” to settle in.

Tooy lives with gods in his head. Among the most intriguing gods are Wentis, water gods unique to Saramakas that come in two varieties: saltwater and freshwater, but for Tooy, “true Wentis are the ones from the sea.” The book offers knowledge about gods and spirits in two main ways.

Sometimes, Tooy chats with Rich, as when he explains that nine gods live in his house (three women, six men). Or, “‘Did you know,’ he once asked [Rich], ‘that a normal ship can’t go near Wenti country, or it’ll catch on fire from the heat? And if Wentis take you on their own ship, it gets so hot as you near their country that you turn to cinders?’ ‘Well, then, how have people visited there and returned to tell the tale?’ [Rich asks] ‘If you’re man enough, when you arrive, you become yourself again. Filibanti [Tooy’s brother’s god] told me all about it.’”  

At other times, Tooy is possessed, and speaks not as himself but as the god in question. These passages tend toward the philosophical, and swell with boasts and exclamations, as in (talking to Rich): “Man, when Death comes to take you, you simply have to go… I know you can’t live forever and that you don’t want to die yet, so I’m going to beg the Great God that he let you live. But there’s no one on earth who won’t die, so you’ll die one day too, heh heh heh. I’m Awangbadjingmbe! I’m Kasi-fu-wamba! Man, come embrace me, come give me a big hug, Brother!”
Tooy’s older brother Sensilo and his wife Ma Yaai (his first wife; his second is called Celine) and thousands of others also live with gods in their heads. “For Saramakas,” Rich notes, “the extraordinary powers known as gaan-obias -- the magical forces to which they credit their eighteenth-century military victories over whitefolks and their ability to survive in a hostile environment -- remain each clan’s most valuable possessions, and many are believed to have been brought by specific ancestors from Africa.”

Not all spirits are amicable! The book reeks with malevolent forces that must be appeased: “When a Saramaka commits a crime against a person, it’s usual for the victim, after death, to haunt the perpetrator’s matrilineage forever in the form of a kunu, an avenging spirit. Every Saramaka is subject to a number of such spirits from the past.”

Amicable or avenging, spirits are ever-present. The dynamic relationships among all these beings, visible and invisible, are complex enough for Rich to have included a Dramatis Personae section at the back of the book, along with scholarly notes and linguistic data. And, fair warning, even the main text is no simple read. Strange terms fly off the page: “Around the time I was speaking with Tebini about such matters, Otjutju (who became gaama of all Saramakas in 2005) told me, similarly, that Malundu was the very first Apuku to possess a member of the Paputu clan and that the Dombis came and got Mavungu from this Paputu spirit. Efadamba, he said, had been lost in the forest…”

Yikes! Yet only occasionally did the narrative go dry. A brief section about local politics interested me about as much as Virginia local politics does. On the other hand, I responded emotionally to the tale of Tooy’s trial and incarceration. Decades ago, when another family lived with Tooy, things turned sexual. Tooy slept with all three young teenaged daughters. (They were, apparently, already sexually experienced.) Tooy is hardly exceptional in his tastes. “Saramaka men,” Rich reports, “like their women young… [T]hirteen- or fourteen-year-old girls have always been the most actively sought partners. Girls marry young -- fourteen would be about the norm.”

Wham. That’s the noise of me smacking headlong into cherished anthropological tenets: Don’t judge out of context, don’t apply your society’s standards to another’s. Inescapably, though, it’s distress I feel. These young girls’ sexuality leads in many cases to pregnancy, to multiple children borne by child-age mothers who lose any hope of educating themselves. And what of the sexual behavior itself? Can sex possibly be consensual between a middle-aged man and a 14-year-old girl? Can this question possibly be meaningful only in some cultural contexts and not others? Why wouldn’t it apply in Guyane as much as in the U.S.?

In a case much too complicated for me to summarize fully, Tooy eventually is accused of rape by one of the daughters. I choked on the term “unprovoked attack,” which Tooy felt the charge to be, yet I rose to fury also at reading how Tooy is treated during the trial. Tooy is forced to communicate in a creole language that is not his native tongue; the court reports that this is his only language, and treats him with disgusting condescension. What an irony: Rich notes that Tooy speaks, drums, and prays in more than a dozen languages in addition to the three he uses for everyday life.

Sentenced to seven years, Tooy spends time in prison but is released early. Rich recounts the story in detail. He and Sally were intimately involved in the whole legal process; this anthropology is no standoffish brand of science.

Ironic too is how much I quote Rich, because (as I believe he intends) the elegance of the prose resides in the poetic and musical power of Tooy’s words. The concluding chapter is hardcore anthropology, however; there, Rich brings together all the beliefs and rituals and ceremonies and considers them through the lens of scholarship on the African diaspora. Now we’re back in theory-land, but this time, theory is vascularized by what we know from Tooy. Rich concludes, “In the case of the Saramakas, their religion (and their whole culture) was forged after a radical and successful break with a racist colony, and its self-conscious ideology has always been to maintain that separation.”

In other words, although African elements remain alive in Saramaka culture, emphasis is not put on the past. Rather, these Saramaka lives of “rare grace, beauty, and wisdom” were forged in a new world, with a premium on creativity, so that “direct formal continuities from Africa are more the exception than the rule.”

The complexity of Rich’s analysis sits side by side with the complexity of Tooy’s time-and-space travel. As I close the book (and begin to listen to Tooy’s voice at Rich's website ), I know that I grasp only a small fraction of what Tooy knows. It’s a good feeling, in a peculiar way; after all, that’s what inhabiting an unfamiliar reality will do for a person -- teach her what she doesn’t know, and how to learn something more.   

-- Barbara J. King wrote about Yellowstone bison for the May/June edition of Science & Spirit Magazine. Check it out.