Every celebration on St. Croix seems to include Moko Jumbies, so here is a little background on these colorful stilt walkers. Most references place the term’s origin from “moko” – an African god from the Congo and Nigeria, and “jumbi,” a West Indian term meaning ghost or spirit, possibly derived from the Kongo word “zumbi.” Traditionally Moko watches over his village and foresees danger and evil from his great height. “The diviner” was represented by men on stilts who performed acts beyond normal human ability, rising to the skies without help. Jumbies are supernatural beings for either good or evil. Never to be seen by non-believers, they purportedly reflect the islands’ African heritage and are thought to be either one’s ancestors or one’s connection with the spiritual or superstitious world.
Moko initially arrived in Trinidad walking across the Atlantic from the West coast of Africa. The idea of the Moko survived by living in the hearts of African descendants during slavery and colonial life to eventually walk the streets of Trinidad in a celebration of freedom, during Carnival. Trinidad inhabitants added “Jumbie” to the name and by the early 1900’s, the figures were an integral part of their Carnival, protecting the revelers from evil.
The supernatural force, called the Obeah, is what creates good and bad occurrences, and is an African religion similar in some ways to Voodoo. While belief in Obeah has never been prominent in the US VI, it has been a part of the territory’s ambiance for years. During carnival, parades, and Jump Ups, the dancing, masked stilt walkers are interpretations of the spirits and superstitions of long ago.
In the early 1990’s, the tradition was revived in Trinidad by 2 men – Moose and Dragon – who created a new kind of Moko Jumbie. They adopted a leg brace to the stilt design, and “Dragon” Glen de Souza promoted the idea, in an effort to teach children how to dance. In 1986, he started teaching the art of dancing on stilts in Trinidad, and now, about 100 kids practice in his Keylemanjahro School of Arts & Culture.
The Thanksgiving Jump Up in Christiansted, US VI, included many colorfully-clothed Moko Jumbies, who danced and encouraged the crowd spirit of celebration and good will.