I am not a historian, but life’s experiences have taught me the necessity to be at least familiar with one’s own historical experiences so as to be able to draw on them as a guide to our way forward.
The lessons learnt from our past are invaluable guides to charting our future.
The eminent scientists monitoring the Soufriere volcano have already drawn the preliminary conclusion that the current eruption of the volcano is somewhat different to that of 1979 when last there was a violent eruption of the volcano. Not only is this eruption different from the one of 42 years ago, but the circumstances are also very different today.
St Vincent and the Grenadines in 1979 was much more underdeveloped than the SVG of today, and that is especially so in regard to the northern areas most affected – those in the Red and Orange zones. When Soufriere last erupted, those areas were a shadow of what they are today in relation to housing, public facilities and infrastructure, telecommunication and the availability of public and private transport. The north of SVG is today a far cry from what it was then.
In 1979 the unfortunate residents of the areas which were affected did not even have the benefit of an early warning system; the evacuation began after the volcano actually erupted midst chaos and mayhem. Worse, the first violent eruptions occurred at night, and it was a long holiday weekend, stretching from Good Friday to Easter Monday. Many people literally walked or ran all the way to safety, children on the back or hip. The evacuation camps were -facility-wise -not even of the limited standard of those of today. Security was also a challenge.
There were external challenges as well which impacted on the relief and rehabilitation processes. St Vincent and the Grenadines was then still under British colonial control and thus in no position to conduct relations with external countries without British permission. Unlike today when we are free to contact the wider international community including international organisations to which we belong, we could not launch global appeals as we are doing at present. This severely limited our ability to solicit assistance urgently.
In addition, the government of the day held very backward political positions, essentially hostile to countries considered “communist”. This led to the most unfortunate refusal to accept Cuban assistance, leaving a shipload of Cuban supplies afloat for days before internal pressure forced them to relent.
Today, we can see the benefit of having an independent and non-aligned foreign policy, being what PM Gonsalves describes as “Friends of all, Enemies of none”. For instance, Guyana and Venezuela have a border dispute, yet SVG has close relations with both, not taking sides. As a result, a Venezuelan relief ship brought supplies here on Monday of last week, while Guyana sent a “Love boat” of supplies here last Saturday.
Again, our spectacular achievement of being elected to the UN Security Council, gives us a high profile and better able to reach out to the global community – to the US and UK, Taiwan and Canada, France and Russia, Nigeria and India etc. This places us in a much more favourable situation where mobilisation of international assistance is concerned.
What is not very encouraging is that we have not fully utilized those 42 years between interruptions to raise the consciousness of our people about volcanic eruptions and living with this threat. More than half of our population is under the age of 50, meaning that most of our people have no personal experiences of the 1979 eruption.
Worse, we have no Soufriere museum; our volcanic experiences dating back to 1812 are not part of our school curriculum.
There is still too much ignorance and backwardness abounding, no wonder that in the face of devastating eruptions, some persons are still refusing to move, placing security personnel in danger with repeated rescue attempts. What is worse, there are persons in the media, regular and social, who tend to romanticize and even glorify such occurrences.
Like 1979 there are also persons who, for mistaken narrow political ends, rather than strengthen the national effort, engage in sowing discord and undermining solidarity. We need to promote a greater sense of solidarity, demonstrate responsibility rather than promoting dependency and band together for a common purpose.
Above all, we must not lose the opportunity to imbue our young with the knowledge of and experiences from the volcano. I especially appeal to the Minister of Education, Hon.
Curtis King, himself a historian, to lead the way in this regard. The next eruption must not meet our young as unprepared as this generation.
Extending my sincerest condolences to the family of the late Brother P.R. Campbell, especially his wife, Julie and dear children. Will try to write a tribute in a subsequent issue.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.