Besides rivers: abundant life and ecologies of hope

By Adom Philogene Heron

Lecturer in Anthropology, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Water welled in my eyes that afternoon when I happened across Dóra Papp’s moving visual elegy, Drifted away. “I know this woman! Melia!”, I said, aloud. I know her daughters and sons. I know their home. Rather, I knew their home. Their village. I was their neighbour (‘Adom’) who lived up the hill (‘who come out England to do a research’). We met in the time long after David. Before Erika and Maria. I visited for long hours on their front step, in their kitchen, their yard. I reasoned for long hours with the children’s’ uncles, Ras Albert and Ras Julie, and their father, Star. I recall Melia’s kind smile and words as she we would greet one another as I arrived at their home. I recall Yakairah (the elder of Melia’s departed daughters), and how a friend of her uncles would callout ‘Professor!’ each time he’d see her, celebrating her intelligence and studiousness for all in earshot to hear. Hearing her nickname invariably brought a bright smile to illuminate her face. Destiny (the younger departed daughter) I knew only as a small baby, too small to keep up with her siblings and cousins yet following them with a curiosity as they ran about the yard. Laughter, lessons, cooking, music, carvings, burning herbs and woodsmoke filled and wafted through the family homestead. The children continuously played, talked and moved with a spirited positivity. Their uncles issued advice, shared ideas and introduced flavours to them and to me, as their guest.

That day I happened across Drifted away, I was at a desk in London, but I returned, almost in a vision, to the Zion, Julie and Albert’s provision garden. Here, nestled in a valley above the village, besides another river, grows tania, yams, bananas, plantain, lettuce, cacao. This place- like their homestead - teems with life, a reflection of this family’s hard work and livity[1]. Besides both rivers, at home and in the Zion - abundant life is nurtured. In plants and in kin.

Kamau Brathwaite, a great poet of the Caribbean cosmos (who recently made his passage towards the ancestors) once wrote,

We who are born of the ocean can never seek solace in the rivers: their flowing runs like
our longing...

I knew the river beside Melia and her family’s home to be a peaceful place: next to which she and Star would sit and watch the sun sink behind an evening sea; besides which the children would prod at a heavy, overhanging mango tree with bamboo poles, poised to catch a sweet reward; and next to which the family might sit as rush-hour traffic passed to and from across the bridge. I also knew the river as a place of refuse, polluted by households further upstream – with soiled nappies, a broken fridge, a dead dog. I knew moments when the river swelled and tested its banks; when it touched the bottom of the bridge than sat above it. But in the time after David, before Erika and Maria: I never met its rage. I never knew all that it could carry. All that it could take. I was not aware of the loss and longing a river can inflict.

Papp’s images - of survivors from Dominica’s south west and the kin they lost to the storm(s) – evoke such sorrow. But more than this, her organic human portraits also gesture towards a slow process of human and ecological healing, a vitality she observed during the time she resided in Dominica. This island was growing green again following the razor winds that had cut her dense forests to a dull brown. Amidst this atmosphere of gradual, exhausting, regrowth Papp presents human faces at peace. The portraits are mounted upon the leaves of local plants that nourished and fed Dominica’s people (dasheen and tania - tubers that survived heavy winds underground, to be harvested days after the storm), herbs used for everyday healing and sacrament (brewed as ‘bush’ or marijuana teas, to sooth working bodies and traumatised spirits). At once a work of humanism and ethnobotany, Drifted away pays tribute to life, loss and regrowth amongst a people and their land/riverscape.

Guyanese writer Wilson Harris once wrote that Caribbean people - despite the violent dispossessions of European conquest, kidnap and forced agricultural labour - learned to commune with the living lands they inhabited:

[We] entered into a dialogue with the landscape. Instead of seeing the landscape as a passive thing. To be manipulated, to have your formulae imposed upon... we entered into a dialogue with it[3].

Waitikubuli, tall is her body, as Dominica’s Kalinago people once new her, has long been experienced as a living and animate world. Papp’s work evokes this dialogue between human life and ecology, towards the hope of healing. To Brathwaite one final time, who, after painful/careful reflection, makes peace with the river:

... today I would join you, travelling river,
borne down the years of your patientest flowing,
past pains that would wreck us, sorrows arrest us...
processioned in tumult, come to the sea

[1] A way of being that nurtures the Rastafari life force:in naturalist life ways, a selfhood that lives in spiritual unity with the divine (I-and-I) and disavows the (post/neo) colonial social order (Babylon).
[2] Brathwaite, K. (1973). ‘South’, from the The Arrivants: A new world trilogy. London/New York: Oxford University Press.
[3] Harris, W. (1992). The radical imagination: lectures and talks. Riach, Aand Williams, M (eds). Départment d'Anglais, Univ. de Liège.
[4] Brathwaite, K. (1973). ‘South’, from the The Arrivants: A new world trilogy. London/New York: Oxford University Press.

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