I have often wondered what my mother said to me on November 30, 1966, as this land erupted in Independence fervour and celebration. You see, I was but seven months in the womb, rapidly growing and expanding, struggling for space, and positioning myself, head down, in preparation for birth a mere eight weeks later on January 26, 1967.
My mother often said I was born an old soul.
Was that because I was hearing and sensing this Independence movement in utero? Was it because my mother knew that this one, this ninth child, just might be different in many ways?
Could it be my mother somehow knew opportunities which were not afforded many of the first eight children might be mine? And that the world of this child might be expansive and expressive? Because, especially because “our brave forefathers sowed the seeds from which our pride is sprung”:
The seed of universal education and access to books that provided me with indelible experiences of wonder –– waiting for the biweekly mobile library to pull up outside of St Margaret’s Primary School, and then following a single-file line up the narrow steps into this bewitching kingdom of books piled high with small ladders and stools, shaping me into a voracious reader by Class 1.
That library on wheels could not keep up with me; and my teachers Mrs Haynes, Mrs Hunt and Mrs Harewood (rest in peace!) threw everything they had at me in an attempt to satiate my hunger for the discoveries within those pages, for the chance to escape and traverse far and wide and high, and for the safety those books provided me.
The seed of universal health care whereby I was introduced to dental checks from as early as I can recall –– even though the fear of the dentist’s drill or the sight of the hygienist’s curved sickle has still not left me –– checks we would never have been able to afford, as with immunization against that which was not likely to come, and with access to all other primary health care.
The seed of good governance and democratic institutions, including free and fair elections –– which unconsciously I’ve come to expect in any country I am in –– and a smooth transition to the new government.
I trust all this won’t be taken as gloating or as self-indulgence, but rather as “a pride that makes no wanton boast”, and as gratitude for gifts received, many of them because of my position in my family’s birth order, and as a result of our collective commitment to build a just and equitable society. So my heartfelt response is “to do credit to my nation, wherever I go”.
Well, for the past 24 years, I have lived in Toronto and, even in the darkness of the bone-chilling Canadian winters, I’m deeply grateful for this second home that provides great opportunities, and to which I contribute in wonderful ways. And, I must give a shout-out too to my other home Canada for which deep wells of affection gush forth.
Now, I could easily imagine this beautiful independent nation-island of Barbados into perfection –– and many a time I’ve done just that –– but it would not be the whole story, so some cautionary notes.
Barbados, home of indigenous peoples: Arawaks and Caribs, most of whom did not survive. Barbados, the land where my ancestors, enslaved, were freighted across the depths of the ocean and survived. Barbados, a place that can be provincial and parochial, where politics can sometimes tilt towards divisiveness and get bogged down in mundanity.
Barbados, a beautiful little isle where there is a formality that can be stifling and that borders on arrogance. Barbados, a country where too often it is who one knows that ensures timely access to services and where there’s sometimes an intolerance for the other. Barbados, also a place from which I carry deep wounds and painful memories. Barbados, not perfect –– especially since there is no such thing –– yet we move forward “with expectations great”.
Fifty years ago, in the organized chaos of the birthday of Independence, I was there. I still wish I had been cognizant so that I might cease wondering what my mother actually said to me. But, I am here now, taking in as much of the festivities as I can.
Recently, I revelled in a showcase of all things Bajan at Barbados On The Water in Toronto and Q In The Community in Markham, Ontario.
And just a few days ago, I touched down at Grantley Adams International; and it seems I’ll never be able to get enough of this land!
Of course, I’m reminded that mine’s next –– my 50th –– and not being much of a birthday boy, I’m surprised at the ways I’m inspired to celebrate when my turn comes. So I think I’ll throw me a 50th party –– not quite like Barbados’ –– but rather one that includes my family: those from whom I have experienced love in such wantonness that I’m giddied, and those who love me most deeply and truly and unconditionally, and whom I love.
It also needs to include a few friends: those who have been reaching out to me for the past decade, and who have not given up on me but continue to send love notes and messages –– just as I’m sending this love note to my beloved first home.
Happy 50th, Barbados!
(Basil E. Coward is a Bajan Torontonian who will be holidaying on De Rock.)