BY GARFIELD MYERS Editor-at-Large, South/Central Bureau email@example.com
SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — Locals say the number of visitors in Accompong Town for the annual January 6 anniversary celebrations was much smaller than usual.
Even so, hundreds of people converged on the Maroon village, nestled in the rugged Cockpit Country of northern St Elizabeth, close to the southern Trelawny border to witness centuries-old rituals; and some just for the outing.
The visitors came from as far as Europe and North America, some obviously conventional tourists, many others, Maroons living abroad who returned home to celebrate their heritage.
They visited the Kindah Tree, an ancient mango, under which Maroon leaders are said to have consulted with their people close to 300 years ago. Outsiders watched in awe as Maroons danced non-stop to hypnotic drumming and chanting and jostled for a morsel of ritually prepared unsalted food - including pork and yam - which Maroons believe will give good luck for the remainder of the year.
Accompong Chief Col Ferron Williams explained that the absence of salt is in tribute to the struggles of ancestors who, during their 80-odd years of guerrilla warfare with British colonialists, had to do without ingredients such as salt.
"They had to eat their food fresh," he explained.
The visitors watched as Maroon elders — festooned with green bush camouflage used by their ancestors to conceal themselves from their red-coated British enemies — returned to the Kindah Tree in early afternoon, having performed mysterious age-old rituals away from prying eyes.
"That I can't talk about," said Williams when asked about the hidden rituals.
Those with an eye for economic activity and industry say the heady mix of ritualistic practices makes Accompong and other Maroon communities ideal centres for a strong heritage component of Jamaica's tourism product. "We would welcome visitors to our community and we want to encourage them to come as long as they respect our rules and regulations," said Williams.
Sydney Bartley, director of culture at the Ministry of Youth and Culture, sees the rich potential, but he also stresses that authenticity must be protected.
"Heritage tourism is a package and one of the things we have to do is to find the delicate balance between packaging something for tourists while maintaining the authenticity of the community...," he said.
"But there is no doubt that this product has real tourist value even in terms of education. Take, for example, students who study black cultures... they will feel like they can come here every January 6 and witness real, authentic Maroon culture, and that's priceless," said Bartley.
Protection of that authenticity is a worry for many who, over the years, have seen January 6 celebrations increasingly infringed by commercial traders selling imported garments, footwear, toys, and trinkets of every description. Acclaimed historian Professor Verene Shepherd warned recently of the dangers posed by those practices.
"The 6th of January function... must be used as a means of showcasing the intangible cultural heritage of the Maroons, but not only in terms of ritual and dance and speeches; you must search into your past and ensure that it is Maroon cuisine, Maroon art and crafts, Maroon literature that are on sale on that day...," Shepherd told a Maroon conference in Accompong in October.
January 6 marks the anniversary of a peace treaty between the British and the Trelawny or Leeward (western) Maroons - of which Accompong is the largest recognised community - in 1738. Prior to that, Maroons — comprised of slaves freed by Spanish colonisers when they were ousted by the British in 1655 and runaway slaves from British plantations - had fought the colonial militia and army from Jamaica's rugged interior.
Following the 1738 Treaty, the Windward (eastern) Maroons in the Blue Mountains and related highlands also made peace with the British.
Those promoting the idea of heritage tourism in Maroon communities say colourful tales of Maroon struggles told by elders such as respected storyteller Melvin Currie would enrich the product beyond measure.
"The core Maroon communities have serious heritage elements that can be brought to a level so the community can benefit financially from it," said Bartley.
He believes herbs used for centuries by Maroons to cure ailments also provide a valuable avenue for those with an interest in traditional medicine.
A major fillip for tourism in Accompong and the neighbouring Cockpit communities is the reopening of a seven-mile trail from the Maroon village to Quick Step. The trail, now embellished with rest cabins, has restarted with financial help from the US$16-million debt for nature swap programme signed between the US and Jamaican governments in 2004.
"We are really focusing on Quick Step," said Accompong's Deputy Col Norma Rowe Edwards who has written a book about Maroon history titled My Father Said.
"There are two issues: the environment which we need to protect and preserve, and then this is a trail which our ancestors traversed, which we can showcase to the world," she said.
"It will help as an aspect of education to show who we are," she added.
A boast of the Maroon community is that there is "no crime" in Accompong. But Maroons are also concerned that unemployment, a scourge across Jamaica, is also a huge problem in Accompong and other Maroon villages, which could eventually disturb peace and harmony.
Venardo Mills, a young Accompong resident who told the Central Observer that he views the future with optimism, says he welcomes the renewed emphasis on tourism.
"Hopefully, it will bring more exposure to jobs for young people. That is what we need," he said.
His equally young companion Alexia Anderson throws in a word of caution for the elders as they press ahead.
"The community should be more involved in whatever activities are taking place," she said.