A Tropical Rite of Passage

Written By: Ellen  Schnepel

“Ki non-aw?” I asked hesitantly of the burly, sun-tanned Saintois fisherman as he repaired his fish traps on the beach in the lazy afternoon tropical sun while shaded by an almond tree. Shirtless and wearing a straw hat, or bakoua, the man was barefoot, in torn work pants that were rolled up to his calves and hung below his protruding gut. Poverty clung to him like the tentacles of an octopus to its prey.

“Étien,” he replied, announcing his name proudly, while seemingly amused by my accent as I tried to speak Creole. “What brings you to Gwadloup, to our little fishing village, St. François?” he asked in his native tongue.

“I’m here to learn Creole. I want to palé kréyòl kon zòt. You know, to speak Creole just like you.”

“Mmm. Kréyòl, it’s patois, broken French. It’s not a language,” he said, as if wanting to discourage my enthusiasm.

I had heard this refrain before from Guadeloupeans of all social classes, rich and poor, young and old, men and women, city and rural folk, Indians and Creoles. How could they think otherwise when living on an island that had been under French domination since 1635, where school was taught in French, and all TV and radio programs were broadcast in the refined Gallic tongue? Few of the Saint-Franciscans spoke of their ancestors from Africa, or how in the forced transplantation across the Middle Passage to the Caribbean, their languages had been lost and a new hybrid language Creole was born. Many didn’t know Creole’s history, let alone their own. But back in 1981, only one radio program, Pikenga on Radio Guadeloupe, aired broadcasts in Creole for listening enjoyment on lazy Saturday afternoons. Few written materials existed in the language and when writing in Creole, people wrote spontaneously, each in his or her own fashion, following no apparent grammatical system or spelling rules.

After a pause, the silence was broken. “Creole’s not good for much but jokes, insults, vulgarity,” Étien said, obviously with some ambivalence.

“How can you say it’s not a language when you speak it everyday, when it’s your mother tongue?” I countered.

“Lang manman-mwen,” he corrected me, emphasizing the nasalized vowels that
are so typical of Guadeloupean Creole and hence distinguish it from French. “So why would someone from the Metropole want to learn our language? You speak French. That should be enough. It will get you a good job. What do you want with Creole? It won’t get you work,” he said as he looked down as his torn bamboo and chicken-wire fish trap.

“But I’m not from the Metropole.”

“Ki koté ou soti?” he asked, curious about my origins.

“I’m American.”

“Amérikèn? That’s different! Ah, sé moun an-mwen.

You’re one of us!” he responded in delight. From that day on we were friends.

Early every morning the fishermen would go to sea in small, hand-hewn wooden boats with poetic names painted on their gunnels – Mon Dieu, Sans Souci, Marie-France, Siyola, Étoile du Matin – and then return by 10 or 11 to sell their catch to a throng of expectant customers, mostly women. Afterwards the fishermen would retire to the local rum shops to drink “on ti sèk” (straight rum) or two or three. I’d willingly join them as the only female among the tired men, their faces burnt by the relentless tropical sun and their hands gnarled by the coarse fish lines. They were all from the Iles des Saintes, the tiny, two-island archipelago in the Caribbean to the southwest of Guadeloupe: Réné, Marceau, Étien, Hector, Achilles – Greek names that belied the illiteracy of their commonplace lives. While Terre-de-Haut — literally “High Land” — was flat, its companion isle, Terre-de-Bas — or “Low Land” — was hilly, like a sugarloaf which protruded from the sea. I soon learned that this curious nomenclature came from seafaring days. Terre-de-Bas, farther to the west than Terre-de-Haut, was the last of the two islands one would reach when sailing downwind; hence “plus bas” or beyond.

After the mid-day meal and the habitual afternoon siesta, the fishermen returned to the beach to repair their nets, working until the sun went down. This was the time when I’d engage Étien in conversation. He regaled me with stories of the hardships at sea, the days when they used sails to navigate their boats, and the names of fishermen who’d been lost in the unforgiving waters. The sea was not kind to Guadeloupeans in the same way it was to tourists who headed south for sun sand, sea and sex. Many island natives had never learned to swim. For them the sea separated them from mother Africa and represented danger, cyclones, floods, and destruction.

My afternoons with Étien were mutually beneficial. He had female companionship and I improved fluidity in his language. The only problem was that our daily afternoon ritual of Creole conversation began to attract every straggler on the beach – older men, unemployed boys, jobeurs, and voyous. Like the roots of the mangrove, unemployment stretched out its limbs from one end of the island to the other, and savings were as meager as a cow in Grande-Terre during the dry season.

The male bystanders were curious about my relationship with the married fisherman who’d fathered numerous “outside children,” or ti-moun déwòr in Creole parlance. According to a local proverb, on pèchè koké byen – “a fisherman makes good love.” I soon became fascinated with the progressive verb form ka in Creole that was used to show continuous or habitual action, and I wondered why the verb koké – “to make love, to copulate” in Creole – was one of the few verbs that didn’t need this marker. Did frequent practice make it redundant?

One day as I was seated beside Étien as he toiled, an old man leaned over and began to proposition me in front of the crowd. “On bèl fanm kon-ou dwèt mété kòr-aw adan couch an-mwen! A beautiful woman like you must spend the night in my bed!” he remarked. I didn’t know how to handle his advances. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and say no. After all I was to live in this community for the rest of the summer. How would he handle rejection? What would the others think of me, a female not succumbing to a man’s sexual charms, albeit from someone a bit tattered in appearance and ravaged by time and the local rhum agricole?

Then all of a sudden I blurted out in Creole, “Mèsyé, dapwé mwen, a laj-aw, kòk-aw pa ka maché ankòr,” or quite literally that at his advanced age, perhaps he couldn’t get it up anymore! I was amazed by my bravado as well as the perfect turn of my Creole phrases. A spirit must have entered my body and taken over my voice for never would I ever have the nerve to say such a thing, especially being a foreign visitor and trying to learn the local cultural norms.

The men on the beach burst out laughing. Bellies jiggled. They sucked their teeth in approval. Perhaps the poor old man was indeed impotent, for in these small villages sexual reputations traveled widely. But if not, he surely didn’t call my bluff. I soon learned that joking relationships based on sexual innuendo and banter were appreciated by the town folk. It was all part of daily language play in a culture where life was hard and oral dexterity valued highly.

Word traveled fast by bwa patat, the local “sweet potato” vine. By nightfall the episode had been discussed from one end of town to the other, from le haut du bourg to the presbytery where Père St.-Félix was nursing his final shot of rum before retiring.

The next day the men on the beach left me at peace to carry on my conversations with Étien. Although my Creole was still rudimentary, the Saint-Franciscans didn’t mind. As a stranger I had arrived in the Antilles on their terms, to respect their culture and habits, not to impose mine. At first a curiosity, I was now la reine de la plage, queen of the beach.

And I was beginning to like Guadeloupe.