The Dutch, English, French, Spanish, Danish, British, and American flags have all flown over St. Croix with each country leaving its own impression on our society and cultural. As it turns out the most influential culture on St. Croix was not the Dutch, the French, or the Americans, but the Africans. Presently, the African culture is widely seen in how we behave, the foods we eat, and how we prepare them, and most of all, in our celebrations and traditions – most notably, the Moko Jumbie.
When Africans were brought to the Caribbean and sold to St. Croix planters as labor, they also brought with them seeds, oral lessons, and traditions, and of course their religious and cultural beliefs. Since many of the African cultural practices were forbidden while they were enslaved, the African people often had to disguise their practices in a festive context. Which may explain why the traditional plain “potato sack” costumes of the Moko Jumbie evolved into a colorful one.
Moko Jumbies have been in the Virgin Island’s cultural heritage for over 200 years and can be traced to Africa as far back as the 13th and 14th centuries. The presence of the Mocko Jumbie at our carnivals, parades, jump-ups, and even at a beach BBQ is a blessing and an honor. They are viewed as symbols of our history, culture, and heritage. At celebrations, such as carnival, a wedding, or even jump up, men, women and children perched high up on stilts are dressed in bright colors and masks. In this costume they are no longer men, women, and children – they have now transformed into Moko Jumbies.
The actual meaning of the words Mocko Jumbie varies depending on whom you ask. In Central Africa, the word ‘moko’ means healer, while most English speaking people interpret moko as ‘mock’. Simple, huh? ‘Jumbie’ would be slang for ghost, or spirit. West Africans view a Moko Jumbie as a seeker or a protector and that their tallness is symbolic to the power of God.
Their presence was an important part of African religious ceremonies as well as to the rites of passage when a boy is recognized as a man and a girl as a woman. Many African tribes believed that Moko Jumbies acted as the spiritual seers and protectors of the village. It was believed that the height of the Moko Jumbie allowed them to see evil before it arrived and warn other villagers. Traditional African Moko Jumbie costumes were adorned with mirrors in the belief that evil spirits were afraid to see themselves. In Central Africa, it is believed that that the Moko Jumbie wards off evil spirits by their mockery of them.
Throughout the Virgin Islands, the character and importance of the Moko Jumbie presently lives on. Not as a ‘ghost buster’, if you will, but rather as an exhibit of the culture of the Virgin Islands. In 1978, Gerry Cockrell moved to St. Thomas from Florida and discovered a culture that was embraceable, with the St. Thomas Carnival being one of her favorite cultural events. A friend of Gerry’s had been participating in carnival as a Moko Jumbie when Gerry decided to try it for her self; she has been a part of carnival ever since. She saw that the number of Moko Jumbies was decreasing and saw the need of keeping the culture of the Virgin Islands alive, in 1992 she started a St. Thomas based troupe called Moko Jumbie Jambourie.
Gerry taught the skill in many of the schools to gain youth involvement. Gerry’s efforts help the community to take pride in their history and culture in addition to helping children take pride in themselves and what they can now do. “I like to see the way people smile; the children, in particular. When they overcome their shyness and perform in a crowd, it’s rewarding. I have parents ask me ‘what did you do to my child? She’s performing in front of a crowd’.”
It’s hard for one to hold back a smile when they see a Moko Jumbie – their colorful costumes, their flamboyant behavior, and most of all, their spirit demands it. Gerry’s troupe is no different. She has kids ranging from 7 to 50 years old high up on stilts, in her self-designed costumes, leading huge crowds of people in dance and laughter. For years now, Gerry and her troupe have been traveling to Harbor Fest in Virginia to add a little Caribbean spice to the festival. Other proud moments for Gerry and her troupe include the two times that they have been invited and performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The tradition of the Moko Jumbie has been alive and strong in the Virgin Islands for over 200 years; and with people like Gerry Cockrell, who feel that this tradition is important to our history and culture, it is our hope that it will continue to live for hundreds more years.