Linden Lewis: “Jack Muh Nanny Gap” (excerpts)

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It was such a pleasure to savor Linden Lewis’s “Jack Muh Nanny Gap” with my morning coffee [shared by Marc Goodridge via Facebook on “The History Forum”]. It was first published in Bim (Vol. 4, No. 2) 2011. I am sharing it now for some of my Bajan (and other Caribbean) friends with whom I have shared conversations about the intersections of nostalgia and related emotions with our academic work. Here are just a few excerpts; I highly recommend reading the full piece at Bim.

The first house we moved to in Wavell Avenue was not to the front of the street but nestled in the bowels of a long gap, which at night required good vision to wend one’s way to where our house was located.  You did not exactly get to the house by chance but at night, in the absence of a lit pathway, intuition was an important skill.  Our house was a classic Barbadian chattel house – one gabled roof, a shed and a kitchen.  I have had several conversations with friends about the way the Barbadian chattel house is currently being used merely as an icon of Bajan culture, to be consumed as art by tourists without an understanding of the history and social implications of the structure of such a house.  In the post-emancipation period, the Located Labourers’ Act permitted the ex-enslaved to build houses on the land owned by the plantation.  The term chattel is given to these houses because they represented movable property.  These were very basic wooden structures, with gabled roofs, and set on blocks.  As Hilary Beckles noted, in the shadow of the Great House, stood the chattel house, which symbolized the landlessness of the newly emancipated.  The people who lived in or owned these houses, did not own the land on which they were located, so that the houses had to be built in such a way that they could be relocated from one lease-holding site to another, or on a spot that permitted some respite from usurious land-owners.

The Barbadian chattel house was architecturally designed to facilitate assembling and dissembling of its structure.  The house itself was not built on a solid concrete foundation but on blocks, which made moving the structure relatively easy. [. . .] The lack of permanence that marked the relationship of the chattel house owner to the land was directly related to the vulnerability of the poor Barbadian worker.  It was in effect part of the hidden injuries of social class that the poor in Wavell Avenue and across the island felt in relation to the power of private property.

[. . .] When my family first moved to Barbados, the number of gabled roofs you had on your chattel house was a signifier of your household income.  As children became working adults who contributed to the household finances, the additional income manifested itself in the building of a second roof, and a third, for those who had more adult children.  For families without children, better economic circumstances afforded more spacious accommodation, hence more roofs added to the original structure.  Those families with more household incomes began gradually to remove the wooden parts of the house and replacing them with a concrete structure, which most Barbadians called ‘wall’, a description which many non-Barbadians find amusing.  The use of concrete [‘wall’] in a part of the house, starting from the kitchen and moving forward, was the beginning of a flat-top bungalow, which was an expression of class mobility, of having made it socially in Barbados.  It is important to remember that up to that time (the 1960s), and still so to some extent today, grown children left the household of their family of origin only when they were going to start their own families, or if they were migrating.  Of course, some never left their original homes, they simply inherited the house of their parents in the fullness of time.  [. . .]

One lasting memory of the first place we lived in Wavell Avenue that did not register as significant to me until I was much older, was the presence of some older men in the community, who on occasion would speak to each other in a language that I did not understand.  In time, I came to realize that these were some of the men who had gone to help in the construction of the Panama Canal at the turn of the 20th century.  Many Caribbean men from Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica, Grenada, went in search of better economic fortunes in Panama.  It is here that they acquired fluency in the Spanish language.  When the canal was completed by 1914, some of them remained in Cólon in Panama, while some moved to the neighboring cities of Puerto Limón, in Costa Rica, the Bluefields of Nicaragua, and others moved on to Barranquilla and Cartagena in Colombia, and many went to Baraguá in Cuba.  During their time spent working in Panama, these men had sustained families back in their home territories through the remittances of their earnings.  Having worked abroad for several years some returned to Barbados to live out the rest of their lives.  Those who ended up living in Wavell Aveune tended to meet at one man’s house; they would drink, and they would talk about all types of issues, but when they wanted to exclude the rest of the community, they spoke in Spanish.  No one in our community at the time understood the importance of their history, because their lives seemed so mundane, that we were unable to discern any value in their lived experiences.  They were just old men who enjoyed sharing their memories among themselves, in a language we regarded as strange. That they had helped build the Panama Canal was beyond our imagination.

Mudheads

By about the middle of that year, 1962, we moved once again, to another house, this time, on the main road of Wavell Avenue.  Here we began to build a more solid family unit, and settled in our adopted homeland.  I started to attend St. Stephen’s Primary School and began to develop a network of friends both at school and in my immediate community.  It was about this period that I learned for the first time that I was a “mud-head”.  Understandably, this was never an issue in Guyana.  It was a nickname that was hurled at me often, but not so much by my peers, who were perhaps not as knowledgeable about the geography of Guyana or about the leaves and mud that made its water brown and murky.  My peers just thought then that I talked ‘funny’, and that I had a different vocabulary, for certain things that they called by different names.

I said gineps and dongs, they said ackee and dunks; I talked about a ‘bottom house’, which was totally foreign to people in a country which was not below sea-level, and did not at the time, have much of a problem with flooding but with hurricanes, hence, the architecture of houses was built lower to the ground than the average height of a house in Guyana.  In other words, there was normally no area under the house in Barbados that could be utilized as a social space in dry weather conditions.  In Guyana, assuming that there was no flooding, children played under the house, adults slept in hammocks there, played cards and dominoes, stored things under there, or just relaxed in the ‘bottom house’, while chatting with friends or relatives. [. . .]

For full article, see http://www.bimlitfest.org/articles/jack-muh-nanny-gap

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