Guyanese comfa: arts of imagination

Asantewa, Michelle (2009) Guyanese comfa: arts of imagination. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


The aim of this thesis is to contribute to the study of African-Caribbean cultural and religious practices. Research in this area has tended to focus on Cuban Santeria, Haitian Vodou, Trinidadian Shango/Orisha/Spiritual Baptist and Jamaican Myal/Kumina practices. There has been little research on Guyanese religious and cultural practices. Kean Gibson's Comfa Religion and Creole Language in a Caribbean Community (2001) appears to be the most complete study of Guyanese Comfa. Comfa is the generic term used for the manifestation of spirits. Anyone who becomes spiritually possessed on hearing the beating of drums is said to 'ketch comfa'. Comfa practitioners recognise a pantheon of seven ethnic spirits: African, Amerindian, Chinese, Dutch, English, (East) Indian and Spanish. These groups have been historically associated with Guyana. Spirit possessions are stereotypically defined to reflect the ethnicity of each spirit. Inspired by Ema Brodber's method of combining sociological research with creative writing, this thesis is organised in three parts to reflect an interdisplinary methodology. Firstly, I combine Gibson's sociological account of Cornfa with the works of writers and postcolonial critics, namely Wilson Harris, Edward Brathwaite, Stuart Hall and Antonio Benitez-Rojo to consider Cornfa's significance to Guyanese cultural identity. I use Harris's ideas in his essay History Fable and Myth to argue that, as myth and art, Comfa has the potential to transform the recurrent image of despair, racial division and political violence that impact Guyana's cultural psyche. Secondly, I explore four texts by Caribbean writers to highlight the social, cultural and historical significance of spirit possession/spiritual practices and the way Caribbean spiritual traditions can be used as literary aesthetic. The third part of the thesis engages the foregoing analyses and theoretical considerations to write a novella with Cornfa as the central theme. The novella aims to demonstrate Comfa's potentiality as a literary and cultural resource.

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