When the lights go out, the ‘jumbie’ stories come out
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GUYANESE ghost stories are not the typical ‘sit-in-a-circle, roasting marshmallows over a camp fire’ as seen in the movies. In Guyana, we tell very vivid ‘jumbie’ stories, featuring some very specific and petrifying creatures of the night. And, more often than not, the storytelling bits are not a planned affair; it is usually triggered by the boredom that comes from having a power outage, or what we Guyanese call a ‘blackout’. In one of my most treasured memories, the sun is about to set on a beautiful Sunday, and I am nine years old, trying to catch my breath after an entire day of “galivanting” and playing “ketcha” with my friends.
Just as the street lights were coming on, and we were preparing to get ahead of our parents’ call for us to retire to our respective houses, the Guyana Power and Light (GPL) did their thing where they brought darkness across the land, well at least across my village.
So, instead of going home, we pleaded with our parents to spare us one more minute outside, and, with that time, we sat in the alleyway of one of our houses and began sharing tales of the questionable people in our community.

The oldest of the group, Roxy (not real name), started off the night with the story of an old man by the name of Egbert (not real name) who lived not too far from us. To the adult eye, uncle Egbert, as many called him, was nothing but a poor old man, but to us children, he was definitely not a man. As a matter of fact, to us, he was not even human; he was the neighbourhood ‘bacoo’. Legends have it that bacoos are souls that have been trapped in empty rum bottles and tossed into the Caribbean Sea. They are rumoured to bear a striking resemblance to a leprechaun, while operating much like Alladin’s “Genie of the Lamp” – dancing to the tunes of its owner, once kept satisfied. Interestingly, in many West African languages, bacoo or “bacucu” means “little brother” or “short man.” Research shows that bacoos are at their happiest once they are properly fed with an abundance of banana and milk. A bacoo is said to be an avid trickster that can shapeshift and become invisible when wreaking havoc, and, according Roxy, she had seen uncle Egbert in action, transforming into his true self. As she described her horrifying experience, I shivered, and fear took over as I continued to listen intently as she told the tale of how the man we were all afraid of, shrunk into a muscled dwarf and scurried up her mango tree, waiting to prey on his next victim.

Visibly terrified, Roxy said she spotted the creature as she was returning to bed after using the washroom; his bold eyes stared into hers through the glass window, and she held her breath.
According to her, uncle ‘bacoo’ Egbert sported teeth as yellow as the sun and as pointy as a knife, while giving her a most mischievous grin.
At age nine, my other friend Tony (not real name) and I were in horror and disbelief, but then Tony broke the proverbial ice as he shot up and blurted, “girl is lie you telling.” Tony stood up and argued that there was no way that Roxy’s story could be true. He rebutted that he, however, had seen a creature far worse than a ‘bacoo,’
Tony alleged that another elderly resident in our neighbourhood was disguising herself as a monster of the night. Cousin Mabel (not real name), lived in the house right in front of mine and she was not one to mess with. Profanity dominated her vocabulary and her voice always echoed like the sirens of a fire truck. The woman cursed from early in the morning, all the way to noon and well into the nights, until she fell asleep.

I remember thinking of her as the alarm clock of our neighbourhood, blaring from as early as four in the morning, and her voice was never pleasant. Carrying on with his story, Tony insisted that Cousin Mabel was an Ol’ Higue. With an annoyed look on my face, I remember shouting at Tony, “boy shut yuh mouth, you ain’t know what you talking bout.” But deep down, I believed him. According to Tony, he was sure he saw Cousin Mabel transform into the monster she really was, shedding her wrinkled skin in the dead of the night, on her back landing (patio). Tony said he got a glimpse of her on the night of a full moon through his glass veranda door.
According to him the woman transformed into a ball of fire, flying into my bedroom window. “My bedroom window?” I clarified, as my eyes widened and my voice began to crack. I told him he had to be lying, but with a blank look on his face, Tony reminded me of the time I complained of waking up with a weird “black and blue” mark on my thigh. “The Ol’higue suck yuh,” he whispered in my ear.

And just as I was about to respond, the power was restored and in unison, we all jumped up screaming “CURRENT!” That’s when our parents registered their final warnings for us to go home. Tony, Roxy and I said our goodnights and went home; however, that night, the thought weighed heavy on my mind. Was it true? Is Uncle Egbert really a ‘bacoo’? Did an ‘Ol’higue’ really suck me? Perhaps I may never know, but as we celebrate Emancipation Day 2021, I am quite appreciative of all the intriguing cultures and traditions that my African foreparents have brought to this land, including the ‘jumbies’ that still freak me out.

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