Monday, November 30, 2009

Greener Grass?

Eustace Maxim thought I might be the cable technician. An appointment had been made for no definite time, so there was nothing to do but wait. But from the vantage point of his veranda in Jimmit, with its panoramic view of the Caribbean Sea, there are worse places you can watch the world go by. When he thinks of what he'd be doing now if he'd retired in Plaistow, east London, he says, "If I was in England, all I would be doing is staying home and watching television."

Instead he is back on the island of Dominica, the place where he was born, which he left and to which he has now returned. The end point on a lifelong project across oceans, aspirations, cultures and generations that has landed him pretty much right back where he started. His story is a common one. "I left Dominica when I was 23," says Maxim, 72. "Going to England was a means to an end. I never intended to spend so long there. I wanted something better for my children, and everyone was going at that time."

Like many, if not most, his plan was to go, make some money and come back a few years later. But the work he found at Ford, Standard and Cable and finally as a security guard for the Royal Bank of Scotland was barely enough to sustain the life he had, let alone provide savings for the one he dreamed of. "The gold fell from very high in the sky," wrote John Berger, in A Seventh Man, of the immigrant experience in Europe. "And so when it hit the earth it went down very, very deep."

So Maxim, who left in 1960 and came back in 2004, kept digging. "Five years is very little. You go to achieve something. You don't want to come back worse off than when you left." While he was in England, he made a life. Children, then grandchildren came, and 43 years passed. And he kept squirrelling away so he might first buy land, then build and finally return. "It was a hard life," he says. "You try to make yourself as comfortable as you can. It was not a difficult decision to come back, but I used to worry about not coming back."

In the end he spent longer in England than he has in Dominica. There are signs of England everywhere: despite the heat, his carpets are thick, his sofa fluffy. On the walls are pictures of his offspring in graduation finery. But no matter how long he was away, Dominica, he insists, was always home. He never considered himself English, and after four decades his accent doesn't carry the slightest trace of it. "There is a freedom I feel here," he says. "I have the hot sunshine on my back and can have a dip in the river or the hot springs."

Maxim may never have considered himself English and may now feel home, but not everyone sees it like that. Some in Dominica brand him an outsider, yet another returnee with their airs and graces – English ways and English money.

"People say this, people say that." He shrugs. "I ignore it. They think you have all the money in the world. You try to tell them what you had to go through to get it, but they don't want to listen."

The generation of Caribbeans who transformed Britain economically, politically and culturally after the war are nearing the end of their working lives. Like Maxim, many are now fulfilling a long-deferred dream to return to the countries from which they came. Figures to support the scale of this return are patchy. Many returnees have dual citizenship and, given family ties, few have broken with Britain definitively. But anecdotally, the evidence is overwhelming. My own father was one of 10 children, my mother one of six; both were born in Barbados. Of those 16, 11 left for the US, Canada or the UK. Today, all but one has bought land to build on and six have already returned, one way or another. All across the island, crates are arriving, new houses being built and returnees' associations springing up. And just as their arrival radically altered Britain, so their return is having a considerable effect on the Caribbean. "We were pioneers when we left and we are pioneers now we have come back," says Franklyn Georges, who left in 1960 and returned in 2006.

During the 90s, foreign remittances in Jamaica – a large proportion of which are pensions and other moneys coming into returnees – comprised a larger percentage of GDP than foreign currency earners such as bauxite and sugar. In 1997, almost £6m in pension payments went to Barbados, while both St Lucia and Grenada each got £2m.

The smaller the island, the more noticeable the impact. Dominica's domestic population has stayed constant at around 70,000 for the last few decades as people kept emigrating. Today, more Dominicans live abroad – primarily in the UK, US and Guadeloupe, which is part of France – than at home. As time goes on, the potential demographic, economic and political clout of returnees can only grow. Little wonder, then, that there is tension between those who stayed and those who left.

"There is a little back and forth," says John McIntyre, minister for trade, industry, consumer and diaspora affairs, "just like in any family." But there is little doubt who he thinks is primarily responsible for the friction. "When they land, they imagine someone will put a crown on their head. They dress in the UK style. But if you walk down to Roseau [the capital] in a jacket and tie, people will laugh at you. They've been away a long time. This is not the Dominica they left. The local people are not necessarily against them, they just don't know them. We try to bridge the gap. But don't think you're going to hear bells when you come back. When they left, England was on the rise, but over the last few years people are going to Venezuela, Cuba and China for education and opportunities, not England."

He has a point. Shortly before Jean Popeau left the island in 1957, aged 11, his headmaster made him stand up in front of the class. "He was one of those old colonial headmasters," says Popeau, who is putting the finishing touches to his new house. "Very stuck in the old-fashioned ways. A regular caner – an austere, distant man."

"Boy, you're going to be a big shot," the headmaster said. "Going to England was the opening of a door," Popeau says. "The future was yours. I remember Empire Day, parading round the village."

The UK is no longer the presence here that it once was. In McIntyre's anteroom there are two magazines: Beijing Review and Latin Trade. England's historical presence is felt everywhere – from his building you can see the Windsor Park cricket stadium and Roseau's grammar school, while Princess Margaret hospital is just a short drive away – but the evidence of new economic relationships is no less prevalent: the stadium, grammar school and road were all built by the Chinese, who also refurbished the hospital.

Even though none of those I spoke to says they ever felt "English", nearly all have spent more time in England than they have in Dominica, and this has inevitably left its mark on them. They have become accustomed to a different level of efficiency, standard of living and pace of life. "I've been called English without even opening my mouth," said Popeau in Polly Pattullo's Home Again. "I wonder how they can work it out. Perhaps you're brisker in your walk, more purposeful." Popeau has a season ticket to the British Library, where he goes to concerts and free films whenever he is back. He may have felt alienated from British identity, but in all sorts of ways he was embedded in its culture.

Returnees do, at times, sound like expats with disdainful attitudes towards the locals. They complain about the service, some miss their favourite soaps and get frustrated by the relative insularity of a small island. Referring to Dominican politicians, one returnee says: "The standard of leadership here is very low. These guys were banana pickers one day, then they are elected to government the next. They are unimaginative."

Georges, 72, goes one step further. "We who travelled abroad got to know a lot about ourselves that we wouldn't have known if we had stayed at home. We have a wider perspective and those who stayed have a narrower one." They are, he says, "ignorant", and he blames the government for failing to educate them politically.

Many returnees, including Georges, concede they might have an attitude problem. "Sometimes it's not Dominica, it's us," says Kenneth Bruney, who left for England in 1964 and returned in 1997. "Some of us come back and expect to find Marks & Spencer and John Lewis. I'd tell anyone who wants to come back, you should realise you are returning to Dominica. You can't leave England and expect to find three tins of baked beans for 99 cents."

Bruney recalls seeing returners embroiled in confrontation before they had barely set foot in the country, bristling at questions from the customs officer and responding disrespectfully. "The man's doing his job. Talk to him like a human being and he'll behave like a human being. If you don't, you're going to have trouble."

But the image minister McIntyre conjured, of returnees swaggering through Roseau suited and booted like country squires, is ludicrous. Most made frequent trips back while living abroad, so are well aware of how the country has changed and what the living conditions are like. With the exception of one journey to Canada, the only trips Bruney took while in England were to Dominica.

"It's ridiculous to suggest we don't know what it's like, because people come back all the time," Popeau says. "When you return to the Caribbean, you have to leave behind the kind of comfort zone you grew accustomed to." And since most return to the villages where they grew up, people do know them. "People know my parents and my family. My sister came back 10 years ago," Popeau says. "Word gets around that you are from here, and that makes acceptance much easier."

Indeed, in many ways McIntyre's language tells a story. The whole time they have been in England, these returnees have clung to the notion that the place they were from – Dominica – was home, as opposed to the place where they lived. "England was good to me, but I always yearned to come back," Bruney says. When he told a Scottish friend he was going "home" for Christmas, the friend was perplexed. "From a family point of view, England is home," Bruney says, "but from a national point of view, it's not. So when I go to Dominica I'm going home; when I go back to England I'm going back to England. People can say what they like about me there, but they can't here because I'm 101% Domin­ ican." Yet now they are "home", the minister with responsibility for resettling them talks in terms of "us" (Dominicans) and "them" (returnees).

The roads in Dominica wind, curve, dip and rise with such severity that even a short drive will rid a visitor of their bearings. Heading in and out of forests, mountains and valleys, skirting streams and groves is like being on a rollercoaster through an enormous botanical garden that happens to have its own flag and government. In the shadow of Mount Diablo, Bruney shoos away the goats that are eating the plants on his lawn. He also has turkeys, chicken, sheep and pigs.

He was 22 when he left Dominica. "In those days, everyone was going away. We always felt the pastures were greener, we read books about the mother country, so it was a surprise to see all these terraced houses, chimneys and smoke. I was expecting a wealthier, cleaner country."

In Dominica he had been a teacher, and he wanted to join the RAF in the UK. But he met his wife, started a family and ended up working as a clerk for British Rail for 29 years. When he got made redundant, he came back almost immediately. "Money can't compensate for the time I spend here in Dominica," he says.

What would he be doing if he had stayed in England? "I can visualise myself being stuck indoors watching TV and vegetating. What can you do during the winter?"

The weather comes up a lot. While talk of home and the issues of belonging are real, sometimes what you hear are working-class English people who have a more meaningful place to go to than Spain. The fact that they are at "home" only enhances the sense of achievement they feel when they reach the end of their working life and have something to show for it.

Even so, there was a moment shortly after he returned when Bruney briefly regretted coming back. A huge container, holding the bulk of his possessions from England, arrived and the shipping company insisted it had to transport it to his house because it was insured. En route, the lorry overturned, destroying most of what he needed to start his new life. The company refused to compensate him. Even though it was an open-and-shut case, it took him 11 years to get his money back.

Many of the points of tension between returnees and locals are very real problems such as this that have nothing to do with identity. Most have tales of frustrating experiences with the legal system, being cheated while trying to build their house or being otherwise disrespected by bureaucrats. These are frustrations other Dominicans presumably share, but because the returnees have moved back, they are more likely than most to be dealing with bureaucracy and builders.

There are very real income disparities between returnees and locals, too. There are no obvious signs of abject poverty in Dominica – the country is too bountiful for anyone to go hungry – but it is still a poor country with an unemployment rate around 20% and a per capita GDP of £6,000. To buy the land and build a decent-sized house from scratch costs around £90,000. If you worked in the public sector in England, bought your own council house in the 90s and sold it a few years ago, you could retire here in relative wealth and comfort.

"No matter how humble your job might have been, that is a factor you have to deal with," Popeau says. "You can live like a minister here," says Georges, who worked for the Post Office and the railways, and became mayor of Waltham Forest. For some, the shift from struggling to get by to being regarded as wealthy is difficult to fathom. "They think we're rich. I don't think I'm rich," says Helena Durand, 63, who left Dominica in 1959 and came back in 1997. "I don't think of myself as rich at all. But I don't know how people here manage with a family." You can see why returnees would be annoyed at people trying to charge them higher prices for things because they think they have a lot of money, but it is also not difficult to see why local people might try it.

Moreover, in Dominica memories of colonialism are still quite fresh. The country didn't gain independence until 1978, so when the returnees are accused of "acting English", the phrase has connotations that go beyond geography. "To be called English is a slur," Popeau says. "It can be very annoying. It associates you in shorthand with having Anglo-Saxon colonial attitudes, which is pretty ironic because we spent a lot of our working lives fighting those attitudes."

Indeed, the discrepancy between self-perception and appearance feels like just one of a series of misunderstandings inherent in this journey. What local people have seen is people leave, build relatively large houses and return to a grand retirement. What they don't see are the decades in between. It's as though the long hours, the racial humiliations, the sense of alienation and dislocation are all buried under the newly bought land, then built over.

What returnees see is the place they have pined for, sent money back to and otherwise emotionally and financially invested in, keep them at arm's-length. What they sometimes fail to recognise is the degree to which both they and Dominica have changed, and the extent to which they will have to navigate those changes to reintegrate comfortably.

Those who stayed and those who left, to some extent, clash horns because of a colossal mistranslation. Thanks to the global inequalities of wealth, the fruits of a working-class life in England are converted into the retirement of the privileged; the natural process of acculturation is understood as a sign of haughtiness; the desire to see improvement in the place they have returned to is taken as an implicit slight on the attitudes that have prevailed while they were away.

Some emigrants were too embarrassed about their life abroad to say how difficult it was. On their return, some built houses with perimeter walls and curtains locals took as a sign that they didn't want to mix; having spent so long in cities, getting used to the less private, more convivial nature of village life took some adjustments.

These misunderstandings, compounded by the possibly unbridgeable differences that have emerged over a working life abroad, deepen the friction. This was clearly illustrated by an incident Bruney related when a car ahead of him stopped in the middle of a narrow road so the driver could chat with someone on the street. No one could pass. Bruney said he waited a while before his patience, and the patience of others before him, wore out. He asked the driver to move.

"Shut up, you foreigner," the driver replied.

"I was born and bred here," Bruney told the man. "I am more of a Dominican than you are. While I was away I was probably keeping you by sending money back."

When I finish at Eustace Maxim's house, he sees me to the gate and stands there. The cable technician has still not come to fix his computer so he can communicate with his grandkids. I ask if he's expecting him in the morning or evening.

"Just sometime," he says. "But I'm retired. I can wait. He'll come sometime. Praise be to God."

Courtesy, Gary Younge, The Guardian

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Just another week in paradise....


Two crates of Kubuli and two crates of soft drinks please.

What softs do you want?

One Coke and one crate half Fanta and half Sprite.

Are you sure?

Yes, please.

Payment follows.

Much printing, stamping, tearing, sorting and shuffling.
Finally I get my piece of paper and hand it over to the drinks despatcher.

You can't have that.

Why not?

We don't have it.

So, I have paid for something you don't have?

Much shouting at Maggie who sold it to me followed by Maggie shouting over:-

You really want Coke/Sprite/Fanta?

Yes, I nod enthusiastically. (Maybe there's a secret stash somewhere).

You sure?


Well, why don't you choose some Quenchi's instead?

So, you sold me something you don't have?

Err, yes, I thought you'd change your mind once you'd got over there......

Is it me.....


The chickens went on strike this week. There was no chick chat and they snubbed my food and tore up my nicely laid down newspaper. I think they've grown out of their equivalent to baby rusks. So back to the chicken shop. In here I have this nonsensical (but quite frankly most are here) conversation with around three people which clearly reveals I know sod all about chicks/chickens/chicken food etc.

Anyway, I tell them, fairly confidently, I want real food for them and not musty sawdust. I then spot some great stuff marked 'layers'. I want that I say. No, you can't I'm told they're not laying yet. Well, they'll never lay at this rate on hunger strike. Ok, can I have the food between baby dust and layer? No, we've run out. Gimme (see, I'm learning) layer then. No, they're not old enough. Ok, if you give me the layer, I'll wait a few weeks until they are laying age. Well, you can't have a full bag. (Why not, who cares I think). Ok, what can I have? Half a bag. Ok. Thanks.....


Extension is going up super quick - mind you, is that really a good sign...slow and sturdy vis-a-vis quick and flimsy. Anyway, I was given the glossy brochure this week to choose the roof colour. I mean, it's not that interesting and I'm not going to see the roof much, unless it blows off of course, but I narrowed it down to the 3 least offensive/in your face colours. Brochure was duly collected on Friday. Did you choose? Yes, these ones. Ok, great but it's going to be Dark Green. Dark Green? Yes, that's the only one in stock.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Gone John Stepek

After 16 bitter years, the banana wars between Europe and America are ending. But what on earth were they and why does it matter?

The banana wars could be about to end. "Thank the Lord," I hear you say. Get the bunting out for the street parties! This dreadful war is finally at an end!

Well, maybe not. In fact, you're probably thinking: "Banana wars? What?"

But you'd be amazed at the trouble the humble banana has caused in its time. On this occasion, we're talking about a trade spat that goes back to 1993.

That makes it the world's longest-running trade dispute. The roots and causes of the banana wars go far deeper than this, but people have written whole books on this topic, so I'll not get into that right now (check out a site such as Bananalink).

Banana wars redux
Here's what the current dispute comes down to. The European Union gives favourable terms to banana growers in its former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific region (ACP).

Basically, it charges import tariffs (taxes) on bananas imported from everywhere else, to protect prices for the ACP region. The idea was to help Europe's ex-colonies using favourable trade terms so they wouldn't need direct overseas aid.

The US complained to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The US doesn't export bananas to Europe, but Latin America does and the banana crop there is controlled by US multinationals. The US reckoned this subsidy was unfair on the Latin American producers, and the WTO - which polices world trade - agreed. It told the EU to stop it in 1997.

Tit for tat tactics
The EU changed its rules. The US didn't think it had gone far enough. The WTO has been forced to rule against the EU on this topic six times since the dispute kicked off.

Now it looks as if - although it's not certain - the EU and Latin America have come to an agreement. Tariffs will be lowered over the course of seven years, to the point where Europe's former colonies are no longer given favourable terms.

Cheap bananas for all
So there'll be more competition in the banana market and consumers will end up getting cheaper bananas - good news, right?

In theory, yes. Anyone who reads my columns even occasionally will know that I believe in capitalism, free markets and all the rest.

That's not because I'm a viciously competitive borderline psychopath who thinks the weak should be crushed under the jackboot of the strong, which is the vague impression that I think some people get of capitalism.

It's because I think it's the best way we know to help everyone in the world improve their standard of living. It's like democracy - it's got plenty of faults, but it's better than all the other systems we've tried so far.

Why's free trade a good thing?
The basic idea behind free trade is this: you want to eat oranges and apples, I want to eat oranges and apples. We could each grow our own supply. But my garden is great for growing apples and rubbish for growing oranges. Yours is great for oranges, but a nightmare for apples.

So rather than me wasting valuable time and money struggling to grow oranges, I just devote my whole garden to apples. You do the same with oranges. Then we trade our surplus with each other.

That way we both benefit from a higher standard of living: we've saved ourselves time and energy by focusing on what we're good at and we still have all the apples and oranges we need. Broaden the theory out to countries, and that's pretty much the idea behind free trade.

And it does work. It's one of the main reasons why China and emerging markets have managed to get a lot richer in recent years. It's not a panacea, and it does have losers - just ask your average blue-collar American worker - but as whole, the global standard of living improves.

So this "victory" in the banana wars is a good thing, right?
Well, not necessarily. For capitalism to work most effectively, the rules should apply to everyone. Unfortunately, they don't. Trade across the world is rife with protectionism and special interests and it's particularly bad in the agriculture sector.

I'm not saying this represents a failure of free trade or capitalism. You can free markets up bit by bit, increase the size of your trading blocs and gradually spread the benefits across larger areas. But this deal doesn't strike me as being the right place to start.

The EU imports about four million tonnes of bananas a year. Of that, 3.4 million already comes from Latin America. So the big companies already control a vast chunk of the banana trade. Meanwhile, a vast chunk of the Caribbean islands' economies relies on banana farming, for example.

Tough, you might think, that's competition for you. They should be growing something else. Well, that'd be fine, but it's not that simple.

Because although we might be looking at scrapping tariffs on bananas, the big protectionist measures still around - the European Common Agricultural Policy being a prime example, although US biofuel subsidies are another one - are still in place and heavily defended by their beneficiaries.

So whatever this is, it's not a level playing field.

Supporting the needy
Now to be fair, seven years is a fairly long time to get to adapt to these changes, and they've been on the cards for a long time. The ACP countries will also get about €190 million in aid to sweeten the deal.

However, the ACP countries may have another ace up their sleeve - Fairtrade, which sources many of its bananas from the Windward Islands in the Caribbean.

Now, I think that Fairtrade is a sticking plaster rather than a solution. Ultimately, it's just another subsidy, paid for by the consumer, and it's a bad idea for these countries' economies to be so reliant on one crop - particularly given that it is vulnerable to destruction by disease and weather. They should diversify in any way they can.

However, if you want to exercise your freedom of choice as a consumer to buy a banana which includes an element of charitable giving and, dare I say it, ethical shopping, then I'm certainly not going to discourage you from doing so.

And while European farmers are still being given huge subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy, effectively robbing developing world farmers of their livelihoods, I can't really describe the end of the banana wars, with the potential impact on poor farmers in developing markets, as a real victory for free trade.

John Stepek is the editor of MoneyWeek

Thursday, November 19, 2009

River Rush

So, what makes the perfect Sunday in the Caribbean?

Ok, here goes:-

Bucks Fizz @ EC$10

Brunch - too good to describe

Live Jazz - fab

Kids - never saw them

So, there you have it,
Lovely hosts, great staff, amazing surroundings.

If only, they had a copy of the News of the World too hey.....

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours, just a friendly wave each morning helps to make a better day....

Ok, the neighbour thing. Who really likes their neighbours? On the surface we're all sugary sweet 'oh yes, we get on so well' - interesting that, the same phrase used by so many just as they are heading to the divorce courts. Here, it's a case of twitching plantation shutters swiftly followed up by 'what are you doing there?'. Then before breath can be taken 'Well, I wouldn't recommend that, oh no, you should really do it this way'. So much so, that our 3 chickens, which we have had for 4 weeks have been moved 8 times - in fact, they must now be entitled to Chickports (sic). Anyway, all interest has been lost in the chickens now, a chicken's not just for Christmas you know, and I am left wondering why I cannot just continue to buy 12 FREE RANGE eggs for EC$7 dollars a week. However, when the first one drops (and, yes why doesn't it break?), I will feel all self sufficient and smug with a touch of eco thrown in too no doubt.

Anyway, back to the neighbours. The main concern here is not you parking 2 inches in front of their house, letting your garden overgrow (a capital punishment crime in Belgium), it's letting your trees grow too high and thereby blocking someone's view somewhere on the mountain.

So, to keep everyone happy we gave all our trees a short back and sides, cleared up the mess - I have 101 logs should anyone be feeling a bit chilly - and everyone can see the sea again, hurrah, clearly it's not as large as I thought it was....

However, one of our more eccentric (ok, completely looney, ex Beauty Queen and clearly beauty does not come from within these days) neighbours tries to find any excuse to send her equally deranged pot smoking gardener down onto our plot. This is cool but a tad alarming when the machete weilding force gets into full swing. So this is how it goes:-

Me (using my best Queen's English): You should really ask me before you come into the garden, you know.

Him: I just chopping.

Me: Cool. You chop away but clear up the mess please.

Him: I just doin' as I'm told. (Hyena laugh follows).

Me: Yes, but if you were told to jump off a cliff, (hopefully this one), would you
do it?

Him: Uuuh?

Me: Never mind. Just clear up will you.

Him: (Hyena laugh).

So today, I have a branches everywhere which I (ok not really me) have to chuck over the mountain myself. Buy hey, all the neighbours can see the sea. Phew.