When my husband retired from Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service there were two things he was sure of. That he would have to live by Britain’s Official Secrets Act for the rest of his life. And secondly, the long, meaningful post foreign service life he deserved would be best spent with a small global circle of dear friends and the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
He got no argument from me. Living the history of what would become the rapid growth and development of St Vincent beyond its banana-dependent agriculture and tourism sectors during those years has always occupied a very special place in my heart, as a Trini journalist and keen observer of Caribbean affairs for nearly 30 years.
When I met my husband, Caribbean exploration was already a passion. And by the time our souls had connected Carriacou and Grenada were destinations, outside of my native Trinidad, I had already claimed as havens from the rigours of life as a fearless investigative journalist. But St Vincent and the Grenadines stole my heart and soul. So, the unfolding scenes of volcanic destruction on the island over the last few days have been devastatingly heart breaking.
A large majority of the population of nearly 110,000 people have been evacuated from their homes and are now in shelters and cruise ships as the volcano continues to spew ash and gas, leaving behind destruction and extreme danger in its path. Daylight is mostly now night time, it is hard to breathe, thick ash and volcanic materials are covering every surface.
Mercifully not a lot of lava has so far flowed in the direction of villages familiar to us, but some homes and dozens of trees have collapsed under the sheer weight of the falling ash of the continued explosions.
According to daily updates, most crops on the island will be lost, as well as untold livestock numbers, because of the hot, horrible ash and volcanic materials blanketing the entire island. Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves has said it will take months to recover from the volcano’s troubles.
These volcanic eruptions could not have come at a worse time for St Vincent, in terms of its continued sound management of the Covid pandemic and the aggressive policy of infrastructural development, job creation and the macro prosperity of SVG which has been on pause because of the global pandemic.
We consider St Vincent and the Grenadines our second home. Had it not been for the ongoing Covid pandemic, it is where we would be now—helping in every and any way we could. It has been mental torture and deeply emotional watching images of the volcanic eruption and scenes of heavy ash falling on homes and the lush verdant flora and fauna. It’s like watching a disaster movie set in your hometown, along roads well travelled and buildings and areas so familiar that it is surreal, and I will admit it brings tears to my eyes.
Tuning in daily to the news out of the region has felt gloomy and depressing to not be there now to physically support evacuation efforts and everything else in between.
The La Soufriere volcano last erupted in 1979, while in 1902 another eruption killed 1,600 people. So, this volcano is very serious business indeed. Solidarity for our Caribbean peoples is so important anytime, far less for when a volcano is wreaking havoc and on many neighbouring islands, including Barbados and St Lucia. Our love of St Vincent runs deep. Here’s how I can best explain it.
When my family and I arrived in St Vincent in 2002, it was just over a year into Dr Ralph Gonsalves’ governance and at the start of his programme of work transforming the country’s dependency away from banana agriculture, tourism and at the launch of his “education revolution”, which was a political journey to get every single child in school and learning something.
He immediately struck my husband and I as a genuine, authentic, driven politician cut from a generation that held high the ethos of serving the people benefits all. He seemed not at all concerned by high office status or indeed the trappings of office and all the way back then over numerous discussions, was blunt about his personally vested interest in improving the lives of his people, and of simply “making his elderly mother proud” of what he could achieve in office.
Back then my husband would often comment to high level officials in London that Dr Gonsalves “lived and breathe a passionate ethos” of changing his country for the better. He was then and remains steadfastly global in his good governance thinking and national decision making. He is international in his mindset, worldly in his perspectives for solving macro problems and quite simply one of the brightest minds one will ever meet, let alone sit and break bread or play dominoes with. To this day, his clarity and drive to work toward our Caribbean civilisation becoming self-sufficient, internationally relevant and respected is second to none, except perhaps for his wife Eloise who shares his passions.
And like his colleague Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, Dr Gonsalves remains determined to get the issues of Small Island States given due process and weight on any and every international stage possible, most recently manifested in the impressive success of St Vincent becoming a member of the UN Security Council—setting a world record as the smallest country ever to secure a seat.
Back in 2002 within the first few months of living in St Vincent, it was clear that the country was not a nation of social extremes.
Indeed, one ideal we experienced regularly, through observing island life whilst posted there, we know now was our first real exposure to what gurus like Oprah and some of great philosophers spend entire lifetimes promoting—living in the present moment. It took me a while to see it—but every friend or colleague we made in SVG had no innate fear of the future, enjoyed their work/life balance long before it became fashionable, and publicly trusted and demanded that their elected leaders “get busy’’ building political legacy to “do the nation proud’’; that their politicians spend hours and available brain power working out the next project, scheme, development to raise the standard of living, cut poverty levels, improve free good universal health care and just “bust a gut’’ as one person told us at the time to make the nation modern and self-sufficient.
Progress and large-scale economic transformation in the country are palpable. On every trip back to SVG, we feel and see it.
Many countries around the world suffer from what the experts call “hollowing out’’ processes—former industrial economies for instance—where industries cease or are phased out and nothing replaces it. This is not the reality in St Vincent when we lived there, and now. Long before the country’s brand new multi-million-dollar Argyle International Airport was unveiled in 2017, came new functional community health centres, aqua culture and fishing facilities, new schools, community reading centres cum libraries with computers for children. The success of what Dr Gonsalves labelled his “education revolution’’ means that mandatory regulation guarantees every child a place at primary and secondary schooling and St Vincent can boast of a literacy rate of 98 per cent for both men and women. It’s hard to argue against this being revolutionary in the genuine sense of the word.
The capital’s main hospital in Kingstown is well maintained, equipped and in 2021, remains in very good shape to serve the health needs of its citizens. Free.
Back in the 1980s a sizeable group of small farmers reaped the benefits of the boom in banana trading on a global scale. This had a trickle-down effect of improving housing conditions significantly and not just in rural communities. Life on the island then and now means clean, green living long before these things became globally fashionable.
Vincentians seem to share a localist identity that make them, for the most part, protect the environment on a mass scale, with robust enough private sector support to maintain green spaces, roundabouts, culverts and public spaces. And this extends to people’s personal home environment. Vincentians are house proud people and this manifests itself visually pleasing up and down the island. Houses no matter how humble or large, are well maintained externally and the poorest families get help from the government to ensure there’s a decent roof over every head.
Driving through the villages and communities of SVG is safe and always very pleasant, which is pretty fundamental if anybody asked me. There’s very little litter to be found on the streets and on the lush landscape, not just in the capital Kingstown, but well into the countryside. In stark contrast to where I am in lockdown in the English countryside—local councils are urgently launching multi-million-pound litter clean up campaigns as the problem of fly tipping and people flinging rubbish out of cars grows across the beautiful landscapes.
On a macro level, every year St Vincent and the Grenadines has been achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs) of the UN and in a global landscape being worryingly reshaped by the ravages of the Covid pandemic many are deeply fearful of countries losing momentum to achieve these SDGs to the detriment of ordinary people around the world.
And there’s more. In some societies market fundamentalists are always heralding entrepreneurialism. The reality on the ground in SVG is that it is vibrant amongst young people, who are encouraged to open their own businesses and they do often, taking advantage of liberal government regulations and a refreshing “pull-yourself-up-by the bootstrap’’ mentality that prevails amongst the young people in St Vincent.
Our wonderful years in SVG observing the progress that came with nation-building, living harmoniously amongst people who were welcoming, resilient and tenacious came to an end but my family didn’t say farewell when we left to take up a new posting to Antigua and Barbuda. Instead, we left with life-long friends to grow old with and this in our hearts: there’s a strong sense of contentment about life in St Vincent which extends to its economic development, societal growth and overall quality of life in general.
Long may it be so.