Traditional knowledge, the Kwéyòl language and public policy in a small nation state
post-template-default,single,single-post,postid-17794,single-format-standard,bridge-core-3.2.0,qodef-qi--no-touch,qi-addons-for-elementor-1.7.6,qode-page-transition-enabled,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,,qode-title-hidden,qode-child-theme-ver-1.0.0,qode-theme-ver-30.6,qode-theme-bridge,qode_header_in_grid,qode-wpml-enabled,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-7.7.2,vc_responsive,elementor-default,elementor-kit-41156

Traditional knowledge, the Kwéyòl language and public policy in a small nation state

By Embert Charles

The flag of St. Lucia: Symbol of national identity, pride and unity. According to Hilary La Force, Executive Director, Folk Research Centre, “The colours capture the historical, social and geographical uniqueness of the island: the blue of the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Oceans that surround us; the three triangles at the centre of the flag echo the majestic Pitons, but also encapsulate the mixed racial history of her peoples, both African (black) and European (white). The gold triangle symbolizes the tropical sunlight under which we live.” ​Photo: Positiffy/Shutterstock

“The fundamental cure for poverty is not money but knowledge”.1 The wisdom inherent in this quotation is attributed to Saint Lucian Nobel laureate in economics Sir William Arthur Lewis, and has often nourished the economic policies of small nation states. In considering the question of the acquisition of knowledge as a critical tool for economic and social enhancement, the discussion rarely focuses on skills and values in traditional knowledge but rather on the acceptance of modernity. 

This bias was first introduced by Lewis himself when he argued that the traditional agrarian sectors were backward and incapable of the progressive attributes of the small capitalist sector such as production for profit and the use of savings to generate growth. The quest for modernisation of these small colonial societies therefore has resulted in the undervaluing and underutilisation and in some instances the misuse of traditional knowledge. The dismantling of the traditional socio-economic structures, technologies and official biases against the indigenous languages influenced public policy when colonies graduated into small nation states.

The underlying assumption in Lewis’ mantra is that poverty is born out of ignorance and these two characteristics feed on each other. The retention of traditional values is associated with backwardness. One writer on development issues, Thiery Verhelst, argues that this “Eurocentric interpretation of reality in peasant societies” result in the failure of productive enterprises, because the value and importance of traditional knowledge is often disregarded.2

Traditional knowledge, creoles and nation languages, therefore, continue to struggle for a place in the national and regional development debate.

In examining this topic, one must firstly explore and elaborate on concepts such as traditional knowledge, the Kwéyòl and language, the basic characteristics of small nation sates, and the key elements of public policy. The Kwéyòl in this case refers to the Saint Lucian vernacular that was born out of a unique experience of colonialism, conquest and counter conquest. However, Saint Lucian Kwéyòl essentially represents the body of the “nation languages” which are features of all post-colonial Caribbean societies.

Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite who introduced the concept of “nation language” recognised that in their grammatical and lexical features, they represent the nation of people who speak these languages.In this context therefore Jamaica patois is the nation language of Jamaica, and so is Trini talk, Bajan, Haitian Creole. This is a reaffirmation of rights of use of language and also communications rights. And like all vernaculars Kwéyòl is the primary method of communicating a people’s traditions.

Therefore, to facilitate in any way the death of a nation language, in this case Kwéyòl, is to close off the route to this vast reservoir of knowledge, resources and values which can help build sustainable development policies.

Saint Lucian Kwéyòl
Lawrence Carrington (1992), one of the Caribbean’s leading socio-linguists, describes Kwéyòl as a language which is a variety of the French-lexicon Creole spoken by a significant majority of the Saint Lucian population and mutually intelligible with language varieties spoken in Dominica, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti.4 He notes that while the vocabulary is mainly French in origin, a small proportion of the lexicon includes pre-Columbian languages of the Antilles and African languages. The close association with African roots is supported by Saint Lucian linguist and historian Morgan Dalphinis (1985: 126) in his work on Caribbean languages in which he concludes that despite the differences in detail between Saint Lucian Kwéyòl and Guinean Crioulo, “the similarities as far as syntactic behaviour is concerned outweigh these differences. One seems to be viewing the same language twice with different words but the same syntactic categories”.5

While the Kwéyòl and the English languages are unequal in official terms and Kwéyòl speakers have not submitted to the political dominance of English, Kwéyòl has maintained in syntactic integrity but has to accommodate new technical terms.

Notwithstanding the acknowledgement of the fact Kwéyòl was the language of the majority in Saint Lucia; the prejudices have deep historical origins and permeate the local and national institutions. In 1844, historian Henry H. Breen described Saint Lucian Creole as the language of “toothless old women”.6 This characterisation speaks to the social biases which have been recorded in the historical texts on Saint Lucia.

Mervyn Alleyne and Morgan Dalphinis both argue that the prejudices against creoles were extra-linguistic, and bias seemed to have been rooted in race and class issues.7 In the 1980s, these prejudices were codified in the statutes of a primary organisation of farmers – The Saint Lucia Banana Growers Association – which stipulated that the office of delegate, member of Management Committee or District Branch cannot be held by anyone “… who is unable to speak and … to read the English Language with a degree of proficiency sufficient to enable him to take an active part in the proceedings of the Management Committee”8 This was an organisation a majority of whose members had Kwéyòl as their primary language of communication. This bias became entrenched even though educators in the region were highlighting the high levels of functional illiteracy in the English language.

Critical examination of the use and transformative power of the Kwéyòl began in 1973 with the establishment of the Msgr. Patrick Anthony Folk Research Centre (FRC). This led to a series of studies, programme initiatives and the creation of orthography, issues which will be examined later in this article.

Castries, capital of Saint Lucia

Traditional knowledge and culture
Sé vyé kannawi ki tjwit bon manjé (old/ancient utensils cook good food); Sé pou ou dòmi an poulayé poul pou sav si poul ka wonflé (one can only know if a fowl snores when you sleep in the coop). These are two proverbs from Saint Lucian folklore that speak to the intrinsic and extrinsic value of traditional knowledge, and they address issues of the vernacular and the familiar.

The FRC has always approached the definition of culture in its broad formulation as espoused by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), to mean the features of a society “that encompass, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs”.9 In mobilisation and advocacy initiatives from inception the FRC rallying cry on culture was “Culture: the things we do and the way we do it”.10

Further, the National Cultural Policy for Saint Lucia, completed in 2000, states that “Culture is not only the fruit but the root of development and must be considered in every phase and aspect of the development process. Indeed it may be more accurate to say that culture – the way of life of a people – and the physical and social environment are in constant dialectic, shaping and reshaping each other.”11

The key components of culture for any society or group can be presented as belief systems; traditional technology; cuisine and food; creative expression (arts and literature); language. Language has often been described as one of the fundamental markers of a people’s identity and traditions are also key identifying markers of culture or civilisation. Of course, what is contemporary today will become folklore for upcoming generations.

Public policy in a small Nation State
Saint Lucia is a small state and in the global scheme of things with a population of 178,844 (2017), can be described as a micro-state. Some of the key indicators for 2017 are as follows – GDP of US$ 1.738 billion; and per capita income of US$8,830.00. The key economic activities revolve around the tourism sector, service industries including offshore financial services and construction. The tourism sector is estimated to contribute up to 65% of GDP, and the structure of the sector appears to mimic the mono-crop in the plantation economy.

Like the rest of the Caribbean, Saint Lucia was colonised by the major European powers –English and French. The Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch were also colonial powers. The Caribbean countries are, therefore, melting pots of religious influences, races, languages and traditions. The populations of some states like Saint Lucia, Barbados and Dominica are predominantly of African origin while Suriname is a melting pot of African, Asian and Javanese descendants.

Small nation sates in the Caribbean were born out of two main conditions. Firstly, there was the colonial political system where privilege and money were the bases of authority. Secondly, they were plantation economies with marked economic and social disparities. Societies were divided into the propertied and the property-less, modern and traditional and in Lewis’s formulation subsistence and capitalist production.

When the colonies became independent they assumed responsibilities for their own policies. The process of policy formation in our small states follows a similar pattern. Political parties vying for state power present proposals in their manifesto, which become the basis of executive decisions and in some cases legislation which is eventually passed in parliament. In cases where consultation is required either by law or as a condition of support from external agencies, there is public consultation on policy proposals prior to enactment into law. The large body of policy however is borne out of default rather than design.

Public policy guides the allocation of resources in the nation. Public policy is created to support the major sectors that are identified as the drivers of the economy and in this process, the use of cultural resources are designed to serve the broader goal of economic growth.

Some of the manifestations of public policy on culture in small nation states like Saint Lucia include:

  • The operations of underfunded and under-staffed departments of culture whose mandates and functions are constrained by narrow partisan intentions. Invariably culturally related state entities such as museums and public service media are underfunded.
  • The implementation of community-based Heritage Tourism Programmes that are also underfunded and receive allocations and concessions which are far inferior to those granted to large-scale hotels and other tourism enterprises.
  • Public allocations to agencies like the Folk Research Centre, with a body of work on behalf of the people of the nation, whose value far exceeds the annual budgetary support.
  • Increasing public support for new non-traditional arts and entertainment events that are presented as part of the national tourism product. These include a slew of modern music festivals.

In 2000, the government of Saint Lucia published a national cultural policy document, following many months of public consultation. The policy treats traditional knowledge as this “aspect of culture, which is most commonly identified, and it forms the matrix of the people’s cultural identity”.12 Consequently, policy proposals include enactment of legislation to protect and recover lost patrimony and the management and conservation of the national cultural heritage. Since 2009 however the only significant piece of culture related legislation has been the Act to establish the Cultural Development Foundation (CDF) as a government entity.

The promotion and conserveration of traditional cultural resources has generally been left to the people. The FRC and to a lesser extent the St. Lucia National Trust13 have become the primary champions for the protection of traditional knowledge and resources in Saint Lucia. The SLNT is mandated by law to protect both tangible and intangible heritage. Like many other Caribbean countries, Saint Lucia enacted legislation on intellectual property rights which has some bearing on the protection of traditional knowledge. Apart from the SLNT Act, additional legislation to specifically protect and manage the intangible heritage has not been enacted.

Due to the underfunding of institutions and the low priority given to programming on traditional knowledge and indigenous languages by the state, advocacy, research and promotional work has generally been left to hobbyists and non-state agencies like the Folk Research Centre.

The Folk Research Centre, Castries (pictured in the background) was destroyed by fire on 25 March 2018.It housed an extensive library of publications, audio visual recordings and photographs and was the major study centre for work carried out into Saint Lucia’s folk culture by both nationals and visiting researchers and students. It is currently reorganizing its educational and research programmes, outreach activities and rebuilding its library while awaiting rebirth.Photo: FRC

The Folk Research Centre: Transformative programmes on culture
The Folk Research Centre was established in 1973 by a young catholic priest named Patrick Anthony and group of young people of different faiths, the majority of whom were students at the leading Catholic secondary school. The main influential factors on the formation of ideas at that time were the global black consciousness movement and the discussions on identity and Caribbean civilisation; the proclamation of the second Vatican Council, particularly the role of culture in evangelization; the mobilisation of Caribbean churches under the umbrella of the Caribbean Conference of Churches (CCC) to address issues of decolonisation, economic and social development, cultural invasion (from North America) and consumerism. According to FRC founding member Didacus Jules, Caribbean was at the “vortex of these hot winds”. And in St. Lucia, there was “a sudden awakening to disguised racism and the persistent inequity and iniquity of a post-colonial society”.14

Additionally, the FRC members studied the works of writers such as Thomas Aquinas, Jean Paul Sartre, Franz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Augusto Boal, Aimé Césaire, Eric Williams, CLR James and JD Elder. And then the St. Omer triptych – Harold Simmons, Dunstan St. Omer, and Derek Walcott – continued to inspire our cultural movement.

Invariably the initiating activities of the members of the FRC included drama and theatre skills, participatory research techniques, audio-visual documentation, studies in faith and religion, study of cultural forms and the Kwéyòl language, community facilitation and literacy. Study led to action which led to further study and more concrete meaningful action.

The journey of the FRC from its inception, operating out of the Catholic parish centre in Castries to its first home at Mount Pleasant has been captured in detail by many founding and newer members including Anthony, Jules, Louisy, Charles15 in the publication The Road to Mount Pleasant – Essays in Honour of Msgr Patrick Anthony, which was published fortuitously as the last major book by the FRC before the devastating fire of March 2018. The collection of essays was edited by John Robert Lee and Embert Charles.

In one of his contributions, Anthony notes:

“However the real impact of Folk Research on Development in Saint Lucia goes far beyond what may be superficially judged as archivism. For besides the legitimation of traditional culture, besides the promotion of local cultural values and the affirmation of resilience against cultural invasion and penetration, there are development programmes that face the development issue head on.”16

It is instructive to note that the FRC facilitated the implementation of community economic projects in its research communities to address the issues related to poverty and alienation. These included a community shop and black belly sheep production project. The first decade of the FRC work therefore was extensive participatory research, the development of the Kwéyòl language and the coordination of micro-economic projects. Perhaps the most significant achievement was the establishment of Mouvman Kwéyòl Sent Lisi a national informal organisation of representatives of grassroots communities, linguists, academics, media practitioners and educators all committed to the promotion and development of Saint Lucian Kwéyòl.

The movement became formalised into the Kwéyòl language programme of the Folk Research Centre. Between 1981 and 1983, the FRC worked with Creole language specialists from the global creolophone community under the framework of Bannzil Kreole (Group of Creole Speaking Islands). The members of Banzil were Commonwealth of Dominica, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Mauritius and the Seychelles. Also participating in the discussions were creole language specialists from Louisiana and Cayenne (French Guyana). During that period, the orthography was developed and promoted.

The FRC is a unique institution in the Caribbean region. It is non-governmental membership based and governed and registered as a not-for-profit company. The programme portfolio on cultural development is as extensive as the portfolio of the national state funded cultural departments.

Following an evaluation of the organisation in 1983, the FRC mandate focused primarily on research and the transformative functions of culture. The specific programme areas were research and documentation of traditional and contemporary forms, the application of popular theatre for the interrogation of development issue; publications; continued development of the Kwéyòl language.

The most significant programmatic achievements of the FRC to date which have major implications for public policy on language, culture and traditional knowledge in particular are:

  1. The annual celebration of Jounen Kwéyòl (International Creole Day) from 1983. This event has become the largest public cultural event created in the eastern Caribbean in the post-colonial era.
  2. The development of key resources including the publication of two dictionaries and a cadre of trained professionals at the post graduate level in Creole Studies with certification from the University des Antilles et Guyane. Many instructional and creative publications and products are available in Kwéyòl.
  3. The five-year popular theatre programme which led to the creation of groups island wide which used traditional folk forms and Kwéyòl in theatrical productions to analyse and propose solutions to community and national development problems. Téyat Pèp La was part of a regional popular theatre project.
  4. Extensive research and documentation on all aspects of Saint Lucian culture, which has provided critical information for national level programmes of the Department of culture on the folk festivals including Lawoz and Magwit. One of the major research initiatives was a five-year project with the University of Vienna on traditional technology and folk beliefs. The documentation of traditional musical forms was also undertaken in collaboration with ethnomusicologist Dr. Jocelyn Gilbault, with one of the outcomes being a musical collection produced under the Smithsonian Institute Folkways series.

Research and education on contemporary cultural manifestations such as calypso, soca and Rastafari are also part of the FRC programmes. The FRC has trained many teachers in cultural education. A significant associated achievement was the use of the Kwéyòl language in the delivery of the annual throne speech 1997-17 by Governor General Dame Pearlette Louisy. On the contrary, public policy proposals, which have been articulated in recent times, are aimed at enabling the acquisition of other languages including Spanish and French to facilitate our people’s preparation for the world.

Intersection between public policy and traditional knowledge
The challenges to the survival of traditional knowledge and resources in today’s public policy space have not changed since the establishment of the FRC in 1973. In fact, they have intensified due to the speed and expansion of cultural influences brought about by the World Wide Web and social media usage.

Some countries have considered policies which provide incentives for use of traditional resources. More controversial measures include mandatory quotas on the use of local cultural content in the media. In the past decade, the national tourism policy for Saint Lucia has introduced the idea of making the product reflect the identity of the people. To which identity are we referring if we have not fully understood our people culturally? The measure to use Kwéyòl in the Saint Lucia parliament is a major public statement and a significant step forward.

Notwithstanding these important achievements in building cultural collateral for this small nation state, public policy has not formally embraced Kwéyòl as a dominant language in Saint Lucia and afforded it pride of place alongside English within the formal education system and in public and private business. The arguments for this exclusion, which have been advanced, are related to the inadequacy of Kwéyòl and the perceived impact of its usage on educational and even economic advancement on individuals and communities.

These arguments have been debunked by many scholars and practitioners. Hazel Simmons-MacDonald for instance, has published reports on her studies done in Saint Lucia and cites other educators to support the role indigenous languages in the acquisition of other languages.17 In this case the use of Kwéyòl in the adoption of English as second language. Indeed English is a second language for a sizeable number of people in Saint Lucia and also in the Caribbean.

Where traditions have been used in the development of the tourism product, the approach has been commoditisation without regard for the intrinsic function in the daily lives of people. Tourism marketing strategies are built mainly around the products at the destination rather than the intrinsic traditional and cultural qualities of the nation. The result of this approach is a progressive undermining of the role of tradition through a programme of modernisation and the displacement of elements of the tangible and intangible heritage. The application of the traditional knowledge and the Kwéyòl should not be done in a manner where the language is stripped of its everyday usage.

Cultural festivals are packaged to fit into slots and the intangible heritage is often modernised for the comfort of the tourist. The approach of the FRC through its signature event “Jounen Kwéyòl” has been to ensure the authenticity of the presentations of the traditional cultural resources – technology, creative expression, cuisine – by organising events in the community for locals and visitors.

The association with the Kwéyòl language and traditional knowledge is “la mode” today in Saint Lucia. But this popularity, albeit superficial at times is necessary, it is not a sufficient condition for sustainability of the traditional resources. These actions must be formally documented, discussed and converted into public policy statements and also form legal and institutional frameworks. Kwéyòl must be declared as an official language. The continuation of the FRC as an institution and the creation of other institutions are critical for the sustainability of Kwéyòl and traditional knowledge.

In the absence of legislation as proposed in the Cultural Policy for St. Lucia, It is imperative that support is provided for continued sustainable operation of grass roots institutions like the FRC which continues to undertake concrete work and advocate for policy changes.

In the aftermath of the March 2018 fire the FRC embarked on a set of strategic steps to rebuild, firstly outlining the context and justification and incorporating measures which are inclusive and sustainable.

In the ashes are the records of forty years of work – audio visual documentation of a wide variety of media including half inch and three quarter inch tapes, hard drives and compact discs. There were also thousands of photographs. The FRC also housed many original works of art including paintings by Dunstan St. Omer and Harold Simmonds, traditional and contemporary craft, books and training material published by the Centre as well as titles on culture and Caribbean studies from a wide variety of authors.

Out of the fire, lessons have emerged about the inadequate and archaic archives management. Digitization was slow and incomplete. Collaboration with other government and non-government agencies involved in heritage management must be formalised and intensified. There was also inadequate preparation for the management of natural and human-made disasters. Resilience to disasters must be a focus of the rebuilding.

From the dust FRC will forge a new vision and strategy of resurrection and rebuilding. The three-prong strategy will include programmes of reconnecting with communities while building a strong organisation. The immediate programme activities include the re-establishment of research services and capabilities, intensive digitization and the continuation of the activities under the Harold Simmons Folk Academy. FRC will strengthen the organisation and modernise governance. We will return the base of the original work by establishing research communities. In the first instance the target communities are Piaye, Mon Repos, Anse La Raye and Babonneau.

Another prong of the strategy is the reenergising of the movement of old with new blood and new energies – creating a membership base made of young people, reaching out to the Diasporas and influencing national policy.

The third critical prong of the strategy is the rebuilding of the FRC home at Mount Pleasant with the aim of creating a nature and heritage park in the surrounding lands, to showcase tangible and intangible heritage with authenticity.

The FRC appeal is for volunteerism and material participation in this broad project. Fundraising efforts are aimed at creating a fund for the rebuilding process. The FRC’s vision is to broaden the research collateral by inviting all Saint Lucians to become a researcher and contribute to the body of knowledge on culture which can be shared with the world.

Some conclusions
The life story of the FRC to date highlights the inadequacy of the public policy on traditional knowledge and Kwéyòl. But this story also presents the possibilities and outlines the role of the bearers of the tradition in its preservation and promotion.

Would the situation have been different if Lewis was interpreted differently, or if Lewis had specified the role for traditional knowledge? Would our models of development lead us to more sustainable lifestyles based on the relationships which people traditionally had with their surroundings, their natural and intangible resources?

There has been some articulation of new thinking on traditional knowledge in policy formulation in our small nation states. But there is however the need for further research to quantify this relationship between economic growth and the application of traditional knowledge.

During the past decade there have been intensive actions on addressing climate change. The increasing carbon footprint can be directly related to modernisation and the introduction of technologies and lifestyles which increase emissions and also compromise the natural resources. Is a back to the roots movement of looking at alternatives based on the sustainable lifestyles of the past viable?

Traditional knowledge in particular and cultural analysis has to be mainstreamed in the policy process in the same manner as gender and climate change has risen to the top of the development agenda.

After decades of public policy that failed to aggressively push our traditional resources, is it the right time to start now? My answer is yes.

1. Lewis W.A(1654) “Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour” The Manchester School

2. Verhelst T G (1987) No Life Without Roots – Culture and Development Zed Books Ltd London and New Jersey.

3. Brathwaite E (1984). History of the Voice: The development of Nation Language in the Anglophone Caribbean Poetry. London, New Beacon

4. Carrington LD (editor) (1992) Trends in Linguistics: Dictionary of St. Lucia Creole – Jones Mondesir. Mouton De Gruyter

5. Dalphinis M (1985) Caribbean and African Languages – Social History, Language Literature and Education. Karia Press 1985

6. Breen, Henry H. (1844). St. Lucia: Historical, Statistical, and Descriptive. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans.

7. Alleyne MC “Language and Society in ST. Lucia” Journal of Caribbean Studies, 11, Univ. of Puerto Rico, 1961

8. Carrington L D (1981) ‘Literacy and Rural Development, A Look at the St. Lucian Initiative. Paper Prepared for ICAE Executive Meeting and Seminar May – June 1981, Port of Spain Trinidad.

9. UNESCO – Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity

10. This slogan was developed by Msgr Patrick Anthony and Joyce Auguste when they presented a series of radio programmes on Culture for school children

11. Saint Lucia National Cultural Policy (page 11 – 12)

12. National Cultural Policy of St.Lucia.

13. The St. Lucia National Trust was established by an Act of Parliament in 1975 and its main mandate includes the management of intangible heritage:

14. Lee JR and Charles E (Editors) Road to Mount Pleasant (page119).

15. Lee JR and Charles E (Editors) Road to Mount Pleasant.

16. Lee JR and Charles e (Editors Road to Mount Pleasant (page 38).

17. Hazel Simmons-McDonald and Ian Robertson (2006). Exploring the Boundaries of Caribbean Creole Languages.

Alleyne M C. The Roots of Jamaica Culture. Pluto Press (1988).

Lee J R and Charles E (Editors). The Road to Mount Pleasant – Selected Essays on Saint Lucia Culture in Honour of Msgr. Patrick Anthony Ph.D.SLC on His 70th Birthday. Folk Research Centre (2017).

Devonish H (1986). Language and Liberation – Creole Language and Politics in the Caribbean. Karia Press.

Government of Saint Lucia (2000). National Cultural Policy of St. Lucia. Ministry of Social Transformation Culture and Local Government.


Embert Charles, former Managing Director of the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL) and experienced communication and media specialist from Saint Lucia, West Indies, is currentrly Prersident of WACC. He holds a Master’s degree in Telecommunications Regulation and Policy from the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, and an MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. He has held top administrative, managerial and leadership positions in the public sector, including Managing Director of the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (2008-17). Previously, he was the Director of Information Services and Communications and Public Awareness Consultant for the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.