Searching for our Roots in Cayenne!
It is good to be back with you after the Christmas and New Year holidays. There
will be much to discuss and talk about as the year progresses. Today, I want to
chat a little about my recent visit to French Guiana.
During the last week of January, I led a delegation on an official three-day
visit to French Guiana. The delegation included External Affairs Minister,
Senator Petrus Compton, and St. Lucia’s Consul General to the French Antilles,
Mr Cass Elias. Also on the team were representatives of the Ministry of External
Affairs and the Cultural Development Foundation, as well as the Government
Information Service (GIS).
I was invited to visit French Guiana -- a year ago -- by the President of the
Regional Council, Mr Antoine Karram. St. Lucians in French Guiana had urged him
to invite me to meet with them, to help them reconnect with their homeland and
discuss how to strengthen the historical ties between St. Lucia and “Cayenne.”
(Actually, Cayenne is the Capital of the territory of French Guiana, which is an
Overseas Department of France located on the North-Western shoulder of South
The visit began on January 24th and ended on January 26th. During that time I
met with the political leaders of the territory, including the Presidents of the
Regional and General Councils, as well as the Mayors of Cayenne, Kourou and
Matoury. I also met with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce.
During our meetings with the administrative and municipal authorities, we
discussed exchanges in areas of business, sports and culture, and the general
strengthening of ties with the local St. Lucian communities.
With the business leaders, we discussed the possibilities of developing
commercial ties such as joint ventures between investors in French Guiana and
Our delegation visited the Guiana Space Complex at Kourou, from where some of
the world’s major satellites are launched by the European Space Agency. This is
a massive, state of the art space exploration complex serving the European
Union. It is indeed something to see.
MEETING ST. LUCIANS
Of all my encounters, the best were those with St. Lucians in their various
communities -- whether in the urban centres like Cayenne, or in the Amazonian
river areas such as Kourou, or in the deep, hinterland areas such as Saul
(pronounced Sayel), a land-locked mining community in the centre of French
Guiana founded in the last century by St. Lucians.
But I will never forget the welcome reception at the Rochambeau Airport. Apart
from the official welcome by our hosts at the airport, the St. Lucian
associations in French Guiana organized a genuine St. Lucian welcome, featuring
women decked in our national colours, men beating conga drums, children waving
our national flag and the entire crowd singing and dancing to the beat of lively
indigenous music. Naturally, I joined them!
Likewise, I will not forget the superb performance of the Gwan Won and other
dances of our twin flower festivals, La Woz and La Magwit, put on for the
visiting delegation – and in which we also participated. Indeed, it was a most
memorable St. Lucian experience outside St. Lucia.
UPDATES FROM HOME
Through our meetings and in numerous radio, TV and newspaper interviews, I
updated the St. Lucians in French Guiana on issues such as the banana industry,
developments in secondary education, investments in tourism, developments in the
telecommunications sector, road construction, water and electricity and the
plans for the construction of the two new hospitals, as well as our continuing
fight against crime.
Invariably, in their questions and comments, St. Lucians said they appreciated
that my visit was the first official visit by a St. Lucian Prime Minister to
meet and talk with them. They all welcomed the historic opportunity to establish
official ties with their homeland.
There were also those touching moments that underlined the historicity of the
ties between St. Lucia and French Guiana.
Most touching of all was the experience of Miss Linda Brice, a Foreign Service
Officer at the Ministry of External Affairs, who was in charge of the protocol
arrangements for the St. Lucia delegation. Miss Brice knew she had a sister in
Cayenne, but she’d never met her. All she had was an old picture. She happened
to mention this fact in a radio interview and within a day of our arrival
someone who heard her on the radio went out and found her sister. They cried
tears of joy as they hugged for the first time.
Cass Elias, our Consul General, told us that when he first visited in 1999, he
met his father and he also met three brothers and a sister for the first time.
Cass introduced one of his younger brothers to us in Kourou.
Kerwin Xavier, the GIS cameraman and reporter on our delegation, was surprised
to have met a cousin in Cayenne.
A representative of the Chamber of Commerce of Cayenne was eager to meet Mrs
Barbara Du Boulay, the representative of the CDF, because his mother is a Du
Boulay from Chaussee Road in Castries.
Significantly, most of the important personalities we met had St. Lucian roots
or connections. The mother of the President of the Regional Council is from
Vieux Fort. The President of the General Council is married to a Tobierre – one
of the prominent families from Vieux Fort – and their daughter is married to
prominent Vieux Fort businessman, Brian Daher.
I met St. Lucians who are councilors in municipal authorities and who are
leading political personalities in their communities.
I met people from Babonneau, Choiseul, Laborie, Soufriere – in fact, from every
corner of St. Lucia. I met a blind lady who made her way to our first meeting
with St. Lucians to inquire about Thecla Deterville, Fred Walcott and Felix
Finnisterre. And my Press Secretary begged for some time off to visit his wife’s
Truly, our roots run deep in French Guiana and throughout the 90,000 square
miles of that French Antillean territory in South America.
RECONNECTING WITH OUR ROOTS
But I must share with you my own thoughts on what to me was one of the most
enlightening and enjoyable overseas trips I have ever made.
First of all, it was an important step towards reconnection with the St. Lucians
and descendants of St. Lucians in French Guiana. Our people first migrated to
that distant territory in the 1900s -- as they did to other parts of the region
like Panama, Cuba and Guyana – in search of new opportunities. Like the trek to
Guyana, they went to Cayenne in search of gold. Many remained to build another
Equally enthralling were the sentiments expressed by the people of French Guiana
about St. Lucians and their role in building the territory from scratch. They
will tell you, with a deep and visible sense of gratitude “C’est St. Lucienne ki
bati Cayenne; c’est St. Lucienne ki bati Guiane!”
Indeed, on my visit to Saul (pronounced Sayel), where I met the descendants of
the earliest St. Lucian gold miners, I was also told of the neighbouring
community called Saint Elie, which was also originally established by St.
Lucians mining gold in the very centre, the heart of French Guiana.
I am most proud of the gratitude of the local French Guinese population for the
role of St. Lucians in building their country. St. Lucians can be found today in
every single area of activity in French Guiana – from the highest levels of
administrative decision-making, to the Civil Service and the Municipal bodies;
from the commercial sector, to the agricultural sector; from the Space Centre at
Kourou, to the Municipal Market in Cayenne. Our influence in French Guiana is
really disproportionate to our size.
Indeed, in French Guiana, St. Lucians stand tall and proud, wave their flag,
beat their chest and proclaim from the highest peaks to the lowest valleys:
“Mwen c’est un Ste. Lisienne!” “I am St. Lucian -- and proud of it!”
REACHING OUT TO THE ANTILLES
What we have begun in French Guiana is a continuation of this Government’s
policy of reaching out to St. Lucians in the French Antilles just as we have
done over the years with St. Lucian communities in other parts of the world.
This policy of reaching out to St. Lucian nationals in the French Antilles began
several years ago, when I held discussions with President Jacques Chirac of
France. Those discussions resulted in the decision by the French Government to
abolish the need for visas by St. Lucians traveling to the French Antilles.
Subsequently, the French Government agreed to devolve power to the local
administrative bodies in the French Antilles, to allow them to develop closer
economic, commercial, cultural and sporting ties with St. Lucia and the
English-speaking Caribbean. Since those decisions, the movement in trade and
people between Martinique and St. Lucia has blossomed.
The resurrected links with our people in French Guiana is a priority for this
Government. But most of all, each and every one of us with relatives in French
Guiana must re-establish ties and maintain those ties. Let us therefore negate
the neglect of the past and reach out to re-establish links with a land that our
people have shaped!
Until next week, God Bless -- and do have a nice day.