Geechee Kunda hosted its 10th annual Old Time Riceboro Sugarcane Harvest and Arts n’ Crafts Show last weekend as part of the center’s effort to preserve the history of the Geechee culture.
The event featured demonstrations on sugarcane grinding, syrup cooking, sweet-grass basket weaving and quilting. The crowd enjoyed performances and presentations by the Geechee Kunda Ring Shouters, Trey Hicks & His Geechee Band and renowned historian Dr. Amir Toure, among others, offering guests unique insight into the Geechee culture.
Jim Bacote and his wife, Pat Bacote, opened the Geechee Kunda cultural center 11 years ago.
“We had been planning and collecting pieces of the culture while working in Africa,” Jim Bacote said. “So, after 30 years of making notes and collecting, we decided it was finally time to start a family culture center.”
The Bacotes originally are from Brunswick, but have ties to Liberty County. Bacote spent most of his childhood, holidays and weekends with his grandparents in Riceboro on the property where Geechee Kunda now stands.
“I was fortunate enough while growing up to have uncles who were 90 years old who had first-hand accounts of what happened during the period of enslavement,” Bacote said. “So they passed down a lot of information and that sparked an interest in me.”
The Geechee culture has been linked to specific West-African ethnic groups who were enslaved on island plantations to grow rice, indigo and cotton in the 16th century. The enslaved rice growers brought with them knowledge of tool- and instrument-making, herbal remedies, a distinct language, religion and spirituality.
“Rice can grow well in the Georgia and South Carolina area, and the West African people were experts in growing rice,” Geechee Kunda demonstrator Gregory Grant said. “The reason why rice didn’t continue in the South was because they didn’t have the free labor anymore, and rice is very labor-intensive.”
During slavery, the area now occupied by Geechee Kunda was called the Retreat Plantation and was owned by Joseph Jones. Today, the site is home to a museum packed full of Geechee art, tools, instruments, photographs and many other cultural artifacts. For special events, singers, drummers and historians fill the grounds with voices and music from the past, representing an important aspect of the culture — the language.
“The language is a completely unique Creole language,” Grant said. “This language was looked down on over the past because it was thought to be ignorant, but we now know that it is important to keep it alive and be proud of it.”
The United Nation recognizes the Geechee people as a nation because they have their own language, culture and religion, he added.
Geechee Kunda sustains this history through research and information passed down from previous generations.
“There is an African saying that when an elder dies, a library closes,” Grant said. “If they have the knowledge of herbs and the younger generation doesn’t try to learn from them, then the information dies with them.”
Everyone at Geechee Kunda works to keep this knowledge alive through events like last Saturday’s festival.
Grant did herbal-medicine demonstrations and stressed the importance of using what the land provides. He explained how rabbit tobacco and sassafras, which grow in the wild, can be used to treat cold and flu symptoms when steeped as tea. Other old traditions — such as treating a boil with the inner skin of an egg, placing a bar of soap at the foot of the bed to relieve muscle cramps and chewing on willow-tree bark to help headaches — also were all passed down through the generations.
“There are so many herbs right outside that we don’t know how helpful they can be,” Grant said. “There is so much to learn from our history, and our mission is to preserve that history.”
Geechee Kunda offers a variety of programs for those who are interested in learning more and getting involved. They offer a research program with Purdue University in Indiana; a cultural program focused on herbal medicines, linguistics and other aspects with the Coastal College of Georgia; and a leadership program with Georgia Southern University.
Geechee Kunda is self- funded, so most of its operating revenue stems from donations. The center does not receive government grants. To get things started, the Bacote family invested their savings and life in their dream of preserving the Geechee culture in Liberty County.
“We have some of the most talented people working with us, trying to pass on the important history of our ancestors,” Bacote said. “We are grateful for all the support over the years.”