Madinina, as Martinique is known to locals, is a beautiful place. It’s very easy, on any random day, to take a picture lifted out of a stereotypically stunning postcard version of Caribbean topography on an average mobile phone.
The Flower Isle
I’ve not done any empirical research on this, but it seems sometimes as if every Caribbean island’s name has a subtitle; Dominica is the Nature Island, St Lucia is Simply Beautiful, Grenada is the Spice Island, Madinina is the Flower Island.
Can you imagine how many flowers you have to be able to see, how frequently, how many varieties and how lovely they have to be for an island to end up nicknamed ‘the flower island’? Combine the overflow of beautiful flowers in all manner of species and colours, with a terrain of peaks, valleys and more peaks, rivers and waterfalls, a fabulous coastline, rainforest and incredible landscapes. And that’s just the land mass.
As much as I love walking across the beach after work, or watching the sun dip behind the horizon line spectacularly at dusk, what I really love are the people. Unfortunately, they have a distorted vision of themselves. I never knew any one people to be so convinced of their own worthlessness. And I’m black. Nothing gets Matinitje (pronounced Mat-in-it-che) more frenzied than talking about the wotlessness of other Martiniquais (pronounced Mar-ti-nee-kay)*. Seriously. But I always find the display somewhere between alarming, amusing and disturbing because it has not been my experience at all.
The greatest gift that Africa, with its traditional culture of ubuntu, the Biko quote goes, would give to the world, is a more human face. Without getting overly sentimental, that’s kinda how I feel about moun matinitje aka Martinican people. For me, this is an unconditionally giving people. They give of themselves very naturally and very generously. If they see you in trouble, or think you might be in trouble, and they don’t know you from Eve, they will stop to help you. That is their instinct. If they like you, they will desire your happiness. And even if they are just a nodding acquaintance, they will wish you well.
If they walk past you in the street, your average Matinitje will acknowledge your presence. They will say bonjour, or nod, or just smile. But they won’t pretend they haven’t seen you. I cannot count how many times my day has been brightened by passing four people in a 10 minute walk, and getting a friendly grin from each one, males and females alike. Actually, men are that bit friendlier to me, but I’m a woman. I’m sure women are ‘that bit’ friendlier to guys so the theory still stands. More importantly, It’s not uncommon for a smile to be accompanied by a friendly greeting like ‘mind how you go!’ whether I’m passing a man or a woman.
Such simple, pleasant day-to-day interactions are normal to the point of expected here. Accordingly, I cannot tell you about the number of prayer requests I’ve heard for the neighbour who never says hello unless you say it first, and sometimes pretends she hasn’t heard at all! To the collective head-shaking of the group.
Disclaimer: My interpretation of stuff I’ve quite possibly misunderstood
Madinina has changed they say. The way Martinicans tell it, Martinique is now overrun with bandits from St Lucia and everyone is in mortal danger every time the sun sets. Actually, the way Martinicans tell it, you’re never far from mortal danger. The beach is dangerous, the bus is dangerous, town is dangerous, the schools are dangerous, going out is dangerous, and what’s not dangerous is expensive. The connotations of words are heavily context-dependent. In London, if I suggested an activity that was a bit dangerous and possibly expensive, it would pique the interest of the (nonexistent) average young Londoner. Culturally, this would sound like fun. In Manchester, a northern friend assures me, a bit dangerous but cheap would sound like fun.
In Madinina, fear is powerful and wholly negative. People don’t readily admit to being afraid of things. Nor of the iron grip with which fear controls their behaviour. I haven’t yet worked out what exactly I’m supposed to be scared of, but when my outlandish exploits – and I’m speaking tongue in cheek here, I mean relatively mundane done-before things like solo travel on the beaten track – come up, my peers here are often stunned into silence. ‘Aren’t you scared?’ someone will blurt out. Or communicate with an expression.
Although that’s probably a rubbish example because non-Martinicans have also posed that question in the same context, being described as ‘never scared’ in Madinina was still a surprise. I am, in my family, a known scaredy-cat. I scare very easily. With my wild imagination, watching TV at a tense moment and accompanying music will quickly render me mute with one eye shut behind my own hands clamped over my eyes. That is, if my fingers are not in my ears. I jump easily.
But my apparent mobility, despite having no personal vehicle in a country where cars outnumber people almost 2:1, and an effective public transport system is something one knows about from TV or travel abroad, was once listed as evidence of my fearlessness here.
Everyday kindnesses Martinican stylee
Me, fearless? LOL! Actually my mobility is pretty much entirely due to the generosity of Martinicans. People see me walking in my local area, and admittedly often because they recognise me, they’ll stop and ask if I need a lift.
Let me repeat that. A driver will see someone they recognise walking, and stop and ask if they need a lift, This lift, I will add, is not dependent on them going in the same direction. Yes, it’s more forthcoming if the driver and I are going in the same direction. But if I had a euro for every time someone had gone out of their way to take me to my destination, for free, with nothing except perhaps – perhaps – a cheeky request for my phone number, asked or expected, which is easily refused with no offence taken, I would be an extremely wealthy woman.
I like ’em
Martinican people. Why do I think they’re awesome? They’re just nice. They’re warm and friendly, easygoing, they’re quick to crack a joke, they’re very caring, they love to laugh and dance, especially to a good drum beat, they have cool traditions like chanté nwel, they have invented some of the most beautiful musical forms, like biguine. They can start a party with a beat and an empty ice cream tub. These are my kind of people!
Another thing I like about Martinicans is that they like things that are good for you. For example, they love to eat, but they despise processed food and gluttony and are seriously fattist (which is not that cool when you’re not naturally skinny and are not fattist it must be said). They like sports, the beach, seduction, dominoes all of which are essentially natural highs. That’s not to say that they don’t love rum too, this is a Caribbean island we’re talking about. But again, it’s all au naturel; Madinina is the world specialist in rhum agricole, produced via a particular distilling method which means I rarely leave the island without a few bottles for connoisseurs.
Martinicans are also really into art. If you wander around Madinina you will find huge impressive murals and sculptures in many a town centre. But there are also ‘random’ huge graffiti pieces and sculptures in many locations, and comics and graphic novels by and for Martinicans. Martinicans are into a wide range of music, zouk (although real fans know the best zouk is in kréyol), reggae, dancehall, hip hop, a plethora of homegrown genres which mix African influences, with various regional and European genres to create new sounds, and lots more. The natural jewellery is awesome, and the African-influenced Paris chic dress code of my peers here is fabulous. The art I get most excited about in Martinique though, is probably film.
Euzhan Palcy, a pioneering black feminist film maker, is a proud Martinican whose (excellent) feature film Black Shack/Sugar Cane Alley was an adaptation of a critically-acclaimed novel by a local literary icon, one Joseph Zobel. The film was released to critical acclaim back in 1983. She was but 25 when she – and the film – earned awards from international film festivals and the French Oscars alike. Fast forward 30+ years and we’re celebrating 10 years into Images of Black Women, a popular film festival held annually in London and the only one in the world of its kind – despite the well-established issues with cinematic representations of blackness and black women. Who is one of the key founders? A woman from Martinique. Not Palcy, just another young black woman passionate about film.
That said, it’s not just Martinican women who are into film. In fact, judging from the fact that six of the seven Martinican filmmakers commissioned earlier this year to make a short film marking 40 years of CMAC supporting Martinique’s cultural life were men, there’s clearly a number of male storytellers using cinema as their medium of choice. And how. The films screened in the Atrium building’s Salle Franz Fanon were excellent.
Wow. Do my tangents know no bounds?
Eternal Existential Crises
The last thing I am going to add about reasons why I think Madinina is a cool place, as are more precisely, it’s inhabitants, is their obsession with identity. I think how we relate to people as individuals and as groupings has a lot to do with how we feel about ourselves. I find people and the way they construct themselves and the world around them as individuals and collectives interesting. But these are just quirks of my personality. Such musings do not interest most people where I grew up, and that’s cool, everyone’s different.
With my Martiniquais bredrens, thankfully, I get to hang out with the experts in such navel-gazing. Who haven’t just read Fanon, but read him in the original French, and understand intimately the background to his subject matter in Black Skin, White Masks. They know the town he grew up in, and his family members. This is the island of Glissant, and his theory of Antillanité oft-translated as West Indian-ness, the Créolité dudes, and negritude, borne of Martinique’s favourite son-cum-father Césaire. These identity theories and distinguished thinkers for decades have captured minds worldwide with their interrogations of who Caribbean people are, and by extension, prompted many to ask themselves, who they were.
Here, such thinkers are important public intellectuals. Key policy decisions are tied to how the nation is – or isn’t – conceived. Identity politics isn’t a side issue, it is the issue. At every level. All the time. For example, at the root of the controversial forced restructuring of the university this year, was the question of whose purposes the university served: France’s? Or Martinique’s? With a publicly bitter war waged between faculties on opposing sides.
Identity questions are raised almost (but not quite for me) ad nauseam. I’ll never forget a discussion about possible dates for a work event becoming a heated debate about whether or not we were in France, simply because a colleague had mentioned off-the-cuff/helpfully the history of setting events at a particular time to accommodate French colleagues returning from France. ‘So this isn’t France?’ another colleague challenged. ‘This is Martinique’ came the cool response. And thus the debate began. This place is simply fascinating.
Living in France?
So in my musing on Madinina, I haven’t mentioned any negatives cos, honestly, Martinicans are the experts on what is wrong with their country and their people. It is a passionate specialist subject of Kevin Madinina. The only thing that I seriously struggle with, is the idea that I’ve moved to France. I thought I was moving to the Caribbean, but day in day out, people tell me that I’m living in France.
I’m probably more bitter about this than most people because France was the nearest country to my English hometown. Closer than Scotland, Wales, or Ireland. From London, Paris is a 2.5 hour train journey. If I was in France, my logic says, I would be able to pop home for weddings and christenings and birthday parties relatively cheaply and as often as I wanted. Likewise, my friends and family would be able to jump on a train and celebrate special occasions with me, or just come and say hi whenever they felt like it. If I was in France, I would be able to visit my sister in Spain at the drop of a hat by train or plane or bus cos she lives a 5 hour drive from Marseilles. I wouldn’t be bawling at the airport, and not just cos of the eye-watering ticket prices involved in crossing the Atlantic.
So I really resent being told I’m in France. And not least cos I had no idea that St Lucia bordered France. All these years I’ve been investing in Virgin Atlantic and traipsing across the ocean via Gatwick Airport to go and see my family, and it turns out, if I just headed across the Channel to France, I could be there in 90 mins for less than £90!
Living in Martinique with an appreciation for geography can be really hard work. How you can be in a country which you have to fly 4000 miles to get to is a logic I haven’t lived in Madinina or France quite long enough to understand.
People often ask me how long I’ll be in Martinique, and what “it’s like”, all the time. And I really struggle to answer. I know how it is for me, as a Londoner of Caribbean heritage, employed, young, female, single and black. I blend. My life would be peachier if I was lighter-skinned and less inquisitive, but probably harder if I was the same person and darker-skinned or not black at all. I am wary of being an English-speaking expert on Martinique. Mainly cos I believe in letting people speak for themselves. This post is a rare attempt to explain what Martinique is like for me ie for someone who is not from here. As much time as I’ve spent living here (and let’s be real, less than 1/10th of my existence) and asking questions, I am not a Martinican. I can’t even really speak the language! Cos, as I’ve learned, the language of Martinique today, is still Kréyol. How incomplete would a passing outsider’s picture of your country be? And one who hasn’t mastered the language at that?
Talking like a Matinitje
And ‘the language thing’ is important in Martinique. Kréyol usage, like with any language, tells a story. The day was not that far away when only a handful of Matinitje spoke French fluently. Before popular education arrived in 1946, that was very much the case. Some 70 years later, we are perhaps equidistant from the day when only a handful of Martiniquais speak Kréyol fluently, as the language is written far less than it is spoken, and this is the age of the internet and whatsapp. Whether Martinicans will still be able to use Kréyol to communicate with the St Lucians and Dominicans who, it is argued, already speak an anglicised version, while Martinicans speak an increasingly frenchified kréyol or if despite the evolutions, the language will still be a key communication tool, remains to be seen. For now, who speaks kréyol, how much, and with whom is a little revealing. Just a little.
Without doubt, the human aspects of Martinique can be found with ease elsewhere in the Caribbean, ‘alluh we is one’ after all. I learned for example, to say hello to people I passed in the street in St Lucia. Madinina is simply another beautiful Caribbean country in which I’ve had some weird and wonderful adventures, which I’ve tried to illuminate a little here. Despite different political realities, ultimately, there is only one Caribbean, despite the language barriers.
*Matinitje = Martinican in kréyol, Martiniquais = Martinican in French