PHILIPSBURG:--- What past do St. Martiners (Sint Maarteners & Saint Martinoise) long for, when they talk about the good old days? St. Martiners have been described as those Born Here and those Born to be Here. This non- ethnic and non-racial definition, brilliantly introduced by the honourable governor of the island, Drs. Eugene Holiday, is meant to be both accommodating and normative. St Martiners are those who put the island first. They are patriots, persons who love the island. Dr. Louis Jeffry who can trace back his ancestry to the time of slavery, and Father Charles, the island’s revered Catholic priest, who was born on Saint Lucia, equally qualify.
I found this definition rather inclusive until I spoke to my long-time friend, Ruford Serrant, who I dare say was one of the first St. Martiners I got to know. Ruford was born on Dominica but having arrived on the island at a young age, he knows the island inside out. He is one of those Born to be Here St. Martiners. I fell in love with the island due to persons like him. For Ruford St. Martiners were simply
those persons Who Are Here.
Among all of those Who Are Here, you will encounter many who are not deeply patriotic, in other words, those who are not necessarily in love with the island. They may be here on St. Martin as a means to escape poverty and earn a decent living, a step towards career advance, a rite de passage after graduating, an internship, a flight from an oppressive family, or as a way to get rich quick. In addition, Ruford continued there were those who were Born Here—locals—who simply feel that the powers that be have abandoned them, and they actually did not want to be Here. Knowing my position, he reasoned that the mission of education was to find a way of making all those Who Are Here—who are fed up— acquire a sense that they were Born to be Here.
I took his advice earnestly, and recognized that one had to start listening with a charitable ear to the cries of dissatisfaction of those Who Are Here. When they state their anger in terms of “long ago things were better when locals were in charge” or “where I come from we do it better” or “this is such a corrupt country”, it is quite unhelpful to answer them by calling them a “xenophobic racist” or telling them “you too ungrateful, go back to your own country”. Engagement with them about the past they are referring to clarified matters for them and for me, and made me better able to hear and recognize their cries as a plea for more decency.
Here is what I learnt:
The past and the former country the dissatisfied here on St. Martin refer to is not something that ever was. It is a country to come and a past in the making. I will limit my examples to the St. Martiners from the Netherlands and the St. Martiners referred to as locals. Locals who speak about the good old days, are surely not referring to the days when those with a lighter skin tone would refer to their darker skinned brothers and sisters as niggas. They are not talking about the days when the latter group could not reside in Simpson Bay. They are not talking about the days when those with money and political power and a proper surname, regardless of the colour of their skin, had to be called mister and miss
even when one knew that they were cheating and oppressing you (the poor white and black locals). They are referring to the dream and the work they did to create a society where all locals enjoyed the benefit of upward mobility, showed respect towards each other, and displayed solidarity regardless of name, skin, or size of pocketbook and they sense that this dream is being impeded by the indecency and greed of the powerful today.
Similarly, when St. Martiners from the Netherlands rave about the enlightened nature of their place of birth, they are not talking about the country that after World War 2 engaged in the murdering of
150.000 Indonesians who simply wanted their independence, nor are they referring to the terrible fact that of the 140.000 Jews residing in the Netherlands, 107.000 were deported to Nazi Germany (the Netherlands ranks highest percentage wise with regard to the extermination of Jews during the war).
And they were not talking about the country that bore the blight of being a slave trader and slave maker; or the discrimination of Catholics up until the 1950s, or their former country’s wilful participation in a global socioeconomic system that is strangling the vast majority of humankind. I understood that what they are referring to is their hope to live in a country that lived up to the creed of equality, liberty, and fraternity.
These examples can be multiplied by talking about the Indian-St. Martiners, the American St. Martiners, etc. Time and again I found that the past and the country they are referring to actually never existed. It is a thing of the future. Among all those Who Are Here, there is a longing to inhabit a future where respect, solidarity, liberty, equality, and fraternity is concretized by having upward mobility as the norm; this is what binds us; our common pursuit; yet regrettable we often forget it.
To get there, to get to this Promised Land where everyone is valid and feels validated, we will all have to plant the seeds for this future. In conversations with Ruford and several of the signatories of this piece, the USM has come up with a ritual enactment that will make us remember what binds us. It is based upon a St. Martin that the old folks know. One where there was an abundance of fruit trees on the hill tops that allowed everyone some nutrition; trees that were fairly sturdy against wind storms. In the ideal past they were part of the commons: the property of all, and thus cared for by all. St. Martiners of various social classes met each other and exchanged while picking fruit. It was our public sphere. I can remember as a little boy following Ruford up the hills where we enjoyed mangoes and tamarind with boys and girls from other neighbourhoods. And I am sure many of you who have been on the island for some time have similar experiences. To be together and to hear each other, we have to leave our
Coming October the Student Government Association (SGA) of the USM, chaired by Ms. Kiran Manglani, will do hikes throughout the island and replant the fruit trees on our many hills. The American University of the Caribbean (AUC) has also committed. We will need the help of experts in hiking, persons who know about planting, and business and individuals who are willing to donate seeds—of mango, tamarind, knepa, cashew, and other fruit trees. The coming weeks and months, SGA representatives will be contacting you—and you can contact us—to make this a reality. The SGA, board,
management, staff of the USM, and the list of distinguished signatories, pledge to do weekly hikes for 12 months caring for these seedlings as their commitment to remember what we share in common. On
these hikes and care for our common habitat, the island, St. Martiners of all walks of life will have the opportunity to dialogue about that which matters most to them in a respectful manner, and establish friendships and create partnerships for the betterment of all. Join us and let us converse truthfully with each other while we plant the seeds of our past in the making. A public meeting and a press conference will be organized after the carnival period to further concretize this collective effort with you.
Authored by Dr. Francio Guadeloupe – President of the University of St. Martin
Lorraine Talmi – President of the SHTA
Kiran Manglani – President of the USM Student Government Association
Tamara Leonard – Member of Parliament
Leona Marlin – Romeo – Member of Parliament Dr. Cornelius DeWeever – Member of Parliament Maurice Lake – Member of Parliament
Silveria Jacobs – Minister of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports Affairs Oldine Bryson-Pantophlet – Chairwoman or Social Economic Council Mercedes Wyatt
Jordie Halman – Researcher The University of Amsterdam
Micheal Benjamin – Integrated Health and Rehab