Anika Christopher delves into this important and interesting art form steeped in African and Caribbean history.
Photography by John F. Black

Imagine this: Just above your head, gliding in the night air, floating in a sea of blue, the moko jumbies dance to the rhythm of the swaying palm trees. Moko jumbies are a cultural symbol and creative expression of the BVI. Their vibrant dances and colourful costumes are the embodiment of the warmth and beauty of our islands.

But to uncover their magic and mystery, we must first take a look at their origins, which can be traced back to Africa. During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Africans were brought to the Caribbean and sold to Virgin Island plantation owners. The institution of slavery tried to strip Africans of their cultural identity. But they resisted. Even when the scars of slavery were running deep, Africans showed that their cultural roots ran deeper.

The traditions and customs they brought along with them, were the seeds that would eventually grow into aspects of our culture today. One of these seeds was the moko jumbie tradition. The word moko came from the god Moko of the lands of the Maasai people. Moko watches over and protects the villages and his height allows him to see evil spirits coming. He is able to ward these evil spirits or jumbies (which is a West Indian term for ghosts) off by mocking them with his magical powers. The act of simply protecting and preserving this tradition was a form of resistance against slavery’s system of oppression.

Perched up high on stilts with colourful costumes and masks, the moko jumbies can now be seen at our carnivals, troupes and parades. In 2014, Mr Michael Woodley, a Tortola local who first started performing at the age of 10, brought the magic of the moko jumbie to the stage at the Mister and Miss BFEC High School Pageant. He performed with his trumpet, amazing the audience as he danced around on his stilts. In an interview with Woodley, it became clear that the magic of the moko jumbies is truly an art that requires practice and patience.
Woodley describes, “when you first start you would stand up somewhere you could hold onto something and do chipping – walk in place to get used to the weight of the stilts. Then as you get used to chipping, you try to take small steps. Then start taking bigger steps repeating this process until you feel confident. When walking on the stilts feels more natural, you can try to run and hop in one place.”

Their exuberant dances are a celebration of our freedom, reflecting the spirit of strength and resilience of our people. Moko jumbies are indeed cultural bearers and with tradition comes the need for preservation.

The next time you see the moko jumbies, go ahead and dance with them, even learn a few moves. The best way to keep the magic and mystery alive, is to live it!