It was nine o’clock in the morning and I felt like the sun was resting on my forehead.
I’d stepped out of the museum, walking back up the road — the same one I’d been on 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. Others were starting up the jerk grills, or hung up Jamaica tee-shirts and displayed red-green-gold souvenirs on tables.
I kept walking up, while locals greeted me along the way. I saw a group of men sitting in the shade, talking and people-watching. There were low-level buildings on each side of the road — homes and restaurants. You’d never spot 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 camera gear, and passing more grills and unpacked goods beside stalls. I began eyeballing the pieces of “festival” — cornmeal fried dumplings — that lay neatly on aluminum foil on one grill, looking crispy and hot. I hadn’t had breakfast since we hit the road at 6 a.m. from Negril, and aside from 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 to grab a “festival,” a man walked up to me. I stopped, and so did Thomas, my driver, who’d been walking beside me.
“Greetings! Excuse me, hello, where are you from?”
I forgot about the drops trickling down my back and the weight of my gear.
“I’m originally from 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 that 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. As a woman traveling around alone in a male dominated culture, it had become second nature. It didn’t matter that my Jamaican driver towered over me with all of his six feet and 200 pounds. The poor thing was walking around with me in the sun, following along as I scouted the scene for shots. It was also his first time in this town, and he was intrigued.
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?
Thomas glanced at me. I nodded and we started walking with our new acquaintance towards his family home. It was just a few steps away, as he’d promised, across from some of the jerk grills that were filling my nostrils and torturing my empty stomach.
We reached a ground level, modest home with a furnished verandah, and surrounding metal bars like most homes in Jamaica.
As we stepped in, there were 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 Thomas 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 Ethiopia, sharing stories of Haile Selassie that I learned from my parents, who had known His Majesty. 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. 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. It’s 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?”
“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 basically, 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 Jamaica’s Maroons and tell their story, but I was learning more about myself.
In that moment, I had flashbacks. I remembered my mother telling me years ago how unique my name was, even in Ethiopia. Though initially hers at birth, she chose to use the one her grandmother gave her, and later decided I should have the name Lebawit.
I remembered my first month at an all girls’ boarding school in England at 14, away from home and living in Europe for the first time. Fast-forward to my first solo trip to Jamaica in 2007 — and my last day at the firm two and half years ago, leaving behind seven years of law practice and a cushy senior 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 — a woman with courage?
An hour had passed and I nodded to Thomas, who’d remained standing 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.
Tips for Attending Annual Maroon Day Festival
Private tour guides or taxi drivers will take you to Maroon Day in Accompong Town – be sure to get your driver referral from reliable Jamaica travel forums.
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.
Important: Cameras and videotaping during the traditional ceremony are allowed as long as it’s done from a certain distance from the performers, and it’s discreet. Be respectful at all times — this is a traditional ceremony, not an entertainment show. Flash is also not permitted.
Have you been to the Maroon Festival or to Accompong Town before?