Beliefs, Ceremonies & Rituals
Most of Guyana’s Christians are Protestants with some Roman Catholics. There are also other active Christian denominations in the nation. The growth of Christianity in the country occurred during the colonial era and the work of Christian missionaries in Guyana helped spread the religion among the indigenous inhabitants of the country. The enslaved Africans brought to work on the plantations also converted to Christianity in great numbers. However, the Africans also maintained their traditional rituals and customs that resulted in a blending of beliefs in the development of an Afro-Guyanese culture in Guyana.
Although Hinduism has the second highest number of followers in Guyana, numbers have been falling in recent decades. Most of Guyana’s Hindus trace their origins to India. The Hindus of Guyana celebrate many festivals throughout the year such as Phagwah which is a time when everyone throws off the gloom of winter and rejoices in the colours and liveliness of spring.
Muslims in Guyana also trace their origins to South Asia from where they were brought by the European colonists to work as indentured labourers on the plantations. There are different Islamic groups - the Shias, Sunnis, Sufis, and Ahmadiyyas – which make up the Muslim population of Guyana. Muslims and Hindus in Guyana share a large part of their culture and often participate in each other’s festivals.
Traditional religions are practiced by both Amerindians and African-origin immigrants to Guyana. Although a majority of them has converted to Christianity and their indigenous practices have waned over the years, some indigenous beliefs and rituals are still prevalent in the country. Shamans play a significant role in traditional Guyanese society where shamans are believed to be the connection between the spirits world and humans. Obeah, a folk religion of African origin is also practiced in the country.
Ear Piercing: Some Hindus choose to have their baby's ears pierced in a ritual called Karnavedha. Some believe that the pierced ears help ward off evil, while other believe the ear lobe is a vital acupuncture point and that piercing it may have therapeutic value. The ceremony typically takes place within the first or third year after birth and may be done simultaneously with the mundan, or head shaving, ritual.
Death Rituals: When someone from a traditional Afro-Guyanese home passes away, there are several ways in which the passing is observed. But one feature that is characteristic among them all is the beating of drums until midnight, sometimes later, and the singing or chanting of “death hymns.” ‘Wakes’ are also kept each night leading up to the funeral and ‘nine night’ is also observed usually in the yard or bottom house of the deceased, where relatives and friends come together to share their condolences and memories while singing hymns and eating food together.
Comfa: This is focused on the Water Mumma, or Goddess of the water. The full moon and black water are important in the timing and placing of ceremonies which is normally defined by elements of ecstatic, trancelike dancing, and spirit possession, induced by drumming. It is practiced in Guyana, mainly by the descendants of enslaved Africans. According to sociolinguist Kean Gibson, the foremost expert on Guyanese Comfa, the religion is currently practiced by about 10 percent of the country’s African-Guyanese population.
Cleansing Ceremony: Most cleansing ceremonies by Afro-Guyanese are conducted at the seawalls early in the morning. Two women either clothed in white, African dresses or African prints would bathe the person who is said to be either possessed or touched by an evil eye. In some cases, the person is scrubbed from head to toe with special brews made by a witch doctor or the “Obeah man or woman”.
Warding off evil: In some African homes, preventing an evil force from entering and interfering with a newly married couple can be done through various traditional methods. One involves an egg which is washed and placed in a clean glass filled with water which is then placed over the front door of the home.
Obeah: It is considered to be the spiritual magic of the first human societies on the African continent and it is practiced in Guyana in its raw and pure form. The mysteries of Obeah have been studied carefully by scientists alike but none have completely unravelled its mysteries. Yet, many locals have given testimony to its power. The person performing the “spiritual magic” is called the witch doctor or “Obeah man.” Obeah provides spells for love, money, spiritual protection and just about anything at all. They are known to be successful once it is “the will of the good and evil spirits.” However, the rituals and practices in this field still remain a closely guarded secret.
Guyanese folklore is varied and consists of many legends and myths; those most well-known are Ole Higue, Kanaima, Moongazer, Massacooraman and the Baccoo. But there are quite a few more including the Mermaid or Fairmaid.
The Mermaids in Guyana are believed to frequent riverbanks, singing alluring tunes and combing their long, flowing hair with ornate combs which they like to leave for the unsuspecting victim to steal. The thief is usually punished in a grisly way in the dark depths of the rivers and oceans. The Guyanese Mermaid has strong influence from the African version, Mami Wata.
Kanaima, as spirits of vengeance, attack and kill their victims as retribution for some injustice. It is a human/lizard like creature. Some say it is like the werewolf but instead of running with a pack it finds a master. Once the master gains its trust, he can make it kill/harm anyone and anything.
However, it is said that, Kanaima is scared of its own reflection.
The Massacooraman is a huge, hairy, man-like creature that lives in rivers in the interior of Guyana. The Massacooraman allegedly capsizes small boats and eats the occupants.
Amerindians and miners who work in the interior of Guyana often speak of the Massacooraman which, apparently, is much taller and bigger than a man and has sharp teeth. It is unknown whether the Massacooraman lives in the river or dwells on land, but it is certain that it can swim very well.
The Queh Queh/Kweh Kweh/Kwe Kwe is a Guyanese (African) tradition which is usually held the night before a wedding and involves the beating of drums, singing of - often risqué - call and answer traditional songs such as Ah wanda whey me [Telma] gawn, sarch an guh fine am; Show mi yuh science, Ow [Janie] nah sell dis boy to name a few. There is also a particular dance routine which accompanies the singing and of course food and drink. The two families meet together in one place with the potential bridegroom and his family often dancing and singing from his home to the bride to be’s home. When they arrive a series of rituals take place beginning with the groom’s family calling at the gate and asking to come in. Once they are in then the groom searches for his bride who is hiding somewhere in the house. This is accompanied by singing of the songs mentioned above. The queh queh tradition allows the 2 families to get better acquainted and marriage advice is shared with the potential bride and groom.
Ithaca, a predominantly African-Guyanese village located at the end of the West Bank of Berbice road link is said to be the home of Queh Queh with a popular group which hosts big queh queh sessions prior to weddings.