A culture for the world Ian on Sunday
By Ian McDonald
Stabroek News
September 14, 2003

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In 1991 and 1992 when I was working with the West Indian Commission a feature of many of the presentations made by scores of experts and academics and businessmen and educators was how often they cited other countries as influences we needed to recall or examples we should strive to emulate. The Commission was constantly hearing about a dominant American influence, the New Europe, the Japanese example, the dynamic image of the Asian Tigers, the Singapore model.

I remember after a while wondering if all these people were overdoing it a bit since I was quite sure very few of the presenters really found the ways of life in most of these countries preferable to our own. Did we, then, have nothing for others to emulate?

Well I am glad to say that in its discussions the West Indian Commission concluded that, while such presentations certainly gave useful reference points for appraising our future, they also underestimated our own worth - that we in the West Indies possess our own singular potential and it is by no means impossible, if we work hard to get it right, for us to propose for others a West Indian model for the 21st Century.

Here is how the West Indian Commission described such a model: “It must, first of all, be community which has learned enough about industrial and business efficiency to generate the sort of economic dynamism which will yield the material sufficiency which people expect and deserve. That sufficiency of material return must not simply be numbers in an index of averages concealing great disparities in the distribution of goods and social services. The institutions of government, intervening as little as possible in the processes of wealth generation, must be alert and efficient in ensuring that people at every level share in the basic goods, essential services, and educational and employment opportunities which the economy produces... Basic to this is the example of smoothly working democratic institutions where the full range of basic human rights is protected as a matter of course. The world at large does not take such an achievement for granted. It is a special West Indian strength which we must be at pains to preserve.

And within that framework we may offer what is uniquely our creation. It is rare, especially in the still developing world - and it may become rarer yet as the decade advances - that a people of many nationalities, many races, many faiths, and different cultural heritages stay together, and indeed grow closer, in a single community. It is an example that is likely to be valuable in the world. The talents which have emerged from our amalgam of peoples have already made a telling and universal mark.”

That was the view of the West Indian Commission. I think they were right. Indeed I hope and pray and believe in such a West Indian model for the rest of the world. I hope because I am an optimist and think we can teach the world. I pray because I think we will need some heavenly blessing in a hard task. But in the end I profoundly believe because I think we already hold enough in common to secure an undivided future together.

We enjoy a great variety of people, cultures and nationalities in the West Indies but the variety is not divisive in any crucial sense. There is no fatal remoteness of experience of the spirit that condemns us never to come together and stay together as a nation. Indeed, we have more cause to be one - more of a subtly sensed brotherhood - than many who are already one in the league of nations.

I want to describe quite briefly why I think our future as a well-integrated nation stands a good chance of success.

From what sources does a sense of affinity amongst a variety of people flow? Obvious sources are race, religion, ancestry, country of origin, history, economic circumstances, social status, culture and customs, myths and lore and legend. Common sources clearly inspire an easier coming together of people for common purposes. Yet the matter hardly even begins there since no nation enjoys anything approaching such uniformity in all its well-springs.

Indeed, people in every nation under the sun are divided from each other by differences in many, perhaps most, of these fundamental allegiances. People may vary in race, in religion, in culture and mores, in the history and myths that inspire them, and such differences will not in themselves prevent a nation forming. Nations form in spite of such differences. A nation may even be strengthened if these differences blend through mutual acceptance or adaptation or adjustment or interfusion into a whole which makes no fundamental challenge to each separate source of inspiration but in fact finds its completeness by drawing upon each source.

I believe that the multitudinous accommodations West Indians in all our varieties have made between ourselves over a long period qualify us more securely than most for nationhood. Roots have grown and mixed from many directions. Tangled roots make a sure, tough bedding. My friend Lloyd Best remembers to this day the first roll call he heard when he went to school: Alleyne, Ali, Amoroso, Finnegan, Grant, Hajal, Holder, Ince, John, Jones, Khan, Lee, Lynch, McShine, Melville, Namsoo, Neehall, Ou, Padmore, Parris, Pena, Singh, Smith, Solomon, Vaucrosson, Wong.

The test is whether or not the fundamental allegiances, be it race, religion, or heritage of whatever variety, can be absorbed but not lost in wider allegiances. I believe in the West Indies we have proved over time that fundamental allegiances can be, and have been, so absorbed. That is not to say that all is sweetness and harmony. Far from it. There have been, there are, there will be resentments and suspicions. Tensions will rise and grow, certainly, but they will pass again. We have learnt enough about each other, we have grown used to making the essential basic accommodations, so that the tensions will never tear us apart as they have torn apart Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka and more than one African state where unaccommodateable tribal loyalties make a mockery of true nationhood. There may be many leaders of states enjoying United Nations membership who, if they ever cast a discerning eye in our direction, must wonder why on earth we in Caricom have not yet qualified as a full-fledged nation.

Take the most important and potentially the most divisive of all rival allegiances in the region - the East Indian allegiance to his race, religion, culture, and customs in Trinidad and Tobago and in Guyana. This could easily and long ago have been the cause of a great fracture in the Community. But it has not been. There will always be those who threaten to bring the issue to the boil but I do not think they will succeed. The striking fact is that fundamentally the East Indians of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana want to be part of a West Indian nation - in which, of course, their special traditions find an honourable and enduring place.

Care must be taken not to reject the validity of any allegiance seen as fundamental. This requires a certain delicacy, tact, which can only be learnt through a long apprenticeship served together. It requires also that the most dominant of those who share the nation must make the most allowances, exercise the most tact.

When Viv Richards in a fit of thoughtlessness said that our cricket team was `African’ it struck a nerve which hurt badly. Something important to the whole nation was being claimed by part. It broke a sacred rule - allegiance of all to one nation requires that all be admitted in the inner shrines and in our case cricket is certainly one of the inner shrines.

Let us return to the East Indian allegiance owed in two major constituents of the West Indian nation. The reason why this allegiance has not caused any rupture is that those who owe that allegiance see that it is perfectly acceptable, and, more even than that, welcomed within the wider allegiance. Beyond Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, East Indian culture in the widest sense has enhanced in a hundred ways the meaning of what it is to be West Indian. Indian customs and history and legend and religious rites, Indian foods and spices, jewellery and clothes, dance and drum and song - the West Indies could not be the same without that rich legacy.

Let me give you an image, which is a favourite of mine.

‘Katha’ is the Indian name for a kind of quilted patchwork made from coloured rags of cloth. To an Indian it has a special mystical meaning: it signifies that what was once in shreds is now whole again, just as man’s “little rag of life is of no account until it has been joined to the Supreme Being and so transformed.” Perhaps we can take the imagery in another way. In the patchwork quilt of the West Indies many kinds of fabric go to make up the pattern. Without all the bits of fabric the quilt loses its essential beauty and being. The separate pieces lack special beauty and significance until they come together in the whole pattern of the Katha. This is how it is with us. No legacy is so small that it has no important part to play, no legacy is so great than it crowds out all the others.

This is the example we can offer the rest of the world as the 21st century proceeds. In Omeros Derek Walcott sensed the formation of our special culture and wrote the following lines:

...strong as self-healing

coral, a quiet culture

is branching from the white ribs

of each ancestor

deeper than it seems on the

surface; slowly but sure,

it will change us with the fluent

sculpture of Time.

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