When 68-year-old Dame Sandra Prunella Mason took the oath of office last evening in the Senate chamber to become Barbados’ eighth Governor General, it quietly and symbolically highlighted a defining feature of modern Barbados which emphasizes what it is so beautiful about this island and also how special it is to be a Barbadian.
There, before our eyes amid the colourful pomp and ceremony befitting the occasion, was a simple, yet powerful demonstration of the fact that regardless of one’s social background, any Barbadian has the opportunity to rise from the humblest of origins to reach the highest office in post-Independence Barbados.
However, it requires the discipline and hard work, the pursuit of excellence and a commitment to self-development and improvement through education. From the evidence, Dame Sandra, the product of a working class family from the proud parish of St Philip who distinguished herself as a jurist, followed this path. Indeed, she was among the first batch of law graduates from the University of the West Indies’ Cave Hill Campus.
To some degree, Dame Sandra’s experience mirrors that of her predecessor, Sir Elliott Belgrave, except that there is an age difference. Also from humble working class origins in the northern parish of St Peter, Sir Elliott, a former judge of the Supreme Court like Dame Sandra, often emphasized the value of discipline, hard work and education in his own success, especially when he had opportunities to interact with young people.
Since the official announcement towards the end of last month, Dame Sandra’s appointment has met with widespread public approval which suggests she too may be seen as another “people’s governor general”, as Sir Elliott too was described. The warm reception can be interpreted as a sign that most Barbadians readily identify with Dame Sandra and see her as a representation of themselves because her life story, to a large extent, mirrors theirs.
Most Barbadians holding key positions today, especially those in their 60s and 50s, would have lived through an exciting phase in our national development when Barbados made the transition from a largely agrarian plantation-based economy centred on sugar production to the modern country that we know today. They, including Dame Sandra who attended Queen’s College, would have been among the first beneficiaries of the 1962 Errol Barrow policy of universal free secondary and tertiary education which laid the foundation for the emergence of a vibrant middle class.
For young people at the time, such access represented a golden opportunity to be cherished and fully seized as it was the passport to a better life beyond the cane fields of the sugar plantations in their villages. Indeed, rural parents who were mostly plantation labourers or small tradesmen like fishermen, took a keen interest in the education of their children, emphasizing its value to their attaining a much better life along with a commitment to discipline and hard work, the display of good manners and respect for authority. These were the pillars on which the success of Barbadians of that generation was built.
In the last two decades or so, there has been a noticeable departure from these traditional values which underpinned and defined Barbados and Barbadians. Many young people today seem not so inclined. Besides, they no longer appear as excited about education as previous generations, to the extent that there is deep concern about the wastage of scarce public resources because of the disappointing performances of many students. However, obtaining a sound education is still the key to success.
In her inaugural address, Dame Sandra expressed concern about certain trends emerging in Barbadian society, including “attitudes of selfishness and a general lack of sympathy and concern towards our neighbours”. She observed: “It seems as that as long as a matter is not directly impacting on us, there is indifference to the predicament which is being suffered.”
Dame Sandra was speaking about another key Barbadian feature of yesterday especially in rural villages. People generally practised good-neighbourliness, cared for each other, and often placed community before self. Which explains the general absence of crime back then because people often left their homes open, asked their neighbour to keep an eye out, and went about their business. On their return, everything would be intact.
May Dame Sandra’s life story serve as a source of inspiration, especially for our young people! We join with the nation in wishing her a successful tenure in office and hope that she is successful in getting Barbadians to re-embrace the good values which defined us, made us strong and are certainly worth retaining.