Alberta Christian: A woman of substance
By TDN Wire Staff
May 18, 2018 3:32 A.M
Roseau, Dominica (TDN)
- A Woman of Substance - The Life & Times of Alberta Christian (Pont Casse Press, 2017 by Alberta Christian with Esther Christian, Gabriel Christian) is a rare narrative of a rural student leader, farmer, and public servant in post-emancipation 20th Century Caribbean society. This work affords insight into what Caribbean life was like for a woman of modest means Alberta Christian nee John Baptiste was born in the village of St. Joseph in 1929, to a cocoa plantation foreman, Aaron John Baptiste of Delices and his wife Virginia (nee Austrie) of Castlebruce/Delices. Her brothers Ambrose, Washington, and Johnson and her sister Geraldine till the soil alongside their parents in the Layou Valley after their father Aaron lost his job as estate foreman at Cocoa Center. She had other brothers and sisters in her blended family who all collaborate to make meaningful lives despite limited means.
From her birth and into the period of self-rule and independence from Britain, this work plumbs the very depths of our society, with all its colour, joys and inequity. By what is a stirring rendition of a life given to civic duty and community development, our students, teachers, academics, and researchers, policy planners now have valuable first-hand source material, while affording all the recognition that British West Indians of that era such as Alberta Christian were just up from slavery.
Esther Christian has done a marvelous job in giving voice to our mother’s early days in St. Joseph, her family, school life and connection to the land she loves so much. We read of that time before massive introduction of automobiles on Dominica, when it was common for country folk to walk into Roseau from distant villages as far away as Colihaut, Marigot and LaPlaine.
The work gives fascinating insight into village life on Dominica early in the 20th century. We hear firsthand of the often-cruel plantation culture; rural folk trekking to Roseau to sell agriculture produce - sometimes cheated by town merchants and the Sunday cricket matches on the savannah with the Roman Catholic Church steeple towering overhead. We feel the throb of carnival drums and follow Alberta into the grip of revelry - her protective stick held aloft. Indeed, the gaiety born of music, local eats and drinks, the costumes of the old Carnival celebrations and the joys of village feasts, all seem to offer a soothing balm to the Dominicans who chafe under colonial strictures; without the vote by which to better govern their lives. The hardships that plantation society imposes on our town and country folk are only alleviated with the postwar rise of trade unions, and beneficial social reforms following universal adult suffrage in 1951 and self-government thereafter. Alberta is no bystander through this time of great social transformation as she works as a 1950s poll clerk and voter education teacher to her village folk unaccustomed to the system of elections and electioneering.
Her role as an early Red Cross volunteer in the 1950s and a nurse at the St. Luke’s Mental Home was preparation for this position. Additionally, the biography notes that benefit to Alberta Christian’s social responsibility ethic, cultivated by her involvement in the 4H Club at her elementary school in 1940s St. Joseph. During the war German U-Boats roam the Caribbean Sea torpedoing ships laden with imported foodstuff and other manufactured goods. In the grip of wartime food and other shortages on the island the 4H Clubs teach the students of that time to eat what they grow: coconut oil to fry food, yam and breadfruit flour to replace wheat flour and salt from dried sea water all form part of the survival techniques devised by that hardy World War II generation. Even used flour bags are recruited during the war years to serve as material for clothing.
At 88 Alberta Christian can still flawlessly recite the4H Pledge:
I pledge my Head to clearer thinking,
The book is coauthored by Gabriel and Esther Christian
My Heart to greater loyalty,
My Hands to larger service,
and my Health to better living,
for my club, my community, my country, and my world.
However, it is in service to the disabled that Alberta Christian contributions to public service is most remarkable. From 1965 to 1988, Alberta Christian she was the Manager of the Dominica’s Workshop for The Blind. The workshop was the first ever effort to provide gainful employment for the disabled-on Dominica. By the light she shone on the needs of the disabled, she was the public servant whose work brought blind Dominicans out of the darkness of second-class citizenship. Prior, the disabled had been consigned to the margins of a mostly uncaring society. However, by the beacon she provided in way of instructing the blind in arts and crafts, they became gainfully employed. Slowly but surely, her leadership in that public service birthed a better understanding of the plight of the disabled, away from the darkness of discrimination and shame to which they had been consigned, hitherto.
The Workshop was originally staffed by mostly females. I remember early workers such as such as Theralina “Thero” Edwards, Sylvanie and Pauletta Prosper, Eraline Bastien, Marie Raphael,
Rosemund Christopher, and the legendary pianist and singer Starret Francois. Starret, who died in the United Kingdom in 2008, was Dominica’s very own Ray Charles. Starret blazed a trail in music as a member of Dominica’s most famous band of the time, The Gaylord’s Power Union led by Greg Breaker. To this date, Starret remains Dominica’s most famous blind musician. His work brought a beneficial spotlight to the worth of our blind and disabled population. The role of Starret aided our mother in crafting a theatrical production for the members of the Workshop.
In the words of Dr. Irving Andre who wrote the introduction to Alberta Christian's biography:
"Steeped in a tradition of sacrifice, a fervent quest for knowledge, frugality and religion, Alberta Christian would grow up, and marry Wendell McKenzie Christian - a World War II British Army veteran and a member of a well-known musical family on Dominica. She would imbue her own children with the qualities and belief system which molded her as she progressed from childhood to adulthood. In her husband, Wendell, Alberta found a soul mate whose own tremendous sense of civic duty matched her own."
Alberta and her husband of 57 years the late Wendell, raised seven children with a healthy dose of discipline and parental love: Christalin, Wellsworth, Lawson, Samuel, Gabriel, Esther and Hildreth. In the words of our brother Lawson:
"We were driven to excel in our studies, say prayers before meals, do our housework, complete our chores, tend to our livestock and help with our backyard garden and another we kept in the Roseau Valley. Our parents were fervent believers in the philosophy that Manners Maketh Man. You greeted yours neighbors with a Yes Sir and a Yes Ma’am. You did not curse in the street or break into your neighbors’ homes. In that time, we left our doors open. Where we misbehaved we were spanked. I give credit to faith based and disciplined parenting as the foundation for our love of country or of any success that we have. Simple as that."
In 1982 at the Independence Day Military Parade Alberta Christian was honored with the Meritorious Service Award medal by the Government of Dominica for her years of work in improving the lives of the blind on Dominica. Her life is a testament to the fact that there is dignity in honest labour and that public service is a virtue. Finally, by making the members of the Workshop for the Blind productive, she brought the blind from the darkness into the light and transformed the lives of Dominica’s disabled for the better. At a time of great national challenges following Hurricane Maria, and issues as to how best to govern ourselves, it would do us well to recall the value systems which improved the lives of our people. "A Woman of Substance - The Life & Times of Alberta Christian" makes clear that by exhibiting such worthy principles of unselfish service to the common good we can all play a noble part in building the beloved community.
A Woman of Substance is available at Amazon amazon.com, Google Books Google Books and an e-book by booksellers everywhere.