In 1991 and 1992, when I was working with the West Indian Commission, a feature of many of the presentations made by scores of experts and academics and businessmen and educators was how often they cited other countries as influences we needed to recall or examples we should strive to emulate. The Commission was constantly hearing about a dominant American influence, the New Europe, the Japanese example, the dynamic image of the Asian tigers, the Singapore model. Now, of course, people enthuse over the world-shaking dynamism of China and India.
During the Commission hearings, I remember after a while wondering if all the experts were overdoing it a bit since I was quite sure very few of the presenters really found the ways of life in most of these countries preferable to our own. Did we, then, have nothing for others to emulate?
Well, I am glad to say that in its discussions the West Indian Commission concluded that, while such presentations certainly gave useful reference points for appraising our future, they also underestimated our own worth – that we in the West Indies possess our own singular potential and it was by no means impossible, if we worked hard to get it right, for us to propose for others a West Indian model for the 21st Century.
Here is how the West Indian Commission described such a model:
“It must, first of all, be a community which has learned enough about industrial and business efficiency to generate the sort of economic dynamism which will yield the material sufficiency which people expect and deserve. That sufficiency of material return must not simply be numbers in an index of averages concealing great disparities in the distribution of goods and social services. The institutions of government, intervening as little as possible in the processes of wealth generation, must be alert and efficient in ensuring that people at every level share in the basic goods, essential services, and educational and employment opportunities which the economy produces…Basic to this is the example of smoothly working democratic institutions where the full range of human rights is protected as a matter of course. The world at large does not take such an achievement for granted. It is a special West Indian strength which we must be at pains to preserve.
And within that framework we may offer what is uniquely our creation. It is rare, especially in the still developing world – and it may become rarer yet as the decade advances – that a people of many nationalities, many races, many faiths, and different cultural heritages stay together, and indeed grow closer, in a single community. It is an example that is likely to be valuable in the world. The talents which have emerged from our amalgam of peoples have already made a telling and universal mark.”
That was the view of the West Indian Commission. I think they were right. Indeed, I hope and pray and believe in such a West Indian model for the rest of the world. I hope because I am an optimist and think we can teach the world. I pray because I think we will need some heavenly blessing in a hard task. But in the end I profoundly believe because I think we already hold enough in common to secure an undivided future together.
We enjoy a great variety of people, cultures and nationalities in the West Indies but the variety is not divisive in any crucial sense. There is no fatal remoteness of experience or the spirit that condemns us never to come together and stay together as a nation. Indeed, we have more cause to be one – more of a subtly sensed brotherhood – than many who are already one in the league of nations.
I think of an image which is a favourite of mine. Katha is the Indian name for a kind of quilted patchwork made from coloured rags of cloth. To an Indian it has a special mystical meaning: it signifies that what was once in shreds is now whole again, just as man’s “little rag of life is of no account until it has been joined to the Supreme Being and so transformed.” Perhaps we can take the imagery in another way. In the patchwork quilt of the West Indies, many kinds of fabric go to make up the pattern. Without all the bits of fabric the quilt loses its essential beauty and being. The separate pieces lack special beauty and significance until they come together in the whole pattern of the Katha. This is how it is with us. No legacy is so small that it has no important part to play, no legacy is so great that it crowds out all the others.
This is the example we can offer the rest of the world. In his great poem Omeros, Derek Walcott sensed the formation of our special culture:
“…….strong as self-healing
coral, a quiet culture
is branching from the white ribs
of each ancestor
deeper than it seems on the
surface; slowly but sure,
it will change us with the fluent
sculpture of Time.”
These days it is more and more fashionable to scoff at the idea of West Indies unity and even at any sort of special West Indian example in the world. I am sad about this. I still hold the faith.