Carnival 1982

February - March 

H and I spend a week in Trinidad for Carnival. We stay with the aunt of a friend. I say 'stay with' but in truth we're not there much between dropping off our bags and then picking them up again several days later. In between, we eat little, sleep less and party non-stop.

I had been at every Notting Hill Carnival for years, but this is a whole different league. By the end of our stay, we're giddy and punch-drunk. Literally.

I can't pretend we saw much of the island. Enough to get an impression of somewhere large, bustling and - in the city at least - industrialised. Apart from the tropical setting and the sheer scale of Carnival, it doesn't seem that unfamiliar in many ways.

At Port of Spain International Airport, that all changes as we board the tiny island hopping plane that is the only way to reach Grenada by air in those days. Soon after, we touch down on the airstrip of miniature Pearls Airport. The relaxed and smiling greeting we receive from the people checking our passports gives us the feeling their interest is more curiosity than anything else, a far cry from the usual suspicion of airport officials elsewhere in the world.

The impression is reinforced as we get into a cab to the capital, St Georges, on the other side of the island and pass by a massive hand-painted billboard - Welcome to Free Grenada. Our hearts soar as we realise that we are privileged to be in for an experience unlike anything we've ever had before.

The cab climbs into the hills, bumping along the pot-holed road - the only connection between the two coasts. Within minutes, we're swallowed by the rain forest. Dense, lush and seemingly impenetrable, shades of dark green studded with occasional splashes of vibrant colour, it exudes a sense of hot steamy mystery.

We pass few people on the road, but those we do, all stop and stare. Some smile at us and wave. Every so often, we see more of the billboards, each hand-painted, no two the same. We don't know the exact significance of them all - only later, for example, do we understand that CPE is a Freedom School refers to the Centre for Popular Education, which aims to wipe out illiteracy on the island.

But if we don't always know the precise meanings, the intention is always clear. These are messages to uplift and inspire. The contrast between a unique billboard, portraying a smiling woman driving a tractor, and the ubiquitous ads we're bombarded with back in London, selling lingerie, cars, beer etc, is overwhelming.

The road drops as we crest the island's mountainous spine. We emerge from the rain forest to see St Georges laid out below us. Though sprawling, it's little larger than a rural English village. As we drive through the outskirts, the wooden shacks and corrugated iron roofs give way to colonial style white and pastel concrete houses and shops.

We stay the first couple of nights in a guesthouse in town, but we're on a tight budget and can't afford to spend the whole month there. On our first day, we go to visit Y, whose name was given to us by a Grenadian friend in London. Y is the head of Grencraft, the co-operative set up to produce, market and export the crafts that Grenadian people have been making for years, using the resources available: coral jewellery, spice baskets, shell artifacts, bowls and hats woven from palm fronds, wooden carvings, guava jelly ...

Y explains that Grencraft is a powerful symbol of the Revo, both in terms of its success and because membership of the co-operative is voluntary. The people have said they want a mixed economy so that's what they've got. The will of the people is paramount. Is Freedom We Making.

Y introduces us to a woman who rents us a little board house just up from Grand Anse beach which, at two palm-fringed miles of silky sun-drenched sand, is the largest and best-known beach on the island. It isn't long before it's clear that the house may be 'little' to us, but it's palatial compared with the homes of most of the people we meet and having running water, electricity and an indoor toilet are luxuries denied to many. Another thing that soon becomes obvious though is that the people who have the least are the most generous. In that at least, Grenada is not unique.

Everyone we meet is hospitable and friendly, almost without exception. In no time at all, we've learned how to cook on a coal pot using local ingredients and we're washing our clothes at the outdoor concrete sink.

There's this amazing spirit of energy and empowerment in the air. It's palpable. You can feel it, taste it. People are proud, you see. Proud of their Revo and what they have achieved. They want to share it. They know full well that what they are doing is unique. The people of Grenada have created a different way of living and being. And as such, they are a beacon of hope to the rest of the world that another way can and does exist.

Gradually, we begin to overstand, as people there call the state beyond understanding. The Revo on 13th March, 1979, had replaced a corrupt dictator, Eric Gairy, whose increasingly repressive (and bizarre) demands had been enforced by his gang of hated and feared Mongoose Men. At the time of the coup, Gairy was out of the country (something to do with preparing to table a motion at the UN on his pet subject of UFOs) and the Revo was almost bloodless.

Ordinary people had been oppressed and living in fear for so long, the coup - initiated by a group of young Grenadian radicals educated in the US and UK - had been joyously received, with the support of the vast majority of the population.

What ensued was government as we know it in reverse, with the ordinary people at the top making the decisions and the government at the bottom, carrying them out. In a series of meetings at local, parish and national level, people spoke out about the issues that mattered to them: poverty, unemployment, exploitation, education, agriculture, imports and exports, health, illiteracy and together they discussed possible solutions.

This was a pure form of democracy, where every single issue of importance affecting people's lives was debated on and decided by the people themselves, making a mockery of the idea that putting a cross on a piece of paper every four years, to choose between frying pans and fires to supposedly represent your interests, can be called 'democracy'.

The energy and enthusiasm, the passion and clarity, the sheer 'rightness' of it all sweep us up and carry us along in its wake. We go to the International Women's Day celebrations and hear the iconic Angela Davis speak. 

Angela Davis Speaking at International Women's Day March 1982.

The following week is the 3rd anniversary of the Revo and this is when we first see Maurice Bishop, PM and head of the People's Revolutionary Government.

Maurice Bishop Speaking at International Women's Day. Seated on the right (bearded) is Bernard Coard March 1982.

Warm and inclusive, articulate and charismatic, and underlying it all, his obvious love for his people and pride in their achievements, his words bathe us in a glow, uplifting us as no other individual has before. Imagine the oratory and presence of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and now Barack Obama, and you'll come close to understanding how I feel on this day - that I am honoured and privileged to be in the presence of a man who appears maybe once in a generation and who exudes hopes of peace and justice and a better way.