One must first of all concentrate one’s thoughts on an object. Once one’s mind achieves a state of concentration and the space between oneself and the object has disappeared, the essential nature of the object can be perceived. Then express it immediately. If one ponders it, it will vanish from the mind (Basho 1644-1694)
We went to church on Palm Sunday, a Methodist Church. It was at Y—village. Eddie the spiv took us and introduced us to S., a fulsome woman with skin almost as dark as mine. She had a round face and a bushy well-combed hair. She was dressed in an underskirt of white cotton, probably poplin with a navy blue top wrapper. She ushered us, urgently with a degree of conspiratorial air, into her bure and asked that we shut the door behind us. Secretive. She pulled out a bag from under her bed and started to lay out her stall on the floor mat: cheap and ugly trinkets, an assortment of bangles, and a series of poorly executed hide paintings. Most of us felt obliged to look, to affect interest, to inspect carefully. I looked away. A young woman, Lynette, bought a plastic, black bead. This play of market stall and tourist trade was hardly the best start to a Christian morning of worship and devotion.
S had a one-room bure. There were two beds separated by furniture. The exposed roof beams, rafters, were quite high. Strangely, S had a photo of Ronald Reagan on one of the beams. She had a cooking stove in the room. A door led to an adjoining but separate kitchen and store. There was little material wealth. Frugality was the essence.
The Church, when we finally got there, was large without a transept or nave. There was no altar and the pulpit was unusually to our left. This Palm Sunday service was conducted by children. There were about 60 in all. The choir was 30 or so in number. The singing rang out, bells reverberating within the church. It was glorious, part-singing, harmonized effortlessly, as in my childhood. Even I joined in.
I think I was somewhat unsettling for the children in particular, but probably for the adults too. Similar to them, familiar but obviously not quite the same. The most telling difference was in my proportions. Here was I, tall, lean, with long limbs and torso, a small head. And, they, enormous square heads, massive hands and feet and bulky muscles. A few, a very few could have been African. Where I was lean, they were squat, powerful, and muscular.
Oral culture has its ways and means. These children, from a young age, as young as 6 years old, were already learning to stand, memorize and speak to an audience with the necessary self-possession and confidence.
At the end of the service we shook the hands of all the children and uttered a few words to some of the adults. The young woman who had welcomed and thanked us during the service was easily the most refined woman there. She was wearing a white skirt and close fitting but modestly cut blouse. Tall, erect and like Michelle Obama, toned and attractive. We went to speak to her. She had the direct, unwavering gaze of the women. An unassuming demeanor, a transparency like their clear costal waters. She moved to touch me on the upper arm, a natural gesture of friendship and familiarity.
There is a tranquility here that is now lost elsewhere. It is as if everything marches together in time. What would passion, envy, anger, lust, hatred even, seem like on these shores? More muted or keener, more dangerous?
The women are alluring without the need to arouse interest in any profane manner. Their walk is measured, slow not ponderous, yet sure of the ground. As in all Eastern people, the eyes, even when direct and un-averted are veiled, as if sorrow and hurt, pain and loss reside there. A knowledge that life is ephemeral, that pleasure is transitory, that dreams are just that, dreams. There is a mixture of resignation, acceptance, and even of quiet understanding, of tolerance in the depths of these eyes.
The trip back to our chalets was dominated by the infinite capacity of the sea to change color. We had already seen the aquamarine blue, the emerald and the jade but were unprepared for the royal blue, the indigo, blue-black, mercury inkblot, molten lead, pitch and tar black. The most surprising was the slurry, muddy undulating field, as if one could step off the boat and walk on it, a mire ready for pigs or hippopotamus to cavort in. This muddy field from time to time showed a fleeting glint of purple, hessian blue mixed with silver. And all the time, our island was skirted by mangrove clutching and digging into the sand.
Back home after 6 weeks away, the plane descended through low clouds to a wet, drizzly Heathrow. The first rain we had seen in 3 weeks after the dramatic tropical storm in Fiji. Home at last.
Photos by Jan Oyebode