Vanishing People....A Village Dying?
Twice recently I have felt in the pit of my stomach the dread I must have felt the days surrounding my father's death. I was three when my pops passed but I know that event made an indelible mark on my psyche because that feeling of dread would overcome me every time I happened on death or funerals. Mark you, the funeral did not have to be of a very good friend or close family member to awaken such a visceral reaction. An accidental meeting of a funeral procession was enough.
So who died recently? Whose funeral? Well it is not who but what and I really don't know if it is a death or a major transformation. That dreadful feeling has reared its ugly head not in signal of an actual funeral but for a vanishing people and maybe for a village dying. I have been looking closely at the village where I was born and raised; my immediate neighborhood and the whole village. Recently I even had the opportunity to accompany my mother on her visits to some shut-ins in the village. What I am uncovering certainly reminds me of my friend's desolate ancestral village in Kenya.
To be accurate, two days ago as I watered some newly planted hedge in the yard of my family home it hit me. My village, my home is fast becoming a replica of my Kenyan friend's. On my visit there in 2000, my friend pointed out the number of homesteads that were empty and others where there were only young children and grandmothers. Even worse there were quite a few homesteads where only young related orphans fended for themselves. The HIV/AIDS pandemic had rendered the place, where her parents spend most of their retired days and her once alive and vibrant ancestral home, a ghost town!
Finally I understood my friend's compulsion to point out the empty and near empty homesteads in her village. I would not have otherwise known it had not always been like that. She was not just noting the impact of AIDS/HIV on her community but most likely sharing her deep sense of loss and sorrow for her vanishing people, her dying home.
What is interesting about my circumstance is that it is not the AIDS/HIV pandemic that is laying waste the population of my home village but migration; internal and external. From a cursory count of the homes that existed in my immediate childhood neighborhood, the number of children per household averaged around six. Now the majority of these homes are empty. The people who grew up here and their children are gone and their parents have died or are in their twilight.
The first wave of the exodus which really started in late 50s, though significant was not as acutely felt. Those who left the village went away for secondary school and later jobs in the capital. Back then, not every household was fortunate enough to have a member make that transition. Of those who lived mainly in the capital there was always family and friends to bring them back. Moreso entire families did not leave following them.
It was a few decades later in 1979, after Hurricane David destroyed the island, that the serious exodus to other countries started. With no employment and a severly affected banana industry, the main source of income in my village, young persons just out of school left in search of opportunities in places such as Antigua, Tortola, St. Martin, Guadeloupe and North America. As they settled and made a life for themselves in these places they encouraged and made way for siblings and other family to join them. And so the reproductive portion of my village has gradually relocated to other parts.
The inability of successive governments to turn around the deteriorating economic conditions and more so the banana industry since Hurricane David, has not helped stem the outflow. Those who had left children behind with grandmothers, clear them out as soon as they finish secondary and sometimes primary school. The primary school I attended as a child for example now hosts less than 50% of its capacity. The registered student population has dwindled from about 400 in the early 90s to less 200 today. The entire top floor of the school remains unoccupied during the normal school day.
The houses which used to be full and overflowing, when my siblings and I were children, are mostly empty or are home to mainly older and sickly persons. Young, productive and verile villagers are in the minority. The children make up the numbers but their numbers continue to decrease.
Maybe, just maybe, it is change and not death which is transforming the landscape of my village. Right now two neighborhood houses have been turned in business places; one a cable company's office and the other is home to a pharmacy, restaurant, the village library and a doctor's and dentist office.
What is undisputable though is that the people are vanishing, the numbers are dwindling. The women who remain don't have nearly as many children as their mothers and grandmothers. Imagine, the AIDS pandemic is yet to unleash its wrath on us (God forbid if it ever does) and we are already staggering. My village home is vanishing.