Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Village Feast

The biggest weekend in my little village recently drew to a close. The annual village feast is held at the beach and draws hundreds of folks from around the island (as well as expatriates from abroad). It provides the majority of the revenues necessary for our local government, plus gives local shopkeepers a much needed economic boost. More importantly, it also provides a good time for one and all!

It all started back in 2008, when my village organized a homecoming reunion that proved to be very successful. It was held during the Christmas/New Years time frame, when many relatives who had left the island for work elsewhere were back home to visit. The success of that reunion led the village to think they could expand their traditional August Monday celebration into a larger event that would draw outsiders to our village. [The picture below was taken from part-way up Mont Rouge on Monday afternoon, and gives you an idea of the beautiful setting for our festival.]

First, let me explain that the first Monday in August is a holiday here, commemorating the end of slavery in British colonies back in 1838. I understand that our village had always held some sort of local event during this three-day weekend, but after the successful reunion in 2008, plans were begun for a much larger August Monday celebration. [Note that I don't hear people refer to this holiday as Emancipation Day—it is always just August Monday.]

So, after our “community carnival” was finished in February, the village leaders turned their focus to planning for the village feast—or as it is known in the local kweyol dialect, the “fete.” The village council set up various committees for the different functions, and representatives from each committee (a mix of elected councilors and citizens) met every other Tuesday night from late February to June. As the date neared, the village feast committee met every Tuesday night for the final month. Throughout these months, the fete was a major topic at the regular monthly village council meetings as well. The different committees that met independently and then reported their activities to these joint meetings included entertainment, publicity (see poster below), vending, security, sports, and exhibition.

Last year, the event spanned ten days, with some early events held the weekend before the August Monday weekend. I was fortunate to arrive on August 1st last year and see the feast in action just before it closed. This year, it was decided to cut back to just Friday through Monday. The small core of dedicated volunteers who run this event were simply stretched too thin last year, as this is a big event for a little village to put on.
The primary focus of the feast is the nightly entertainment, with dancing under the stars next to the beach. Other events include athletic events on the playing field (which unfortunately were rained out this year), domino tournaments (shown above—note the specialized scoreboard in the background), a county fair-type exhibition of local crafts, and various games on the beach (such as the three-legged race pictured below).
Another popular part of the weekend is the Jouvert, which is a street dance that begins at 4:00 AM on Saturday morning on the main street inside the village. Just as is done during Carnival (see that description in the story linked above), a large truck is outfitted with a huge sound system (covered with a tarp) and crawls slowly through the village, with lots of folks dancing around it during the pre-dawn hours.
The days leading up to the fete are quite busy. At the beach, a large stage is built for the bands, and a “shanty town” of small bars are built along the back side. These vendors build their temporary establishments using scrap wood and bamboo, with tarps or old pieces of corrugated galvanized sheet metal for roofs. The two pictures below show the progression of some of the bars, from rough layout to partial completion.
As the event neared, we even had presentations from local law enforcement officers, who spoke about safety, security, and how to spot counterfeit bills. The health department also sent a representative to give our vendors a quick training session on food safety. There was a flurry of construction activity at the beach as the perimeter wall was built along with the stage and vendor buildings. A portion of the completed bar area is shown below
Because the village council is considered my secondary project (the primary project being a teacher at the school), I have attended all the regular meetings as well as all the special planning meetings for the feast. It was decided that Friday night there would be no admission fee, but a $10 wristband would be necessary to enter the grounds on the other three nights. The admission fee is crucial to the financial success of the fete. The picture below shows some of the fencing (made with bamboo and rented plywood sheets) that surrounded the grounds, to ensure that everyone paid to get inside.
The village council serves as the distributor for all the beverages served by the vendors. The beverages are delivered to the village council office, and then the vendors purchase the drinks for their booths from the village council. There is generally some leftover cases of beverages, which the village council strategically used as “incentives” for volunteers when Tropical Storm Erika hit. Those who helped shovel out the landslides were rewarded with shots of rum, ginger wine, etc. It made it worth shoveling all that dirt!

Between the proceeds from the admission fees, the vendor permits ($100 for a spot to set up your bar on the grounds), and other small fees, this event provides most of the revenue used by the village council for maintenance and improvements. Without it, the village council could not function adequately.

In Dominica, local governments were primarily funded through the payment of “house rates”—something akin to property taxes in the USA. It is a nominal amount based on the size of your house. However, there is no enforcement mechanism to force people to comply—it seems to be considered a voluntary donation over the years that fewer and fewer residents are bothering to pay. In West Virginia, your name is published in the newspaper if you don't pay your property taxes, and eventually your property can be auctioned off from the courthouse steps if you refuse to comply, but this process doesn't exist in Dominica. Technically, the village council could take residents to court, but that it simply not done by one neighbor to another here (or any other villages, as I've heard the problem with non-payment of house rates is widespread). So with the revenue from house rates in decline, the feast came along at an opportune time to enable the council to fill its coffers and balance their budget.

One of my contributions to this event was hand-lettering with donated paint a 12 yard long cloth banner that was attached to the red rock cliff where our road veers off the main road. I also did some other minor lettering work, such as the entrance/exit signs, one of which can be seen in the photo below (also notice the large stack of speakers in front of the main stage). My biggest job was that I worked each night at the ticket booth (set up behind the security bars on the front porch of our school), attaching wristbands after collecting the $10 admission fees (roughly $4 in US dollars). Each night, we would double-count the proceeds after closing down the sales of wristbands.
I had remembered seeing all the trash after this event was held last year, just as I had arrived in the village. Before this year's event, I decided to ask a guy in the village who is a wood craftsman to make me a “trash spear.” I remembered from my childhood the Boy Scout troop that would pick up the trash at the race track my dad managed in the 1960s. I always wanted my own trash spear, and I finally got it!
I was pleased with my new trash spear, and hoped that it would become a bit like Tom Sawyer whitewashing the picket fence. Sure enough, when kids saw me using my trash spear, they wanted to get to use it, as shown above. Thus, my students helped do a lot of the clean-up of the school yard, playing field, and beach area. Thankfully, no one stabbed their own foot!
In the end, everyone seemed to have a great time, as shown in the night-time photo of the main stage above. Our little village of a couple hundred residents, through the efforts of dozens of volunteers (both young and old), successfully pulled off a major event that drew outsiders from around the island. There were nearly 700 attendees on Saturday night, and slightly smaller crowds on the other days. My limited contributions to the fete pale in comparison to the incredible amount of work performed by some of the others here. It makes me proud of the community spirit that I see in this village! I am lucky to have been assigned here!

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