In the Bahamas, a unique expression is introduced into the surrounding culture and traditions: Junkanoo.
For two chilly days in the Bahamas each year, the capital city turns into a river of sound and color. Bells, horns, and chimes hit the Caribbean air as thousands of costumes danced along the streets.
In the Bahamas, an island with a population of less than 400,000, it shows, the surrounding culture and associated activities that go on throughout the year are known by one word: Junkanoo. For historian Arlene Nash Ferguson, it was a long life.
She was just four years old when she asked her family if she could dance in heaven, inspired by her uncle, Ivern Bousfield, who helped persuade the government to return to the festival after it was banned in the 1940s following the uprising.
“That’s not what people did “well” back then,” he said. “There was a public outcry about it and especially against the women. But my family thought it was good that you took me. They allowed me to do it, the rest, as they say, is history.”
He moves into his childhood home in downtown Nassau and the Junkanoo Educational Museum, which teaches guests about the festival and its roots. A walk through the museum follows the history of Junkanoo, especially its fashion transformations.
“We used to wear village clothes. Sponges, books, feathers, palm fronds. We can get anything,” he said. “Books ended up being a way of spending money, which was very useful to me because Africans weren’t allowed to learn to read and write.”
The story of Junkanoo is closely linked to the city’s history of slavery in the Bahamas. Despite controversy over the origin of the name, Boxing Day and New Year’s celebrations coincided with the day slaves were freed from slavery.
According to Ferguson, what they did at that time was the opposition.
“I think our ancestors were in the throes of slavery, but you no longer belong to you. You belong to humans,” he said. “You are divided like animals. And in the midst of the fear and humiliation of slavery, you say to yourself, ‘I can’t be an animal. Because when we are at home in the homeland, we have festivals and celebrations. And’ So let’s remember, if only we, as members of the human family, removed our company from home, that we would leave the cover of the night to save our inheritance.”
In 2019, the Bahamas experienced the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, the strongest hurricane to hit the city in history. In 2020, the Covid-19 epidemic ravaged the city’s tourism industry and forced the cancellation of this year’s Junkanoo show, although Junkanoo’s small shows lasted all year round.
But Ferguson, the festival spirit will help carry his country through difficult times now and in the future, as it has in the past.
“Junkanoo itself is a story of stability. It is truly a symbol of our strength and determination as humans,” he said. “We had Dorian and now we have Covid. And just like we had every other problem in the first place, we have to survive. As we said in the Bahamas, we have to recover. But that’s just part of ‘who we are’.’, to put it into Bahamian English.”