The Independence Experience for the Dominican Diaspora
Every October, diasporas—as we have colloquially coined Dominicans living abroad—flock to the Nature Island in droves for what is subjectively the best season on island; the Independence Season. A quick poll on Instagram to target just which season is the best, pitting Carnival against Independence, returned results with the Independence Season winning by a landslide. The score was an uneven 70/30, and the sentiment was that although Carnival was full of vibes, the energy surrounding Independence was simply unrivaled. Who can blame the masses? Independence season in Dominica is vibrant and bursting at the seams with color, flavor and opulent culture.
The season commences with the National Day of Prayer and culminates in November with the National Parade and Cultural Gala. In between there are a multitude of events such as Market Day with a Difference, Creole in the North, and the Ti Matadore Pageant. The week that draws the most attention is what I like to call Creole Week—which begins with Creole in the Park where huge international and local acts alike perform in the scenic Botanical Gardens. Creole Week is a celebration of music, food and culture. That Friday is Creole day; the most colorful day in Dominica where friends and strangers alike smile and wish each other a Bonne Journée Creole. That Friday is also the beginning of the World Creole Music Festival; a festival that boasted the likes of Buju Banton in 2019—where else in the world could you pay $125 USD or €109 for three nights of bouyon, rhythm, soca, and so much soul?
Dominica’s population temporarily increases by a couple thousand for a few weeks during the Independence Season. Dominicans living in the Antilles as well as natives from these islands find themselves in our little slice of paradise. Diasporas living in the U.K., Canada, and the U.S book their flights months in advance and anticipate touching down and having a cold Kubuli, some freshly made local juice, and a hot fish or smoke meat broth. The island during this time is buzzing with new, old, and familiar faces, and an abundance of energy. The ports are busy with boats coming in from islands like Guadeloupe, Marie-Galante, Martinique, Antigua, and St. Lucia. The hotels and Airbnb’s are all booked.
But, how do Dominicans living abroad who have not come home commemorate the season? Some temporarily depart from social media avoiding the imminent gwo pwel from seeing all the food, and fun that their friends post. One young man wrote on Facebook, “All dem good time muss end,” his jealousy cloaked with taunting. Another young lady shared with me that she gets off Instagram because she simply doesn’t want to see stories and posts of Creole in the Park or World Creole Music Festival while she’s stuck at a cubicle crunching numbers. This year will look very different of course, with events being held virtually due to Covid-19.
I have spoken to people all over the globe to find out how they have celebrated in past years and will celebrate in 2020. Dominicans who live throughout the Lesser Antilles have the luxury of hopping on a ferry or taking a short plane ride home for Independence. Regardless, some still relish the opportunity to showcase our Dominican heritage on the islands they now call home. For instance, a number of Dominicans left for St. Kitts and Nevis after the devastating Hurricane Maria in 2018. During Independence season, the Dominicans in Sugar City host a church service where they show up decked out in their traditional wear, and then have a brunch where local Dominican cuisine is served and enjoyed.
In the U.S, Dominican students showcase their culture on their respective college campuses. To be specific there are huge Dominican student populations at The Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls Texas, and The Grambling State University in Grambling, Louisiana. Annually at both universities, students showcase Dominican dance, food and culture with cuisine like fig and codfish, souse, cacao tea, bakes, crab callaloo, and red beans soup with pig tail.
A five-hour drive from Wichita Falls takes us to Houston, where October is unofficially deemed Creole Month by the Dominican, St. Lucian, and Haitian masses living in H-town. One group specifically has been celebrating the rich culture of Dominica for about 24 years. They are the Dominica Houston Association (DHA). Every year, the group hosts an Independence Gala about two weeks before the World Creole Music Festival. This is intentionally done for people who intend to go home for the festivities.
Attendees are highly encouraged to come in national wear. Throughout the dinner, DHA dancers who practice weeks in advance, bless the crowd with amazing performances of Mazouk, Heel and Toe, Quadrille, and Bélé. The group also invites a notable speaker to address the attendees each year. In the past, the likes of United Nations (UN) Ambassador Loreen Bannis, His Excellency Honorable Roosevelt Skerrit, and Minister of Health and Environment Jacinta Bannis have graced the DHA with their presence and wise words. Other distinguished attendees are the Mayor of Houston, and Senator Sheila Jackson, representative of the 18th district in Houston. Both U.S politicians have made appearances at the DHA Gala or sent representatives from their respective offices.
All of this was Pre-Covid, of course. This year the celebration took on a different tone and was held via Facebook Live. The DHA dancers performed along with the Petite Soufriere dance group. Attendees dressed in beautiful hues of National wear invited us into their kitchens to show off their dishes. One pots, crab callaloo, fig and saltfish, broth, and many other dishes were on display. Dominican songstress Carlyn XP then closed off the event.
DHA’s goal is clear; to celebrate, showcase and preserve the Dominican Culture. The group is inclusive as they invite people from all different cultures to join in on learning and performing the Dominican cultural dances. They also have an impressive children’s dance group focused on teaching cultural dance to a generation of children with Dominican parents who may have not quite made it to the Nature Isle for a visit.
Apart from ensuring that our culture is kept alive, the DHA also raises funds throughout the year—the Independence Gala is a fundraiser in itself— and grants scholarships to Undergrad students of Caribbean descent. For instance, the group raises over $3K during Memorial Day weekend alone by having a picnic where they sell bakes, saltfish, and other well-loved local cuisine. Then, the night of the Gala, four well deserving students are awarded.
Let’s now take a three-hour plane ride to the Tristate Area. In New York, the Dominica American Relief and Development Association has an almost homogeneous objective to the DHA—to preserve Dominica’s rich cultural heritage in the U.S. The organization has been celebrating Independence with a National Day Gala that includes music, traditional dance, stories, and national dress at the Eastwood Manner in the Bronx. Music is provided by A Fu Awe Sounds, and dancers entertain the guests with Quadrille and other traditional dances. There is a Parade of National Wear in which the madras cloth cut in different patterns and designs are displayed. DARDA uses funds donated to provide small grants to community institutions and programs around the island. In 2018 for instance, the organization donated to Hurricane Maria relief. Due to Covid-19, the 42nd anniversary Gala is canceled.
Over in New Jersey, another group called the Dominica Emerald Organization puts on an annual cultural extravaganza called the Madam Wob Dwiyet Diaspora. This year would have been the 17th anniversary of their show. Like the other organizations we touched on, DEON-J has a similar aim; to maintain the culture of Dominica in the Diaspora, specifically so that the children of Dominicans born abroad can experience a slice of their parent’s culture. The show is filled to the brim with beautiful women, wearing their Wob Dwiyets proudly, and local acts like Michelle Henderson and Nayee deliver spectacular performances. In past years, the contestants of the Madam Wob travel to Dominica to continue the celebrations there.
Eight hours on a plane and a five-hour time difference gets us across the pond to the U.K, where there are quite a few people of Dominican descent. While some have migrated on their own throughout the years, a few generations ago between the years 1948 and 1971 to be exact, the Windrush Generation—as they would come to be known—arrived in the U.K to help fill post-war labor shortages. Dominica, being a British Colony had a few natives sent to the U.K to work. Years later, their descendants, although well assimilated in the U.K way of life, continue to keep their Dominican culture alive. This is quite apparent when you go to the Notting Hill Carnival and glimpse the Caribbean flags flying—specifically the many green flags, with the white, black and yellow stripes, and that beautiful Sisserou perched regally in the center. During Independence, a mass is held at the Westminster Cathedral. Attendees come dressed in national wear, and a cocktail reception is held after. Individuals also host cook ups in their homes where they cook local foods passed down from generation to generation.
If anything is clear, whether home or abroad, wherever there is a Dominican there will be good food, great music, and a grand old time!