Word of mouth (Mar/Apr 2018)

The bright colours of Guyana’s Phagwah celebrations mingle into a shade of unity, and Sint Maarten’s annual Carnival defies the ravages of Hurricane Irma

  • Photo by Amanda Richards
  • Photo by Anya Kazantseva/Shutterstock.com

A unity of colour

At Guyana’s Phagwah celebrations, Subraj Singh notes how the festival’s many colours blend into a single, unifying shade

Providence Stadium, orginally built for cricket, has long been acclimatised to parties, concerts, and other non-sporting events. Today it is the host for the biggest Phagwah celebration in Guyana. Phagwah (or Holi), the Hindu festival of colours, came to Guyana from India in the nineteenth century, when immigrants were shipped to Britain’s West Indian colonies to replace newly freed Africans as plantation labour. This history is immediate in my mind as I join the squeeze of people entering the wet, colourful, powder-clouded space, which holds an overpowering, invisible thing in the air — I get a strong whiff of unity from it, but that can’t be right binding everyone to everyone else.

It begins at the gate. In the multi-hued world that Phagwah brings, colour-blindness — the good kind — can be seen in all its kaleidoscopic glory. I see a small black boy with a yellow water-gun playfully squirting “stainer” at a troop of smiling, fair-skinned Indian girls in front of me, their white pants and white tops purpling from the liquid. I see groups of friends from a variety of racial backgrounds, wrapping each other in hugs and cascading piles of powder — green, red, white, yellow — the colours of the Guyanese flag. Some white tourists with bra straps showing through wet t-shirts grin as strangers daub crimson and pink powder on their faces, granting them acceptance in the form of iridescent pigment. I see a mixed-race friend and her black boyfriend — “Happy Holi, you guys!”and they both powder my dark skin, my cheeks, my beard, my hair, with a green that now, in retrospect, I regard as the exact shade of envy. I watch them walk away, pressed to each other.

I watch the people, dancing to Bollywood music, throwing powder on their family and friends and others they do not know, with blue and orange and scarlet pluming from their hair, with pink-stained teeth, with drops of water flying from writhing bodies, with all of their faces covered in the same multitude of colours — blending to create the same shade of black. I marvel at how they all look like each other in the shade of Phagwah.

I wait inside the stadium. I finally see him enter the gate. His shirt is clean, bright white. “I want you to be the first to colour me,” he says, and when he is close enough I pull him into a hug. I can smell the scent of him under the musky, holy smell of Phagwah powder. My hands linger on his hips for longer than usual, because the hundreds of people flocking the stadium on this one day only have eyes for their loved ones — eyes for joy and happiness and togetherness, or eyes blinded with colour that they hurriedly rush to the waterpipes to wash out. After I paint his face pink, we walk around, happily pushed against each other by the crowd of colourful people who help to paint us in their shade of black.

Carnival come back again

When Hurricane Irma devastated St Martin six months ago, few residents had Carnival in mind. But this year’s festival has become a symbol of rebirth for the island, Laura Dowrich reports

When Hurricane Irma completed her devastation of St Martin in September 2017, Austin Helliger was among hundreds left without a home. He couldn’t even find refuge in his parents’ house, as that too was destroyed. The businessman, who was on the verge of launching his own Carnival band, had second thoughts.

Post-Irma revealed apocalyptic scenes on the island, in which Dutch Sint Maarten shares a border with French Saint-Martin. Trees were uprooted, buildings destroyed, and leisure craft used by families and visitors on sunny weekend sailings were turned topsy-turvy, sometimes miles away from their original berth. Chaos erupted, as desperate residents began looting before the Dutch military were sent to enforce law and order. Carnival was one of the furthest things from most residents’ minds.

“The first couple of weeks, I was like, I don’t want to do this,” says Helliger of his Carnival band. “But I did a boat ride after the hurricane and it was amazing to see that four hundred people came and gave me their money. It was an emotional experience, and everyone was asking what the next event is.”

So come April, Helliger will make his debut in Sint Maarten’s forty-ninth Carnival. His will be one of the eight bands registered for the festival.

Helliger’s determination to do his band reflects the bigger determination of the country to show the world they are open for business. This Carnival is being seen as a symbol of resilience and hope following the ravages of Irma.

“We have so many people literally telling us every day that Carnival will happen, Carnival must happen. It’s an important and vital part of our culture and mental recovery. And though we may lose our material things, you cannot take away our spirit of enjoyment and togetherness,” said Alston Lourens, president of the Sint Maarten Carnival Development Foundation, after the board met to discuss the annual event a few weeks after Irma’s passage.

Carnival in Sint Maarten began on 11 November, 1970, Sint Maarten’s Day, to replicate the annual Carnival held in neighbouring St Thomas. When French Saint-Martin also started celebrating the holiday, the Dutch side moved its Carnival to 30 April, the Queen’s Birthday, with a Grand Carnival Parade.

Today the parade is still held on the Queen’s Birthday, but the festivities begin a month earlier — this year, from 12 April to 3 May. Most events take place in one central location, the Carnival Village, a stadium-like facility with shops and Caribbean cuisine, described as the only venue of its kind in the region.

Carnival ends with the burning of King Momo, a large effigy made of straw, wood, and plaster. Momo is a derivation of the Ancient Greek Momus, god of satire and mockery. King Momo represents the excess and wildness of Carnival, and gives people permission to break loose during the season.

And in 2018, the return of King Momo has a special significance: it means things are getting back to normal.