Why I Call Mine, ‘Bajan Brown Sugar’
The one thing I am most proud of is my Bajan Brown Sugar. If yours were as sweet as mine, you would be boasting too. Even as a little girl, I knew I was blessed with something special and over the years, many men and even women have lauded me on this priceless asset. Their actions alone indicate how they feel, but they further reassure me with words like “what you have is a true treasure.” It’s amazing the things they all do for me – just because of my Bajan Brown Sugar.
I have heard many people; especially men call theirs all kinds of names. After all, that’s their prized possession. To understand the reason behind what some may deem my peculiar labeling, “Bajan Brown Sugar,” one must first understand the process of making sugar. In some countries, sugar is made from beets. But in Barbados and throughout the Caribbean it is made from sugar cane. For more than 300 years Barbados has been harvesting sugar cane and manufacturing sugar. During most of that time sugar has been an instrumental wheel in driving the economy. Rum, a by-product of sugar, and first made in Barbados, has also been one of its key exports with local brand, Mount Gay being the world’s oldest rum.
Barbados spans a mere 166 square miles (431 square kilometers) – about two and half times the size of Washington, D.C., and across its relatively flat terrain are some 1, 500 small farms/plantations. These farms help to produce approximately 60,000 tons of sugar annually. Sugar cane is the world’s largest crop and such a vital aspect of Barbadian culture that it’s tied to the birth of our annual carnival, Crop Over Festival. Traditionally, Crop Over celebrated the end of a successful harvest (late January to May) and the dread of “hard times” ahead for laborers whose main dollar came from cutting sugar cane and would now have to scrounge for work.
Who I am today is testimony to the troubles of the laborer, the sugar cane cutter. One of them raised me. It was the early 1980’s, and she was 23 years old, an immigrant woman originally from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a single mother of two whose high school education ended prematurely when she got pregnant with her first-born. She was living in a two-room chattel house in rural Barbados. At the time, except for her beloved younger brother Moses, most of her relatives were back in St. Vincent. This meant that Victoria had to fend for herself. Rent was due and her daughters needed to be fed, so my mother went out into the fields under the scorching sun and cut sugar cane.
I vividly remember each layer of clothing she carefully donned in that 4 a.m. light by the oil lamp. We had no electricity then. Mommy would “band” her waist with a thick piece of cloth, pull on some ankle length pants, over which was a skirt flowing below her knees. Under her long-sleeved buttoned-down shirt was a vest or T-shirt. She covered her hair with a cotton head tie before putting on a broad-rimmed bulrush-woven hat and on her feet she lugged some thick black rubber boots. She carried a sharp glistening cutlass, what Bajans call a “Collins” in her right hand. On her shoulder was loaded a full day’s supply of food, the likes of cooked green bananas, yams, dasheens, sweet potatoes, dumplings and salt fish. She also took a large bottle of water which (when we finally got electricity) was frozen to withstand the wrath of the noon day sun.
At sunset, my mom’s shadow would appear at the door. Her smile at the sight of her two children hardly masked her exhaustion. Some days, when she had to work near or cut canes that had been burnt, her clothes would be cloaked in ashes. The tell tales also showed in black traces when she sneezed. But the most horrifying moments were the times she came home with bloodied strips of cloth tied to her hand. Unraveling them to help her disinfect the wounds, I’d see deep gashes inflicted by her own cutlass missing its intended target – a sugar cane, sometimes nearly leaving her without a finger.
Throughout the years she toiled, her complexion darkening under the sun, her back bracing against the rain. It was a job she did with pride. Mommy would bring home sugar cane, peel it, bag it and freeze it for me to take to school and share with my friends. At some point, she started rearing chickens and pigs and sold them/their produce to help supplement her income. She also baked all types of bread weekly to sell. My mother provided everything we NEEDED. She also fed our interests. My sister and I loved reading and every birthday (which we share), at Christmas and whenever she could find the extra money, mommy bought us the books on our “wish list.” Thus started my love affair with the English language and dream to become a writer.
My mother stopped cutting canes the year after I completed studies at Barbados Community College (BCC) and as my sister was finishing up secondary school. By then she had built and owned the house in which we were living. With her daughters’ education in good stead, mommy went back to school. She earned Caribbean Examination Council certificates and then became certified in Early Childhood Education by Erdiston Teacher’s Training College. Her younger daughter went on to graduate with honors from the University of the West Indies and is now a primary school teacher. Right out of BCC, I, her first-born landed my first job as a reporter, which ultimately led me to CUNY City College, where I graduated Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa to then earn my masters from Columbia University. Along each step, mommy has been there. Sacrificing. Supporting. Relentless. Loving.
One of my friends, who worked for many years on Wall Street, recently launched his own financial services company and I gave him a small bag of Bajan Brown Sugar. It is a gift I give to almost every American friend or colleague who makes a positive impact on my journey here in New York. It’s a small token, but a significant symbol of hard work and sweet rewards. Sugar cane is ground until the very last drop of juice is extracted to make sugar. Even then there is still something left – bagasse to help fuel the island’s sugar factories and from the raw sugar, molasses to make yet another precious commodity – rum. Similarly, as a famous Bajan folk song echoes for her, my mother “cut de sugar cane till uh bun mi hand.” She gave all she could and more for my sister and me. So that is why I call mine – my mother – Bajan Brown Sugar. Happy Mother’s Day!
~ I Keep It Irie ~