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OFF CENTRE: Barbadiana and Independence

Sherwyn Walters

OFF CENTRE: Barbadiana and  Independence

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SEEMS LIKE WE want to create a sturdy Independence out of the Landship, tuk bands, spouge, conkies, jooking boards and mortar pestles.

And maybe cou cou and flying fish.

November is our Independence month, so . . . .

Yuh turn left – Wendy Alleyne, Cheryl Hackett, DaCosta Allamby, The Merrymen. And a lot of spouge – “like dirt”. Even “dragon spouge”.

Yuh turn right – buck pots, flat irons, old Bajan sayings, pictures of chattel houses.

The signature mark of our celebrating of ourselves is usually a dusting off of the cobwebs from various things and bringing them into the light of day for a 30-day exhibition. Of course, there is the Parade. And Honours.

In this Independence month, as usual, we are mostly bathing ourselves in our music, artefacts, customs, food, expressions. What we have produced, it seems we are saying, that is the stuff of Independence.

But if we weren’t independent, we would probably still have produced those things. You think that Jackie Opel waited until one post-Independence day and said to himself, “Now that we are independent, I must create something Barbadian. I got it: spouge”?

Look, there is no necessary nexus between Barbadiana and Barbados’ Independence.

I am sure Montserrat has Montserratiana and it is not an independent country.

Independence is about more than kneeling down cricket or marble cricket or road tennis. It is a whole other game, so to speak.

Before some o’ wunna guh crazy, lemme say I am not knocking the various evidences of usness – which, quite frankly, if they have the necessary relevance, should be pervasive all year round.

What I am concerned about is the location of the Independence project away from the character of the people and the nature of true Independence – consumed with the aspects of cutting ties with “Big England”, “expressing yourself”, “doing yuh own t’ing” and all that.

(Then we are surprised that many of our youngsters have no weighty idea of what Independence means. And our usual ways of showing them various artefacts and playing our songs can’t help them to a deeper understanding.)

The populace has largely been reared in an engagement of Independence that is what I have elsewhere called “a simple-minded contemplation of our navel string” (that vital connector from us to life and symbolically to the Bajan earth in which it was buried).

Bereft, it seems, of the understanding that the status of Independence is fundamentally a matter of governance – of country (with the necessary individual self-management) – and kindredness, and not about the narrow-minded concept of “culture” that is constantly peddled and all the more so in November as the key representation of our Independence.

And while our products may inspire a certain fellow-feeling, that is not automatic, nor is that sense of connection necessarily a profound one. That spouge came from here or that we both say “gypsy” when we mean nosy/prying does not create any special bond between us. That would have to be worked at more consciously and carefully.

When we show amused children buck pots and mortar pestles and jooking boards and such, we mostly send the message “this is what we used” with the focus being on the artefacts rather than on what, in fact, those artefacts represent in the realm of character qualities.

In many cases, they were the products of resourcefulness, of creativity, of problem solving, excellent examples of “make do”, of import (or purchase) substitution wrought by ordinary people.

If you tell them about marble cricket, tell them about what prompted it and extol the qualities that produced it.

Our “rollers” (with tin cans turned into wheels affixed to a wooden “axle” and a long (wooden again) steering column, and thread or twine controls) were marvels of improvisation, not to mention products of pride and industry. As were our home-made box carts and scooters and kites – and so much else.

I had read about chess (that school visit to the Public Library at eight or nine years old created an insatiable appetite for reading – where else would an 11-year-old black Barbadian of no privilege in the early 1960s get to know about chess?). For some reason I developed a burning desire to play it.

Which Barbadian parent of such a child at such a time would even consider purchasing a chess set for him? So I took my father’s tools and the household knife and I made one – the board literally and every pawn, rook, bishop, knight, and the royals (king and queen).

And then I introduced the game to my little friends, often with a library book to help our understanding.

Making do. Still very necessary. But the lessons have to be taught. The connections have to be highlighted. A jooking board en just a jooking board! We must get to the crux of the matter when, as is our wont every November, we draw attention to our products of the past.

The lesson is the qualities that the product represented and the aim must be to inspire and nurture the same now. These things are not simply to be showpieces. Our children, in particular, must be set on similar practical paths. That is real, consequential celebration of ourselves.

I may be wrong, but from my distance it seems that the signal involvement of the Landship these days is the manoeuvres. And, it seems, we want people to keep this institution alive doing the maypole dance and so on. But isn’t that to dumb down the thing? To downplay the thrift, the community work, the fellowship, the charity that were major aspects of its existence, for a playing at being a seaman, with a twist? To miss the boat?

We must mine the past for deep significance. And must find the wellsprings of potent relevance in the things that we keep or keep referring to.

Only as we do that can we create the kind of Independence (nationhood) of which we can be really proud.

But even as we are deluged by strains of our folk songs, spouge and other songs of long ago; as we hark back to Bajan proverbs, display mortar pestles and cou cou sticks; and “nyam” our conkies, we are arguably worse off in the qualities of character and thinking that would make for robust self-governance and kindredness.

We have focused more on the veneer than on the substance. 

• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor. Email [email protected]