The extremely tired-looking man sitting next to me on the relatively short flight from St Lucia to St Vincent last Sunday breathed a huge sigh of relief as the tiny Liat aircraft touched down. He had been travelling for two days. I asked him where from? “Sydney, Australia”, was his reply. I, on the other hand, nearly as exhausted, had also spent two days travelling, but only from French Guiana.
For any geographically challenged reader, French Guiana (capital: Cayenne) is the farthest south of the three Guianas, which include Guyana (British) and Suriname (Dutch). It is the only non-independent territory on the South American mainland and is an overseas department of France, similar to the French sister islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint-Barthélemy and St Martin. Only 300,000 people live on the landmass 16 times bigger than Trinidad and Tobago, so it is hugely under-populated (1.5 persons per square kilometre) with most people living along the Atlantic coastal area with their backs to deepest Amazonia. As in Guyana, which also borders on Brazil, it feels like frontier territory, with half its population made up of immigrants. But much more than its bigger most northern neighbour, there is a distinct feeling that time has passed it by. A TT businessman whom I met on the plane from Piarco to Barbados, which was the start of my marathon journey to Cayenne and back, described Cayenne to me as a backwater where little business could be done and where he had not returned, therefore, for 20 years.
Mostly what we know of French Guiana or Guyane is from literature and film. The 1968 memoir of life in the world’s most notorious island prison – Devil’s Island off Guyane’s coast – by Parisian safecracker and convicted murderer, known as Papillon for his butterfly chest tattoo, became an international bestseller for its author Henri Charrière. Papillon was filmed many times, most famously starring the 1970s heart throb Steve McQueen, backed by Dustin Hoffman. Papillon attempted several daring escapes, finally succeeding on a raft of coconuts. Apparently, most of the 60,000 prisoners in the prison’s 100-year history that ended in the 1950s never made it back to France due to the particularly harsh regime. Today, French Guiana is best known as an active space centre for the launch of European and French rockets carrying satellites of all sorts.
I was in Cayenne to participate in a cultural conference that was a step in connecting Guyane to the rest of the region. In his welcome message, the territory’s President Rudolphe Alexandre spoke of the tendency of the people to look to France and Europe to the detriment of their relations with their immediate neighbours, and of the country’s anomalous situation that has prevented its development. Looking to France and turning their backs on the Caribbean is the wont of French speakers as it is ours to look to North America and ignore the southern continent at our side. I welcomed the invitation because at TT’s annual literary festival, the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, which is a Caribbean-wide event, we have tried repeatedly to involve our French-speaking neighbours and failed successively.
My impression that the French territories regard themselves as culturally superior to the rest of the region was confirmed by the stories told to me of the notions of difference that exist between the French territories, with the people of Martinique – the most French – at the top of the tree, and the remote Guyane people the most isolated. At the heart of discussion on the way forward was the recognition that as a cultural group the French speakers had to know each other better and within Guyane itself, with its increasingly cultural mix of Haitians, indigenous people, other Guyanese, Brazilians and islanders.
Our cultural preferences are obviously entrenched but that is not to say that they are finite and immovable. Aimé Césaire the illustrious Martiniquan author and politician always stressed the commonality of Caribbean people who share the history of colonialism and slavery, and decried the fact that the colonial state of mind has not been dismantled even if colonialism has. But breaking the mould does not happen by accident, we have to do it. Alternative structures must exist, communications and means of contact established and most importantly, economic incentives. Guadeloupe will finally join Martinique as a member of the Eastern Caribbean States. These are important developments but, as my trip that landed me on six countries in two days, with two overnight stops, reminded me, it is impossible to travel the region in a day and you need several different currencies to be able to eat unless, of course, you have, paradoxically, the US dollar. The Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) makes ideological sense but as an onlooker I am overawed by the work to be done, starting in people’s heads.