Grenada: Dispatches on Colonial Baggage, Ras Tafari and Race Existentialism From the ridge atop Mt. Qua Qua one can see the oceanic expanse to the east and west of the island of Grenada—a vision of the infinite, disturbed only by the eventual curvature of the earth. To the south an indentation in the rainforest provides the slight suggestion of a battered trail that meanders clumsily up from Grand Etang Lake to reach the peak. Left unattended since Ivan—the hurricane that devastated the island in 2004— fallen palm trees, windswept ferns and overgrown razor grass now cover and crowd the trail. Bright orange and yellow mushrooms emerge from the downed trunks. Majestic butterflies and all-black wasps float from plant to plant. The call of a monkey can be heard in the breeze. At times the trail narrows to a slight ridge. The wind blows fiercely and loose dirt cascades off the edge, where tree roots try desperately to compete with gravity. The slopes descend several hundred feet on each side into a sea of green vegetation, where each plant is entangled with its neighbor, fighting in an epic struggle for access to sunlight. On this peak Julian Fédon—a charismatic and violent Native revolutionary of the late 18th century—led an uprising of dispossessed slaves, Catholics and French nationalists against the colonial English government. Mt. Qua Qua was considered virtually impenetrable by the British. Fédon continually escaped capture by sliding down the slopes upon which I stood on a windy January afternoon. Gazing into the tangled vines below, I understood how these escapes appeared death defying and transformed him into the nation‟s greatest folk hero. This status is confirmed by the mythical tales of Fédon‟s escapes to safety by diving into the volcanic lake and swimming to the ocean, or the fables of his nightly rides on a white stallion through the hills of Grenada, protecting children from evil. Today, only the distant hamlets scattered throughout the rainforest differentiate these mountainside views from those that may have graced Julian Fédon‟s eyes over two- hundred years earlier. The same is not true at the Visitor‟s Center at Grand Etang Forest Reserve, where the trail begins. There—amidst proprietors of spices, wood carvings and Carib beer—Natasha and I fed mint candy to the pair of Mona Monkeys that approached us without hesitancy or embarrassment. They lunged at the unwrapped confections in our hands, tossing aside the wrappers and disregarding the signs asking visitors to “put trash in the trash.” Mona Monkeys, like the ancestors of most Grenadians, were brought to the island on slave ships. And like multi-generational inhabitants anywhere, they have developed tastes and customs particular to their location—in this case a love for bubble gum and hard candy, which they steal from the nearby store whenever they can. On the porch of the Visitor‟s Center we met a weathered farmer who talked to us about the island's more inaccessible trails. He told us, in a thick patois that became at times incomprehensible, that we needed a guide with a machete to navigate the overgrown jungle, but that where he went to hunt and fish there were hidden wonders: elaborate systems of waterfalls, the overgrown site of Fédon's main revolutionary camp and dense canopies of trees with the forest floor entirely clear below. "That is a complicated question,” he responded when asked his name. “At birth my mother called me Anthony. But as I grew I realized that I was not Anthony. I was not like other people and many other people were named Anthony. I was different and I knew that I should have a name not like everyone else. I needed to have a name that no one else had." His cloudy-white eyes protruded from the sockets, beaming out from his small frame. "I waited for a long time to find out what my new name would be. For years. And then one night a woman came to me in my dreams. She walked up to my bed and sat down. She told me she had a name for me and that my name would be Davia. D-A- V-I-A. Davia. Now that is my name." “I used to not know how to talk to people,” he said, smiling softly toward Natasha. “But you can find good people everywhere you go. Now I turn on like a radio and you can hardly turn me off.” In point #7 of his insightful and vague 12-point Minnesota Declaration German filmmaker Werner Herzog stated “Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.” I have been haunted by Herzog‟s characterization of travel and tourism from a time long before I read his statement. In all of my adventures away from home I have longed for nothing more than an immersion into the terrain and peoples of a new landscape—rather than to sit on the prophylactic cover provided for outsiders in order to maintain cleanliness and defend against the unfamiliar fabric. I visited Grenada for the first time at the age of twelve. I sat on the beach beside my grandfather as he tanned his wealthy American stomach and consorted with the locals and ex-pats that moved slowly across the gold and turquoise expanse of Grand Anse Beach. Back then my attempts at immersion involved donning a Bob Marley t-shirt and sporting a red-green-gold necklace. The approach was absurd, but my curiosity was genuine and everywhere there were seedlings of a new knowledge. I walked the beach and knelt in sand beside men replicating indigenous carvings on dried coral. A young Rasta teased me about my Marley shirt and told me to learn about Marcus Garvey. I had never heard of Haile Salassie I and knew nothing of Liberia. I hardly knew about the Bible and was mystified by their constant references to the Tribes of Judea. “In two-thousand there will be no blonde hair and blue eyes,” I was told by Mace, an elder Rastafarian with whom my grandfather was cordial. “There will be no black skin. There will be one race. Jah bless.” Mace's prediction was similar to much of the talk that I heard from Rastas—a manner of speaking that weaved through metaphor, hyperbole, Biblical reference and fable, always seeming to allude to a larger truth. Otherwise mundane interactions seemed to be pockets of coded wisdom. After multiple visits I began to attune my ear to the cadence and tenor of Rastafarian dialogue, increasingly aware of the belief system and spiritual disposition. Listening to Bob Marley, I now heard less talk of him “Jamming” and more discussion of chasing “Crazy Baldheads” out of town. I also recognized, with an inevitable dose of confusion, that I was a crazy baldhead and that I was definitely in town. By college it had become increasingly difficult to listen to Bob Marley or even Peter Tosh without imaging an amicable fraternity brother passing a plastic bong, wearing socks under his sandals and listening to “Legend” on repeat, singing along out of key. The question of how a “third-world” superstar largely promoting Afrocentric consciousness, constant marijuana use and the rejection of traditional Eurocentric conceptions of society became a hallmark of investment-bankers-in-training chilling out with djembes is a story for another time. College is weird. But I have been struck more than once by the experience of sitting in the sand nearby an often-visited almond tree and witnessing the depth of reverence which the Rastafarians who regularly congregate there approach reggae music. In Grenada, the notion of the revolutionary Rastafarian is not just an abstraction. When the government was overthrown in 1979 Rastasfarians were one of the largest groups actively seeking change and justice in the face of an increasingly oppressive bourgeois government. It is estimated by some that Rastafarians made up about two- thirds of the army that enacted an almost bloodless overnight coup while the political and intellectual “leaders” of the revolution waited offshore on a boat. Soon after, though, the same Rastas were banned from the army unless they cut off their dreadlocks. Most refused on religious grounds and soon after the group shifted from having a central role in the movement to being marginalized and persecuted. They claim to have been largely run out of the countryside by an influx of Cuban "advisors" who saw them as unfaithful to the Marxist cause. The Rastafarians‟ open disaffection with their former revolutionary comrades caused a deep societal rift. The government placed many Rastafarians in “re- orientation” camps where many leaders had their dreadlocks cut off with broken glass while others were forced to eat pork against their will and religious inclinations. i My grandfather purchased a home in Grenada in the early 70s, unaware that during his lifetime the island would be a microcosm for many of the dominant political trends of the second half of the 20th century, especially in so-called “developing nations:” chaotic post-colonial self-determination, afrocentrism, populist revolution, communist paranoia and dubious American intervention. He visited the island and, struck by its immense natural beauty, he decided to purchase a home atop a hill that overlooked a quiet harbor. Last year, influenced by Herzog‟s audacious proclamation as well as Rory Stewart‟s fine walking book The Places In Between, Natasha and I made a humble attempt at stretching the boundary of our tourist status simply by choosing to walk several miles from my grandfather‟s residence to the city of St. Georges instead of driving. It‟s amazing how the experience of the baby goats and the roosters and the stray dogs and the churches and the crackheads and the fishermen and the political graffiti and the Soca music intensify with each step. These sorts of views and experiences expire almost instantly in a car or bus, but as we walked for hours in the hot sun to the nation‟s capital, I felt as much immersion into the reality of the island as I ever had in my years of visiting. I don‟t mean to congratulate us for such a simple undertaking, but I have begun to agree that the fastest way between one nation and another is on foot. An honest man or woman often seeks nothing more from a relationship than to be seen as something greater than a symbol—to be considered with empathy and complexity befitting them. This is not as simple as it sounds. In Grenada, for example, I can still feel the strong residue of the colonial eye: the way in which the “locals” are so often a fascination or an obstacle and visitors tend to look like walking dollar signs (or the £ which sort of looks like a British man sitting on the beach). I myself have followed the path toward exchanging individuals for symbols with embarrassing and somewhat frightening results. Before my visit to Grenada last year I became increasingly fascinated by the question of political consciousness on the island. “Didn‟t we invade there?” several acquaintances asked before I left. And, yes, most Americans are aware of the island either because of our nation‟s 1983 invasion or because they found themselves there as an incidental stop on a Caribbean cruise. My thinking was this: if America overthrew a populist uprising, wasn‟t the overthrown government at some point popular. It seems that superficial media always seeks to give the impression (conspiracy anyone?) that when a government changes leadership the disposition of the people change too (see any country in the Middle East for an example of why this is untrue and illogical). I had seen the “Thank You U.S.A.” graffiti still remaining in some parts of the island, but I had also talked to people who had received free medical care in Cuba. Somewhere, I imagined, was the residue and resentment of those who had not been the victors. I did not find it near Artiste Point—where we were invited into a private birthday party on a dirt road by some men who fed us fish stew and Rivers Rum (made nearby with a label noting only that it was not below 152 proof). They brushed off my political queries and suggested that I enjoy the beautiful day. And I did not find it while speaking to a tour guide who was enthusiastic about a new resort development and the jobs it would create. I found it on the beach late at night where Natasha and I sat in the dark with Robbie—a guy in his twenties who was trying to sell us ganja. We had been drinking too much at a nightclub called Fantasia 2001 and wound up on the beach with Robbie smoking a joint. In the spirit of my curiosity I asked him how Grenadians felt about the United States. “Well, you see,” Robbie began, peering at us from under a flat-brimmed Yankees cap, “I come from a neighborhood in St. Georges that is the home of the revolution. Do you know about the revolution?” “I know something about it. I‟m interested in it.” “You know about shooting down American helicopters over Calivigny Island? I come from the home of the revolution, where we shot at Americans.” Robbie was taking slow drags off of the spliff, aware of the increasing power of his story. “It‟s good to be down with a guy like me, you know. Cause we slit the throats of tourists out here.” I didn‟t believe that he did. He was too excited about his implicit threat and wasn‟t totally convincing, but it doesn‟t mean that I wasn‟t frightened by him. There was an unmistakable menace to his character, whether or not he meant what he said. “America shows up and comes into countries whenever it wants. Like it owns them. It‟s not right, you know?” “I know. Have you ever been to America?” “No. I have family in Brooklyn. I want to go to Brooklyn and I‟m going to go soon. I‟m just saving for a plane ticket” “That‟s where we‟re from.” “Oh, yeah?” his tone changed quite a bit. “Can you get me some floss? I need some diamonds, you know? Like a real diamond necklace.” “Sure, yeah.” We stopped for a while. Things were getting pretty ridiculous but Natasha and I couldn‟t really just stand up and walk away. “Let me dance with your girl?” “What?” “When we go inside, let me dance with your girl.” He said it without even looking at Natasha. I turned to her and she laughed without reservation. “I don‟t speak for her. You‟ll have to ask her.” “I‟m not asking her. I‟m asking you.” “Well I don‟t speak for her, so I can‟t say.” Things felt tense again. A few people wandered down the beach, away from the club and over toward where we sat in the dark. Robbie called out to them and began trying to sell them ganja. When they came toward us Natasha and I wandered off, calling to Robbie that we‟d see him inside. Soon after we were in a taxi heading home and I was thinking about how far the abstraction of political ideology can be from the unmistakable reality of violence. There was a telling poignancy in the comfort of our taxi and its quick path back to our home on the hill. I believe that, for America, the invasion of Grenada was on some level a way to stitch together an open wound in the national psychology that had been bleeding since the embarrassment of our failed invasion of Cuba twenty-two years earlier. We needed an island that was smaller and less inclined toward widespread Leninist inspiration; one that was militarily innocuous but with enough with Russo-Cuban affiliation to get the point across: that the iron curtain would not fall across another of our tourist destinations, that the sickle and hammer could not intrude upon our favorite beaches. Of course, it‟s not as simple as all that—it never is—and the funny thing about Grenada is that, unlike many of its communist-leaning contemporaries, the people seem to have been largely happy to have American marines storm their beaches. At the time of the invasion Maurice Bishop, the relatively popular Marxist who had been controlling the government for the three years since th e revolution, had been arrested by communist intellectuals who faulted him for moving the nation toward social democracy. Bishop had shown signs of paranoia-induced violence and oppression throughout his rule, but the hardliners that overtook him needed less than a month to exemplify the barbarity and disregard for human life that hardened ideology can truly bring. And America—frustrated by Grenada‟s communist relations, prominent Cuban “advisors” and strategic position along our oil transporting route through the Panama Canal—was ready to step in. When marines showed up with the stated mission of protecting American students at the Grenadian Medical School, they truly were liberators, of a sort. That old populism just wasn‟t popular any more. We wander onto the beach after an uncharacteristically long spell of rain. It‟s midday on Sunday and it seems that everyone is either at church or resting because only a few scattered tourists and beach dogs have ventured into the day‟s first prolonged rays of sunlight. We wander toward a large almond tree nearby which we often lay in the sun, heating ourselves as much as possible before sprinting into the refreshing water. Normally a rotating cast of Rastas sit beneath the tree selling coral necklaces, smoking ganja and occasionally renting beach chairs. There is a sign that reads “The Almond Tree Hotel” and often Natasha and I wander there to converse and barter with the few regulars with whom we have developed casual relationships. Today no one is beneath the tree. “Let‟s sit here,” I offer. Natasha, who has far less fear of petty social impropriety than I, agrees, but I sense a slight reluctance. “It‟s kind of weird, don‟t you think,” she says. But we find a place where the roots are wide and sit down. It is weird. We seem instantly out of place, but there is a strange adventurousness to our blurring of this vague social boundary. We sit down and open the beer that we have brought with us. The day is calm and the tide unusually high. Waves fan out before us and nearly reach out feet. (I think about my high school, in which most of the black students congregated exclusively at their well-defined lunch tables, or the Asian students at college who always seemed to be partying together—there is a hazy space between self-imposed division and being ostracized; between seeking comfort and finding solace in mutual uneasiness. Here I know my thoughts and words will eventually misstep—exposing some insensitivity or violating a cultural taboo—and I feel pressure to heed the barrier that keeps us away from the answers to these questions.) “Hey, boy. You okay?” A man wearing jean shorts, a white sleeveless t-shirt and a Yankees hat over shoulder-length braids wanders toward us, sliding through the sand with a deliberate casualness. “Beautiful day in Grenada, yeah?” He, like many of the Grenadian men, addresses me and offers only sideward glances toward Natasha. His accent is much slighter than most Grenadians and his outfit suggests the summer in Brooklyn—a common destination for many on the island—as much as a Caribbean beach. “It is.” “You on vacation? What hotel?” I explain our situation, noting with too much emphasis that I have been to the island many times. I speak casually of specific knowledge, emphasizing something like: while I am on vacation, I am certainly not a tourist. “This is your wife?” “My girlfriend. My name is Ben. This is Natasha.” “Ben. Natasha. I am Jonah. She is very beautiful. Let me tell you what I do.” I sense Natasha‟s doubtful intuition without looking at her. Jonah is friendly, but Natasha is waiting for the line. He sits down beside me on the roots of the tree. “I am a lifeguard.” “Really?” I‟m open, offering up the possibility that this is true. “Me and some that sit under this tree. We sit here but when people have trouble when they‟re swimming we go to help them. Sometimes we go three, four miles to get someone who‟s having trouble swimming. Sometimes we have to swim far out. I‟m working right now.” There are a few things obviously wrong here. First: I‟ve never seen anyone swim over 75 yards off of the beach at Grand Anse, never mind the several miles that would bring you up the eastern coast. Second: the jean shorts he‟s wearing go down far below his knees and would be incredibly constrictive for swimming. “They don‟t pay us though, you know?” He continues. “We rely on donations from good people like you to pay us. Otherwise there is no one here to save people who swim out too far.” We have saved only the 50 EC that we each need to get off the island and a few more dollars for a last meal of vegetable roti. It‟s a conveniently honest excuse. I tell him this, offering that I‟d love to help, but noting that we have only saved the money we need to get off the island. I don‟t mention the roti. “No.” He cuts me off before I can finish. “I am not asking you for money.” We all pause and look at the water. “I am just saying that it is people like you who give us money. Because it is like the Bible say…” He trails off into some dubiously quoted New Testament phrases about how blessed those are who give and how they will be the ones that receive in the end. I sense Natasha‟s disgust at the backhanded insult and the dishonest solicitation. I‟m just trying to end the conversation, deciding to run with it into absurdity. “Well, I‟m sorry that we can‟t help you out, but it‟s great that someone‟s lifeguarding for the people on this beach. I never knew there were lifeguards here before.” Again, silence and staring at the water. Natasha and I are nearing the end of our beers and I suggest to her that it‟s time to go swimming. She agrees. “Okay.” Jonah stands up but then immediately squats down beside me. “You know Charlie?” “Charlie?” Natasha asks. “You know Charlie? You get down with Charlie?” “I don‟t think so? Is he usually here on the beach?” I said this and felt like a fool. It was obvious that Charlie was a code; some suggestion being made to us that was beyond our comprehension. “Angel dust, man, you know? You like to do it sometimes?” “No, that‟s not really our thing.” “Once in a while?” “Not our thing. We‟re cool.” “Okay. You look for me. One love.” Jonah put out his hand out for me to give him a pound. He did the same for Natasha. One love. Calivigny Island, the small coastal isle where Robbie told us that rockets were shot at U.S. helicopters, is currently being developed into a luxury resort. A website for investors states that the small island “has become a French billionaire‟s paradise and when complete will be the playground for the rich and famous.” It goes on. “Five years ago it was simply an uninhabited island, untouched and covered in shrub, now it is a carefully landscaped and well manicured island with tiny roads leading to modern spacious suites each with its own unique design. No two are alike.” A billion dollars can seem like an abstraction, but it is more than twice the Gross Domestic Product of the entire nation of Grenada. And, yes, Calivigny was uninhabited five years ago (with the exception of locals like the threatened Grenada Dove and wandering iguanas), but twenty years earlier it was the site of one of the revolution‟s main military encampments and a destination for a massive cache of Cuban arms. Certainly the ground is stained with the blood of Grenadians and littered with the remains of buried military refuse. Calivigny Island is very much a part of the collective memory of a people who have been victimized by ideology and conquest for most of the history of their beautiful island. We‟ve heard this myth of uninhabited land before. Lydia De Tata, one of the project managers and architects of the resort coldly notes, “It is a wonderful experience to work with another culture…there is (sic) not many places where you can design this kind of product. Grenada is a most exceptional place.”ii It certainly is. In fact, it was none other than Columbus who first laid European eyes on this exceptional place in 1498. At the time he had begun referring to the indigenous Kalinagos that lived in Grenada‟s Windward Islands chain as „Cariba‟—the Spanish word for cannibal. Despite evidence to the contrary, he perpetuated a myth of cannibalism in order to sidestep a Spanish law barring the enslavement of indigenous populations. The law had a clause permitting such slavery in the case of flesh-eating humans. This verbal conceit birthed the “Carribean” and became the initial justification for conquest, trade and investment. Nowadays I find myself there occasionally—trying to relax and spending a good amount of time exchanging dollars and trying to make sense of the history of my personal currency. We vacation in the breeze of a place that is still spoken of with the deceit of a colonial name. Though in Grenada, as far as I can tell, men still walk a path through the woods that can only be traversed with a machete and are named more often from their dreams than from the King James Bible. i “Interview with Ras Prince Nna Nna” Rastafari in Transition: The Politics of Cultural Confrontation in Africa and the Caribbean Vol. 1; Dr. Ikael Tafari, 2001: Frontline Books. ii http://www.grenadaworld.com/WhatInvestorsSay/ParadisLtd/tabid/430/Default.aspx Beverly Steele A History of Grenada and its People?
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