Annual Maroon Festival In Accompong Town, Jamaica: Celebrating Freedom & Courage

It was nine o’clock in the morning and I felt like the sun was resting on my forehead. I had just walked out of the museum and I was now going back up the road, the same one since reaching the center of town. It was getting steeper but I seemed to be the only one who noticed. Around me, people were getting ready. Wood fires were crackling and yams and other vegetable lay out by the calabashes; some were starting up the jerk grills. Others were hanging up “Jamaica” tee-shirts and displaying red-green-gold souvenirs onto tables. I kept walking up and was greeted along the way. I saw a group of men sitting in the shade, talking and people-watching. There were low-level buildings to each side of the road; some were homes and some were restaurants. You could never see all this from the long drive up the hills.

I kept walking, further up, feeling my back more than my thighs thanks to my Nikon gear. I passed by more grills and piles of unpacked items by stalls along each side of the road. I started eyeballing the pieces of “festival” (cornmeal fried dumplings) that lay neatly on aluminum foil on one grill, looking crisp and hot. I hadn’t had breakfast since we hit the road at 6 a.m. from Negril, and just barely a half cup of coffee. The bumpy roads through the parish of St. Elizabeth and the long way up the hilly interior of this town had drained the little morning energy I had. But before I got a chance to approach one of the grills, [Continued--->] a man walked right up to me. I stopped, and so did T, my driver.

“Greetings! Excuse me… hello, where are you from?”

I forgot about the drops trickling down my back and the weight of my gear.

“Ethiopia” I said slowly.

“Yes! I saw you and I knew. I can see it in your eyes. Look!” He pointed to his Ethiopian meskels or crosses, adorning his neck. He told me he, too, had an Ethiopian name. “Please, come, come sit with me and my family on our porch. We have a house right here in Accompong Town, it’s just over there.”

For the first couple of seconds my solo female traveler instincts kicked in – I can’t help it, as a woman traveling around alone in a male dominated culture, it’s become second nature. It didn’t matter that my Jamaican driver, T*, towered over me with all of his six feet and 200 lbs. The poor thing was walking around with me in the sun, following as I scouted the scene for shots. It was also his first time in this town. I looked in the eyes of the man who approached me. And then I thought, meeting Maroon descendants in Accompong Town on Maroon Celebration Day – it didn’t get better than that, did it?

T glanced at me. I nodded and we started walking with our new acquaintance towards his family home. It was just a few steps away, like he said, across from some of the jerk grills I had been eyeing. It was a ground level, modest home with a furnished verandah, with bars all around it like most homes in Jamaica.

As we got closer to the verandah, I saw more folks sitting there, chatting and laughing away, cooling off from the hot sun. They were cousins and siblings, all somehow related.

I was introduced.

“Meet ah African sistren, ah Ethiopian sistren.”

I shook hands with everyone and sat on a futon-like couch, while T preferred to stand on a corner where he had a view of the whole verandah. The minute I sat, we were talking about my country, Ethiopia. Or rather, I was answering questions about it, sharing stories of Haile Selassie that I learned from my parents, who knew His Majesty well. The banter continued and I was relieved to be out of the hot sun and resting a little until the activities kicked up.

It was Annual Maroon Festival Day. It takes place the first week of January and is the day hundreds of Maroons from around Jamaica and abroad, as well as visitors, descend on Accompong Town – in the parish of St. Elizabeth, in the south of Jamaica – to celebrate the Maroons’ emancipation from the British in 1738.

If you’re wondering who the Jamaican Maroons are, they are the descendants of enslaved African first brought to Jamaica from Africa’s Gold Coast by the Spanish. Today, about 500 descendants of the Maroons live in the hilly southern interior of the island, in Accompong Town, as well as in the parish of Portland, in the northeast. And they run their own communities, largely autonomous and separate from other Jamaicans.

The main celebration for Maroon Day is held in Accompong Town because this is where they first escaped and took refuge after the Spanish freed them. It’s also where they fought the British slave masters and obtained their independence. The day also celebrates Captain Cudjoe, the Maroon leader and hero who signed the Peace Treaty with the British that gave them freedom and land. Captain Cudjoe’s sister, Nanny of the Maroons, was fighting from the eastern side of the island in Portland, and considered an instrumental leader of the Maroons in the 18th Century. She’s the only female listed among Jamaica’s national heroes.

The day-long festival in Accompong Town is one of celebrating African ancestry and the spirit of “family.” In the morning, around 10 a.m., there’s a traditional ceremony where everyone gathers under the Kindah Tree and the Maroons beat the drums, chant and afterwards share a sacred meal consisting of unseasoned pork – all part of starting a new year off with the blessing of the ancestors.

The rest of the day continues with traditional foods, games and live music.

***

We were still on the porch and my hosts were now joking about the British soldiers who attempted to capture the Maroons from this hilly interior. Did the British really think they wouldn’t be seen approaching? It’s impossible not to see anyone coming. And carrying all that artillery, no less? We all laughed, and I thought of my sore back from carrying camera gear with me up the road for just a few minutes.

I was finally about to ask my questions on the Maroons when my host spoke.

“So, but, Lily… that is not an Ethiopian name? What is your real Ethiopian name?”

“Lebawit.”

“Lebow…?”

“Le-ba -wit. Le-ba-weet.” I smiled. I was used to repeating it and I listened to the family working on the pronunciation.

“So, what it means?”

“Well, ‘Leb’ in Amharic means heart. And ‘awit’ means ‘a woman with.’ So, a woman with a big heart, compassionate.”

“Big heart… seen, seen. But it could also mean courageous? When you have heart, you have courage.”

I was speechless.

“Woman with a big heart, meaning woman with courage, brave woman,” he continued.

“I guess… yes, I guess it could.”

I hid my emotion. I realized that I had never, ever thought of that possible interpretation to my name. Thirty something years later! I came to Accompong Town to learn more about the Maroons and tell a story with my lens and words, but I was learning more about myself.

And in that moment, I had flashbacks. My mother years ago, telling me how unique my name was even in Ethiopia and though initially hers at birth, she chose to use the one her grandmother gave her, and later decided I should have the name Lebawit. My first month at an all girls’ boarding school in England at 14, away from home and living in Europe for the first time. Traveling to Jamaica solo for the first time in 2007. My last day at the firm two and half years ago, leaving behind seven years of law practice and a cushy associate position so I could pursue my dream of travel writing and photography, at a time when the economy was just starting to crumble. And here I was now, way up in the hills, in the Jamaican countryside, traveling on my own yet comfortable and fearless.

Perhaps he was right? Perhaps that was me – woman with courage?

An hour had passed and I nodded to T, who had stood the entire time, smiling throughout our conversations. I took some photos of our hosts; we exchanged information and said our goodbyes. It was time to go check if the traditional ceremony was starting soon.

As soon as we stepped outside, I felt the sun again on my forehead. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and thanked my mother for my name.

***

1. Accompong Town Centre, where vendors are getting ready for the more than hundred visitors on Maroon Festival Day.2. Maroon Treaty of 1737 mounted at the entrance of the local museum in Accompong Town. There is no entrance fee and it is very much worth a visit. 3. Murals of Jamaican heroes in Accompong Town, including the Nanny of The Maroons.4. The cooking starts early to prepare for the hundreds of visitors on Maroon Day.5. Traditional Jamaican food vendors prepare their grills early. Foods include festival, and jerk pork or chicken..6a6. Approaching the Kindah Tree where the traditional ceremony takes place. Spectators sit under the Tree and watch from a short distance.6b. The Kindah Tree is a sacred seal or site where the elders used to gather for important ceremonies or war meetings.7. The women prepare to sing and chant at the ceremony.8a. There is drumming and chanting for an hour under the Kindah Tree. The men beat the drums while the women chant.8b. White rum is consumed as well as sprayed on the crowd as a way to ward off the spirits.8c.8d. JB overproof white rum is sprayed on the Maroon performers as well as on the public sitting under the Kindah Tree. The rum is said to ward off spirits and bring forth good luck for the year.8e. 8f.8g.8e.9. During the ceremony the sacred food is prepared nearby and consists of unseasoned pork with yams and horse plantain.10. After the ceremony the crowd rushes to the food section next to the Kindah Tree to receive a piece of the sacred meal.10a. The competition for a piece of sacred pork is fierce. But careful...it's steamy hot (as this lady found out and dropped that piece of pork she grabbed).10b. Unseasoned, unsaltened pork with yams and horse plantain, served in bits to the crowd on a leaf.10c. A child grabs some pork of her own.A Maroon blows the abeng (cow horn) to signal the start of the ceremony. Back in the 17th-19th centuries, the Maroons used the abeng to communicate with each other during wars with the British.10d.11. The hilly interior of Accompong Town.12. Contemplating under the Kindah Tree.13. Back up to town from the Kindah Tree, the vendors are ready to sell some jerk pork.14. Leather sandals made in Jamaica are among the many souvenirs sold on Maroon Day.

***

Private tour guides or taxi drivers will take you to Maroon Day in Accompong Town – be sure to get your driver referral from reliable travel forums such as Jamericans, Negril.com or Trip Advisor. Allow plenty of time to reach in the morning, as the roads are fairly rough on the way up to the “centre” of Accompong Town and have tricky corners, so an experienced driver is a must. The traditional ceremony kicks off around 10 a.m. under the Kindah Tree (ask anyone there where that is) and is the highlight, though celebrations go on all day and into the night with all sorts of games, live music, food and other fun events. And though small, the museum is also a must.

If I had to come up with a top five festivals to see and experience in Jamaica, Maroon Day would be on that list. And top five places to visit? Cockpit Country.

Note: Cameras and videotaping during the traditional ceremony are allowed as long as it’s done from a certain distance from the performers and discreet. Flash is not allowed (which made my task difficult given all the shade at that time of day). Crouching and trying to make myself and my lens invisible under the Kindah Tree was no easy feat!

Have you been to the Maroon Festival or to Accompong Town before?

Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma has contributed writing and photography to CNN Travel, New York Magazine, AFAR, American Way, Travel Channel, BBC Travel, and others. She’s the new author of MOON BELIZE for Moon Travel Guides, and is completing a second title, MOON BELIZE CAYES. A serial expat, Lily’s lived and studied on three continents, including Africa–from her native Ethiopia to Côte d'Ivoire––and Europe, and is fluent in four languages. A former attorney who ditched the office for the road in 2009, she favors all things culture, adventure and storytelling, and escapes Washington DC’s winters every year. Lily also runs her award-winning travel and photography blog, Sunshine and Stilettos.

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7 Comments

  1. The Travel Chica 18 June, 2011 at 8:07 PM #

    Enjoyed this post and love the photos!

  2. mike 19 June, 2011 at 8:44 PM #

    nice post. especially love the way they interpreted your name. maroons are traditionally a wartime people and the difference perspective is always interesting.
    keep coming back!

  3. lilyg 19 June, 2011 at 9:06 PM #

    @Stephanie, thank you!

    @Mike, thanks! You’re so right – their interpretation is fascinating given that, like you said, they were warriors. And in itself, a perfect example of how we all view the world through our own experiences and history.
    It was great to see you there! Hope I do get to attend over and over! :)

  4. Fly Girl 20 June, 2011 at 8:34 PM #

    OHH, Accompong is such an unforgettable place! You really captured how special it is.

  5. Lebawit Lily Girma 21 June, 2011 at 10:10 AM #

    Thanks Rosalind! It’s a very special place indeed. I hope I can stay longer next time and celebrate all day!

  6. Diana 22 June, 2011 at 1:38 AM #

    Excellent post. The part other translation for you name touched me. I love the elders.

  7. Lebawit Lily Girma 29 June, 2011 at 11:54 AM #

    Thanks Diane!

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