By SKYE HERNANDEZ
Within minutes of my entering the Keylemanjahro moko jumbie yard in Cocorite over the Carnival season, a tiny girl comes up to me, tilts her head teasingly, and says, “Miss, you come to walk?” I hadn’t yet decided to give stilt-walking a try but I watched as this “baby” went and brought out her stilts from a storage room, strapped up, mostly by herself, and was hoisted upwards by a young man, after he’d securely nailed the leg-straps to her stilts. She joined the other learners (children and adults) at the back of the big yard and walked around, parking up against the fence when she needed a rest and otherwise practising marching and dancing. Every now and then someone would come and check her, hold a hand and chip with her. When she was ready to go to the bathroom, someone took her and when she was tired she walked over to one of the handlers in the area of the yard used for launching and touchdown. Then she turned her back to the handler, bent her knees, outstretched her arms and just let herself relax into his arms. When she was on the ground, she got her legs free, put her stilts away and went running about the place, finding Keylemanjahro’s shaman, Glen “Dragon” De Souza, who scooped her up in his arms and gave her a huge hug and kiss.
Looking at her that first day, it occurred to me that for this child, and the other kids who show up in the yard several evenings a week, this outfit provides much more than lessons in stilt-walking (and fire-throwing, African dance, drumming). They get family, emotional support, strenuous physical exercise, a chance to be creative every day, the possibility of a career, and discipline-indeed, here they have a sanctuary. Little Geneva’s self-confidence was thrilling. The way the walkers let themselves fall into the handlers’ arms and trust they’d be caught tells a lot about what goes on in the yard at Keylemanjahro, and it has a lot to do with the vision and personality of its charismatic leader.
Dragon, as De Souza is almost universally known, started Keylemanjahro (then called the Cocorite School of Arts and Culture) 28 years ago because he “wanted to do something to keep the kids in the area from being idle.” With his own resources, he started teaching riding the unicycle, juggling and other circus-type stunts but after he created a stir with a friend on moko jumbie stilts during one Emancipation parade, he began to hear from people interested in learning to “walk”.
“My friend told me that when a fella is a moko jumbie, he doesn’t teach the art. I said, if that’s so then the art will die, and so I decided to do it by myself and teach everyone to be moko jumbies.” It was an art he thought he had forgotten. When he was growing up in Simeon Road, Petit Valley, young De Souza was apparently “a trip” (and some would say he still is). “I used to punch holes in Milo tins and tip-toe on them and walk; sometimes I would walk using a shovel and a garden fork; then I used to cut bamboo and walk on that. So I could do a lot of things by the time I was nine and moved to Harding Place in Cocorite.”
He got the name Dragon in his teens because of many attributes, but mainly because he was a keen karateka. By then, he was on to other things, walking on stilts being the least of them. It was only later, as an adult concerned about the children in his neighbourhood, that he turned to teaching stilt-walking, and he is credited for reviving this African art-form which had largely died out from Trinidad carnival, and bringing dancing into what was a more ritualistic practice.
Dragon started teaching children in the basketball court in Waterhole, until he began to get some opposition from people there who thought he was teaching the kids “stupidness”. He figured he’d rather get the grass surface of his own yard “dig up” than face this type of problem, so the school was moved to his home turf, where it has remained ever since. What went from grass to become a dirt yard is now paved. He stopped everything for two years because he was trying to get the government to pave the yard, and this came through on December 23, 2010. “People would stop by and ask where were the children. They said I had crashed, but I was just refusing to do anything until I got the yard paved for them.”
There are few sights in carnival more awesome than the moko jumbie, with their billowing capes and wings that challenge the breeze and a menacing, jangly walk. The children, most of them from Diego Martin, Cocorite, Port of Spain, become goddesses and gods on their stilts. They say blue devils stay in character for the whole of carnival, and I see it also with the stilt-walkers. They are mad. They come to the yard for a lime (Dragon is a great cook and willing host) and can’t help getting on their stilts, teasing one another and trying new moves, just having fun. Some have been known to fall off six-foot stilts and, once nothing is broken, get back up and continue walking. It feels odd to be in the yard on terra firma, so much so that even I have ventured up in the air-taking it slowly; after three lessons, I’m still on two-foot stilts, and intend to remain there for a while before venturing higher. But the children and young people, some of whom have practically grown up in the yard, are the ones who really benefit, whether they know it or not.
They are awe-inspiring on their stilts, and it is up in the air that they show their beauty, their talent and their pride, where no-one but themselves can test them (except maybe Dragon) where no-one can call them the usual names-ghettorian, gunta, powder-neck-that they may sometimes be called based on the areas they live, their potential financial challenges, style of dress and perceived ethnic homogeneity.
I read somewhere that moko jumbies in Africa were spirits that guarded the villages-and that they also frightened children into adulthood. It seems a good way to think about this place where a man named Dragon has taken so many children under his wing and taught them to fly. His vision is to go from village to town spreading the moko-jumbie love-The Harp in Port of Spain is a new Keylemanjahro outfit-and if he has his way we may see a thousand moko jumbies on the road one carnival very soon.