Every year leading up to and after our August Emancipation Festival, there is plenty of commentary and critique over what has transpired, and this year has been no exception. What bothers me is the fact that there is little improvement from one year to the next, and I wonder why that is.
I have been participating and attending the various activities for over 30 years and can remember some great years — like the 60th anniversary — and some very lacklustre ones. All in all, as this is public funds, greater accountability should be given to how the millions of dollars have been spent over the years. The budget — though reportedly cut back by half this year — has ballooned over the last 15 years, but value for money is not apparent. I have a theory as to why that is, because it is obvious the problem is not a lack of money.
My first memories of Festival were from primary school days when Cappoons Bay Primary School participated in the parade along with other schools one year. On another occasion, I participated when the Girl Guides celebrated the 75th anniversary of guiding and we had a floupe.
As children, we didn’t understand the “why” of celebrating Festival, but we knew it was important and we were excited to be in the parade. From the time you saw the flags go up along Waterfront Drive in July, we’d start counting down the days to the Coney Island amusement park landing on island.
Fast forward to college years, and I remember participating in Ms. Lake’s or Ms. Brewley’s troupes and walking with the moko jumbies during the summers home and looking forward to catching up with family and friends in the village.
When I returned home in 2003, I realised that the purpose of Festival seemed to be driven by commercial gain. I started to ask myself and others what was the meaning behind the celebrations and do we understand what we are to be celebrating? If it is about celebrating our history and heritage, it is not apparent on the schedule of events.
I remember the year I found out accidentally about the cultural lecture series that the Anglican church did every year on August Friday/Saturday evening. Teacher Elmore Stoutt was speaking that year about the history of fungi music. To me, those types of events should be centre stage in the village, educating us on our musical history.
I feel as if the Sunday Morning Well service is like an appendage used to justify the “music festival” we actually have.
Over the years, I am sure the various committee volunteers have done their best to make the Festival enjoyable and should be commended for their dedication, but there is room for improvement. I have observed drama in everything from pageant winners, parade awards and road march champions, and I watched over the years as people lost interest in participating and/or attending Festival and gladly took the public holidays as an opportunity to vacation.
The parade has become a struggle where you have a handful of troupes take hours to progress up the road and the “fixtures” have disappeared: moko jumbies, clowns, Ms. Fahie, Limpin’ Jack, and majorettes, to name a few. National and civic organisations, including the church, have stopped taking part because of undue criticism. Sloop races and water sports have diminished, and I was disappointed that there was not a cultural night in this year’s village line-up.
A few years ago, in a project management workshop I taught, I used the Festival as an example of a recurring project that, if it is not planned intentionally, falls into the same issues as any other project. If we want consistent results, a system must be put in place that consists of a team, with a budget, timeline and a set scope.
I have seen years when the head of the Festival committee changed after serving one year for no apparent reason. It is difficult to get consistent results without continuity in key roles.
But before we get to that point, we must back up and determine the objectives. At the end of Festival, what are the expected outcomes? Do we want to have a greater appreciation of our history and heritage, or just to make as much money as possible? Are we more concerned with building a legacy mindset and putting something in place that will be consistently celebrated by generations to come, or is partying the priority?
Now hear me out. There was a time when I didn’t miss a jam, and I understand the economic value of Festival, but we cannot allow the commemoration of emancipation from hundreds of years of slavery to be reduced to a commercial enterprise.
I don’t expect it to look like it did 50 years ago, but I do believe the why of the Festival is still the same: We are celebrating our ancestors’ freedom from oppression; their perseverance and resourcefulness afterwards to lay the foundation on which our modern-day society is built; and the current generation recognising the importance of passing on the legacy to the next. That is what should be reflected in the parade, village, decorations, music, entertainment, pageants, horse races, boat races and the messaging around everything.
The activity schedule needs to be balanced with cultural activities and family-friendly events if the wider society is expected to participate — and not just a subset of the population, because that is unsustainable. Once the vision is clear, then the planning can begin. We place value on what we understand, and we won’t celebrate accurately what we don’t appreciate correctly. I strongly believe this is very important in an ethnically diverse society such as ours, and we must maintain our cultural identity while nurturing social unity and recognising shared values.
‘Tree without roots’
I am not clear as to what the difference is between the VI Festivals and Fairs Committee and the VI Heritage Month Committee, but if August is National Heritage Month, then the whole month of August needs to have activities that celebrate us as Virgin Islanders and teach our children “who deh fah” from an early age, especially those of us who are bi-nationals. In the words of Marcus Garvey, we are behaving like “a tree without roots” because we don’t recognise our heritage, history and culture as we should.
As many of you have heard me say before, VI history needs to be mandatory in our school system because a tree cannot live without its roots and will eventually die. I feel that other cultures are not taking over ours, but we are giving it up inadvertently when certain things are not non-negotiable. There is room for the variety of nationalities in our community once the native culture is made distinct. It’s time to stop apologising for being who we are and stop doing things to please others to our own detriment.
As we do in the close-out stage of a project, every year there should be a debriefing of the committees where feedback is analysed and lessons learned are incorporated into the plan for the next year’s event. If we want future festivals to be better, we must put a demand on ourselves and those who lead us to be a part of the solutions. Let’s move from branch issues such as whether we call it carnival or festival, because according to the dictionary they both mean a celebration.
Let’s not party for the sake of partying, but let’s get to the root of the matter and cultivate something we can all be proud of being a part of because we are aware and educated about our origins and honoured to share it with any and everyone.
Done the talk. Time for action!