For researchers looking at transatlantic entanglements, and for traces that link slaves in the Americas to their places of origin, names – for rituals, objects, foods – provide important clues. I have described in earlier posts how the presence of Upper Guineans in Peru and Northeastern Brazil is tangible in family names and names for particular foods. Today, a spirit is in focus: Mama Jombo. In her beautiful account of spirit shrines, Eve Crowley identifies the shrine dedicated to Mama Jombo as one of the most powerful shrines in the area, with a vast zone in which it is revered:
Mama Jombo originates from Kaboi [Caboi] in present-day Guinea Bissau, and it is around Kaboi, an area associated with the language Guboi [Cobiana/Kobiana in Portuguese and many linguistic sources] that it has the most influence, with annual rituals being celebrated to seek its protection, and where it is consulted for daily affairs through oracles and mediums at its shrines.
Mama Jombo’s powers reach far back into the past – the spirit is mentioned in Mungo Park’s accounts of his travels in West Africa and in many other travelogues (and with some likelihood carried over into English in its present meaning of gibberish from these sources, since these descriptions Othered West African religious customs, turning them into incomprehensible, alien, practices – mumbo jumbo). But Mama Jombo also travelled into the opposite direction in space: carnival processions held by African Americans in the US state of Louisiana, feature a masked dance with a mask called Mama Jombo. Louisiana is linked, by name and through slave trade, to French possessions on both sides of the Atlantic, including former trading posts such as Saint Louis in present-day Senegal. Ibrahima Seck, the director of the Whitney Plantation slavery museum in Louisiana, gives a captivating descripton of the contemporary Louisian Mama Jombo in this film – start watching at 13:00: https://youtu.be/BMGeFuwr4lw
Mama Jombo’s incarnation and social role has changed through displacement in space and time, but the name bears witness to its enduring importance both at is origin and destination points. In Guinea Bissau Mama Jombo is so popular, it even is the name of a band: Super Mama Djombo! This band, formed in the 1960s, was instrumental in the fight for Guinea Bissau’s independence from Portugal, and its name alludes to the fact that many of the independence fighters put themselves under the protection of Mama Jombo. Watch and listen them play here: https://youtu.be/J5EdS92J4Ec
You can read about the importance of spirit shrines for social and political life in Guinea Bissau in Eve Crowley’s PhD thesis:
Crowley, Eve Lakshmi. 1990. Contracts with the spirits: religion, asylum, and ethnic identity in the Cacheu region of Guinea-Bissau. Yale University: PhD thesis
5 thoughts on “From the Upper Guinea Coast to Louisiana: Mama Jombo”
Dear Dr. Lupke,
Now that you’ve excitedly brought us to this interesting point of the discourse, permit me to ask this question that I was recently asked by a colleague out of curiosity.
Since we know about the popular insurgence of some batch of the slaves that led to mass drowning, assuming that the slaves were bought from different parts of Africa and from different linguistic background, how did they communicate to successfully deliver on their plan, knowing that, of course, they didn’t speak English or Pidgin?
This is a fascinating question! The answers are complex and all a bit speculative of course, but I will dedicate a couple of posts to them. Watch this space!
Can’t wait to read about it!
Wonderful communication and thanks for highlighting Dr. Crowley’s book, Contract with the Spirits