Occasional Essays
April 27, 2007
Forty years on

Some of my contemporaries have been arguing that not all that much has changed in SVG in the last 40 years. I am not certain they are right. Several changes are indeed very visible.

Stand at the top of Kings Hill and look across to Diamond and Ribishi; from the Vigie Road look at Gomea and Dauphine; and from the Fairhall Road look across to Upper Villa and Glen. The number of recently built houses is striking.{{more}} And these are solidly constructed homes, indeed concrete dwellings increased from 14,000 to 21,000 in the course of a single decade. There no longer exist settlements consisting of trash houses, as was once the case at say Peruvian Vale. Trousers full of patches are things of the past; the talk is instead of designer clothes.

Today people hardly ever go home for lunch, nor is lunch merely mauby and a cake. This is evidenced by the numerous restaurant and food vending vehicles in Kingstown. This food business got me into trouble the other day. A very distinguished doctor came here to lecture the Government on our health problems. He pointed out we had far too much obesity, diabetes and hypertension. I up and said these are pleasant problems to have. The good doctor was not pleased at all. You see he did not know that I had been in Government many years before when there were publications saying that Vincentians were malnourished and children were eating cockroaches. If we are now perceived as having the opposite problem then give God the glory! These are the changes that are summed up when we say that income per head has grown from under $1000 in the sixties to $6000 today.

Both the structure of our society and that of our economy have changed. There no longer exists a planter class. Over 99 percent of the land holdings in St. Vincent consist of plots of less than 25 acres in size. As one farmer only half jokingly said to me “we are in danger of becoming a country of house plots”. The Pill and the washing machine have liberated women to such an extent that they now account for 40 percent of the labour force in SVG. I have mentioned washing machines but even more households, over 50 percent, own fridges and stoves. The global village, unheard of forty years ago has arrived with television, Internet and cell phone. All this has meant that the stratified society of the colonial era is a thing of the past.

Agriculture accounts for barely 10 percent of total income. It has been displaced by tourism, earnings from people sailing on ships and remittances generally.

There have been major changes in the services. Particularly in rural areas, many houses did not have running water and people had to go to standpipes to collect the commodity. Today both the standpipes and buckets are almost things of the past.

Eighty percent of households (24,000) now have electricity as compared with 18,000 as recently as 1991.

In the old days we had omnibuses with wooden bodies, like the present ‘Sportsman’, which left the rural areas in the morning and returned in the evening. Today we have minibuses, which ply their routes all day long. The number of private cars has risen from just under 2000 in 1965 to over 10,000 in 2005. I once got left in Canouan because the bumboat that was ferrying passengers from the shore to the Friendship Rose could not get all the passengers to the boat on time. This would not happen today because the roll-on roll-off boat docks at the wharf and everybody can walk on.

A revolution in education is currently taking place. Forty years ago there were about eight secondary schools with about 2000 pupils. Today almost every child has the chance of obtaining a place in one of the 26 secondary schools, which cater for over 1000 students.

In the sixties if ten people a year went off to university it was considered a miracle. Today if the number is not nearer one hundred the Prime Minister is likely to declare a national state of emergency. At the other end of the scale nursery school places were for the privileged few, today they are commonplace. To get all this in perspective it must be born in mind that over the last forty years the population has grown only by about one third, from 80,000 to 106,000. Remember too that because we now practice birth control children now make up a smaller proportion of the population.

In the sixties the first Vincentian FRCS had only recently returned to St. Vincent.

Today there are about six of them here and a surprisingly large number of specialists in other areas of medicine. There is now one doctor for every thousand persons; a high figure by any standards. Forty years ago there were only two dentists, today there are about a dozen. Life expectancy is 73 years which compares favourably with even developed countries. Infant mortality lies at only 18 per thousand live births. In the sixties it was more like 80. Of course forty years ago we did not have AIDS. Its appearance on the scene has thrown a monkey wrench in the path of progress on the health front. The increase in mental illness and vagrancy caused by the use of recreational drugs has had a similar effect.

There have even been major changes in our way of dying. Forty years ago people were buried within a day or two of their death. In the rural areas a hearse was unheard of. Ladies would walk with chairs so the pallbearers could rest the coffin on them and have a rest as the cortege wound its way from home to church and thence to the cemetery.

Today bodies have to lie in the funeral home for several days as the numerous relatives from abroad make their way home to pay their last respects to the dear departed. Nearly everybody has to have the hearse; some even have the police band or some other type of musical accompaniment. This turns the funeral procession into a real New Orleans type event.

Admittedly for many reasons, including the rise of the drug trade, the preservation of law and order has become much more difficult. That however is a story in itself.