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Our commonalities as a nation

By Dr Sharon Syriac

“The West Indies are in the position of an orange, the British have sucked it dry, and their sole concern today is that they should not slip and get damaged from the peel… I do not propose to accept any concept of the Commonwealth which means common wealth for Britain and common poverty for us.” —Eric Williams’ response to the “aide-memoir” Britain’s financial aid, when he addressed West Indian students at the London School of Economics, November 1962.

As a nation, what do we as West Indian people have in common? This question dominated the presentation of Dr Terrence Farrell, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago.

On  September 25, Dr Farrell’s address, ‘The Role of Race and Religion on Nation Building in Trinidad and Tobago’ kept the Holy Faith Sisters and Associates engaged.

Dr Farrell acknowledged that our histories and origins are diverse, like different pegs of an orange. Yet while tensions often accompany diversity in many societies, Dr Farrell focused on our commonalities as a nation, rather than our differences.

This evoked an analysis which suggested that in Trinidad and Tobago, amidst the diversity, we have uniquely managed to create spaces for much interaction at our core.

What makes a nation?

Is a nation made up of people who occupy the same geographical space? Not necessarily. Many people who belong to the Jewish nation are scattered around the globe, yet they continue to share common values, beliefs, and language. Therefore, nations are not limited to geography but defined by that which is common to the people who inhabit or identify with that space—geographic or otherwise.

What do we have in common?

Dr Farrell argued that as West Indian people, we embrace the creolisation process in common—that amazing ability to import ideas, materials , and raw products from outside and engage in a creative process of co-creation, giving it back to the world, stamped with our own seal of authenticity.

Of course, this culture of co-creation is like water to fish, invisible to the people who inhabit this space and are used to practising it.


Dr Farrell applauded Barbadian writer George Lamming for seeing this creolisation as an open-ended process. It is a collective self-definition. All ethnic groups are involved in the process as we transform food, dance, architecture, and, of course, music.

One example of this creolisation process is the creation of the steel pan. When a few men from East Port of Spain took the oil drum from outside, (a legacy of our petroleum industry) and “creolised” it, they creatively transformed that oil drum into the only acoustic musical instrument invented in the 20th century.

Then they gave it back to the world, different from its original form. It is now indigenous, local, birthed by the process. Our deepening indigenisation via the creolisation process, remains the central common activity that binds us.

Co-Creators of a Nation

In accepting Lamming’s views on creolisation, Dr Farrell identified four recognisable characteristics which define co-creators – openness, intentionality, discernment, and confidence.

Dr Farrell contended that our openness to imported ideas or foreign influences, acts as the springboard that allows us to join ourselves to and re-shape what we have been given, as we engage in co-creation.

Indeed, not all ideas are good, but, grounded in our sense of identity, we must sift through the clutter of the many ideas and influences that come to us. Then, with intentionality, we must discern what is an important priority for our national development.

Finally, with confidence, we must know that what we produce, through that process of creolisation is on par with the best, in the rest of the world.

What common keys do we possess that unlocks the creativity in co-creators? Openness. Intentionality. Discernment. Confidence.

On the fringe

Dr Farrell noted that the creolisation process happens not at the centres of power but on its margins. It occurs among those in East Port of Spain who re-shaped the oil drum into the steel pan. It pulses within those who gave Calypso, Soca, Chutney-Soca, Parang, Reggae and Zouk to the world.

It originates amid men like Sackina Karamath in South Trinidad who invented the roti wrap and Emamool Deen (aka Mumudeen), attributed with the invention of “doubles”, both who revolutionised the original concept of that cuisine.

Creolisation is reflected in our dance forms and architecture. It throbs through our Carnival, unique because of where we draw inspiration for its creation. It is in this space, on the margins of society, our people are most creative.

If we are to move forward as a nation, it is in this marginalised, paradoxical space, that those in authority must encourage interaction. Our leaders who possess the know-how, must be willing to take to the world — the gifts made by those on our fringes.

They must do so by deliberately seeking imaginative, inclusive alliances to enable others to experience the richness in our cultural centres, in ways that benefit and do not exploit those on our margins.

Have our leaders done this? Or have we, in whatever capacity we operate, are today in the position of an orange? Have we followed Britain’s example and advocated for common wealth for the few and common poverty for many on the margins?

Or worse, have we simply sucked the margins dry and today, exert all our energies on not slipping on the peel ourselves?