Grenadians are seen as revolutionaries by the rest of the region: the only ones in the English-speaking Caribbean to stage a revolution and run their country themselves for four years. This tiny island of 100,000, famous for its nutmegs, was once in the world spotlight, when it was invaded by the US in 1983 after the revolution had imploded, ending in the fatal fallout between Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and his right-hand man, Bernard Coard.
Now dependent on tourist dollars to survive, Grenada has not quite recovered from the revolution, even after all these years. Those born after 1983 think only of the tragic end, when Bishop was assassinated by a firing squad of former comrades. The ‘revo’ is still a four-letter word in some homes. “It divided my family,” says Ayisha Sylvester-John, one of the four directors of Groundation Grenada, a social action collective. “Some thought it was good; others were totally against it. They think it ruined the country.”
One of Groundation’s ongoing projects is Forgetting is Not An Option, which attempts to capture individual memories of the events and experiences of the Grenada Revolution, as well as other Caribbean social movements, such as the Black Power movement in Trinidad or the Cuban Revolution. What is remembered and shared about the local revolution is shaped by political leanings. At open mic sessions anyone can share their poetry, prose and music and jam with others as they remember the revolutions that brought social progress to these islands. “This is important,” says Sylvester-John, “so that the people of the Caribbean are exposed to an alternative narrative to that of the cable and radio stations, and political elites. In this alternative narrative are lessons to be learned about the mistakes made, and the power of the people to change their destiny”.
“Groundation, for me, has a part to play in helping Grenada to return to a place of sharing,” she says, “and believing that we can be self-sufficient and we don’t have to rely on what is basically fed to us about how to do things and present ourselves and our culture and everything like that. I also think we’re fighting against a power that is not supposed to be in the West Indies.”
Sylvester-John points out, for example, that in her family women have been working for generations – from her grandmother and aunts to her mother. Now this right is being questioned. “It seems to me we’re going backwards.”
In the late 70s and 80s, she remembers, it was no big deal for two men or two women to live together; they were partners like any other couple. “We called them zamis,” she says, recalling two women farmers whom everyone in the village knew were lovers. “They weren’t disrespected or seen as abnormal. They lived together and they were part of the community. They were farmers and would share their fruits and vegetables with everybody. Nowadays you couldn’t have that. It’s looked upon as dirty and bad.”
Sylvester-John thinks this kind of homophobia is due to the influence of the various Christian denominations – Grenada is 99 per cent Christian – and foreign music, mainly Jamaican dancehall. This is applicable across the Caribbean. In Trinidad and Tobago, the most progressive of the islands in terms of LGBTI acceptance, the country’s first openly transsexual politician, Jowelle De Souza, has just announced her candidacy for the upcoming general election. Leaders of various religious faiths immediately denounced her bid, arguing that her sexuality would affect her policies, which would, they said, favour gay marriages.
Being brave enough to come out of the closet is still one of the most difficult things to do in the Caribbean. All Commonwealth Caribbean countries except the Bahamas continue to criminalise the LGBTI community by keeping on the statutes ancient pieces of colonial legislation, such as the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Either this or they have penal codes that contain anti-sodomy provisions similar to those found in the Offences Against the Person Act – despite being signatories to the Inter-American Charter of Human Rights, which guarantees equality before the law.
Due to the stigma that is attached to the LGBTI community in the Caribbean, treatment for HIV/AIDS is often denied as well as access to basic services which are readily available to others. In many cases, members of the LGBTI community do not report crimes committed against them, afraid the police will turn around and persecute them. It is very rare that one hears a case being prosecuted involving consenting adults in the Caribbean though – except in Grenada. Someone is currently serving time for what was, he claims, a consensual act.
For members of the LGBTI community across the region, Groundation’s campaign, #BunDiscrimination, was genius. Posters showed homophobic lyrics from popular songs replaced with racist words and ethnic slurs to highlight the fact that if the song had been about an ethnic or religious group, everyone would have been outraged. The hub of Groundation’s work is their blog, which is open to artists, writers and activists. It is a safe space for members of the LGBTI community to react to their times and to let others know they are not alone.
With a population so tiny that the island seems like one big village, with one degree of separation between everyone, change comes slowly, reluctantly, inch by inch. But through their multi-disciplinary and collective approach, and collaborations with NGOs, human rights agencies and other activists, Groundation Grenada’s reach and impact has been phenomenal for an NGO from such a tiny island.
Together with celebrated novelist Oonya Kempadoo they founded the Mt Zion Library, after the 18th century building housing the public library was deemed unsafe. They sourced books and funds online and through their vast and growing network. Artists from other parts of the Caribbean have the opportunity to take part in a two-week residency programme, sponsored by Groundation. They have also lent their support to emerging filmmakers from the smaller islands of the Eastern Caribbean, such as St. Kitts and Montserrat, assisting with production costs and mentoring. At events like Camp G.L.O.W (Girls Leading Our World), they run a camp on leadership and empowerment for teenage girls. Sex education also features on Groundation’s list of projects, as they empower teenagers, especially girls, to love their bodies and to practise safe sex.
Groundation Grenada is incubating new modes of resistance, just as they threaten to do in their manifesto. These may well bring about a new revolution in the way the people of Grenada – and even the Caribbean – view their LGBTI community, and themselves.
Nazma Muller is a Trinidadian journalist who has also lived in Jamaica and the UK. A contributor to Caribbean Beat magazine for the last 20 years, she spends her spare time advocating for the legalisation of ganja in the Caribbean.