Petra Desir – Caribbean activist

Anse La Raye

Little Greek breezed her way into the turquoise bay and slid alongside the crumbing pier where I jumped ashore and tied her up. Now to look for Petra. It wasn’t hard since the excited kids that came running to greet the stranger to their village offered to take me to him. It was apparent that Anse La Raye didn’t get many white visitors especially jumping off of sailboats. I felt the curious, maybe suspicious, eyes following me as my entourage wended it’s way past the string of colonial homes adorned with jalousie windows and French doors along Front Street, the potholed excuse for a road. My barefooted raggedly clothed guides then led me off the paved street along a dirt track and into narrow windy path that fanned out to a cluster of ageless dilapidated, shanty shacks squished together.

Despite the heat and the stillness of the air there was a cacophony of sounds. Children playing, women beating, sweeping, gossiping, a few men mending fishnets and busy with machetes while scrawny chickens flapped around searching desperately for morsels. It was here that I sat and shared stories with Petra, met his young family, and developed a friendship that led to me quitting my plans to move to Dominica. I had found the place I wanted to live and started to create a bonding with a fellow visionary brother.

Anse La Raye was a typical run down fishing and farming village founded in the days of slaves and plantations. Many of the people still lived in tiny shanties built from scrap wood and perched on rickety foundations a few feet off the ground. Each home was mostly a dry place to sleep, almost bare of possessions. Siblings – and some times parents – shared the same bed. Money was scarce in the village. The local ‘stores’ were simply counters in ramshackle rooms that had shelves with less than thirty items, available in the smallest possible quantities. Candles, cigarettes and even matches were sold individually while flour, sugar, oil and kerosene were sold by the cup full.

Finding food was a daily task for the whole family in the absence of any food cupboard. The stoop/steps served as the only sitting area and kitchen. Cooking, once a day, was typically stewpot, heated over a charcoal fired clay stove. In those days protein deficiency was prevalent and it was common to see young kids with distended bellies roaming the village throwing stones and sticks to knock down low hanging fruit. Guavas, mangoes and even bananas were mostly eaten green because no-one could wait until they ripened. Fruit rotting on the ground never happened.

A large imposing Roman Catholic Church in the centre of the village was a constant reminder to residents that the papacy reigned supreme and had done so since the first chapel was built in 1765. The population of St.Lucia at that time was 19,000 of whom 16,000 were slaves.The village derived it’s name from the rays found in the sandy bay and has always depended upon fishing and farming for survival. It’s short crumbing concrete pier emerged from a beach lined by ancient fishing boats. The dugout hardwood keels had rough hewn boards added to the sides but were painted bright colours that gave them the warm cute look admired by tourists and artists. Fishermen had only bits of sail and misshapen oars to deal with seas and storms that took many lives. In Anse La Raye outboard motors were a rarity until the late ’80’s.

Almost everyone descended from African slaves brought to the island to work on the colonial plantations owned by absentee white Englishmen. As St.Lucia approached it’s independence in 1979 most of the richest farmlands remained idle and unproductive. Geest shipping company started buying much of the land once used to cultivate sugar to produce bananas. St.Lucia soon became the largest exporter of bananas in the Windwards and Geest were the biggest island employers. Local farmers were forced to eke out a subsistence income from hillside cultivation on the worst marginal lands. Farmers were barely able to grow enough to feed their families and rarely had much excess to sell at market.

I remember waking to the smell of Creole bread and coconut packed turn-overs wafting from the wood fired oven of the rustic brick built bakery. I’ve never tasted anything baked quite like them and joined the early morning line to buy a penny bun. Meandering through the shanty shacks brought the realities of a living in Caribbean poverty to my privileged English-white-mans world.

Daily, a gaggle of women would walk to one of the two rivers with bundles of clothing stacked on their heads to be washed. This centuries old process involved pounding rhythmically on river rocks while engaging in idle gossip about their men and giggling about their fantasies. Sadly, it also put the washer women at risk of dying from bilharzia a parasitic infection transmitted to humans through contact with fresh water. Concerted efforts by the World Health Organization have almost eliminated it in St.Lucia but when I lived there it was a serious cause of illness, sometimes fatal. Mosquitos spread dengi fever, poisonous spiders caused havoc but the biggest danger came from the far-de-lance pit viper lurking in the jungle undergrowth.

After walking with Petra to his hillside farm patch, hanging out a bit with his family and friends he set me up with a place to sleep. The room was in a shack made with walls of wavy boards that had gaps I could peek out of. The sights of strange people added to the sounds of muffled conversations and roots music filled me with awe and wonder. After a restless night of tropical dreams a roosters crow woke up the whole village at sunrise. I decided to stay a few more days with Petra and met Rasta’s, farmers, small entrepreneurs and loads of kids.

I changed all my plans and decided to live in Anse La Raye. As a the only white man it had some challenges. Petra did his best to help bridge the divide but education and cultural differences set me apart and language was a big issue. Everyone seemed to understand my English but I was lost trying to grasp the local dialect. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries St Lucia had been alternately conquered by France and England and changed possession some 14 times. Consequently, the culture and language of the displaced Africans became a blend of their native tongue, French and English – called St. Lucian patois or creole.

Before becoming a farmer Petra had been a school teacher and he educated me plenty about how underserved and in need the people of Anse La Raye were. We talked action and progress and founded a community development program with the goal of trying to secure funding for projects to improve life in the village.

Minister Jon Odlum

On my return to Castries I went to see Jon Odlum, the Minister in charge of Community Development. Quite surprisingly, he was open to the new ideas of a hippy bloke and a bunch of Rastas. He was a cabinet member of the newly elected socialist government, it was the time of the Grenadian socialist revolution, and radical change was in the air throughout the islands. 

With my one month visitors visa about to expire Jon said he would  get me a work permit to stay indefinitely. Time passed and I checked back in with his office each month and was told “no worries your permit is coming – just now”. All was well until the police sergeant who lived in the village took a serious dislike to a hippy ‘honky’ hanging out with the local ganga growing rastas and giving them big ideas about development and positive progress.  He must have done some investigating because he ordered me to go to the police station in Castries with my passport. I guessed it was his attempt to cause me some trouble and stopped by Minister Jon Odlum’s office to explain the situation. He immediately wrote me a letter saying that I was working for his department, that my work permit was being processed and the police should chill.

I showed the letter to the officer at the police station. He just laughed, screwed it up and threw it in the waste bin. I was taken to a very dingy police cell, my girlfriend and her two young daughters were collected from the village, Locked in the cell with me and we were told we would be deported in the morning. Luckily, none of us had any tickets back to Canada or anywhere else so we negotiated a deal where they would fly us out to Dominica, a nearby island. 

I was able to get a message to Jon whose brother, George Odlum was the Foreign Minister, and he reassured me he would sort it all out by calling the chief of police and we would be set free the next day. I hadn’t slept, when at 7am, they told us we would be taken to the airport. I called Jon immediately and he said he would meet us at the plane and he did. Despite all his pleas to the Police chief and to the police officers to set us free he failed. As they put us on the plane he told me the government had had no authority over the police since being elected. Apparently, the police force had all been appointed by the previous government; and, their allegiance remained with them. It was a serious political lesson for me.

Within a month our hippy entourage sailed back to St.Lucia, and we slipped back into the island very quietly with tourist visas issued by an immigration official who must have been off duty when we got deported.  My work permit arrived and I returned to assisting my Rasta friends with the farming and fishing projects in the village, much to the disgust of the police sergeant. 

In the Caribbean I found it easy to make friends with people sharing common interests in music, social change, sustainable living and new agricultural endeavours like ganja growing. Two dreadlocked brothers of only 14 and 15 passed by my house daily walking to bathe on the beach below. Curious, they stopped in to see what this strange white dude was doing and offered to smoke me out. They became regular visitors sharing stories of their hilltop ganja plantation and one day offered to take me to see it.

We hiked along a river valley, through dense jungle and then up a vertical cliff face. It was definitely secure from any intruders except for goats; until helicopter raids began many years later. Their garden was full of beautiful plants towering over our heads but, because it preceded the days of ‘sinsemilla’ knowledge with removal of males, the glorious females where all laden with millions of seeds. In the boys hut I was shocked by their spartan existence with a machete as their only tool, a simple clay pot for making ital soup and hessian sacks stuffed with pot leaves to serve as mattresses.

 

Sleepy Anse La Raye came alive on 11 May 1981 the day Bob Marley moved on to Zion. The soul and international face of reggae music was only 36 years old. I’d been to Trench Town, a tough West Kingston ghetto, where he lived with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. They all dropped out of school at age 14 to make music. As transistor radios became available on the Caribbean islands local radio stations played local music, steel drums, calypsos, ska, then rock steady—precursor styles to reggae, which came of age the late 1960s. Reggae had became the dominant sound in the Caribbean when I arrived. It poured from every transport sound system, from record sellers along the streets and from the cheap transistors held to ears across the islands. Thanks to Island Records, the Wailers came to the world’s attention in the early 1970s via their albums Catch a Fire (1972) and Burnin’ (1973). With the departure of Tosh and Wailer in 1974, Marley took center stage in the group, and by the late 70s he had turned out a string of albums— Exodus (1977), Kaya (1978), and Uprising (1980). I got totally addicted to reggae music and was fortunate to see Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer perform together and individually.

With the passing of ‘Tuff Gong’ the whole Caribbean mourned, danced and cried out for weeks. I was on the streets for nights and days with Petra and the people of Anse La Raye for jump-up, singing and smoking big time. Their grief with his death, their pride in his music and their strength in the prophecy of Bob’s lyrics showed on every face. Forty years later his huge legacy, his popularity and his fame continue to increase worldwide.

I left St. Lucia in late July 1981 intending to return again after spending summer in Canada fundraising for our community project. Somehow, I got distracted and I met a beautiful young woman who successfully enticed me to her tropical island of Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I left Petra running the project in Anse La Raye with Peter Linderthal a U.N. international aid worker who I had befriended and recruited to help us. Together they continued for a year setting up renewable energy models and organising an international community development conference in Anse La Raye. Eventually, petty jealousy and government bureaucracy wore them both down and our good intentions were mostly abandoned.

Petra  started as an insurance salesman, to support his family,  and became the manager of the Saint  Lucia operations a few years later. From there he went into politics but was never a party hack and supported three different political parties at different times. Eventually he became confronted and frustrated with the wranglings and corruptions of party politics and lost faith in his own countrymen. His daughter Lara had emigrated to Canada so he visited, and decided he liked it, and moved there. Within a few years he graduated from college and now lives happily near Toronto with grandchildren and a growing family. While I’m happy for Petra I can also feel remorse that his label as a renegade resulted in Anse La Raye and St. Lucia losing another of their most talented native people.

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Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

2 thoughts on “Petra Desir – Caribbean activist

  1. When I travelled back to St Lucia last year, I stopped by Anse le Raye and looked for the old house, but I couldn’t remember exactly the driveway.
    The trip to town was a little depressing; I found nothing much had changed, except people seemed a little more worn down. I, too, was eyed suspiciously and I didn’t feel comfortable engaging with the locals.
    I have some favourite memories of that time. At the house we didn’t have a flush toilet, so we would wander into the woods to do our business. After a few days, every time I went to find my secret spot, there was a rustling in the jungle. Nothing is more sphincter clenching than that! On the third day I noticed that it was a couple of pigs. They knew that we were going to leave something for them to snuffle at! They were politely waiting for us to leave. I am sure glad that we were vegetarian!
    We were there around Christmastime and St lucians celebrate the holidays from Dec 13th to jouvert around Jan 3rd (Carnival Dates have changed now).
    Anyway it is one big party for 3 weeks. Graham mention the love of Bob Marley and all things reggae. The album ‘Uprising’ had just been released and the first track was “Coming in from the Cold”. Well the house was on top of the ridge north of town and in front of the town hall they had set up a record player some speakers. At 6.30 they started playing the album, and pretty much played it all day! The riffs came straight up the hill and engulfed the residence with perfect albeit tinny acoustics…….”It’s you, its you, it’s you I am talking to now…..” As the weeks went by the recording got scratchier and scratchier! Whenever I hear that album, even 40 years later, I am reminded of that special time.
    Roots, Rock Reggae!
    Martin Barnett

    Liked by 1 person

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