Téwé Vaval
Téwé Vaval

By Lennox Honychurch

In spite of all the talk about the vitality of Dominican Culture, we really are in a state of cultural disfunctionalism. On one hand there are a set of people trying to dress and behave like thugs from the ghettos of Chicago, covered in bling, slipped down boxer shorts and with back-to-front baseball caps on their heads. At the other extreme are those imitating the bland fundamentalism of the United States Midwest Bible belt, blocking their brains to anything that scientifically explains the real world and brainwashed by the money-grabbing televangelists they see on TV. It is therefore somewhat amazing that the tradition of Téwé Vaval survives on Dominica at all.

For variety, it is great that there are still a set of people who are happy to engage in the mockery of putting together a human effigy of old clothes with a head made of a calabash and hands of coconut fibre. This is put into a card board coffin and paraded around the village until it is placed unceremoniously upon a pile of sticks and set alight. At least it gives Dominican culture some diversity and shows that we are not entirely stripped of our originality. But where did this come from? And why is it favoured by certain communities and not by others?

Téwé Vaval simply translated means the burial of Carnival, the end of all the festivities, the excessive eating and feasting and farewell to the ways of the flesh as we begin the period of Lent. In this festivity Vaval also represents an actual person who is the spirit or king of carnival. Like so much of our traditional culture it has its origins in a mixture of influences when enslaved West Africans arrived here and were put to work in a new culture that was dominated by French people who practiced the main religion of Western Christianity.

West African religions involved the representation of the world of spirits during festivals. This included putting on masks and costumes that recalled animals and ancestors during their dances. Each regional group in Africa had their own myths and religious characters. When people from different tribes came together on Dominica their various religious beliefs merged into a sort of general belief in the power of ancestors and particular spirits who controlled the present. This became further adapted under the influence of Western Christianity. This new religion had a heaven, hell, purgatory, saints, feast days and an invisible God, trinity and Holy Family with bread that turned into flesh, and wine that turned into blood. Lent was a key observance in this new religion. It was a time to put away your bad ways and pray, contemplate, and desist from dances, festivals and even sex. But in many European countries, before you did this, you enjoyed two days of revelry when you said Carné Valé: Goodbye to flesh.

In the French Caribbean islands this final goodbye was, and still is, celebrated on the afternoon of Ash Wednesday. The west coast of Dominica was heavily influenced by French people. The names are still with us: Vidal, Sabroach, Licoint, Lanquedoc, Sebastien, Dumas etc. The Kalinago people on the isolated north east coast of Dominica also had close ties with Mariegalante and the neighbouring French islands. Because of their longstanding French ties, the west coast village of Dublanc as well as the Carib Territory have remained centres of the Téwé Vaval tradition in Dominica. So by celebrating Téwé Vaval we celebrate the mixture of France, Africa and Kalinago, the three main influences of Dominicas heritage.


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