Fri | Jan 21, 2022

Carolyn Cooper | Finding our way over many rivers

Published:Saturday | October 16, 2021 | 12:11 AM

Jimmy Cliff’s classic Many Rivers To Cross was released in 1969, the year National Heroes Day was first celebrated. The song could well be the anthem for National Heritage Month. Its theme is our ongoing struggle for survival:

“Many rivers to cross

But I can’t seem to find my way over

Wandering I am lost

As I travel along the white cliffs of Dover”

The UK National Trust website describes the cliffs as “an iconic landmark, the white chalk face a symbol of home and war time defence”. For black Cliff, the white cliffs are not a symbol of his home. They represent alienation. Just ask the victims of the Windrush scandal! The human face of Britain is presumed to be as naturally white as the cliffs of Dover. The UK certainly did not welcome the colonial subjects of the British Empire with open arms. These newcomers were met with armed resistance, both literal and symbolic.

But there is also hopeful determination in Jimmy Cliff’s song:

“Many rivers to cross

And it’s only my will that keeps me alive

I’ve been licked, washed up for years

And I merely survive because of my pride”

Cliff gave a brilliant performance of Many Rivers to Cross in 2008 for the BBC TWO programme ‘LATER…with Jools Holland’.

He improvised some powerful lines:

“Bu t I think I got it now

Love, love is my foundation

Wisdom is my capital

Struggle is my manner

Truth is my redeemer

Sorrow is my companion

Love is my foundation”

Despite the optimistic certainty that love, wisdom, struggle and truth will ensure safe passage across many rivers, there is still that inescapable sense of sorrow.


In Many Rivers To Cross, Cliff also acknowledges the instinct to revolt against systemic oppression: “There are times I find myself/Thinking of committing some dreadful crime.”

Some of our national heroes did commit what appeared to be dreadful crimes. Nana of the Maroons, Sam Sharpe and Paul Bogle led armed resistance against British imperialism. Their ‘crime’ was refusing to be brutalised.

Incidentally, the name by which our single national heroine is known does not accurately reflect her Ghanaian origins. She should be Nana. In Twi, the language of the Akan people of Ghana and Ivory Coast, Nana is a title given to both males and females. It denotes the highest position of authority in society. The term honours grandparents, male and female elders and revered ancestors.

Transforming Nana into Nanny is a striking example of the devaluation of African culture in the Diaspora.

The English word ‘nanny’ usually refers to a woman paid to look after children. Though the nurturing of children is essential for the survival of the species, the term Nanny, applied to Nana of the Maroons, diminishes her military genius and her vital role in the public sphere. On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Independence, Nana’s true-true title should be restored.


On Sunday, October 17, there will be three vibrant events celebrating our heritage. First, the Wattle and Red Earth (WARE) collective will host a virtual art auction from 2-5 p.m. More than 100 works by 50 artists will be shown. To register for free and receive the beautiful catalogue, visit

The mission of the WARE collective is to conserve Jamaica’s local architectural traditions that are fast disappearing. Wattle and daub construction is simply dismissed as a sign of poverty. Its beauty and durability are not often acknowledged.

The primary purpose of the art auction is to secure funding for the reconstruction of a building that was rescued from demolition and carefully dismantled. It will become part of a living museum for research, education, cultural awareness and heritage tourism.

At 5:30 p.m., the Heroes and Heritage – Back the Culture show will be live streamed:

It’s part of an ambitious project conceived by the artist Charles ‘Mark Phi’ Smart to ‘modernise’ the heroes and make them come alive for young people. All across Jamaica, there are murals at primary schools featuring the national heroes. How many children actually know the stories of the heroes? Do they feel any connection to them?

The final event will be the airing of a brilliant new documentary, African Redemption: The Life and Legacy of Marcus Garvey, by Roy T. Anderson, director/producer Black Star Line Films. Part 1 will be broadcast on Television Jamaica at 10 p.m. and Part 2 on Monday at 9:30 p.m. The entire documentary will be aired on the Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica on Monday at 5:30 p.m.


The difficulty with making our national heroes relevant today is the deep-rooted fear of black power in Jamaican society. We are ‘out of many, one people’. Digging up the past excavates a history that some of us would prefer to forget.

Reminders of the terrible abuse African people suffered in this country are seen as divisive. Old wounds have not healed. Think of the Maroons! It makes no sense to declare that Nana is a national heroine when her descendants are denied the right to claim sovereignty. As long as the Queen of England is Jamaica’s head of state, long-standing treaties with the Maroons must be honoured.

Many Jamaicans are still suffering the far-reaching consequences of enslavement, especially in these dread times. It is a terrible heritage. As a society, we cannot afford to forget where we are coming from.

We have to cross the river of time. We must bridge the gap between the past and the present; and between the rich and the poor. We must collectively find a way over the turbulent waters of our history.

In the spirit of Jimmy Cliff, we must cultivate the pride and will to survive.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and