St. Lucia's Creole Core: Language and Culture Play a Key Role in This Caribbean Nation's Struggle for a New Path to Economic Development

Article excerpt

Many a memorable introduction to another culture comes by way of its favorite foods, and on the Windward Caribbean island of St. Lucia, there's no better time to become culinarily acquainted than at a festival known as Jounen Kweyol, or Creole Day. Held on the last Sunday of October, this annual party signals the end of Creole Heritage Month, a salute to the country's cultural identity, and indulging in traditional homemade delicacies is just one of its pleasures.

Every year, Heritage Month's Creole-inspired entertainment, educational fundraising activities, food fairs, athletic events, and popular culture queen competition are hosted by four villages (last year's venues included Arise La Raye and Laborie on the island's west coast), where by noon on Jounen Kweyol, dozens of canopied kiosks have geared up for the arrival of hungry tourists and island families, many fresh from special Creole-language Catholic masses. These itinerant kitchens are presided over by imposing female chefs dressed in traditional white blouses with crisp headdresses and flounced skirts of orange, yellow, and green madras fabric. Among the array of esteemed local favorites are stewed shrimp in coconut milk, smoked herring with roasted breadfruit and avocado, callaloo soup with crabmeat and dasheen greens, and the national dish--boiled unripened bananas and fish fritters, served with cucumbers--commonly known as green fig and saltfish.

And there are more tasty, slow-cooked concoctions on hand--red bean bullion with pig tails and dumplings, spicy chicken curry, and pepperpot stew--all served from oil-drum grills or from the small but sturdy earthenware coal-pot cookers that give island foods their distinctive taste and are a legacy of St. Lucia's early Amerindian inhabitants. Also on the menu are tamarind, golden apple, passionfruit and mango juices, plus spiced rum and locally brewed Piton beer. Later, groups of performers take the improvised stage to show off their stuff: Ives & Friends, a traditional violin band, the Piaye African Dancers, and the Heart & Soul Choral Group from the St. Lucia School of Music. Next, young stilt walkers, known as Les Ti Zeans de Labowi, the Little Giants of Laborie, make their tentative debut before the crowd of pleased spectators.

Sponsored by the nonprofit St. Lucian Folk Research Center (FRC), the island's first Jounen Kweyol was celebrated in 1983 with a day-long Creole broadcast of news and entertainment highlighted by a radio link-up with the Creole-speaking island of Dominica, a landmark event for a language that historically has been ignored and even suppressed in favor of English. "Creole came out of the African colonial experience," notes Kennedy "Boots" Samuel, the center's executive director. "One of the things the colonial system tried to do was wipe out the culture of the Africans, but the Africans always found ingenious ways of preserving their culture across the generations and the Creole language is a classic example. They preserved the deep structure of their language, the syntax and the semantics, by hiding it within the words of the dominant colonial language. It was referred to as 'broken French': 'There go the natives trying to speak our French language without speaking it properly,' but in reality, it was a totally different language operating under the guise of French vocabulary."

Since that marathon broadcast of more than twenty years ago, the FRC, located in a handsome nineteenth-century building above the capital of Castries, has worked to preserve and promote the St. Lucian language and culture through educational outreach programs to schools and communities, radio and television productions, and sponsorship of events such as Heritage Month. The FRC also manages one of the country's most extensive folk-history libraries and a documentation center that features audio and video interviews spotlighting the country's cultural heroes, women and men who have worked to keep priceless folk traditions alive. …