Style Observer

River Mumma: The Untamed Potential of Jamaica

Didi Beck

Sunday, January 27, 2019

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I've always experienced things deemed “inexplicable”. I see and feel spirits. I hear messages from those beyond the veil. Information and imagery often pop into my head without warning.

About three years ago, while writing my master's thesis about ghosts in the art world, I began experiencing The Unseen more strongly and frequently.

I grew up in Jamaica hearing legendary tales of possessed cows and haunted Great Houses. Our folklore feels particularly potent to me; each story, no matter how dark, comes with insight into universal wisdom.

This is how I've experienced the urban legend of River Mumma.

Deep in the valleys of the St Catherine countryside snakes a river as old as our ancestors. The Rio Cobre, stealthy and savage and secretive, is no stranger to myths and duppy stories — a golden table, moonlit meetings of sacrificed slave spirits — but one fabled creature still haunts the Flat Bridge and the Rio Cobre, rarely seen yet culturally ever-present. Beneath one of the oldest bridges in Jamaica lives the ancient siren of the Bog Walk Gorge, the River Mumma.

Many have tried to capture the famed mermaid, but none have succeeded. In fact, all have either ended up dead or gravely ill in hospital. As legend has it, the River Mumma is said to surface only when the Rio Cobre turns lizard-green. Some stories have her pulling fated cars overboard Flat Bridge, their passengers joining her in a watery grave. Other tales paint a picture of a mystical aquatic creature rescuing these same passengers from imminent death.

What, then, could be the reason behind the mysterious ill fate of those who try to know her? Why can't we coexist with this elusive and magical being without the impulse to trap and destroy her?

Flat Bridge used to be the sole connector between the north and south coasts. Crops grown in the north would travel down River Road and over the bridge. They would journey to the wharves in the south then out to the rest of the world. The supposed home of River Mumma was crucial to Jamaica's economic survival as a nation by serving as the connection point between assets and export. It enabled the country to fulfil its most lucrative form of income.

But Flat Bridge was built with the labour and lives of slaves. It created a toxic dynamic that was absorbed into the subconscious of a nation. Many still expect economic undervaluing, and the mermaid knows this concept as well. Perhaps she doesn't want to be found, fearing trivialisation and extermination.

River Mumma exists as an embodiment of Jamaica's dichotomous relationship with prosperity. We believe it's possible, but clouded by murky waters, obstacles, politics. Many individuals have, however, brought formidable global recognition and respect to the country for its exquisite creativity and intelligence. When the nation as a whole sets out to capture and manifest this same glory, it's met with varying levels of sabotage. “Success” is sometimes accompanied by the inevitable unspoken question of “... until when?” The deeply ingrained societal mindset of expecting endless suffering and hardship prevents sustained financial and emotional ease. Well-being is not usually predicted to last.

The River Mumma epitomises the untamed potential of Jamaican abundance, and with every attempt at capture comes self-destruction. She fears that she must sacrifice her mystery for stability, foregoing the highest highs that accompany the lowest lows. Similarly, Jamaica has its own mystique, nurtured by the glamorous and tragic idea of being a financially poor yet culturally rich island in the sea. Affluence and a blindly trustful mass psyche endanger this warped romanticised existence.

River Mumma does not want to show herself — the beauty is in the mystery. The beauty is in the darkness.

But beauty is also in the light. We can coexist with the mysterious Mumma without capturing her. We can see, appreciate, love and release her, and trust that she will return. In the same way, Jamaica can be the wealthiest and most joyous island in the Caribbean if we change our collective mindset: we can keep our legend while consistently prospering, but we must be willing to expect magic and greatness.

The River Mumma remains a mystery, but maybe she will resurface for us with new life among old tragedies and folklore. Until then, traverse the bridge with love for those who died to make it possible. May we see the Mumma when the river turns lizard-green.

Didi Beck is a Jamaican journalist, artist and psychic. She explores the richness beyond the veil through writing, video and tarot. She's available for tarot card readings, and would love to hear your favourite folklore and duppy stories atdidibeck92@gmail.com.


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