By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(Plain Talk March 10, 2019)
The word “Sankofa” comes from the language spoken by the Akan people of Ivory Coast, West Africa. Sankofa literally means to go back and get what was taken. And so we say Sankofa SVG! Ghana has declared 2019 “The year of the right of return”. And here at home the government has proclaimed 2019, our 40th anniversary of independence as Renewal @ 40. Sankofa!
In 1979, the world was in an uproar. SVG was no exception. The struggle against colonialism and for independence was at an all time high. The non Aligned Movement met in Algiers, Algeria and listened to one of Fidel Castro’s most celebrated speeches. There was a call for a new world information and economic order to free the newly independent countries, included St. Vincent from the shackles of colonialism and to warn against oppressive tactics of neo-colonialism and imperialism.
It is funny how the world changes. A few years ago I met a brother who in the thick of the struggle in the 70s and 80s. He was taken aback by my descriptive use of the word imperialism. His instinctive retort was whether “that language still dey in”. Sankofa.
We got our independence under a cloud. The governing Labour Party of Milton Cato was dismissive of civil society’s call for democratic participation and buy in to the independence process. The National Independence Committee led by the respected Barrister Henry Williams and included such luminaries as Renwick Rose, Ralph Gonsalves, Mike Browne, Kenneth John, Parnel Campbell and others was dismissed as “nincompoops”. But there was criticism and resistance to these smears. The struggle for more democracy took up steam in response to the labour government stiffneckedness. These efforts came to a head with the massive “kill the bills” demonstrations of 1981. We say sankofa!
St. Vincent was also to witness an armed rebellion led by Bumba Charles of Union Island. Bumba, evidently encouraged by the success of the Grenada revolution, which triumphed March 13, 1979, seized the island and demanded its independence. His armed action was spurned by the abject neglect of the Grenadines by the Cato administration. Today, our people slave in the Grenadines and struggle to get paid. Sankofa!
Between 1974 and 1979 the Youlou United Liberation Movement (YULIMO), led by Renwick Rose, Caspar London and Ralph Gonsalves kept the ruling classes in check through public meetings, cultural rallies and newspapers Freedom and Justice. The motto for enlightened nationalists, progressives and revolutionaries was “Genuine Independence, People’s Ownership and Control”. Today, we proudly proclaim that we are men and women of practical affairs. Sankofa! The United People’s Movement (the upful party) shock the status quo to its core and won 14 per cent of the vote mainly because of its strong emphasis on organisation and building consciousness. Then splitters caused the movement to splinter. Today those who struggle for standards are vilified. Sankofa!
There was an active and vibrant civil society with strong and organised youth, sport and cultural organisations across the country. This was the period when Vincy Heat got to the pinnacle of Caribbean football. The trade unions, especially the Teachers’ Union, were in the vanguard of the struggle. The National Youth Council was the training ground for distinguished politician Jerry Scott and legal luminary Adrian Saunders, who both served as president. The NYC played an important role in bringing our youthful population together.
Today, there are few active and organised community organisations; the NYC is defunct. Israel Bruce and Curtis King may be the last cadre of Vincentian politicians who have benefited from NYC training. What a shame! Sankofa!
At the birth of independence, there was a volcanic ferment of ideas about everything. Nothing was settled, holy grails were toppling and those who arrogantly thought they had all of the answers to our people’s problems were vigorously interrogated. Before you spoke you had to know rather than believe, unlike today where the cell phone and social media transformed everyone into an “expert”. Sankofa!
Currently, everything has changed. While change is constant and inevitable, the sad reality is that organisationally and regards people’s political education and consciousness, things have changed for the worse. We made one step forward in regaining our independence from Britain, but two steps back.
There is no intellectual ferment. In fact, there is a conscious effort to dumb down the people and to exploit their fears and concerns, especially their religious sensibilities. Whereas at our nation’s birth there was a demand for answers to the most pressing problems of the day, today the emphasis is the advancement of the ego, personal wealth and fame.
Community is frown on unless it is a bastion of support for the political elite. And even then benign neglect is the rule. The central preoccupation of the elite is either the maintenance of power or the assumption of power. Nothing bold, nothing innovative, just enough to keep our jobs, pay our bills, get rich and more importantly win favours with the people at the next election cycle.
For the nation to survive and become a striving, participatory democracy, for the nation to become truly people centred, we have to acknowledge that although some basic things have been done in the last 40 years, nothing truly transformational has taken place.
With all of our boast and bluster, we have a consolidated, well-entrenched 1 per cent that is unwilling to give a little so that those at the bottom of society can live better lives. As it stands now too many of our people spend their entire working lives preparing to live. Poverty remains a stubborn 30 per cent, unemployment is intractably high while sickness, ill health and disease plague families with little wherewithal to access proper food, nutrition and adequate health care.
Even with these problems the marketplace of ideas that flourished at independence 40 years ago is all but closed. The public domain becomes dangerous for anyone who utters a single thought that reflects the slightest shade with the economic, educational, religious and political establishment. Such a person risk being ostracised, demonised and threatened with worse. The new litmus test is not where you stand as regard political hygiene and economic justice, but your alignment with the status quo.
Our 40th anniversary will not presage a revival unless we actively cultivate an ethos of criticism and self-criticism. Let 2019 be the year we shout Sankofa and seriously commit to go back and get what was taken from us.
*Jomo Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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