RURAL EXPRESS - Kumina Queen Bernice Henry passes; 'Mother of all' to be interred tomorrow
Paul H. Williams, Gleaner Writer
PORT MORANT, St Thomas:
THE HYPNOTIC sounds of Kumina drums and spirited singing were wafting all over the place on Wednesday. The place? The yard of the late 'Kumina Queen of St Thomas' Bernice 'Sister Bernice' Henry.
There were almost 200 people there, and it was only minutes after 1 p.m. Men were at work. Others were working and dancing at the same time. Dominoes clashed against one another. Yellow-heart breadfruits were in the fire. Rice, fish and curried chicken, too, were bearing the heat. And the scent of white rum faintly circulated in the breeze from the sea.
Many people sat or stood in silence, looking on, absorbing the poignancy of the moment and moving to the rhythms of Kumina, Kumina to which Sister Bernice herself had moved, sometimes with a candle balanced on her head. She was no longer moving with the living, but her repute as a kind, selfless, hard-working Kumina Queen had moved people to go see her grave being built.
Bernice Henry died on Monday, November 24, at the Princess Margaret Hospital in St Thomas as a result of hypertension complications. She had 14 children (four had predeceased her), 24 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, and she was 'mother' to many more, it is widely said.
Her youngest daughter and last child, Taforah Henry, told Rural Xpress that when she was young, she didn't know that some of the children that Sister Bernice cared for were not her own children. She was beside herself with grief. Her face said it all. She said she was trying to cope, but it was very hard.
"At this point, my mind is almost blank," she said. She had lost the woman who "was a mother to the motherless".
In an article published in The Gleaner on April 17, 2006, Frederica Bates, a member of her all-women Kumina group said, "Miss Bernice is a mother to us all. She knows everything about us. Even sometimes when we have boyfriend problems, she knows. Even in the community, she is mother to us."
This 'super-mother' repute that Bernice Henry had seems to be challenging her other status as a Kumina icon. It was the general feeling among her family and those who were present on Wednesday that Sister Bernice was an extraordinary matriarch, who was affectionately called 'Grandma'.
Her cousin, Henry Cargill, who said Henry was "a beacon in disguise", told Rural Xpress that he and the rest of the community were distraught when they learned of Sister Bernice's transition. It was a sad day, he said, because she was a mother to many, to the community, mother of Kumina, mother of the people and mother of the culture.
The culture of which Cargill spoke is the culture of herbal and spiritual healing, singing, dancing, and drumming. Sister Henry, a woman knowledgeable of her black African history, customs and rituals, was well known nationally and internationally as a leading activist in the Jamaican Kumina movement.
Kumina is a religion/lifestyle that is said to have been brought over from Congo in Africa to Jamaica. Its retentions are strong in St Thomas, where Sister Bernice was born. The singing, dancing and drumming styles of Kumina are distinctly riveting. It also involves herbal healing and myals (possessions).
Sister Bernice was groomed by her mother and grandmother, and would eventually become a Kumina Queen herself, leading the Port Morant National and International Mumbakka Group of Kumina Practitioners. And now the queen has gone to be with her ancestors perhaps, leaving a void, a gap in the Kumina movement that is going to be hard to be filled, her children said.
Henry Cargill believes "her death has left a gap in the sense wherein that, up to now, a lot of the people have been concerned about her replacement".