The Beji-Nite Heritage

This is a Matriarch, a member of the
Spiritual Baptist Church of Trinidad/Tobago,
ringing in the Spiritual Baptist Day Liberation Day
Celebrations in Port of Spain. The image is from the
Trinidad Express, accompanied by an excellent article.

You may recall my constant, and at times tiresome, complaint that no one ever spoke to me or any other kid about such things as religion or religious practices in our early childhood. It was not until I had grown and made my own choices concerning these issues that I would seek to participate in these practices with my paternal grandmother. Growing up with my grandmother, however, I would remember meeting
Beji-Nite practitioners and adepts. They would be coming and going at our home in Magnolia Building where I was growing up.

Initially their visits made me recall that first instance that I started to describe in my previous post in which I witnessed such a ceremony when I was only four years of age. My Aunt Mary, who I only knew as “Minnie,” had me in tow as usual, while she visited with one of her adolescent friends just across the street from where we lived in Calidonia which was then Westindian territory. I remained sitting quietly on the wooden stairs of one of those classical “board buildings” as the girls visited with each other when, suddenly, their attention was focused on a crack in the stairway. They looked and looked, then became silent and went back to their girlish conversation.

Intrigued by then I just had to find out what it was that had made them stare so intensely and I nagged them to let me see for myself, as they commented on the scene for my benefit saying, “They are only dancing!” As strange as the “dancing” appeared to me then at the tender age of four, it appeared quite unusual that a woman would be dancing before a man who was sitting in front of her and seemed to be commenting to her on her every move. He then quietly rose and turned her around and around then went back to his seat. The scene repeated itself over and over and I, too quickly, became bored with it and returned to trying to make sense of the silly conversation my young aunt and her friend were having.

I never got to know those people who had introduced me to that art of “spiritual dancing” for which later in my youth I would remain as fascinated as that first time that I saw it performed and believed that it had been something natural to my black Westindianess in Panama. I could hardly begin to understand the depth of this subject which my dear Mamí referred to as the Beji-Nite Church. It would not be until later on when I’d grown enough to be able to explore the Westindian colony alone that I would be able to take advantage of any opportunity to stop before the open door of any one of those neighborhood churches observing and listening for long periods of time and admiring those young women, in particular, dancing in their colorful head wraps and their (usually) white dresses tied at the waist with colorful cords.

I had to live a long time before I would be able to learn about the symbolism of the colors worn and the meaning of the Beji-Nite ceremonies. Moreover, it would be the mystique surrounding these people that would make me wonder about why it was mostly women, young girls and mature women who were drawn to participate in those unorthodox ceremonies, and also to be the organizers of those churches.

In any event, it was the way the women tied their colorful turbans that I was ultimately attracted to, and with much reverence. Whenever I would see them I’d be impelled by the conviction that it was something I needed to know about my Westindian people in Panama.

The “spiritual dance” of a lady in a plain blue dress with colored bands tied around her waist and a red turban on her head, would impact me for a lifetime. Like a playwright, it would furnish me with a scenario that would allow me full reign at placing the actors in the drama of our life and times. The sun and the moon would set the mood with the clouds as a backdrop to dramatize the scene with spectacular lights, like our powerful electrical storms, coursing the heavens just before the tropical rains finally descend to cool even the most agitated of moods.

The panorama became even more beautiful to me when I realized that here was our life and ours to enjoy, when our eyes would dance with joy as the scene of our colorful board buildings, painted in the hues of the tropics, with their spacious balconies surrounding us, hiding the inner courtyards- a “place to be”- in the urbanized Westindian city of Panama.

It was here that Life would place one such as myself to witness an example of the African derived churches brought over from Barbados and Jamaica, from whence our Panamanian Westindianess came. It belonged to us then, and it continues to belong to us as an intangible cultural heritage that is about to be lost leaving no trace of who we had been or who we really were.

Since the days of my youth in my old Calidonia of Panama City and, later on, in Bocas Town and Almirante and the glamorous City of Colon, I would go on to greater and more enriching experiences with African derived religions in the United States. It is these experiences that I feel moved to share with all of you but especially with us Blacks of the American Continent who have been “culture starved.”

In our next post I will outline more of the things those Westindian Matriarchs we called “Mothers,” who were the main organizers, have left for us. I will also include and hope to honor the Deacons, the men who were our neighbors and uncles.

I hope to reveal things we all should know and that even they never knew, about the religion they so adeptly participated in and so protected for more than a century from total extinction. I will be honoring them as I encourage the youth of today to find the Spirit within them, knowing that the Ancestors will find them and protect them wherever they might be.

This story will continue.

One response to “The Beji-Nite Heritage

  1. Jamal Scarlett

    Mr. Reid,

    Thank you for your article on the Beji-Nites. I am currently working on a paper in seminary and found your article extremely helpful. I would like to speak with you to discuss some of the practices and practitioners of this great tradition and how it is being preserved. Please email me at the address listed above. Thanks so much.

    Jamal Scarlett