18 months on from Hurricane Maria, reflections on a community response on life in the diaspora.
Diaspora: the dispersion or spread of any people from their original homeland.
“Trees stripped of their bark, houses stripped of their roofs, cars tossed around like toys.”
Sherrie Eugene-Hart saw the devastation in Dominica first-hand, just three weeks after Hurricane Maria. And she saw how close to her home it was. Four days after the hurricane she found out whether her relatives had survived. “From people’s eyes to their houses, everything was left bare.”
Over a year later, just before her regular BCFM show ‘Real Women’, she is describing these gut-wrenching images to the Cable.
What she saw was a result of hurricane Maria, whose raging winds of up to 160mph hit Dominica in September 2017.
There wasn’t much UK media response. “I saw no Dominican pictures, I saw no Dominican people.” She was left wondering how a natural disaster on a commonwealth island, which left over 90% of inhabitants without roofs over their heads and claimed many lives in the process, could pass under the radar in the UK.
These feelings spurred her on to start a local appeal, just 48 hours after the hurricane hit, providing sustained aid to Dominica, and to reflect on what it means to be living abroad from your homeland.
Out of sight, out of mind
The frustration was shared by Dr Marie-Annick Gournet, a professor in Caribbean Literature at the University of West of England, who joined with Sherrie during the aftermath, to organise fundraising events in Bristol.
Marie-Annick is of Guadalupean heritage but grew up in both France and the UK; she epitomizes Caribbean solidarity. She tells us she was spurred on to get involved in the appeal because “Dominica tragically dispatched aid to other islands before getting hit itself.” The island would have been more prepared for the disaster had it not ensured that other islands were protected first.
And now, at the start of 2019, Marie-Annick tells us “people are still sleeping in tents” in the affected areas. And so the fundraising continues.
Hurricane Maria highlighted some big questions within Bristol’s Caribbean community – and within the UK as a whole.
The diaspora in the UK – largely made up of Windrush families and their children – and its remittance, is the biggest source of aid flowing into the island.
Bristol’s response to Maria was solidarity: from bucket collections at church choir performances in St George to fundraisers at the Watershed, celebrating Dominican culture and raising awareness.
The community support ebbed through the collection points in St Pauls, Easton Community Centre and St Nicholas Church, arranged by Sherrie and her family.
She sums up the power of the response: “We asked people to bring basic utilities – rice, cans, blankets, candles, the bare necessities. Oh my gosh, people came and they gave.”
When the appeal was launched on BcFM, the goal was four barrels of supplies. They ended up sending 21.
Diaspora and identity
Marie-Annick explains that this ‘material tie’ is part of the diasporic identity, and it connects Dominicans and other migrants to their home countries.
There are also `spiritual ties’ amongst the community: a sense of belonging ‘over there’ or `back home’. “I always saw it as being astride two worlds. For me it was actually three.” she says. “When you are made to feel different, you look for your anchor somewhere else.
“But the interesting thing is that when I would go back to Guadeloupe, I would again be made to feel different, because I didn’t master the Creole, and you do things differently.”
Sherrie explains: “growing up in the UK you are loved and accepted, but not necessarily loved and accepted. There can racism and often there isn’t – so where do you fit in?”
This ‘limbo identity’ is a natural tension which arises in migrant populations across the globe, stemming from a physical disconnect from the country of origin, and not having one’s culture fully represented in the new home.
For her, what’s important is being able to find the benefit of both worlds: “It’s about being able to go to those places, as ‘mine’.”
But this is hard for the younger generation in Bristol, especially after a disaster like Maria. She felt it became even more important for her children to know their ancestral roots, particularly as they have never lived in the Caribbean.
“They feel a bit displaced. You were born in this country, speak the language, you were educated here but you are still different, or ‘othered’. So there is a level of displacement. Inserting the world that you are part of is really important.
As Sherrie says, this is different to her parent’s generation who “are interested in the here, now and future because of their children. But their children are interested in the past. Why? Because then they’re able to move forward.”
Kummba Centre and St Pauls Carnival
How do we, as Bristol citizens, engage with our culture and our history? Can we celebrate the food, music and language of the Caribbean whilst having little investment in its past and present tribulations?
One of the collection points for hurricane relief was the Kuumba Centre in St Pauls, known to the average Stokes Croft wanderer as a venue for dancing. The centre is a place with deep value and meaning for Bristol’s Afro-Caribbean community and an important hub of inclusion, but is currently without power due to following funding cuts.
And last year, Bristol marked the 50th year of St Pauls Carnival, another of the community’s beating hearts. Marie-Annick helped organise costumes for a float organised by Lynn Mareno to honour some significant elders, including one of the carnival’s founders, Roy Hackett. They were dismayed when it was held back and almost the last to set off in the boiling heat of that 7 July.
“Understanding the value of carnival, what it means… Even in that context it was lost. It is so important to understand where things come from. It is the foundation of everything.”
The story of diaspora is a defining part of the strong Caribbean culture in Bristol. In light of the government’s hostile policies targeting the Windrush generation, it’s increasingly important to understand, learn and invest in this history in order to move forward. This understanding united the people who supported Dominica’s cause, whether from Jamaica, Palestine or Wales.
Maria the leveller
Back on the island, the events in Dominica invoked a human trait of getting together in times of strife. Everything was equalised, with poor and rich washing together in the river, queuing up for food together, and feeling the collective trauma of such shock and destruction.
This sense of cohesion borne of adversity was also present for members of the diaspora – who in some cases collaborated across continents to send aid and share information on the safety of relatives.
Sherrie summarises: “When things are so devastating, you think there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s only when you get together with other people that you can actually see change. And that’s exactly what happened to us when Hurricane Maria happened in Dominica. And you’re 5000 miles away in Bristol, and you feel helpless. But in reality, they were the helpless ones, and we were the ones who could actually do something about it. And we did!”