Before going to pick up Tom from work in November, he sent me a text along the lines of: “I was at someone’s house and got some plants, I’ll explain later.” I was confused and only became more so when he walked towards our lovely green Opel Astra with plastic bags full of plants.
He explained that while walking to get a coffee during a break a French man on vacation, Michel, offered him a ride and ended up inviting him to his son’s house in Marigot for coffee. Tom mentioned he was interested in starting up a garden. It just so happened that Michel’s son was a manager on a banana plantation and Michel went to work making cuttings and pulling plants out of the ground. He gave Tom some small pots of lettuce, cucumber, and vanilla, some plant hormones and an explanation of how to replant them at home. With bamboo, vetiver, lemongrass, vanilla, cucumber, lettuce, a bignonia, and basil in hand, Tom’s Jadin Bô Kay was born…
Le Jardin Créole
Considered a piece of land where plants are cultivated manually for the purposes of personal consumption, the Jardin Créole has a long history and is quite deeply entrenched in Martinican (and Caribbean) history. Having roots in the Kalinago Ichali garden, the European vegetable patch, and the piece of land given to slaves required by Le Code Noir so they could grow food, the Jardin Créole is a true expression of creolization. Garcin Malsa, indépendantiste mayor of Sainte-Anne, calls for Martinicans to return to their roots by creating their own Jardin Créole. Malsa sees this as a step to freeing the country from French domination. However, as I learned today, this is not always possible. Though many people may buy land for agricultural purposes, if they seek subsidies the government has the right to tell them what to plant and how much of it they should plant. It also helps them keep track of how much income from the agriculture one can claim.
Connection to Rastafari
In Rastafari, Ital eating is a main tenet—they believe that Jah is within them and therefore their body is their temple so they eat fresh, vegetarian (or pescatarian) foods. Rastafarians in Martinique often have plots of land on which they grow food allowing them to eat Ital and remain outside the influence of Babylon, or the ills of western society. Today, Tom, another assistant and I accompanied Victor to a couple of his gardens where he grows all types of plants typically found in a Jardin Créole: ornamental flowers, edible plants, medicinal plants and herbs, and utilitarian plants (e.g. calabash, bamboo). We also met Loulou who co-owns a plot with Victor in Gros-Morne. He told us we can come by and garden any time. Victor also offered us a small patch on his hectare and a half of land in Le Calvaire (after we learn how to turn the ground over properly, of course) to plant on—which we will definitely be adding to our projects!
In a time where Martinicans are suffering from significantly higher rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular illnesses when compared with the Métropole, eating fresh and local ingredients is not only resistance to the economic hegemony of imported foods but also a way to fight these aforementioned diseases. Dominica is an island 30km north of Martinique where people live closer to the land and their roots. They also have the highest rate of centenarians per capita in the world—a phenomenon being studied by the medical school on the island.
Last year I visited La Savane des Esclaves, a slave heritage site in Trois-Ilets. There I saw many plants and artworks, and learned that there has been a continuous loss in traditional ways of life in Martinique—like the Jardin Créole, which is disappearing with modernization and large commercial agriculture becoming commonplace. According to Vincent Huyghues-Belrose, by the end of the 19th century the availability of bread meant that people stopped eating manioc (cassava), indicating a preference for “eating French” and more recently, “eating American.”*
On the other hand, the value of the Jardin Créole as a method of self-sufficiency and resistance is still alive in the collective memory of Martinicans. According to my colleagues at school (an English teacher and a History teacher), the period called “an tan Robè,” (le temps de Robert) is remembered for absence, suffering, and difficulty. Before departmentalization when Admiral Georges Robert was high commissioner of the French colonies, blockades prevented imports from arriving in Martinique during the Second World War. With no gas, flour, soap, and a dramatic increase in infant mortality, Martinicans had to survive on what they could produce locally—cutting rum with gasoline for cars and using cassava for flour.
More recently, during the General Strike of 2009 that saw a blockage of the ports by citizens protesting the high cost of living, people had to subsist on what they had in their gardens in turn raising questions about the island’s dependence upon imported food and its lack of self-reliance. In contrast to an tan Robè, two different teachers have told me that though it was difficult, because of the necessity for community and sharing the General Strike was a “beautiful time.”
Admittedly, I was not particularly enthusiastic about the plants at first but I have grown to enjoy Tom’s excitement every time his mint plant grows a new shoot and I secretly like that he drags me outside to show me that the leaves have grown on the parsley. The garden has now grown to two types of basil, two types of mint, thyme, parsley, arugula, baby spinach, and chilies, many of which we have been eating and/or drinking as tea. Cucumbers are next for harvest!
* Huyghues-Belrose is author of Le Jardin Creole and project manager at Le Parc Natural Régional de la Martinique. This quote is from an interview in La Mouïna, a magazine by the CAUE (Conseil d’architecture, d’urbanisme, et l’environnement).