By Anthony Deyal
Earlier this week, out of two Caribbean countries came statements with more holes in them than Swiss cheese. The first, from Jamaicans.com, claims that “Jamaican Culture Is the Most Popular in the World”. The second is from a Trinidad technocrat turned politician, deputy political leader of the opposition, United National Congress (UNC), Jearlean John. She told the people of Laventille, a tough town in North Trinidad which in 2019 had a murder rate amounting to six times the national rate in a country deemed the 12th most dangerous in the world, that if they vote out the incumbent government, in two years Laventille will become like Switzerland.
In other words, as one of my friends quipped, “If you think this coming election is going be full of empty promises, UNC nothing yet.”
I love Jamaica and have been there many times over the past thirty years. Globally, however, the most popular cultures, judged on a per capita basis (number of tourists to one resident), are Andorra, Macao and then two Caribbean countries none of which is Jamaica – the British Virgin Islands followed by the Turks and Caicos Islands. Other countries from the English-speaking Caribbean in the top 25 are Cayman Islands (12), US Virgin Islands (13), The Bahamas (16), Bermuda (17), and Antigua and Barbuda (23). Barbados is 33 and Saint Lucia 34.
In terms of the top 10 countries with the greatest influence on World Culture, Switzerland, beloved of Ms John, is at number seven, and the top three are Italy, France and, surprisingly, the United States. I never expected this since I have always believed that the answer to the question, “What’s the difference between America and yogurt?” is “If you leave yogurt alone for 200 years it will develop a culture.”
At the recent CARIFESTA held in Trinidad and Tobago, I heard Trinis boasting about how “We culture better than all the others” and perhaps if a culture is something you can put on a stage and “wine” to, they might be right. But culture is much more than performance. It is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts. It is their way of life. The mistake we tend to make, especially in the Caribbean, is to treat culture like economics and apply the same labels to cultures that we use for countries – “developed”, “developing” and “underdeveloped”.
While all countries are definitely not equal in size, population or wealth, all cultures are equal, and no culture is better than any other. We have to take them as they are. What we in the Caribbean should do, especially in countries like Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago which are deeply divided into race and politics, is not to further exploit our cultural and racial differences but build on our cultural diversity as the key to innovation and growth. Jamaican and Barbadian culture rise above race and even class. You can’t be more Jamaican than Bob Marley, Bajan than The Merrymen or Saint Lucian than Rick Wayne.
This brings me to Laventille, Switzerland and Jearlean John. In cultural terms, Laventille is the home of the Desperadoes Steelband which won this year’s national Carnival Panorama competition. Switzerland, while not the inventor, is known for its cuckoo clocks. As actor Orson Wells said in the acclaimed film “The Third Man”, “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed – they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.
In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.” It seems the Swiss now have another invention – a fan, who to most people, basing their view on Ms John’s two-year promise or prediction, is more cuckoo than any clock the Swiss could produce. While the Swiss are famous for banking, I definitely would not bank on Laventille giving up their political party of choice for the past sixty-five years to become the Caribbean Switzerland. As unbelievable as it might seem to us, I bet they wouldn’t trade their present situation for all the Lindt Chocolate in Switzerland.
In its “Top Ten Countries Impacting World Culture”, the online “Global Trip” which rates Switzerland at number seven says that the country tops global culture when it comes to prestige. In Trinidad and Tobago, where “Elite” is a brand of shirt and “Prestige” is a company that owns the KFC franchise, to believe that Laventille will be like Switzerland in two years is not so much pie in the sky as ski in the pie. I can see it now.
Thousands of visitors coming to Trinidad and Tobago to enjoy not just the sun, sand, sea and other “s” words, but also an additional one – ski. It is not impossible and will give their neglected community a definite lift. After all, Laventille is on a high hill and, despite the climate, I have seen snowfall in Trinidad and Tobago. Even though it was John Snow, the English bowler, who skidded and hit the ground hard while running up to bowl in the Queen’s Park Oval, the phenomenon is not unknown.
It is easy to joke about the culture of other countries and people. It is said that the tragedy of Canadians is that they had the opportunity to combine British culture, French cuisine, and American technology but they have settled instead for British cuisine, American culture, and French technology.
In the Caribbean islands, the people of Trinidad and Tobago are called “Trickydadians” because of their reputation for trying to con people.
Regarding the Chinese and other Orientals, it is said that they use different parts of the body to represent different numbers and although in these days of the coronavirus (COVID-19) people view them with fear and suspicion. I find you can count on them once you get to know them better.
Trinis laugh at how Jamaicans drop their “Hs” in words like “hospital” or add them to words like “egg” but they can’t roll their “Rs” in their Carnival like even the slimmest Bajan woman at Kadooment. These jokes are all right if they are not malicious. However, we cross the line when we deride other cultures as ignorant, savage or less than ours. As one of my friends quipped, “There are two things I hate most in the world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures and the British.”
*Tony Deyal was last seen demonstrating why some people either don’t understand British humour or find it disgusting. By the way, “Did you hear about the guy who had his entire left side cut off? He’s all right now”.