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Bwa Dife – An Evening at the St. Lucian High Commission

December 4, 2010

Thursday 2nd December 2010 found me slipping on half melted snow  through gracious Edwardian squares just off the Earls Court Road.  I was searching for 1, Collingham Gardens where my friend, Morgan Dalphinis,  the husband of Julie ( also my friend), was preparing to launch his new collection of poetry.  A cold coming we had of it however and by the time  the door to Number 1 was opened to us, there were three other people in the party whom I had met consulting mps under street lights.  However, the beautiful building in which the High Commission is housed was immediate compensation for the difficulty of the trip there.  But the delight in intricate plasterwork and heavy oak doors was quickly forgotten in the fascination of seeing someone I have known a little professionally, and a great deal in the bosom of his family, reveal himself as an eminent St. Lucian as well as  a passionate radical.

The High Commissioner, Eldridge Stephens, introduced the evening with eloquence and warmth. Later it transpired that he had known Morgan’s uncle when they were both young in St. Lucia.  And so, via a brief presentation by the publisher, Dr. Joseph Kyan, on to the book.

Bwa Dife means Firewood in Creole. This was not, as a I had supposed, merely a reference to an inert pile of logs but conjured up instead the time before islanders had electricity or gas and, on rising in the morning, would go to a neighbour’s house where a fire was already lit to obtain bwa dife – glowing embers of wood with which they could kindle their own fires.  The image is used to suggest the fire of revolutionary and radical thought. It conveys impatience with the lies and suffering that permeated slavery, colonialism and the experience of many as the black diaspora brought them to the melange of grudging welcome and downright hostile racism  that was Britain in the fifties and sixties:

Since whites came

Theft in their eyes

Guns in their hands

The only thing they

Wanted

Was money

And the suffering

Of others.

Do’t lie to me

Don’t bring water for me

Bring me firewood!

The poems are written in Creole and English. Translations are given for the Creole though without having heard Morgan read in that language it would have been difficult for me to make much sense of it. Having heard him fill out the dry print with the resonance of his voice I can puzzle out some of it. Creole uses largely French vocabulary  within an African grammatical structure.  It is  a language spoken throughout the Caribbean. Morgan has a PhD in linguistics and beside his knowledge of Creole in particular and African languages in general my glimmering of understanding is like a match struck in a huge cavern.  But my understanding is as follows: the languages that fed into Creole were Wolof,  Mandinka and Umbundu, followed later by Yoruba and Twi.  To search out the origins of these languages – still spoken in Africa – is to glimpse the long reach of the slave trade that brought Africans, living and dying, to the Caribbean.  Wolof is the language of 40% of the population of Senegal.  Mandinka is the main language of the Gambia while Umbundu is spoken in the Highlands of Angola.  Today 20milllion people speak Yoruba in Nigeria, Benin and Togo, while Twi is spoken in the Southern half of Ghana. I know from my own contacts that Yoruba and Twi are both spoken here in the UK today and so, I’m sure, are the others.

The knowledge of this legacy, the sense of ancestral experience of the violation and disruption that came on the evil wings of slavery echoes through these poems, as in Life and Death on John Compton Avenue – a meditation on the death of a young girl in  a traffic accident in Saint Lucia and the disproportion between her power and that of the man who killed her. Morgan takes no prisoners and is scathing about the power structure in St. Lucia:

Tout e-a ek lanme ja/ Vini blan….

All the land and the sea has/become white./Tourist boats/Bringing enslvers/Anew./Blacks who had sold us/In Africa/Have sold all the land/Around the sea./ Mulattoes who had/Sold us here/Have totally sold us out.As slaves to tourism.

Pou eslav tourist.

This passage is written in Creole of which I have given a few lines as a taste. Half way through the evening the Prime Minister of St Lucia, Stephenson King, and the Minister for Communications, Guy Eardley Joseph walked in – to much delight – and Morgan was unabashed by the fiery tone of the verse he was reading. Knowing him as I do I would not have expected anything else.

It would be a monotonous collection  if the iniquities of slavery were the only theme. This is not the case. In the poem quoted above Morgan begins and ends the poem with passages of great lyricism offering green thoughts in the green tropical shade as a spirit flies free;

I am on the/ Wings of green/ Flying through the mango tree/ I am the spirit /that exults and sings/In the dove and the /Eagle.

There is no Creole version of this passage. The spirit of the poet merges with the spirit of the dead girl.  The English in these poems is shot through with the cadences of the Authorised Version of the King James Bible – and none the worse for that.

There are poems in the book about ancestral pride both in family (an invocation of the ancestral line for the poet’s son on his 21st birthday that I had the honour of hearing on the occasion for which it was written: Pou Jiraye Kele Liburd, Lawrence, Isaac and Dalphinis) and in the achievements of African civilisations, for example,  in Beyond Time when “We moved north/ to Egypt/ Creating Meroe.” (Morgan’s daughter is called Meroe though I do not believe she was conceived in Egypt. In fact the poem refers to the great city of Meroe that lay on the banks of the Nile from the 6th Century BC to the 4th Century AD).  There is a poem about Nelson Mandela. In short Morgan’s consciousness and experience as black man and human being is caught within the covers of this book.

Questions from the floor reflected the anxiety of those who had left their mother country that their children should not lose their heritage and that books and writing in Creole should be supported. Morgan’s daughter Meroe was heard to comment that what was needed was pod casts rather than books if the young were to be captured.  Be that as it may I found my evening at the St. Lucian High Commission a stimulating one and I was glad I had braved the snow to get there.  After all I don’t get the chance to be in the same room as a poet, a High Commissioner, and a Prime Minister , and to revel in the music of two languages, every day of the week.

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