This is the third time I have begun this letter to you although the first time I have committed it to paper. Fall, October of 2005 to be exact was the first time I began composing my thoughts to you in response to reading about your predicament concerning your land at Cow Pasture/Cow Pastor, Christ Church, Barbados. 1 & 2
Fall in Canada is a time when the land begins a slow burn as trees and shrubs blaze in shades of red and orangethe maple, that now ubiquitous symbol of Canadian nationality, shouts its defiance of the inevitable the harsh approach of winter. The Sumach metamorphoses into a multitude of red flags. Fall is all about change. That we should die in such robust beauty parade our aliveness our livicality as the rastas would say.
I think of your description of Cowpastor as I walk the fields and hear the honking of the Canada geese as they bank and turn, move into formation follow the leader leader leader, follow the leader as the soca artist sings they are headed south in V formation where its warm, where winter is not to be found in the temperature outside but is more a state of mind. An absence of hope a withering of desires on the vine.
This is a land worth loving. As are our islands. A vast land as our islands are not.
As I walk I think of the many many issues the information on the Cow Pastor website has generated for me. Issues of place and belonging; of exile and homecoming. Issues of where we lan? despite all the soca slogans that proliferate in my island home about being Trini to the bone and sweet T&T. Issues of how do we, the flotsam and jetsam of 500 years of dis/place hard, oui own what our erstwhile masters never intended us to own.
This is a beautiful land a stolen land which we are told is the envy of the world. It is a land that is no longer under the stewardship of its First Peoples and in 2006 many reserves still live with boil-water directives. In other words, in this First World paradise, the aboriginal peoples of this land, more often than not, live third world realities. Traditionally, their stewardship, enjoined them to think seven generations ahead into the so-called future, but which is really only the past in drag, or dress up in old marse or some fancy marse costume.
This place here, where I am is called Dunvegan marking a history of settlement by the British, in this case the Scots. Four hours from Toronto and one and a half from Montreal, the French presence is here as well. Nothing, however of those First Peoples. As in the case of the Caribbean where, except for traces in Dominica in the Black Caribs, or in Arima in Trinidad, the Aboriginal presence has been disappeared. Their ghosts may, however, be dormant but still stalk the land.
What does any of this have to do with Barbados and Cow Pasture/Cow Pastor? You will, as we Trinis say, have to hold strain. There are one hundred acres here and as I walk I think of the Aboriginees of Australia: how when they go walkabout the land tells its stories through them as they pass through the different landscapes the songlines creating a web a cats cradle of belonging. I walk and think at Dunvegan of those hardscrabble islands that we call home pieces of rock where our navel strings bury. Islands whose beauty can make you weep where coconut palm, blue sea and white sand are the basic recipe for financial success in the business of package tourism. Add the enticements of the Black body, cypher of all that is illicit and transgressive, and youre guaranteed to keep them coming back. Year after year after year. Decade after decade as in the case of Jamaica and Barbados.
Islands where memories are a dime a dozen and still no buyers or takers, where ghosts walking bout in broad daylight and nobody seeing them for the glare of the bling. As you put it so well some years ago they build hotels not only on our metaphors but they resurrect the plantation complete with smiling yassuh nossuh darkies and demand that we love it.
It is 1990 and Trindad & Tobago has been in the grip of right wing economic polices of the Robinson government. The constitution is changed to allow foreigners to buy land. Until then, some would say still, the island of Tobago was the neglected sister island state. A well-kept secret among touristsmainly the bird-watching types. Once foreigners are allowed to purchase land there is an explosion of tourist initiatives there is no attempt to encourage agricultural practices or even initiate industrial production. Tourism has become the holy grail. On the south coast of the island in a small village, Black Rock, a clutch of villas are built all pink with white wooden gingerbread flourishes the great house, the plantation house, has been brought back. And just in case you didnt get it, the name, Plantation Villas, underscores this reprise.
One softly bright blue morning the contractor an African Trinidadian man and I engage a fierce argument about the name. If we understand what the plantation meant for us in this part of the world, I say, we would not be calling anything plantation, let alone villas catering to the tourist, primarily white and serviced by Black people. But those who are resurrecting the plantation are, by and large, the descendants of, or associate themselves with, the former slave holding class. The contractor might not own the villas, but he defends the use of the word as if he owns them.
The zenith of the flurry of hotel building on the island is the Hilton Hotel, jointly owned by the government and private corporations, and opened in 2001. This is, we are told, a community and eco-project, built on former wet-lands. Emblazoned on the entry signs to the Hilton Hotel is the name of a corporation whose genealogy can be traced back to the period of slavery: Tobago Plantations Ltd. which welcomes you paradise. Tobago Plantations, its website advertises, is the place where the dream of Caribbean living comes true where people are unspoiled, friendly hospitable and everybody knows everybody else. This in a country that has the second highest HIV/AIDs rate after sub-Saharan Africa. This in an island where escorts Colombian, Latinos, Local mixed and East Indian are advertised in the local newspaper. Whatever my feeling about what the escort service means in societies like this, I note the absence of any mention of African escorts. The paradise that we are being welcomed to includes a rising crime rate, attacks on tourists and a wanton disregard for the environment.
The events surrounding Cow Pastor and your experiences since purchasing it remind me of the centrality of the land to the First Nations Peoples the land speaks to them offers them her wisdoms, so when you talk of getting messages from trees it in no way appears odd. Their continuing fight today on Turtle Island, named Canada by the European, is for their land, for respect for treaties that guaranteed them their land and their traditional ways of life on that land.
Their plight is that they have had their land taken from them land which has shaped them through millennia and yet it is no longer their land. In the legal sense of the word. It is one resource that Africans on their continent continue to possess their land. Or is this actually the case? Zimbabwe and South Africa have still to settle adequately the issue of land reparations. In the case of both of these countries much of the better land is still in the hands of the former colonisers. Also, the havoc that HIV/AIDs is wreaking on the peoples of Africa is bound to have an impact on land ownership. The growing impact of China as an economic power is also being felt in Africa in terms of land ownership and control of resources. For instance, China has vetoed UN resolutions regarding the genocide in Sudan because Sudan is a source of oil for them.
It is also the one resource we Caribbean people have that when the European retreated they left us these pieces of rock volcanic and coral. To call our own. Our home. Now activities like tourism have turned them into destinations for the white northerner where their every desire can be fulfilled. We market ourselves as good time destinations where the native is always smiling, always servile and whose raison detre is always the happiness of the tourist. Where the African males function is to service the white female and male, depending on the sexual orientation of the tourist. Maleness and masculinity is a product and Black maleness a significant part of the product that is sold as part of tourism. The Black female in these contexts in this time of globalisation plays a different role: it is the role of the mammy, cook or the hyper-sexed wining object.
Now you come long, Kamau and talking bout a sacred space a Bussa institute; a space where spirits can connect and commune, where memories can take hold and take root, where we can begin to knit the fragments of a fragmented soulindividual and collective back together. You mad or what? Or just crazy. You dont realize we living in a globalised world where we selling our sun, sex, sand and sea we dont even have to wuk for it just wuk up for the highest bidder. And pretend we all right, oui, with we multichannel universe, our roll-on roll- off cars our new houses. So what if the plantation come back. If it resurrect. And our souls lie dormant; our ancestors moan and roam the oceans and haunt these pissin tail islands nameless and homeless.
So what if we have the climate and soil and can grow our own food year round. It cheaper to import our orange and banana and grapefruit not to mention apple and grape tout bagai from the US. And I am mindful of the challenge by the United States against the preferential treatment by the former colonial powers for bananas from the Caribbean. This is capitalism at its best, the rationality of capitalism survival of the richest if not the fittest.
I know the arguments Barbados is a tourist economy and everything must be subsumed under that. So if the airport is to be expanded or a new road needed to service the airport, then everything must fall before the relentless march of progress and expansion. Including you, Kamau, before the god of airports that ferry white northerners to the island of choice, so they can lie in the sun and tan themselves . And no, it doesnt matter that increasingly Bajans have less and less access to the sea, except for the odd window that is allowed them, with all the best coastal land being taken by hotels and those who can afford to purchase coastal property.
Do you remember those few days after 9/11 when the skies were silent? The entire world was a no fly zone. I felt the world exhale. And celebrated the fact that the inhabitants of the so-called civilised world could fly nowhere.
Your connection with that plot of land, Cow Pasture, touched me because for us, children of the volcano as Martiniquan poet Aime Cesaire has described us, condemned to wander the world looking for a home, as you yourself poignantly described in Emigrants, the idea of finding a place to rest, to call home, to call others home is a powerful one.
Max Dorsinville, the Haitian Quebecois writer, in his work, Le Pays Natal, has argued that the archetype that distinguishes the literature of Africans, continental or Afrosporic is that of the return, whether it be a metaphorical return to Africa, or the physical return to Africa or the Caribbean, as poets and writers like Cesaire or Lamming have done. We are always re/turning, whether it be to the Africa of our dreams to displace the nightmare that is Africa today in the Western media, or to the Caribbean that home instead of and in spite of that home that is simultaneously too close and too far. That home, as in my case, where violence, offspring of the colonial experiment is ubiquitous, and where a cya cya cya does hide the multitude that is pain and the multitude does hide in cya cya cya, and a good wine jam and jock at carnival. Where ancestors groan at the loosening of all bonds except the desire for bling.
I recognize the longing to make a home home away from home and the impossibility for so many of us to be able to call our homes home any longer. While I acknowledge the Caribbean is a hard place to be in general, for women it is even harder still, and if you are not heterosexual in orientation then God help you. If nothing else, home is about belonging, but how can you belong when the economy makes you superfluous, or your gender or sexuality places you outside the circle of belonging. In your home. How can you, me, we belong if the ancestral ghosts the Romans, those quintessential colonisers called them the lares and penates, and every home had an altar to them are not even acknowledged let alone fed and nourished.
But is what foolishness I talking bout ancestral ghosts and talking trees. And talking about trees. Where are the trees, Kamau? Los Barbados, the bearded fig tree that gave the island its name are now no more, the island denuded of most of its trees. An island of no hills, or valleys. No mountains, nor forests and nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. Nowhere to marroon; to palenque. It is interesting, is it not, that Barbados sobriquet is Little England and that like its erstwhile mother country it is almost entirely deforested. What does this do to the psyche of the inhabitants? This absence of places of refuge where one could hide. And in a globalised world with increasing surveillance the need to find private spaces is increasingly necessary. What does this do our psyches? Does one develop inner hiding places? How do our physical spaces shape us and we them?
It is the 21st of March, 2006. I am flying over the island of Barbados and once again I am struck by its flatness, compared to the other islands of the Caribbean, also by the many seemingly new houses. And the absence of trees and I think of your dunks tree and the bearded fig tree on Cow Pastor, and I wonder: why dont they plant trees; why havent they, and why didnt they? In each of these questions the `they differs. In the first case I am thinking of the current owners of property; in the second the government since independance, and in the third case the slave owner or coloniser. And isnt it that without trees you are much better able to control a populace of forced labour. A Bajan taxi driver told me not long ago that his father told him that slaves built the roads with curves and bends and twists so that their masters could not see them and they could hide from them. If if this not true it signposts an awareness of the need of have places of retreat, places where one could not be seen. Such strategiesbuilding winding roadswould have been crucial on an island where you could run but you couldnt hide.
The second time I begin this letter to you about Cow Pastor is in Italy. While there the weight of the particular manifestation of European culture that is Italy is impresses and oppresses me at times. Here in Italy they cherish the past and the material expression of that past statuary, paintings, buildings especially churches all comprising a dead, yet living legacy. Our past is us and we are our past the very cobblestones appear to shout. And, as for the future well, the coloured hordes must be kept out and at bay at all costs. This much I am made aware of. A friend shares with me the observation that the Mediterranean Sea was becoming like the Atlantic with its dead bodies of Africans who are trying to get into Europe by any means necessary. Many die in that attempt.
For more than 2, 000 years the Lake Como area where I am has been a tourist destination. The Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, appparently owned a villa in these parts. But here tourism is not about serving and servicing the tourist, particularly those of my hue. You are tolerated on sufferance, a sort of take or leave it approach that makes you nervous even to enter some restaurants where you feel the need of some secret code before you will be let in. Contrast that with the tourism of the Caribbean where the tourist must be serviced in all respects and kept happy. As I walk around northern Italy, I think of the Caribbean, of our island cultures and the apparently shallow soil of our material histories 500 years of colonial rule and slavery in stark contrast with the deep historical memory of these towns, villages and cities, of all that surrounds me now. And I think of how, despite the apparent shallow depth of our Caribbean culture, our people have taken the cultures they have created wherever they have gone, making in the case of Caribana and the Notting Hill Carnival for instance, the largest festivals in North America and England respectively.
Of course, these two apparently dissimilar realities the abundance and depth of European history and culture vis-a-vis the paucity and apparent shallowness of Caribbean history and culture are linked and more interrelated than they appear with Europe and the West in general continuing to play their historical zero sum games in Africa and the Caribbean.
And Cow Pastor, with its Bussa Institute, becomes for me a weight dropped into the unknown sea of memory sounding the depths. For what? Signs of life. Traces. Or, perhaps, an anchor tying us to a past we seem intent on fleeing before we even understand it. A sight and site of resistance to the bulldozing transnational forces of globalisation that seek to erase all and sweep away everything that stands in the way of this process. My mind turns to the film Life and Debt that chronicles the destruction of the local infrastructure of the Jamaican economy the banana and dairy industry to name but two sectors by World Bank and IMF demands, while tourists enjoy what tourists come to Jamaica to enjoy and indulge in pastimes like crab racing.
Cow Pastor appears to point to a daring to dream, a willingness to imagine other possibilities or ways of being where we can be in active contact with all that has contributed to our terroir and terror.
In a post 9/11 world the latter word has been over used to the point of meaninglessness.
The French word, terroir, bears a striking resemblance to it and refers to the peculiar and unique qualities of a particular piece of land its climate, its soil, and its history that produces all that is unique and individual in wines from that particular region. Terroir is more than the sum of its parts it is a mysterious quality that lends a wine its personality. Cow Pastor for me simultaneously conjures, and I use the term advisedly, the terroir and terror that is Barbados and the Caribbean. Terroir in its attempt at bringing together the history, the memory, the physical terrain, even the ancestors bones, in a place, a locality, that would and could offer a corrective to the present day erasures of memory and history in service to the tourist , which, in turn, could be seen as an act of terror, in a tiny island in lock step with a globalised world.
Whatever my critique of Barbados, however, it is an island economy that works well, a society where law and order permeate Bajan society. Trinidad , that simultaneously blessed and cursed place is at the other end of the spectrum. Where Barbados has only tourism to rely on, Trinidad has an industrial base oil, asphalt, natural gas it supples 70 percent of the US natural gas requirements. You wouldnt think it, though, to see its health system, or its education system. It is a country that has set itself the goal of becoming a developed country by the year 2020. As if. An island of many tribes, African, Indian, Syrian, Chinese; religions: Hinduism, Islam, Orisha. An island where kidnappings are as plentiful as coconuts; where vagrants line the streets and bombs are left in garbage containers. Where the murder rate for 2006 already exceeds the number of days in the year to date. This is Trinidad welcome to the 20/20 future. If the natives are well behaved on the plantation of Barbados, on the plantation of Trinidad they are entirely out of control. Despite this, however, I believe there to be a greater potential for change in the flux and the chaos that is Trinidad, although it does make life more challenging.
Trinidad exists simultaneously within several paradigms of time and is typical of a world that is increasingly globalised, where people live lives of unbelievable privilege in the West and Africa teeters on the brink of survival as the West continues to exploit the continent for minerals. Examples include the Canadian mining company Talisman in Sudan, the mining of coltan for cell phones in Congo (DRC), of gold and diamonds in South Africa and Sierrra Leone. There is the so called modern time of the Western industrial, now increasingly technological, society, hooked to the mechanical and mechanised time of industrial production. There is island time some of us call it Black peoples time maybe Black time is a better descriptor. This is the time the tourist brochures push and which the tourist desires. The time of soon come and later man later. There is colonial time which is still widespread in Trinidad. One only has to visit a government office to see how the utter disregard for the time of the colonised in Trinidads case African and Indian has continued over into modern society. You need to see five different people, for instance, for the simple task of ordering a birth certificate. Or, after waiting in line for close to two hours, the computers are shut down and you are expected to return the following day.
Scene: the telephone office in Tobago. Cell phone customers are sitting. Waiting. I enter. The machine that dispenses numbers doesnt work. This means you have to figure out whos ahead of you and beat back all newcomers who attempt to jump the queue. Not to mention those who enter after you but because they know the supervisor are fast tracked. It takes an hour to see a sales representative/worker and irony of ironies: here we are, dealing with the latest in cell phone technology and something as basic as the system for dealing with customers is a shambles, more reminiscent of a market, and a not too efficiently run one at that, rather than a modern office. Here you see the juxtapositions of the two times most clearly.
There is also the sacred /profane time of carnival which has resulted in the carnivalisation of the culture as a whole. Remaining within the context of sacred time there are the competing times Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Orisha. All of which brings me back to to Cow Pastor which to me appears not so much a place as a space/time configuration. A space/time of the sacred, of remembering, of maroon and palenque; a space/time where we can allow a haunting of those ancestors who were caught up, consumed and spat out, in that earlier globalisation I mentioned at the start of this talk. A space/time of understanding how it all begins and ends. With the land. Whichever land we stand upon as we are moved by forces apparently beyond our control. Where we can understand that maroonage and the palenque are states of mind as well as physical states, and that in a globalised world we will need to employ those resources as a challenge to the many ways of death that globalisation offers. Cow Pastor is a vital element in this challenge; this is its legacy in the face of the simultaneously seductive and brutalising forces of globalisation.
Shortly before leaving Barbados in March my cousin, her husband and I set off to look for Cow Pastor. It was close to the airport and it seemed to make some degree to sense to visit it on my way to the airport. We meet and ask many people in the area but none of them appear to know anything about it. This surprises us, since I know letters have appeared in the newspapers and there has been at least one call-in show. We felt that some of the people knew but allowed as how they didnt know you can run but you cant hide. And just as we were about to give up someone pointed us in the right direction.
I felt a presence on that land. It had a patient, serene, windswept quality to it. As if it was waiting for something. I saw the pond, or what is left of it, the lone bearded fig tree. It did feel magical. Was it my imagination there goes my Western-trained mind. For if it were my imagination all the better. For that is what we will need to imagine worlds the capitalist nightmare that presently holds the world hostage. Simone Weil, the French philosopher, once wrote that hunger presupposes the existence of bread. So too I think our hunger for worlds in which we can recuperate the erased, memories of another time, presupposes the existence of those worlds. Worlds that Cow Pastor signals. What we need is time the right time, that is. When our past becomes us and we become our past.
1 Save Cow Pastor website. (http://tomraworth.com/wordpress/)
2 In 1998 the Barbadian poet Kamau Braithwaite bought a piece of land in Christ Church Barbados. Shortly after purchasing the land the Barbadian government informed him that he couldnt build or extend the premises a small 3 bedroom w/its old slave outhouse because it was near the airport in a No Fly zone.
I will let him tell it in his own words.
His intention was to use the property to house his archives many of which had become scattered as a consequence of Hurricane Gilbert in Jamiaca. He also wanted to use the premises as a place of return if youwill where artists could visit and work an oumfo-palenque as he describes it Bussa Centre is his name for it. After that reason was disallowed in court another objection was put forwardthat the land was needed to build a road to the airport
The Barbados government has sent in bulldozers to raze the land and fill in the pond on the premises.. To date the matter has still been unresolved.