Preserving the Saraka festival in Tobago – Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton –


Some of the cultural traditions celebrated in the African diaspora in the Caribbean were brought to the region by the enslaved Africans.

These traditions constitute important features of the history of the region because, for the Africans, they served as instruments of continuity with their homeland and were important contributors to survival in their new locations and, in particular, resistance to the oppression they faced on Caribbean plantations. Since they were forcibly removed from their homeland and transported across the sea to unfamiliar locations, they did not have the privilege of bringing some of those items that would normally be considered essential for a relocation exercise.

In addition, a part of the brutal regimes they encountered on the plantations was the conditioning used by the planting community to reshape their African labourers into the servile beings they needed to maintain the cheap, docile labour force they desired to operate their estates profitably. In this process, they tried to strip the Africans of their sense of being and force them to accept subjugation to their new “masters” as their destiny. This reconditioning process involved convincing them that they were inferior people, that all things African were worthless, pagan, savage and undesirable, while all things European were superior.

Basically this was a strong move to strip them of their identity and reshape them into the mould desired by and convenient to planter and plantation requirements.

Ultimately, it was those memories of their traditional practices that allowed the enslaved Africans to hold on to their identities in the savage plantation environment.

It is therefore important for subsequent generations to hold on to these traditions that provide evidence of the efforts of their forbears to overcome the efforts to subsume them as part of the plantation equipment and provide the foundation upon which their descendants could achieve upward mobility, even in that very hostile environment. It allows an understanding of the experiences of the enslaved and the determination with which their resistance efforts were sustained by recourse to their traditions.

One such tradition is the Saraka festival.

The presence of the Saraka (also called Salaka) festival in Tobago provides an indication of the African origins of some members of the island’s population. Up to the present day the Saraka festival is celebrated in a part of Ghana and by the Temne peoples of Sierra Leone, which suggests that these areas were possible sources of some of the captives who were brought to Tobago. However, post-Emancipation intra-Caribbean population movements were important in the spread of the festival in Tobago. In the quest to find a replacement export crop for the failed sugar industry, there were attempts to stimulate the cocoa industry in Tobago. To facilitate this industry, immigrants were encouraged from Grenada during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Among the group were people from Carriacou, where members of the Temne people had been introduced as labourers by two large plantation owners. The festival, which is very strongly maintained in Grenada and Carriacou, is an important element of the cultural tourism of these islands. The Saraka tradition in Tobago was subsequently strengthened by the immigrants from Grenada and Carriacou.

Saraka, is an African thanksgiving festival which is held in agricultural communities after the harvest. It is traditionally held on the Friday after Easter and marks the end of one season of cultivation by giving thanks for the bounty and heralds the start of the next planting season. The people gather in the yard to cook, share and eat. The tradition is to cook the foods considered the fruits of the earth – corn, peas, rice, flour and ground provisions – that are cultivated in the community. Pork is included if pigs were reared in the community.

The entire community comes together for the celebration. The food is cooked in big pots on open fires in the yard by women, and is served on banana leaves.

After eating, the Nation dance takes place to the beating of drums. During the dance the important symbols of cultivation are made prominent: the cutlass, which is used for cleaning the land, the fork for ploughing and the hoe for planting. These indicate an appreciation for the last bounty and that it is time to return to cultivation of the next crop.

The significance of this tradition is noteworthy. It strengthens the practice of agriculture, particularly of the traditional foods, and it encourages the “eat what you grow” notion that has become so relevant in Tobago today.

The festival was an important agency for community strengthening not only because it brought people together to participate in the celebration, but also because it engendered a sense of self-worth, pride, identity and oneness which facilitated social cohesion.

Because of the settlement of Grenadian immigrants in the area, the Saraka festival was strong in Pembroke, where the yard celebrations occurred up to the 1960s. One of the most important celebrants was one of Tobago’s cultural icons, Emelda Cape Cruickshank. In addition to being an important figure in the development of the art of drumming on the island, she maintained the Saraka celebration, which she learned from her Grenadian parents. The festival has been featured in the annual Heritage festival in a number of performances in the Best Village competition.

Hopefully this aspect of the island’s heritage will not be allowed to die, because its emphasis on local food cultivation and consumption can be used to stimulate the agriculture industry; it is a useful starting point for those who seek to trace their origins; and it can be used as a valuable addition to the island’s tourism product.