What is Important – Time to Ask?
In my two-week trip around the Caribbean Islands I have learned, and no not discovered which seems to be the current way of describing a new experience, a number of things that have impressed me enormously.
But before I begin, and before those of Caribbean origin take me to task the first thing I quickly realised was that even though they are referred to as The Islands it would be a gross mistake to think of them as a single nation.
Yes there are a number of similarities and common origins but for the uninitiated be in no doubt whatsoever each Island or Commonwealth of Islands is a very distinct, individual and proud country in its own right.
It would be an error to compare and assume the people of St Kitts are the same as the people of Tortola or Grand Turk in much the same way as saying that the Bullingdon Boys of the Home Counties are the same as the ship workers of the Tyne.
Of course the Caribbean people have a shared history, and what a history it is being born out of enforced slavery which gives them not only a unique insight into what freedom means but also what living in an independent democracy means.
We have visited eight Caribbean Islands, St Vincent, Dominica, St Lucia, Antigua, St Kitts, Grand Turk, Tortola, St Maarten and Barbados the total combined population of all being in the region of less than a million people.
One very consistent feature and commitment to the future that is common amongst all of the Islands is to education.
It would take too long not to say be very complicated for me to individualise each island but in general terms children start school at aged 5 and carry on through to aged 16 and it is compulsory for all children to wear school uniform.
In some of the islands all children are given one FREE school uniform a year so that even the poorest of children, and as in countries throughout the world including the UK there is poverty, are not identified and seen as different from the rest.
Schools also provide a FREE hot meal to all children up to the age of 12 and as was explained to me by a nurse for the very good reason that they recognise poor nutrition when young will lead to health problems in later life and expense to the health services.
If there is greater example of what politicians call ‘Spend to Save’ I have yet to hear of it.
Education of their children is the single most important priority with teaching still being a highly prized and respected profession throughout the Caribbean.
It is why the numeracy and literacy standards of children on leaving school are so high being over 98%.
Alongside education there is a commitment to ensure that no-one is left destitute and homeless with Governments actually providing housing for those who through no fault of their own are unable to provide for themselves.
I had to smile at the genuine lack of ‘political correctness’ in the language the Caribbean islanders use compared with back in the UK?
Not for them the media prescribed language.
They simply say it as it is, so the Government housing we were shown was just called the ‘Poor Houses’ without any sense of stigma or denigration meant by it towards those who lived in them.
What of course they accept and in fact understand is necessary for their children to succeed is that they may well have to leave their homes and emigrate mainly it has to be said to the USA but also to the UK and further afield.
What is impressive is that they also want and in fact have in place procedures to encourage their citizens to ‘come home’ by allocating land for them to build homes.
I wonder if the bigots and racists in the UK who talk of “send them all home” would consider making the same commitment in the UK for the millions of British expats who have emigrated/
Now that would put a strain on the NHS and Greenbelt.
Effectively almost everyone from the Caribbean living abroad sends money back home where in many cases it is used to build homes not only for their return but for their families who remain in the Islands to live in.
There is a great deal to say about the Caribbean people and their attitude to life which at times to most of us from the UK appears to be nothing less than just a result of living in paradise.
But there is also a resolve and strength about them from also living in an area blighted by hurricanes that can be devastating.
We arrived in St Vincent and Dominica only a fortnight after heavy rains had cost 14 people their lives and swept away homes of local people one of who we met on an excursion to see whales.
His attitude perhaps more than any summed up the attitude of the Caribbean people,
Yes it was devastating but he, his family, neighbours and Government rather than feeling sorry for themselves had already started rebuilding their homes and their lives.
As he put it,
“Our days on earth are numbered anyway”.
Perhaps it is an attitude forged in history of slavery and hardship, of a real commitment to their religion or simply that they recognise that no matter how bad the local or world appears to be at any one time it is necessary to also enjoy life.
It is easy to forget that it was only just over 150 years ago that slaves in the Caribbean were read the ’emancipation’ that granted them freedom from the slavery of having to toil in the sugar cane fields and factories, the last of which on Antigua only closed 8 years ago.
It is perhaps why the people of the Caribbean of all ages are happy to tell you how lucky they feel to live in the Islands and what their hopes and ambitions are for their children and their country.
All of the Islands are dependent to a greater extent on tourism which by its nature is limited and uncertain but what they are clear about is their priorities and using their financial resources to deliver them.
It isn’t rocket science and I can’t help but think if they can see and do it in the Caribbean then why can’t we back home.
So how do you sum up the Caribbean?
Not I think by constant referral to the fantastic beaches, rain forests etc, but the people who live here, because it is people who ultimately make the best of where they live and define the character of a nation and country.
They absolutely love the fact they are individually free a live in a free democratic country able to say what they think.
Yes they appear at times be abrupt to some, but it is just their way of stating an honest opinion and they don’t see why they cannot express their views.
Yes they can be loud when they are together but when they laugh it is unmistakable and infectious.
The Children are invariably polite, immaculately turned out and know that their parents want to give them the ‘best’ that they can to set them up for the future.
They follow their chosen religion free from cant and hypocrisy and then socialise with each other afterwards, the common religion of all of them being the pride in their country.
Of course they recognise that there are problems both at home and throughout the world but they seem to have the right perspective and balance on how seriously you should take life.
As one told me when in St Kitts,
“The world will still be here when I’m gone and so will my family so I’m going to enjoy it and them while I can”.
Perhaps on occasions in the UK we take and worry about things that in the long run aren’t that important except to those few sad individuals who have nothing else in their lives.
What I will take away with me is the absolute conviction that we can afford to do anything we want proving we prioritize.
If like me you are fortunate to be able to visit the Caribbean Islands don’t just do the tourist things but walk around and meet the people, I guarantee that you will not regret it.
Perhaps we should ask them to come to the UK and tell us how they do it?
Or dare I say it overcome our natural reserve and talk to those from the Caribbean and the rest of the world who are our neighbours?
Perish the thought;
I’ve clearly been affected by the sun,
Time I went home.