Never mind how exasperating an unscheduled weekend wake-up call of parang can be, December is here and, with it, will be the much-anticipated Festival of Lights.
If you’re anything like me, you would have been surprised, sceptical even, after receiving word that the Taiwanese Embassy would be donating upwards of $300,000 to the Castries Constituency Council for the purpose of installing lights to brighten up the city during the holiday season. Would that money all be spent on Christmas lights? I mean, how badly do we really need the city to be lit up, and for what purpose?
Just back from the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Ministers of Culture meeting held in Brussels, Culture Minister Fortuna Belrose tackled all of those questions expertly at this week’s pre-cabinet meeting. But first she spoke about her trip, focussing on the level of emphasis most countries were now placing on appreciating and harnessing their own cultures.
“I think key in terms of what I picked up, was the fact that most countries in the world now have recognized the value of culture, and are making a concerted effort to ensure culture contributes a greater percentage to their GDP,” the minister shared. She noted that though for some, the culture budget was miniscule, one could understand and see the progress made even in those territories.
The last meeting of the ACP Ministers of Culture was held in 2012. Moving forward, representatives planned to now meet every two years because, according to the minister, “We recognize the value that culture makes to our society”.
That is, what culture could contribute in terms of a number of things, including its contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals, a collection of 17 inter-related global goals set out by the United Nations.
“There are issues related to culture that our countries must address,” Belrose emphasized. “It’s important for us now here to do some mainstreaming, and to be able to share some of that knowledge and information with our teams on the ground so we can make that difference.”
ACP tates have access to about 40 million Euros for projects in the coming year. In order to access those funds, organisation and regional representation are key.
“It means that our OECS Secretariat and our CARICOM units must come together to deliver a package of programmes to the ACP office, so we can be considered for various projects and that, of course, will happen because the countries of our region are committed to ensuring we harness and take advantage of this.”
Resources of similar magnitude had been available over the years but the minister noted countries had not been able to access those funds because of what she described as the difficult and cumbersome procedures outlined by the EU for countries attempting to access the funding.
“There are issues with respect to capacity,” the minister noted. “Some of the countries, in terms of preparing their proposals, in terms of the type of funding available . . . [this] may not necessarily be the type of funding countries may want to benefit from. I say so because when you look at culture, when you look at people in the creative industries, they will want access resources to be able to start up their businesses. We’ve asked the Secretariat to go back to the EU and see if they can design procurement arrangements that take care of our needs, as opposed to dictating to us what those should be, and so we got consensus on that from everybody and, of course, the Secretariat of the ACP would now have to take on that responsibility to see how best they can assist our countries in accessing the resources that are available, and making it relevant to us in our region.”
The theme of this year’s meeting was ‘No Future Without Culture.’
In that light, Belrose spoke about the true essence of culture, and what it meant, stating: “Culture is really who we are, what we do, how we go about doing what we do. This is who we are as a people; how best now we can channel that into revenue for our countries.”
The minister touched on some of the problems that hurt our culture including those to do with the environment and the Saint Lucian consciousness of the impact of individual behaviour on the environment. Pollution and proper disposal of all forms of waste was a problem that needed to be fixed as “an untidy community is an unhealthy community”.
“Culturally, this is a problem,” said Belrose. “We really want our people to be thinking better about the kinds of things that they do.”
Healthy lifestyles and food choices also had a part to play, as the minister opined that too many people were not as focussed as they should be on growing and eating local as “that too is our culture, and how we do things”.
The minister felt there was need, particularly in the school system, to place more focus on being able to create opportunities to nourish children properly and encourage the provision of healthy foods within the system.
Then came the topic of poverty, and how we as a people related to those who were poor. Poverty was defined as living below a certain level of income but, in the words of the minister, “some people think poor, so their behaviour patterns encourage them to stay poor”.
She continued: “These are things that we look at, as we look at the Sustainable Development Goals, and where we want to go. What is it within our culture that will enable us to help give them the oomph to lift themselves, as opposed to remaining poor, or disregarding the environment, or not making a meaningful contribution to our society, to ensure it is better?”
Culture was the thing that many left their own homelands for, travelling thousands of miles to experience that which was different from their own. Belrose felt Saint Lucia offered more than enough to be at the same level as those culturally evolved locales, particularly in terms of the wide range of service options available on-island.
“There’s a whole industry that is created through culture,” she said. “We need to get people to see and access us, and participate in discussions with us around that.”
Last but not least, was the topic of lighting up the city in the name of the annual Festival of Lights. A lump sum of $310,000 was money well spent, in the minister’s opinion, as “culturally, these things are very important and significant because, when the lights are on, there is a renewed sense of life within some people. It soothes you, excites you; people may trivialize these things, but they mean a lot”.
With a hint of nostalgia, the minister reminisced on her own childhood, growing up in the city of Castries and going down to ‘Showcase’.
“Most of you would be too young to remember but we would walk the city at night because it was lit nicely and, of course, you could go out and see what toys you would want. These things have impact, and that is the value of the culture. The simple things that you do; sometimes you don’t understand how it really affects or impacts people’s lives. That’s what makes our society, when we have those little events and activities that can keep us engaged and keep us happy.”
Other notable occasions to look out for in the month of December include the Festival of Carols, Assou Square and, of course, a very brightly lit Christmas!