By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
March Break afforded me the opportunity to spend extra time with my grandchildren teaching them about Guyanese culture which included the art of making mango achar. It began with a trip to the grocery store where, among several items, we bought one of their favourite fruits, mangoes. It was a bit of a surprise to discover that, in spite of their outward appearance, none of the mangoes were ripe. This led to a conversation about my childhood in Guyana where the subject became “Eating green mangoes with salt and pepper.”
At every school I attended in Guyana including Kitty Methodist School in the greater Georgetown area, Agricola Methodist School on the East Bank Demerara, Providence Congregational on the East Bank Berbice and even Berbice High School (the joy of having a police officer father whose job description included moving around the country), whatever the difference, there was one constant. At every school there could be found several ladies sitting on benches in front of the school selling green mangoes accompanied by salt and pepper. The women would have other wares for sale including boiled channa, fried channa, various fruits like genips, guavas, dunks and plums, but peeled green mango with salt and pepper was a staple.
Friendships were made and broken over green mangoes with salt and pepper.
Naturally, my grandchildren were eager to taste this Guyanese delicacy so I obliged. However, it soon became obvious that we could not eat all those green mangoes even with salt (I did not include pepper) so the topic of what else green mangoes were useful for came up. “Ah, achar” I said, “that is something else we used to make with green mangoes.” They had seen my jars of achar that I brought back from my visit to Guyana and the jars I regularly buy from Jan Kyte of Jan’s Catering here in Ontario. Now here was an opportunity to not only tell the tale of achar but to demonstrate the making of achar. I peeled, seeded and diced the remainder of the dozen green mangoes until my hands were sore and tired from the unaccustomed labour (who could have guessed that it would be such a task?).
The children took turns putting the diced green mangoes through the final preparation stage including adding some mild pepper (could not find any of our famous Guyanese wiri-wiri pepper in the grocery store) salt, garlic, olive oil and mangreil to the mixture (there was some more eating of the tart flesh of the unripe mangoes). Then it was time to “set” the achar by putting the jar on the window sill where it could get some winter sunlight (you have to work with what is available).
We ate some of the achar the next day. My granddaughter started it all by asking for some achar as part of her breakfast. I had never eaten achar for breakfast but there is a first time for everything so I let her have some for breakfast. I waited until lunchtime. It tasted really good considering that it has been years since I made mango achar. As much as I loved making achar with my grandchildren it cannot compare with the achar made by professionals like Jan Kyte of Jan’s Catering who I am in the process of contacting for my regular jar of achar (the achar from Guyana long gone).
We also did homework and discussed the Maroons of Jamaica because my granddaughter recently saw a performance at school about the Maroons. We talked about the connection between Africans from the African continent and Africans in the Diaspora and how that connection was almost broken for several generations. The connection of Africans in the Diaspora and those on the African continent was almost broken during slavery but tenuous holds and fragments remained in the areas of culture, language and names. The Africans who fled the plantations after the Spanish were attacked by the British in Jamaica on May 10, 1655 were the basis of the Maroon communities. These mostly enslaved Africans from West Africa founded communities in the hills of Jamaica and resisted re-enslavement by the British, the new colonisers of Jamaica. The many stories of fierce, tactical African resistance to European enslavement especially led by heroes and sheroes like Nanny and Cudjoe are wonderful stories for our young people to hear.
There were Maroon communities established in almost every country to which Africans had been transported and enslaved by Europeans. In Suriname the Djukas; in Brazil the quilombos of which the famous community of Palmares whose leader Zumbi is formally recognized as part of Brazilian history today; in Colombia the Africans established walled communities called palenques – the most well-known Palenque de San Basilio still existing today – and many others throughout the region is proof of our ancestors’ resistance to their enslavement.
Outside of these Maroon communities where the people guarded their freedom and their culture there are families who managed to hold on to some of their African culture in the Caribbean and other parts of the Americas. Because the European enslavers worked many of the Africans to death within five to seven years there was a constant replenishing of Africans from the continent. In an article published in 2007 entitled “Britain, slavery and the trade in enslaved Africans”, Marika Sherwood, a White professor (Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London) who has written several articles and books about the history of Africans, wrote: “Plantation and mine-owners bought the Africans – and more died in the process called ‘seasoning’. In the British colonies the slaves were treated as non-human: they were ‘chattels’, to be worked to death as it was cheaper to purchase another slave than to keep one alive. Though seen as non-human, as many of the enslaved women were raped, clearly at one level they were recognised as at least rapeable human beings. There was no opprobrium attached to rape, torture, or to beating your slaves to death. The enslaved in the British colonies had no legal rights as they were not human – they were not permitted to marry and couples and their children were often sold off separately.” Even after the British abolished the transportation of Africans from the African continent in 1807 (they did not abolish slavery in their colonies until 1834 -1838) they “rescued” Africans from other slave trading and owning nations and instead of taking the unfortunate captives back to Africa, “settled” them in British colonies as indentured labourers.”
From the website of the National Archives of the United Kingdom (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/lesson27.htm): “Between 1808 and 1869 the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron seized over 1,600 slave ships and freed about 150,000 Africans but, despite this, it is estimated that a further 1 million people were enslaved and transported throughout the 19th Century.”
The fact that Africans from the continent with their culture, history and language intact were added to the communities well into the 19th century (Cuba abolished slavery in 1886 and Brazil in 1888) it is not surprising that there are Africans in the Americas who retained some of their African culture and language.
Not all of this information was imparted to my grandchildren during their March Break visit but we will get to it over time. I felt very close to my late grandfather whose knowledge of African history I still draw upon. I could feel his energy with me as I interacted with my grandchildren. This is one of many ways that we can “pass on” our culture, our stories, to the next generation.
This all began with mango achar (which although a recognized part of Guyanese culture is not African) and became a story about our history as part of March Break activities.