– The University of Guyana’s Oral Literature Conference 2016
By Subraj Singh
Every year, in an effort to study, record and preserve the oral traditions (folklore, songs, proverbs, chants, cultural functions, etc.) of Guyana, students of the Oral Literature class, which is part of the University of Guyana’s English programme, would conduct immense research which is then analyzed, subsequent to which the major findings are presented to the public at a conference.
The Oral Literature course is helmed by Mr. Al Creighton and the conference is now a tradition, as well as a major form of assessment, in the English programme at the University of Guyana (UG).
The students were required to travel all across Guyana to gather the information – in the forms of stories, memories, personal testimonies and sayings – from the people, the folk, who are the carriers of our Oral Traditions. Mr. Creighton, in his introduction to the conference, outlined the process by which, through travel, interviews, data collection and analysis, many revealing facets of our Oral Literature have been found over the years by previous research conducted by students in the English programme at UG.
The students who presented started off by highlighting how their travels to Leguan, Black Bush Polder, New Amsterdam, Queenstown and St. Cuthbert’s Mission enabled them to be given much information on the Ole Higue, the Dutchman, the Backoo and other figures from Guyanese folklore. From their travels, they were able to come to the conclusive analysis that Guyanese folklore is still very much alive and its very existence is dependent on the people in various areas across the country who keep the flame of Oral Traditions burning.
The Ole Higue is one of the most prominent figures which was discussed at the Conference. The students discovered that this figure still remains an important part of Guyanese folklore and that there a rise in the variations of the name of the figure commonly called the Ole Higue. These variations were attributed to the geographical location in which the information was being gathered. One of these variations, according to the students, includes the “Fire Rass,” which is different from the Ole Higue because whereas Ole Higues have the curse passed down to them from another Ole Higue, the Fire Rass is really a woman who has been killed in childbirth. Unlike the Ole Higue, the Fire Rass can feed
only on the blood of the babies. Both are old, unattractive women who can transform into balls of fire.
Even when it came to the methods of vanquishing an Ole Higue or Fire Rass, the students found that the people they interviewed believed in a great variety of ways that could be used to get rid of these beings.
The most popular method, forever immortalized in Wordsworth McAndrew’s poem, Ole Higue, and further represented in the National Drama Company’s popular short, experimental enactment of the poem, is the scattering of rice before the Ole Higue, as she must count every grain of rice before she can enter a house.
A less well-known method involves the rubbing of “cow gall” and “mutton fat” over the body which renders the blood bitter and distasteful to the Ole Higue. If the Ole Higue drips blood on to the clothing of the victim, the victim can then boil the cloth in water and stab the bloodstain with a sharp pin, which will force the Ole Higue to seek repentance.
Clearly, with all these methods of ridding one’s self of the Ole Higue, it can be gleaned by the presentations of the students that there are people in Guyana who still maintain a strong belief in this figure from our folklore. Also of importance is the way in which there are also bits of new information to be unearthed from the study of Oral Literature – information that would have remained forever shut away from writers and academics if people, such as the students, did not actively go out into the communities to conduct research that would yield revealing information.
One good example of a piece of new information found in the village of La Bagatelle tells us of how there are instances where the Ole Higue can develop the ability to spit in the eyes of their assaulters in order to make them blind. The students also went on to present interesting information on two other well-known beings: the Fairmaid, who we learnt can actually take the form of whatever most attracts a potential victim, and the Dutchman spirits, who might represent the existence of the psychological impact of our colonial history in the way contemporary people are still haunted by these European figures. Figures who grant wishes and promise wealth, such as the Fairmaid, the Backoo, and the Dutchman, according to the students, might also be a reflection of the poverty endured by many Guyanese people, where their belief systems offer them a way out of their financial situations, a way of ridding themselves of poverty, almost as a form of escapism.
The students also spoke about the Backoo who, along with the Ole Higue, is one of the most popular and enduring folk-figures in Guyanese Oral Tradition.
The students performed a short skit as an introduction to their presentation where the audience were able to see a young woman enlisting the help of a Backoo only to neglect him and, eventually, having to endure his wrath.
There was much speculation about the origins of the Backoo, who may have emerged from Africa or imported from nearby Suriname. The group was able, based on their research, to offer a thorough description of the Backoo as a short, devious, multilingual creature who is trapped in a sealed bottle or jar, only to be released by an unwitting victim who must then feed the Backoo milk and bananas in order to avoid angering the Backoo. When the Backoo is angry he can, like a poltergeist, create much mayhem in a home and can cause actual harm. The presenters went on to list numerous tales of the Backoo collected from all across Guyana in order to establish the identifying characteristics of the “Guyanese Backoo.”
Overall, the presentations were informative and managed to once more showcase the wealth of folklore that can be found in Guyana, while also highlighting how folklore can be reflective of the mindset of the Guyanese people or how they can tell us a lot about the society or the environment from which they emerge.