April 18, 2001 From: CHRISTOPHER K STARR

Remembering the hubono


A MONUMENT has passed from the scene of Pan-Africanism and traditional African religion in the Caribbean. Sedley C Antoine, chief and high priest, or hubono, of Trinidad's Rada Community, has gone to join the ancestors. His passing on April 9, shortly before his 83rd birthday, marks the close of an era.

The Rada Community was founded in the mid-19th century by immigrants from Dahomey (now Benin) under the leadership of the first local hubono. Antoine was born into this milieu on April 30, 1918. He knew from early that he was destined to lead the community, and in 1948 he became the fourth hubono, a responsibility that he retained for the rest of his long and fruitful life.

In 1969, Antoine moved to Montreal where he worked as a cabinet maker, while continuing as a religious leader both in Trinidad and Canada. He returned to Trinidad every year to conduct the Rada Community's Thanksgiving ceremony in the week before Carnival.

Antoine's religious leadership was deliberately conservative. Observances were dominated by traditional drumming, and he led the chants in the ancestral Fon language. Visitors from West Africa sometimes remarked that this was how their grandparents practised.

I first met Sedley Antoine toward the end of 1995. Having read Andrew Carr's fine short book: A Rada Community in Trinidad, and a feature article by Kathy-Ann Waterman in the Express, I went looking for him. After some searching I finally found the house at the end of Belmont Valley Road. The door was opened by a magisterial old man who, despite being casually dressed looked very much like a chief. I introduced myself and described my interest in traditional African religion and asked if any observance was imminent that I might be permitted to attend. Antoine invited me to Thanksgiving, about three weeks later.

Several people have described to me impressions from their first attendance at a Rada ceremony. My own were much the same. I was electrified. It was serious, intense and profoundly African. It picked me up and shook me. Although not a religious man, I have been Rada ever since.

Despite his very long service as hubono, Mr Antoine never physically set foot in Africa, although he very much wanted to. Early last year some of us decided that the time had come to push for just such a pilgrimage. Under the leadership of Orisha priest Olakela Massetungi (known as Oludari), we constituted ourselves as the Rada Pilgrimage Committee and sought to organise a substantial, formal visit to West Africa. During a recent visit to Ghana, I attempted to advance the aims of the committee. To our great regret, the Rada Pilgrimage Committee's main objective is now beyond reach.

Sedley C Antoine is survived by his wife of 62 years, Elaine "Dolly" Antoine, their children Francis, Henry, Hermina, Magdalen and Veronica, 19 grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren, and his siblings Patrick Antoine, Rosita Ince and Empress Millington.

A far cry from Africa


AFRICANS and their descendants, namely the Rada, Ibo, Congo and Mandingo people settled in communities in Belmont around 1870. At that time they were practically the only settlers there.

The place where the leading group of Africans, the Radas, gathered for social activities and followed the religion of their forefathers in Belmont was called the Compound. A Rada is a native of the French West African Protectorate of Dahomey, which is now known as Benin.

Abojevi Zahwenu, popularly known as Papa Nanee, was the founder of the Dangbwe Comme Compound (house or place of Dangbwe, who is the serpent god deity). Zahwenu, who was born around 1800 in Dahomey, adopted the French name Robert Antoine in Trinidad.

The Compound housed Zahwenu's home in which he lived with his wife and one son; a chapel aka a Vodunkwe (house of the gods); and a tent or covered shed adjoining the house and facing the road. Drum dances took place in the tent. Two other shrines were also built in the Compound. Many Rada families from the district frequented the Compound, where gatherings were often huge.

Zahwenu was a household name in his day—people said he was a kind and selfless medicine man. He died in July 1899, around the age of 99-—though the doctor who tended to him before his death said he was around 108. He was buried on the Compound.

In spite of the impact of western culture and religion, the Rada community has retained a large measure of ancestral religious beliefs and rites. Christianity is practised in conjunction with the recognition given to the African deities, and the African gods have Christian counterparts.

The Rada community performs seasonal and non-seasonal sacrifices. For sacrificial ceremonies, called Vodunu or Saraka, they often use three consecrated drums which have special names. Sometimes, depending on the occasion, four normal drums are used.

Only devotees who are in a state of possession dance at sacrificial ceremonies—usually women who are each mounted by one deity only. Possession can occur at any time. The woman is called a Vodunsi or wife of the god ("si" is Dahomean for wife). A new Vodunsi must spend days in prayer and abstinence as part of her initiation into the new role.

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