Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Basel Fasnacht (Carnival): Painting the World Orange

Basel Fasnacht (Carnival): Painting the World Orange
Photos by Althea Romeo-Mark

"A Story of Immigrants", personal essay in The Caribbean Writer, Vol. 28, 2014

A Story of Immigrants

This is the story of immigrants. It is the story of immigration, re-immigration and of continuing immigration.  It is a story which expands to three continents, lasts over a hundred years and, in fact never stops.  It is the story of my family.
My grandmother, Sarah Finch, immigrated from Antigua, British West Indies, to the Dominican Republic in the early 1900s together with her brother, Robert Finch, to seek a better life.  Robert Finch started a family there and made the Dominican Republic his home, while my grandmother returned to Antigua with a son-- my father, Gilbert Romeo. My grandmother and her brother were among many British West Indians who immigrated to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica to seek work at the beginning of the 1900s. Many settled in these countries.
Decades later, a rapidly developing tourist industry in the US Virgin Islands (USVI) demanded an increased labor force. The islands (St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John) unable to supply the needed labor themselves, therefore opened the floodgates to immigrants.
My immediate family, the Romeos, was part of this next big wave of immigration. We left English Harbour, Antigua in the 1950s. Back then English Harbour supplemented the export of cotton and fishing and farming by smuggling rum from ships. By that time my father had married my mother and they were witnesses to a generation of young men falling victim to alcoholism. My mother, concerned for her son, supported my father’s immigration. He departed ahead of us for St. Thomas, USVI. My mother, my older brother, younger sister and I, followed in 1956. That began the story of our houses and how they became our home.
Our various residences, in St. Thomas, reflected our steady rise in social status within the working class and these quarters would become transitional abodes for family and friends coming from “down island” to escape hardship brought on by droughts and cycles of destructive hurricanes.
My childhood homes in St. Thomas accommodated a grandmother, an aunt, uncles, cousins, in-laws and families of friends. They remained until their dry pasture began to show signs of green— the garnering of a sponsorship, employment, marriage or a green card. They came from Antigua, St. Kitts, Nevis, and as far away as England.
This initial home was a three-room, wooden dwelling in Anna’s Fancy, a hilly area overlooking the capital, Charlotte Amalie. It sheltered my parents and my older sister, who later joined us, as well as my older brother and younger sister. My older sister, considered an adult by then, had had to wait for special travel documents before she could join us. She was twelve years older than I and four years older than my brother.
 Our initial home provided no indoor plumbing. Cooking, washing and bathing were done outdoors.  We collected rain water in drums. My older brother often trekked downhill to collect water from a government stand pipe that was open from six to eight a.m. Alternately, he drew water from a well in a graveyard at the bottom of the hill. We had no room to accommodate lodgers in this house.

At The Well

No one has ever heard
buckets gliding into the abyss
no one has ever heard the splash.

They are weighted down
rock-heavy hauling up
then something grudgingly gives way.

After the prayer
to the dead is said
pails glide swiftly upwards.

People scurry round graves
the only sound
is the flip flop of slippers on heels.

Basins balanced on heads
water drips and trickles
and spills onto shoulders.

To the brave who pull the buckets up
from the center of the earth
they hold a soothing water.

If the spirits allowed
they would trudge
to the top of the craggy hill
basins still three quarters full. 
(Hampden Sidney Poetry Review, 2004, p.32)

In addition to the poor living conditions in our first home on Annas Fancy, our neighbor’s children created an atmosphere of fear by filling our ears with stories of ghosts, spirits that lived in a tree down the hill and a white horse that roamed the hills at midnight. My younger sister and I often dashed past the tree when our mother sent us to buy ice. Naturally, these stories often invaded our dreams.
One night my older sister awoke screaming. She had dreamt that a man was standing over her. It was the same night that neighbors had been out firing shots at a jumbie and shouting “Look it dere, look it dere.” We could not go back to sleep after my sister’s terrifying cries. The event is forever stamped in my mind and I have attempted to capture the fear I felt of this hill in a fictional piece:
        When evening came inhabitants crawled into their houses 
        like insects hiding under rocks. Nothing stirred after eight 
        except for the wind.  On stormy nights the hills groaned, 
        cried and screamed. 
(“Wimmelskaft Hill”, page 1)

My older brother and sister found our second home, a costlier one. Since they were now working, they persuaded our father that they would be able to contribute towards the rent of the new dwelling. The sixty- dollars- a- month apartment was situated above a grocery store owned by a Puerto Rican. Located near downtown on Kronprindens Gade, in Charlotte Amalie, this apartment, the backyard hidden by a stone wall, was vast in comparison to our previous house and had indoor plumbing. It contained three large bedrooms, one of which we partitioned into two, an enormous living room, a dining room and kitchen. The courtyard contained a huge brick oven and a covered well near the gate.
My father began to offer temporary shelter to newly arrived relatives and friends seeking a place to stay--a home away from home. Some individuals’ personalities grated on each other and they squared off in the living room to settle arguments. Among them were my quick-tempered grandmother and an aunt-in-law in transit from England to New York. Later, a heart-broken son of my father’s friend attempted suicide in the courtyard.
While living there, we experienced the worst flood in my memory. From our window we watched furniture swirling down the street. My aunt kneeled and prayed loudly as though the flood was comparable to the deluge that convinced Noah to build the Ark.
        Here I bloomed early into the minefield called adolescence and, like a fresh spring flower, attracted some unwanted bees. My mother gave me my first, very brief and only lesson on the “birds and the bees” by pointing at a young pregnant woman who resided opposite us and, in a cautionary tone, said “That’s what happens to young girls who hang around boys.” I remember being wary of boys after that and went out of my way to avoid them.
        Before moving to our third dwelling place, my grandmother, older sister and brother had gotten married while my aunt had brought her husband to St. Thomas and my uncle and his wife, who had formerly lived in England, moved on to New York. Transient cousins and family friends found jobs at hotels and moved out of our Kronprindens Gade domicile.
Next, we relocated to Savan and resided in a three bedroom apartment with a large veranda. My parents maintained the tradition of taking in family and friends. Three cousins shared this home with us.
We did not remain long in Savan. Lady Luck had struck my father with her wand while we were living at Kronprindens Gade and he began to build our permanent home. The three-bedroom residence, with a view of a mangrove, stood on a hill in Estate Mariendal outside the city. Teenagers by then, my sister and I had looked at the architectural drawings with excitement and chose the bedroom we wanted. We were homeowners at last.
The third bedroom in our newly built house was occupied at different times by an uncle, a cousin and a family friend. Then came the time when my father, aware that my younger sister and I were now young adults, turned down requests for interim refuge.
My parents could not assist everyone in their transition to the “American Dream,” the blood relationship being too distant, they could not apply for sponsorships or green cards. A few felt my mother and father had withdrawn their generosity and blame for hardship was laid. So discord sometimes flared up at family gatherings.
We, the next generation, were fed on stories of intolerable working hours and hardship suffered while building roads and homes, cleaning houses, working as cooks, waiters, maids, elevator operators, doormen and fleeing as immigration officers raided construction sites to arrest illegal workers.

You slipping like boil okra
when immigration ‘pon you heel,
bush, you kin, you home
when immi ‘pon you heel,
you mind ticking like cheap clock
when immi grat ‘pon you heel.

You see you broddahs up de Fort
wid cattle chain ‘pon dey han’
all because of the immigration man.
Tick tock, tick tock,
Man you goin’ alarm
when immigration man
goin’ do you harm.
Zip, okra feet tun on….
(Palaver, 1978, p.22)

After being settled over a period of decades, homes are no longer places of temporary refuge. Islands, from which family formerly fled are prospering from tourism. Everyone has moved on to new lives.
What began as a move from Antigua to the Dominican Republic in search of work has spread far beyond the shores of this island. We are now separated by oceans and continents. My older brother and sister still reside in the US, Virgin Islands while I, having lived in Liberia and England, now live in Switzerland. My younger sister has settled in Sacramento, California. Few relatives remain in Antigua where my older sister maintains a home. Others are spread across the USA in cities like New York, Miami, Sacramento, and in Toronto and Vancouver, Canada. As time has gone by, we have lost contact with some cousins and have no contact with their offspring.
Many immigrants have died in their attempt to provide a better life for their families. Their tragic stories are headlines in daily newspapers around the world. We are the lucky ones.
The story of immigrants is one of pain, survival and assimilation.  We have passed the baton of hardship on to new groups and can laugh at the tribulations shared by our family. Our experiences are part of the US Virgin islands history.

At the Mercy of Gods

We come in waves.
Our boats, tiny specks
on dark, fathomless oceans.

Driven away by devouring drought,
scattered by quakes, typhoons, cyclones, wars,
we flee, fish in a storm.

Propelled by dreams,
we would walk on water
if miracles could be bought.

We are swallowed
by sea gods demanding sacrifices.
Our dreams are coveted by
who wish to conquer man and land.

Do the gods conspire?

Jealous Wind and Sea pillage our crops
withhold rain, wake Vulcan, fan his flames.
Belligerent Mars whispers in man’s ear,
demands he bathes in his brother’s blood.

Gods cackle at fleeing men.
Ants in their eyes,
they set howling death upon us.

Our exhausted Creator sleeps.

© Althea Mark-Romeo 2014

Personal essay published in The Caribbean Writer, Vol.28, Winter 2014

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Kistrech Poetry Festival, Kisii, Kenya, 2014, last installment

Kistrech Poetry Festival, Kisii, Kenya, Day 4, Sunday, August 4, 2014

This last installment on Kistrech Poetry Festival is dedicated to Nigerian, guest poet and friend, Prof. Animasuan Kayode Adebanji. Professor Kayode was not only a poet, but an educator, filmmaker and actor. He died unexpectedly at his home in Nigeria on November 10th, 2014. His plan for publishing a book of essays about the Kistrech Poetry Festival as well as executing film projects were those of a man not thinking about permanent retirement from this world. His sudden departure shocked us all and left us speechless. While watching a film after dinner, he was called to play a permanent role in the world of shadows.

Prof. Animasuan Kayode Adebanji. 

Departure to Nairobi

After a hectic four days in Kisi, we, the guest poets at the 2nd. Kistrech Poetry festival, scrap our plan to visit Lake Nakuru National park or Massai Mara. We conclude that rising at 4:00 a.m. to watch the animals in their habitat during the morning and following that with a nine hour drive to Nairobi, would be too exhausting.
We depart to Nairobi at 11:00 a.m. and along the way we make two stops, the first, for a “short” or “long call,” polite Kenyan English for our equally polite English “number one and number two.” After walking through an alley, the toilets are discovered.

The second stop is made to have a late lunch. The crowded restaurant is very large and is obviously a popular place with truckers and passengers in transit. The menu advertising the local food is up on a large blackboard for everyone to see. Since we have no idea what is on offer, we go over to see the and point at what we want. 

There is the usual greens, ugali  (maize, white cornmeal), rice, and meat (beef, mutton, chicken) and sukuma wiki (kale or collard greens) red beans,, githeri (a mixture of beans and maize, matah ( mixture of beans with mashed potatoes)and chapatti.

I buy two large avocadoes as the taste for them had long been lingering in my mouth. I was first tempted to buy some when vendors had surrounded our transport, the University of Kisi bus,  outside Kisii Town. 

A young woman with a basin filled with avocados had offered to sell me the whole basin for two shillings.  But we were leaving Kisii and I had no bag to put them in.

So now, good luck has found me. I cut the avocados in four quarters and share them with my new poet friends. Soon it was time to pay and leave.

We pass roads where baboons line the road and embankments searching for food. We slow down to take pictures, being careful not to interfere with the flow of traffic. Someone flings a banana at a baboon.  I am able to capture it with my camera as it devours the fruit.

Expansive mountain ranges are soon upon us. And we ask the driver to slow down and park so we can admire the beauty and inhale the cool air. There are men and women selling sheep skin and souvenirs. 

I capture the scene on video. 

A insistent vendor persuades me to buy a souvenir of the African continent made of soap stone.

We climb back into the car to continue our journey. It is a few more hours before the dusty outskirts of Nairobi appears. Despite it being Sunday, the roadsides are filled with vendors and shoppers.

Arrival in Nairobi

Nairobi /naɪˈroʊbi/ is the capital and largest city of Kenya. The city and its surrounding area also form the Nairobi County. The name "Nairobi" comes from the Maasai phrase Enkare Nyrobi, which translates to "cold water". The phrase is also the Maasai name of the Nairobi river, which in turn lent its name to the city. However, it is popularly known as the "Green City in the Sun" and is surrounded by several expanding villa suburbs.

[2] Inhabitants of Nairobi are called Nairobians, and the city is governed by the County Government of Nairobi. Nairobi is the most populous city in eastern Africa, with a current estimated population of about 3 million.[1]According to the 2009 Census, in the administrative area of Nairobi, 3,138,295 inhabitants lived within 696 km2(269 sq mi).[7] Nairobi is currently the 14th largest city in Africa, including the population of its suburbs.

Entering Nairobi

Nairobi is a city congested with people, traffic jams, dust and gasoline fumes. The Kisii University bus driver, after stopping at the wrong destination, drops off Tendai Maduwa who is greeted by his new hosts. 

The rest of us are dropped off at the Meridian Hotel, where we, European poets, are booked into rooms for a night or two. The other poets from Nigeria and Uganda are taken to their destinations as well.

We had left poet, Michael Obediah Smith in Kisii, where he would begin a three month African tour. And Godpower Oboido had left earlier to fulfill another obligation in Kenya.

A Day in Nairobi Monday, August 5, 2014-

Jenny, Tendai, and Nicolas

After a good night’s sleep, Jenny Tunedal, her husband Nicolas, Laus Strandby and I have breakfast. I get my laptop sorted after buying an adapter at a nearby shop. The laptop charged, I am finally able to talk with family and friends, and inquire about me new granddaughter, Zöe

We are met by Kenyan poet, Amos Tabalia who arrives after 11:00 a.m. to start a planned tour of the Nairobi Museum of Natural History. Amos also offers us the opportunity to see the poorest and the richest areas of Nairobi but our time is so short, we have to pass the opportunity up. We learn that Erling Kittelsen is not well and would not be joining us. 

We (Jenny Tunedal, her husband Nicolas, Laus Strandby and I) walk to the museum and learn on the way that we have to be alert crossing the streets because, although there are traffic lights, they are ignored by drivers. Amos explains that the lights had had a lot of technical problems and had broken down so often, nobody paid them attention. So we take our chance crossing the road like the rest of the Nairobi population.

The numerous construction sites and dusty sidewalk in middle-class area reflect a rapidly expanding Nairobi City,

We follow Amos along a once beautiful park, and wend our way to the museum. We are checked by security. One realizes that the frequent security checks, even at hotels, is due to the terrorist attacks that have taken place in Nairobi and eastern areas of the country.

We start with a collection of gourds collected from different regions in Kenya, move on to an exhibition of large mammals, then birds.

Kenya is home to one of the largest number of bird species in the world. There are over 1,300 hundred species to look at. 

Next, we look at the stages of the evolution of man and see Lucy’s skeleton that was discovered by Leaky. Dated to be more than three millions years old, she is the oldest hominid skeleton in Africa. After that, we visit an exhibition of Kenya’s political, social and cultural history.

After a few hours in the museum we are dying for a break, but first decide to visit the souvenir shop where we make a few purchases.  Then we have snacks and drinks before going to see an exhibition of snakes.  On our way out, we pause to take photos.

Klaus has to rush back to the hotel. His flight leaves at 10:00 p.m. and he wishes to leave for the airport at 5:00. The 5:00 o’clock rush over guarantees massive traffics jams.  We bid him goodbye as he jumps into a taxi.

Our walk back to the hotel is unpleasant for me as dust burns my eyes and the petrol fumes, sucking up the air, is stifling. I regret not having a mask to cover my nose.

Back at the hotel, Erling Kittelsen is still not well, so Jenny Tunedal, her husband, Nicolas, and I go out to search for a restaurant to have dinner and see a bit of Nairobi nightlife.

One recommended to us by a passerby is too noisy, so we find another opposite.

The food we order on the menu is no longer available, so we make do with something else. Nicolas and I order goat stew as an alternative to the fish we wanted and Jenny orders a vegetarian dish. It is a dish she had eaten several time during our stay in Kenya and is disappointed she can't try something new. 

The waitress warns us that they are closing and we must pay.

We find our way back to the hotel and we bid each other goodbye as they are leaving in the morning at 7:00 a.m. for another destination in Kenya. They will remain a week longer.

Day of Departure, Tuesday, August 6, 2014

I go down to have breakfast in the morning. Erling Kittelsen is up. The worst is over.  He is drinking coffee when I arrive. It turns out that we are traveling on the same KLM flight. We arrange a taxi for 5:00 p.m. Mariam, the Ugandan poet, who works in Mombasa,  is expected to visit him in the afternoon. Our taxi arrives on schedule. Mariam is there to wish us a safe journey.  We take a photo together.

Our journey to the airport is not a pleasant one for me. There is more petrol fumes and dust as the taxi spends a lot of time at a standstill in traffic.  I try to breath as best as I can while thinking about the amount of people who must suffer from asthma in this environment. Not too far from the airport, the traffic eases up and we arrive at six.

Erling Kittelsen and I keep each other’s company. We have something to eat, purchase more souvenirs from shops which have tempting offers. I don’t have many schillings so I don’t buy much.

After a few hours in the waiting lounge, Erling and I are separated by yellow and red stickers. I am seated in the front of the jumbo jet and he in the back. It is the last we see each other. The colossal metallic bird, its ribcage filled with people and suitcases, shakes and rumbles as it lifts into the black sky.


I wish to thank the organizer, facilitators, poets, students, the people of the Kisii village who made our stay in Kisii, Kenya a beautiful discovery and journey.

Director of Kistrech Poetry Festival, Kenya: Poet, Christopher Okenwa

Facilitators:Dr. Michael Oyoo Weche, Florence Nyarenchi, Brenda Mageka, John Omae (Gusii Institute of Technology), Ogari Ombuki George, Amos Tabalia, and Dr. Evans Gesura Mecha (Kissi University)

Poets and Presenters: poet and presenter, Professor Animasaun Kayode Adebanji (Adeleke University, Nigeria, poet and presenter Jenny Maria,(Sweden) poet,Nicolas Tunedal (Sweden), Althea Romeo-Mark (Switzerland and Antigua and Barbuda),poet and presenter, Obediah Michael Smith (The Bahamas), poet and presenter, Godpower Oboido (Nigeria),Mariam Mpaata Melloney (Uganda),Aggrey Ombok Monayo (Kenya),poet, Laus Strandby (Denmark), poet Erling Kittelsen (Norway), poet Amos Tabalia and poet/performer, Tendai Maduwa (Zimbabwe)

Student poets and performers: Agnes Nyamoita Nyambane, Constany Mose Oteki, Josephat Ndege Mauti, Ezra Nyaenda, Lamech Nyamweya, Fidel Machel, Flow Fulani, and Dennis Manduku.
Student escorts/guides: I do not know all of your names but I wish to thank for your companionship and your generosity, especially for the time you gave in honor of the festival.

Althea Romeo-Mark, poet representing Antigua and Barbuda and Switzerland.

Our departed brother, Prof. Animasuan Kayode Adebanji

Because I could not stop for Death 

Because I could not stop for Death-- 
He kindly stopped for me-- 
The Carriage held but just Ourselves-- 
And Immortality.

Emily Dickenson