The stories that surround the world’s mangrove forests come alive in “Marvellous Mangroves Myths and Legends,” a new book from Brac author Martin Keeley.
Illustrated by Brac artist Daniella Christian, the book features enchanting stories of mangroves from around the world – including Cayman – that reveal the magic of goddesses, guardians, lost boys and ghosts.
Mr. Keeley said that during his travels to the countries that host the world’s mangrove wetlands, he discovered that the mangroves are intimately associated with popular culture. In Brazil, for example, which has one of the longest mangrove-covered coastlines in the world: “In the northern state of Pará, it is believed that mangroves and salt flats are home to entities such as the Matinta-Pereira, the Boiúna, and the Mãe-do-caranguejo (the latter is compared to another entity, the Curupira),” Keeley said. “These creatures are supposed to induce a feeling of agony to those who interfere in the environment. The unfortunate soul will then lose its way back home.
“In the state of Bahia, in northeast Brazil, the Orisha Nanã is a god personified as an old lady dressed in purple and white who is connected with muddy environments and wetlands in general. She is responsible for the fertility of the mangrove-associated fauna and protecting crabs during the breeding season – the time when canduruas (females) move slowly in large groups, awaiting the arrival of the males for breeding,” he said.
In southeast Asia, in the huge Sundarbans mangrove forest – the largest of its kind on the planet and home to the Bengal tiger – “you will find it is well protected by the goddess Bonobibi. She is usually called ‘Maa’ – which means mother – and is also known as the goddess of the tiger. Together with other gods and goddesses, Bonobibi is the symbol of secularism in the indigenous and aboriginal communities of both Bangladesh and India, dependent on the Sundarbans forests. The rules and rituals of Bonobibi have a great impact on these forest-dependent peoples.
“And, of course, there is good old Ananci – the mythical creature of Caribbean and West African parables,” Keeley said. “What mangrove forest would be complete without her mischievous plans and schemes?”
Mangroves and mankind
One thing is for sure, he notes: All stories about the mangroves and their associated entities only confirm the deep-rooted connection between reality, imagination, and human spirituality when dealing with the forces responsible for people’s survival.
“Many people have contributed to these stories,” Keeley said. “My first exposure to some of the fables several decades ago was a wonderful little book entitled “Wetland Tales” published by the Washington State Department of Ecology.”
He began using some of these stories such as “Mr. Frog’s Dream” many years ago when the wetlands curriculum was first developed and introduced to the teachers and students of the temperate wetlands in Western Canada and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. One of the stories, “How Raven Made the Tides,” was first told to him by Cha-de-ske-dem Which-te-lum, the cultural specialist for the Lummi First Nation for many years.
The stories are frequently used in conjunction with festival artist Evelyn Roth’s famous Nylon Zoo, and have since been adapted to be told whenever mangrove wetlands are the subject.
Storytelling is an essential part of every culture, and Keeley believes that no matter the language, stories like these will always reinforce people’s understanding of the true value of the wetlands and the creatures that live in them – whether they be temperate or tropical wetlands. “Storytelling is an art form that must be used and protected in this era of instant digital communications,” he said.
“The stories featured in the book also came from friends and associates who live in countries that are home to many different species of mangroves which they are dedicated to protecting. As ‘Marvellous Mangroves’ – my hands-on science-based curriculum – has been adapted and translated for use in 13 different countries, so have I tried to collect stories from the traditional peoples of each country. There have been a few exceptions, though,” he said. “Perhaps the one I like best is a short play entitled ‘The Metamorphosis of a Little Fiddler Crab’ which was written and performed by a group of Chinese teachers during a Marvellous Mangroves workshop held in Shenzhen, China, in the summer of 2015.”
One of the key ingredients of the “Marvellous Mangroves” workshops is the Creative Hour, when teachers produce everything from artwork to poetry, plays, rap and even a puppet show (developed and performed in Guatemala in 2006). The artwork and other productions are then taken back from the workshops to the classroom where they are enjoyed by the students.
In another of the stories, “The Parwa Ghost: Losya Boy,” the tale is told by one of the fishermen of Suriname who grew up in a village surrounded by mangroves. When he was a boy growing up in Coronie, Richenel Trustfull and his friends played in the mangroves that protected their homes from ocean storms, and went into them fishing and crabbing. The Parwa (mangroves) were an integral part of their lives, just as they still are an integral part of the lives of many coastal communities around the world.
‘Marvellous Mangroves Myths and Legends’ is available at the Book Nook and the National Trust. Martin Keeley and Daniella Christian will also be appearing at the National Gallery’s Christmas Fair on Dec. 9 and 10, when the book’s artwork will be on view and books will be sold.