John Compton was near the end of his life when he expressed what would always be, for me, one of his most perspicacious observations. No surprise that it referred to an undeniable native idiosyncrasy. He had spent the greater part of his life programming the nation’s psyche. No one knew better than Compton what made us tick!
“Saint Lucians love nothing better than to moan and complain and cry about things that don’t work as expected,” said the prime minister, during the presentation of his final Estimates of Expenditure in 2007. “But we never ask why they don’t work. And the reason is we know what would follow the enlightening because. We’ve never taken responsibility for our actions!”
Over the weekend, while Madras-draped Saint Lucians were celebrating Jounen Kweyol as choreographed by its official organizers at the culture ministry (if culture is supposed to direct itself, then of what use is that tax-money gobbler?) I read with particular interest the supportive several articles in our newspapers. Alas, some had been served in previous years: warmed-over jol cochon, so to speak.
And then I came across a piece in the STAR by Kerwin Caesar, an unfamiliar name. To give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, his piece was actually a personal account of the activities that this year had kicked off “the official opening of Creole Heritage Month, under the theme Mamai Mopo, Wasin Kweyol.” (Children of Mon Repos, the roots of Creole.)
By popular account, Mon Repos is now the proud cultural heart of our nation, deserving of some kind of monument—hopefully not another alleged bronze replica of another politician’s countenance!
On the remembered day “the calendar of activities and events was unveiled and there were Creole presentations by the Patience Combined School’s After-School Group in the forms of dance, skits and songs …” wrote Caesar. He did not identify participants, so I am left to imagine the district’s parliamentary representative had attended (is de political kolcha, right?), along with her opponents in the 2011 general elections, although, ever mindful of the earlier mentioned kolcha, I wouldn’t bet on it.
As for Allen Chastanet, if he was invited but failed to materialize, chances are his globetrotting and his detractor-publicized problems with langue mama nous are to blame. And just in case you’re thinking, dear mischievous reader, what I know you’re thinking, I daresay that should the allegedly handicapped UWP leader ever find himself prime minister of this Rock of Sages, and in consequence is called upon to address a Jounen Kweyol opening, he would need only take a page out of our current prime minister’s “How to Snub the Hand that Feeds You” and do unto his Kweyol hosts—as had been done not so long ago to the visiting Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden.
But back to that remarkable piece of participatory journalism by Kerwin Caesar. As full of interesting tidbits as it is, I missed not being told how October-November relate to our Kweyol cultural heritage. And while Caesar’s photograph of stone-washing women at work had returned me to some of the happiest days of my life, I couldn’t help also contemplating the fate of “those who cannot remember the past,” at any rate, according to George Santayana.
Consider this, from Caesar: “The following week, October 12th, to be exact, all roads led to the Fond Wozeau River for the River-Washing Day. This was a huge success, as many people—old and young—gathered for the experience as they relived the practices of river washing and the pleasure of bathing in the fresh, soothing water. It was truly a family day, as lunch was prepared in a huge pot or chaudiere, which everyone ate from.”
And now, dear reader, you’re probably wondering: Where the heck is Fond Wozeau? Just as I did. By all I learned from talking with Caesar, the river goes by several other names. Depending on your age, you might know it as “the Piton River.”
Another thing, it’s nowhere near the Soufriere pitons or Roseau. The Fond Wozeau river, I’m reliably assured, is located “somewhere near Mon Repos.” On the day that the writer visited with the crowd that had made the river-washing ritual “a huge success” the Fond Wozeau river was hardly more than ankle deep and more than a tad muddy.
I couldn’t help wondering if Caesar, just 23 years old, realized how much “the practices of river washing” had contributed to the disappearance of rivers once loaded with crayfish and other delicious freshwater delicacies. When I was just a kid growing up in Laborie, there was no better day out than one that included hours spent at either the Piaye River or River Doree or at Black Bay. Hell, those rivers were then deep and wide enough in places to permit safe diving from nearby rocks.
Thanks to the tree-murdering charcoal makers and the doomed to go bananas banana cultivators, not forgetting the tons of detergents and other agriculture-related chemicals poured daily into them over the years, most of Saint Lucia’s rivers gradually dried up.
Never mind Caesar’s giddy reference to “the pleasure of bathing in the fresh, soothing waters” of Fond Wozeau, what today we refer to as rivers are little more than streams of topsoil that here and there appear in the wake of heavy rains.
But let me not get started on what we allowed to happen to our best agricultural lands, thanks to poor drainage and other crimes against nature. Piaye is today a seasonal carwash. As for River Doree and Black Bay, who knows?
What exactly went into the chaudiere lunches so representative of manger gens longtemps? Pat cochon? Bwapen? Shoo? Dasheen? Banja? What’s so gens longtemps about these staples?
Ditto the sugar-laden goodies reportedly consumed in mass quantities over the weekend. And the oceans of VAT-rated booze. Where were the health promoters to remind the insatiably hungry and thirsty consumers that the obesity, the hypertension, the diabetes that continue to wipe us out have their roots in so-called manger gens longtemps. That’s why so many of them died of old age at 45 and 50. Sure, a few lived longer but then we’re talking about a time of miracles and wonder.
Have we all gone totally mad? Even the Kweyol language itself is crying out for other than English words creolized by an “ah” suffix. As in “computa-ah” for computer. Perhaps funniest of all are our more popular orators, when forced to tell their Kweyol audiences: Kon yo ka dee en Englais (as they say in English), “multitudinous!” Or “vicissitudinous.” Or “the hypoteneuse!”
What a sick joke we’ve allowed ourselves to become, celebrating only politicians and mediocrity, which, I readily acknowledge, is an obvious redundancy! Surely it would serve us better at Jounen Kweyol if we told our younger folk, by various inventive means, how we had screwed up the Saint Lucia we inherited from our great grandparents—our heritage—and why we really have nothing to celebrate and so much to regret.
Imagine as a Jounen Kweyol learning tool, a Derek Walcott play (en langue mama nous, of course!) that pointedly featured some Tim, Tim Bois Chaise scenes: rivers (on film) unpolluted by imported expensive killer chemicals and raw sewerage; mountains that supported forests of green; livestock free of steroids, with not a discarded KFC carton in sight.
Surely that would encourage in younger Saint Lucians a fresh yearning for the good things of our past. Perhaps some of us would in consequence recognize the need for a national effort at restoring our now denuded mountains and roadsides (whether or not by STEPpers), the wisdom in investing in better drainage, in producing chemical-free fruit for our breakfast tables, in rearing egg-producing chickens for personal use, and in planting a tree here and there.
Ironically, what annually serve as inadvertent reminders of our primitive past, the means by which to measure how far we’ve come, only underscores the reverse. For the truth is our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. They knew what herbs made the best medicines, and consumed only fresh fruit, fish, meat and vegetables (for refrigerators were still a long way off). In lieu of perfumed, often allergy-inducing soaps, our forbears used particular scented leaves that protected their skin and kept them clean. They fished daily without killing the source, and ate what they had cultivated without poisoning both the land and what it delivered.
On the other hand, as we have seen, we made it a virtue to ape everything foreign, especially things antithetical to our natural state. And now we are reaping what we sowed. Our children, too, in consequence of the actions of our “best brains.”
I almost forgot to mention our fine musicians whose special interest is in keeping alive the music of our Kweyol ancestors, mainly associated with the too-little-revered, too-soon-departed Sesenne Descartes.
Why do the majority of us appear to appreciate Mamai la dee Wi only on such occasions as Jounen Kweyol? Why do we not demonstrate for Sesenne and The Hewanorra Voices and Frank Norville appreciation on the same scale as afforded, say, Vybz Kartel, Sean John and Bob Marley? Or, come to that, visiting ancient rock stars at Jazz Festival time?
How many tickets would the name Rameau Poleon sell even during Jounen Kweyol? Why do we appreciate the man only when his fiddling is free? I need not remind readers that taxpayers had to provide shelter for our broke and homeless “Queen of Culture.” Speaking of whom: why has it never entered the culture minister’s head to join the geniuses at the Ministry of Showbiz and record Poleon, and other Kweyol performers still alive?
In any event, why not undertake the regular promotion of these artistes, including the departed, so that their names might even posthumously become as well known at home and regionally as are the names of their adored Jamaican counterparts?
Why have our tax-funded Kweyol culture vultures never considered the idea of keeping Kweyol music alive, at any rate, with the same apparent gusto reserved for modern-day local performers such as the popular Ricky T, whose music is often blamed for all that’s evil in the world, however absurdly?
And now, Trinidad & Tobago, too, has discovered what some of us have for a long time known to be true of Saint Lucia. The enlightening word from President Anthony Carmona at his installation as Chancellor of the University of T&T is that in his neck of the woods “spinelessness has become institutionalized.”
He went on: “For far too long we’ve been producing yes-men and –women in our society. Critical thinking, reading, writing, public speaking skills should play an integral part of any curriculum. I put forward this challenge to make critical thinking an A-Level
subject . . . Don’t tell me what I want to hear, tell me what needs to be said.”
Underscoring his message, Carmona said: “Who failed this country of ours? Not the men with the cutlass, not the men with the whacker, not the men who cut grass. It is the men of status, rank and letters. Stop being a mere citizen and become a patriot. If men have talent but lack character, this breeds brilliant monsters. It is talent with character that produces world citizens.”
Something tells me that if our own self-declared “best brains” were also men of talent and character, Jounen Kewyol—first declared in 1984—would be an occasion truly worth celebrating. In truth, it is nothing more than the worst day in the life of a pig!