About Saada Branker:
Saada Branker is a writer and copy editor born in Montreal. There she grew up hearing stories from her Barbadian parents about their childhood years in St. George. Now living in Toronto, she has worked on various media projects. Saada is a Ryerson University journalism graduate with a BA in Political Science from Concordia University. Her passion for writing and journalism led to opportunities in broadcast news (CBC Newsworld), newsprint (Globe and Mail, Eye Weekly, Toronto Sun), magazines (Sway Magazine, AMOI, Numb, Word). Through Saada STYLO, her home-based copyediting business, she works with emerging writers.
Her recent copyediting projects include, BYOB: The Unapologetic Guide to Being Your Own Boss by Gloria Roheim (2013) and Game Face: The Art of Giving Interviews by Bodine Williams (Fall 2015).
About Powys Dewhurst:
Powys Dewhurst is a filmmaker and content producer based in Canada who also holds British and Caribbean citizenship. He was born in Dominica and grew up in Barbados from age 7 to 16 in Fontabelle, Clapham Heights and Chelsea Road. His passion for film and media began in Barbados as a preteen. As a child he spent inordinate amounts of time at Roodals Drive In and Accra Beach, and after hours would liberate old comic strips from the offices of both the Nation and The Advocate newspapers.
He has filmed in East Africa which took him beneath the plains of Mount Kilimanjaro and in 2010 he was chosen by the Canadian Government, Cirque du Soleil and Canadian Heritage to have his work as one to represent Canada at World Expo 2010 in China, which saw 73 million international visitors. His work has screened at film festivals in Chicago, Toronto, Durban South Africa, Trinidad, Texas, Kenya, Brazil, England and elsewhere. He is currently producing and developing several works including Storm, Crazy Dies and Larger Than Life.
Powys recently wrapped up as a content producer at a Bell Media presented media summit in Canada bringing in notable speakers and media companies like Vice Media, Chris Hadfield, Superchannel, CBC, TIFF, eONE, Globe and Mail, and the biggest hit Canadian TV shows.
It was perhaps not by accident but by divine design that we arrived in Barbados on June 1st, the official start of the 2015 Hurricane season. Quite simply, Powys and I are hunting Hurricane Janet, although she is long gone. We resurrect her memory with each question posed to Bajans as they go about their daily business.
We got straight to it as we exited Grantley Adams International Airport. Our baggage handler told us she was born in 1956, one year after Hurricane Janet hit the island, but she grew up hearing of it from people every hurricane season. Edwin Edey from Top Car Rentals Barbados awaited us with a pristine vehicle, courtesy of this efficient family-run business. After a conscientious explanation of our contract, rules of the road and features of the van, Edwin described his memories of the terrain being levelled by Janet’s violent winds.
At that moment, I was hit by the realness of what Powys and I are setting out to achieve. Why it was sobering, I’m not sure. Barbados is not new to either of us. Powys grew from a precocious child into a curious teen here. I visited my parents’ birthplace for my third birthday, and I returned as an adult a few times. This media project offers us a new discovery of Barbados, guided from our elders’ lips to our ears. As in all oral traditions, there’s no greater honour than to receive such memories and hold them for sharing. Maybe that moment of truth is what I tapped into.
Edwin graciously offered to drive ahead to show us the way to Fresh Milk. Thankful, we followed his car and looked about at our surroundings with new eyes. Where we saw foliage, infrastructure, industry and farmland, we tried to imagine 60 years earlier with bent trees, debris swirling overhead and houses battered by winds travelling upwards of 111mph. I must say, it wasn’t easy. I was distracted. St. George was my parents’ stomping grounds when they were children. Because I’m a sit-put condo dweller, I was struck by the steady movement of people by foot and car, the expanse of farmland and just how picturesque the Fresh Milk Art Platform really is. My inspiration to write took over.
On our third day here, with the help of Annalee Davis, Fresh Milk’s director and founder, we met with Charles Phillips, a talented photographer and entrepreneur behind Barbados-based Monochrome Media. He’s now our assistant director and 2nd camera for our film shoots. The next day, with Charles, we were able to drive to the Barbados Museum & Historical Society located in the area of Bridgetown & its Garrison. Off camera, Assistant Curator Miguel Pena told us about the founding of the Society in 1933 as he led us to their library. There we read about the history of hurricanes in Barbados. Day 5 took us to the island’s south coast for a crucial interview in Oistins. What we learned grounded us. On Sunday, day 6, we travelled with our flatmate Thais Francis to Bathsheba on the eastern side of the country in St. Joseph. I’m thrilled because we’re seeing context; spaces in towns and villages where people on the move spill onto roads or simply catch a cool breeze on a corner and smart conversation with friends—many of them waving as we passed. Their gestures confirming, “I’m here and I see you.”
In no other country have I felt so welcomed by people who don’t know me. Indeed, 60 years ago Hurricane Janet killed Barbadians, Grenadians and days later Mexicans, carving a path of extensive environmental devastation. Remarkably, that same disaster speaks volumes about the people who lived through it and how they’re ready and willing to tell us about this defining moment.
It seems like self-inflicted cruelty to be picking up our pace in a place like Barbados. What has become the status quo in tightly-wound Toronto is almost ludicrous in sedate Walkers Terrace, St. George. Funny: I remember a friend once agreeing that navigating in Canada’s largest metropolitan city feels like being in a rat race. “But we’re not rats,” she added. Indeed.
Bad habits die hard, even in Barbados. To get what we need on Hurricane Janet, I’ve been going at a steady pace of chasing interviews, setting them up, helping to coordinate the team, interviewing, researching and writing. Of course, I’m not alone. Joining me is a wonderful team of Fresh Milk blog coordinators and chasers including my editorial assistant Natalie McGuire. ArtsEtc’s co-founder Robert Sandiford provides us advice and links to key people. Filmmaker Powys Dewhurst, assisted by our intern, Charles Phillips, does all the driving, courtesy of Top Car Rentals as and as of week three, Southern Rentals Barbados. The film duo also does the heavy lifting, setting up equipment, filming interviews, capturing additional visuals and packing up.
Truth is, to gather information about Hurricane Janet we need not just memories, but context. What was happening in Barbados in 1955? How were Barbadians living and how did they fare during the months of post-Janet recovery, especially as 20,000 people struggled to replace houses they lost to irreparable damage? What changed because of Janet?
To help us answer these questions and lead to further queries, we secured more extraordinary Barbadians. On Wednesday, Charles and Powys set off for a day of streeters in St. Phillip—essentially newsroom jargon for quick interviews on the road posing one or two questions. In a rum shop filled with friendly, card-playing patrons, they found what they needed. Thursday, Powys and I set out to meet Alvin Cummins, retired microbiologist, award-winning author and treasurer of the Barbados National Union of Fisherfolk Organizations (BARNUFO). Through him we learned of government-imposed changes to the fishing vessels after Hurricane Janet, and the socio-economic challenges families faced years later. Alvin was a wealth of information, just like his colleague Buddy Larrier the week before at Oistins. We learned what a Dry Dock is and that the world’s last remaining structure can be found nearby in Bridgetown & its Garrison area.
The strangest part of that day? A dynamic and loquacious photographer from Antigua named Craig Fernandez rolled up on us. In the course of a conversation, Powys eyed him carefully, thinking he saw a resemblance. It turned out he knew the artist’s father. To our surprise, Craig happily assisted us as 2nd camera for about three hours.
Friday morning was spent at the Nation News headquarters where we met with Harold Hoyte, co-founder of the national newspaper and Editor Emeritus. His interview will shine in our documentary. Complementing Harold’s talk was the Nation’s Editor-in-Chief Roy Morris. It was a seamless film shoot thanks to the staff, in particular, Sonia Marville-Carter. Her coordinating skills ensured our time went smoothly and efficiently.
We’re finding it hard to slow down. There’s something spectacular about learning of a shared moment from people with a comprehensive understanding of impact, whether they’re met on the road or in a newsroom. As each of these keen interview subjects point the team in a particular direction, we can’t help it; our excitement takes over and we find ourselves quickening our pace.
Where Education Can Take You in Barbados
Before we dismiss art as a sidetrack, consider how creative classes have always grown their ideas by finding methods to execute, launch and celebrate their overarching concepts. Today through layered highways of social media, an ever-expanding audience is poised to tune in to the language and persuasion of the artist. In this three-part blog, I celebrate artistry and arts education in Barbados. As I learned during my third week in the Fresh Milk international residency programme, its producers are well positioned to express and represent to a shrinking world.
All traveling week 3 was made possible courtesy of Southern Rentals Barbados.
Part 1: Literacy begat Education
In the Cave Hill courtyard of the renowned University of the West Indies, chickens walk freely on campus alongside aspiring and established scholars. Each time I turned into paparazzi to capture a feathered creature doing its thing, I lost focus and was turned back to the task at hand: interviewing. Later packing up equipment, Charles Phillips, our assistant director, nonchalantly mentioned that he saw one rooster come out of a locker. “He just stepped out.” The jokes ensued about the free-roaming fowl having opportunity to better their education and go places.
At the root of our humour is a well-nurtured truth about Barbados and its heightened affinity for literacy and education.
On April 8th, 2011, Powys Dewhurst and I were in the audience after a Reel World premiere screening of Russell Watson’s feature film, “A Handful of Dirt” in Toronto. Watson, an acclaimed Bajan director, took a question and in that moment said something that stuck with me fast for four years. His reply got us thinking of slave rebellions in the Caribbean region. What did it mean to rebel against an inhumane system? How was it done? As context for the resistance that took shape throughout the tropical islands, Watson spoke of Jamaica having its Maroon history. Conversely, Barbados’ very distinct flat lands made the African slaves’ escape to mountains impossible. Still, as seen in today’s depiction of broken shackles around Bussa’s raised hands, the desire for emancipation burned during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. What Barbados ran with year after year to fight the suffocating weight of slavery was literacy, said Watson. By learning to read, our ancestors opened their world to education, namely to critical thinking and philosophic ponderings and ultimately an awakening about the human right to self-actualization and self-determination. That understanding was passed on to children.With that burgeoning awareness, they also opened themselves to the influences of art.
Part 2: Education begat Art
I no longer see education as book smarts. In Canada, we have shifted noisily from embracing only hallowed halls of learning to running through open fields for art education or both. I experienced as well in some Bajan circles, a palpable openness to converse and learn about artists who build, create and produce.
When we stop to reflect, no matter where we are in the world, we can always count on artists to be found somewhere and everywhere. Expect artists to carry a message that puts your brain to work. Expect their minds to race above and beyond as they do that. Through their produced works, they dare audiences as much as they encourage them to be critical thinkers and join a forging movement that will exist whether or not you choose to travel alongside. Therefore, expect artists to dedicate precious time to help us imagine, expand our consciousness and sometimes consider solutions together. We’re talking gifted people, traditionally rendered invisible because they dared to be passionate about the non-scripted life, and would sit or dance or paint or build or produce or capture or write or sketch or sing or study or rehearse for long hours that stretched into months; their lives at a standstill, their work speaking loudly and their motivation contagious.
Part 3: Art begat Art Education
I caught on to the support and the rallying calls from curators during my third week in Barbados. Through casual conversations with these facilitators, I’m learning about the promotion of Bajan artists and what it takes to help them get their work out and into the world. I learned from Annalee Davis, artist and founder of Fresh Milk Barbados, Robert Sandiford, co-founder of writer of ArtsEtc Barbados, Ebonnie Rowe, producer of Honey Jam in Toronto and Barbados and now Honey Jazz, and Beverly Smith-Hinkson, founder of Chattel House Books.
So, sitting and typing in the Fresh Milk artists’ platform, I found space and peace of mind to observe and ponder what I needed to say. There is no missing that the space was made for that very reason. On my third Monday in Barbados, as I worked in the studio researching and chasing interviews, I met illustrator Simone Asia, a former local resident at Fresh Milk. Her meticulous sketching evokes feelings worth exploring, and for a couple hours we shared and talked out finer points of how and why she creates. Our village indeed has gone global so I knew, gazing at her dimensional patterns, that I wouldn’t be the only one to appreciate her hand’s illustrations.
On a few occasions, Powys and I found our way into Chattel House bookstore to leaf through and purchase the works of Matthew Clarke, Omar Kennedy, Robert Sandiford and Karen Lord. Their commitment to literature, fantasy and art thrills us. Barbados indeed has its very own social generation of nerds, eloquent visionaries and ambitious pointy heads with a gift for illustration. We also turned the pages of stunning photography books like Barbados Chattel Houses by Henry Fraser and Bob Kiss (2011) which captured the richness of Barbados architecture and its accompanying history. With each visit, we chatted about these artists and historians with manager Russell and employee Jason. There was a consensus on how thisgrowth of talent in Barbados and the documented history can amplify Barbados on a world stage. Meanwhile, as we pontificated, children walked into the store and plucked items from the shelves. On the Chattel House couch they sat quietly, focused, and with book in hand, pored over pictures and words—their brains revving. Seeing them, I look forward to many more talented Bajans stepping out.
“You cannot leave Barbados without eating your mango in the sea.” I was told.
Experiencing such a rite of passage in my parents’ birthplace had me giddy. Before arriving in Barbados, I was all about the beach. I practically bragged to my Toronto girlfriends that I would interview and research everything I could find on the 1955 hurricane, but I also intended to make it out to sunbathe a couple times a week. “I’ll write daily, read, and relax on the beach,” I explained. “And I’m going to sketch—my feet in the sand and the waves rolling in.” Clearly, I was cocky in my delusion; as if there was only one place I could ground myself.
By our fourth week in the Fresh Milk residency, my ashy foot was still dry.
Truth told, on this residency, I was immersed in something deeper and more compelling than the thrill of only sun and sand. Being in landlocked St. George, I was walking in the country, divining dimensions of my environment and what it means to be touched by nature, yet humbled by our inability to control it. Case in point, the unknown series of events that resulted in a deluge of sargassum seaweed washing up along beaches in Christ Church and the East Coast —a hemorrhaging compared to what Barbados has received each year since 2011. Here was an inexplicable increase of the sea’s yield, which prompted the tourism sector to beg Mother Nature for mercy. Swimmers were wishing aloud for a quick return to the pristine beaches and crystal clear waters. Amid the frustration and near panic, the inquisitive Barbadians started asking what long-term environmental benefits could be gleaned from the endless mounds of foul-smelling seaweed. Could the sargassum help prevent soil erosion? Could it enrich agricultural soil as fertilizer?
At the start of our last week, the rain fell like currency from the sky. “Since January!” This exclamation was the outburst we’d often hear from Barbadians as they revelled in the close to a six-month dry season. For me and Powys, the first downpour dampened our mood because we had to reschedule two interviews that day. Any filming outdoors was a no-go. There were reports of flooding in certain areas, and one of our interviewees called to reschedule when her balcony accumulated too much rain water—the same spot she intended to have us set up. As the much-needed moisture soothed the scorched earth, I realized how narrow my perspective was about “good weather.” With the gift of raindrops, moods lifted. Bajans spoke of the daily drenching with appreciation. Again, I had been looking at it all wrong.
Our Hurricane Janet chase was really was about exploring these environmental gifts handed from nature along with the losses reaped. People we interviewed opened their homes to us and shared their gems. When the camera recorded, they spoke almost dutifully of childhood memories and family life, describing how Hurricane Janet fit within the layers of their experiences. After the filming, one host offered us freshly squeezed lemonade, compliments of the trees in her beloved yard. Days before leaving, we received a warm loaf of home-made coconut bread from another host. She surprised us the week earlier with the most scrumptious zucchini bread I’ve had in years. Another interviewee invited us back to her home for tea, and on that occasion she handed Powys two mangos picked from a tree in her garden.
The spirit of generosity was also present within the country’s institutions and businesses. Sitting at Barbados Government Information Service, we reviewed silent, black-and-white footage of Hurricane Janet’s aftermath. In it, forlorn Barbadians sifted through debris. I was reminded of the weakness of our constructed environment. The displaced families living in schools for weeks on end revealed a disturbing reality about the impact of a Category-3 hurricane on the economy. As Tara Inniss of UWI’s history and philosophy department explained on camera, a natural disaster like a tropical storm exposes “the deficiencies” in a country’s infrastructures. In Barbados sixty years ago, those vulnerable spots would be found in housing, fisheries and communications, especially involving hurricane preparedness.
To be standing in the sea’s rolling waves today, indulging one’s senses in the sweet juices of a much-revered fruit, is not a bad indoctrination at all. It conjures that heady spell we fall under, gazing at our environmental geography in all its beauty. Such exquisite gifts of nature often have us assuming they will always be there independent of humankind’s interference or incompetence. But times are cyclical in nature. During an economic downturn it becomes even more important to cultivate, protect and preserve our environment with the respect it deserves, and inevitably demands, as Barbados learned late September in 1955.
I did indulge in my gift of a mango picked from a yard tree. But instead of the sea, I sat eating my fruit on Fresh Milk’s studio platform minutes before we started a workshop on writing. It was my private moment to receive and give thanks. There on farmland, I got to pass my own rite—forever touched by the countryside’s warm breeze and cacophony of earthly melodies.
Our very special thanks to Andrea King, Janice Whittle, Charles Phillips, Natalie McGuire, Top Car Rentals Barbados, Barbados Government Information Service, Barbados Museum & Historical Society, Above Barbados, The National Cultural Foundation of Barbados, The University of West Indies History and Philosophy Department, Southern Rentals Barbados, St. George Parish Church, ArtsEtc, and Fresh Milk Barbados for their contributions and for facilitating our interviews during our stay.