Greg Rabess
Greg Rabess

May 2022 brings to a close a year-long programme of activities to mark the 40th anniversary of the Konmite pou Etid Kwéyòl (KEK). The launch of the Tradibelle Cultural Group's album "Bèlè Gold' on May 11 and the Kwéyòl Spelling Bee – the 12th edition – for primary schools on May 18 are the two activities being held. During the past year, KEK's focus was increasing its visibility and media presence, restructuring and rebranding KEK and highlighting its work over the years. This included the launch of its Facebook page, hosting a special anniversary webinar, radio talk shows and online discussions on platforms such as Push Past 10. KEK also carried out a membership drive, revamped its organizational structure and operations and did some strategic planning. On June 1, 2022, KEK will host a special general meeting to elect a new generation of leadership to take the creole movement forward. This special feature highlights the work of KEK during the past forty years, its impact and its outlook for the future.

The Creation of KEK

KEK was established on June 1 1981 under the guidance and leadership of the then Chief Cultural Officer, Alwin Bully. This was stimulated by the work of the budding creole movement in St.Lucia, Guadeloupe and Martinique at the time and the participation of Dominican creole activists in Kwéyòl orthography workshops in St.Lucia. The June 1 inaugural meeting of KEK brought together young creole activists, functionaries and teachers and formally launched the Standing Committee for Creole Studies (SCCS). The name Konmite pou Etid Kwéyòl (KEK) was adopted as the organization's official name shortly afterwards.

KEK operated as a specialized committee of the Cultural Division with a mandate to preserve develop and promote the Kwéyòl language through research, literacy and advocacy activities, in effect, the cultural development arm of the Division. KEK's membership in its formative period included Marcel Djamala Fontaine, Felix Henderson, Sinky Rabess, Gregory Rabess, Sonia Lloyd, Sonia Akpa, Arlington James, Anita James, Nathaniel Durand, Ken Richards, Jay Grimner among others.

The Early Years

In the first year or two, KEK's activities centred on promoting kweyol literacy, the adoption and promotion of a standard orthography (writing system) for the language, carrying out research, collaborating and networking with regional and international organizations promoting Kweyòl and initiating special events such as Jouné Kwéyòl (Creole Day).

Jouné Kwéyòl

The establishment of Jouné Kwéyòl was one of KEK's most far-reaching actions in all of its history. Jouné Kwéyòl was actually conceived by the then Chief Cultural Office Alwin Bully as a special day to celebrate and promote the Kwéyòl language and creole culture generally. He then requested of KEK take the lead in bringing this to reality. Under KEK's leadership, the first Jouné Kwéyòl was held on October 30, 1981, which happened to be the last Friday of that month. This was the very first time that a special day to celebrate Kwéyòl was observed anywhere in the world – a great distinction for Dominica. Since then, Jouné Kwéyòl has been observed on the last Friday in October in Dominica and this was adopted by other countries where Kwéyòl is spoken.

In the early years, the focus of Jouné Kwéyòl was the language. That day all lessons in schools were conducted in Kwéyòl. DBS Radio, the lone radio station on the island at the time, carried out all its programming in Kwéyòl. This included Kwéyòl news and special addresses in Kwéyòl delivered by the Prime Minister (the late Mary Eugenia Charles) and KEK leaders. In quick time, other elements of the creole culture such as fashion, cuisine and music became an essential part of Jouné Kwéyòl. Jouné Kwéyòl is now an established tradition in Dominica, forty-one (41) years and counting. It is one of the high points of our national calendar. Jouné Kwéyòl has resulted in tremendous growth in the fashion, cuisine and music sectors and has generated many business opportunities for the population.

Heritage Day and Creole Week

It soon became clear that one day was not enough for celebrating all things creole. Creole Week or Simenn Kwéyòl was introduced in 1984 beginning with another landmark initiative – Heritage Day – Jouné Eritaj. The first Heritage Day was observed on Sunday, October 23, 1984. The idea was to showcase the heritage of a particular community. The day's programme which still exists today comprises a Kwéyòl mass or ecumenical service, an exhibition and a cultural gala at which an elder was honoured and sashed. A special creole lunch for dignitaries and guests also forms part of the day's activities.

Heritage Day is observed in a different community each year. Heritage Day attracts many visitors to the host community, generating business and stimulating the community to carry out research into its heritage and showcase this to the nation. Heritage Day is now an established tradition and continues to be a signature event in the Independence Celebrations calendar. Apart from Heritage Day, creole week activities include other signature events such as the Miss Wòb Dwiyèt Competition, Market Day with a Difference and Jouné Kwéyòl itself. From 1996, another major national initiative, the World Creole Music Festival (WCMF) climaxes Creole Week.

Kwéyòl Publications

Another critical activity of KEK was the production of a number of books and other publications on various aspects of the language and related oral traditions. This was also linked to the research work conducted by members of KEK on the language and the need to promote the written Kwéyòl and its alphabet. In 1992, KEK published Dominica's first-ever Kwéyol-English dictionary. This was followed by publications such as Pawol Ka Di, a collection of Dominican proverbs, Tim Tim Glo Doubout – a collection of traditional riddles, , Mi Bredeks, a collection of Dominican kwéyòl expressions,Twa Kont Domnik and Ti Listwe Domnik, a compilation of short stories (kont) and several editions of a Kwéyòl newspaper Kòn Lanbi. Individual members of KEK such as Marcel Djamala Fontaine and Felix Henderson also released publications in Kwéyòl. All of this was an attempt to document the language and related traditions, provide learning and reference materials for students and researchers and the general public and promote writing in Kwéyòl. Some of these materials are currently out of print and KEK working on having reprints of these done. KEK is currently developing a new and more comprehensive dictionary and a basic guide to Kwéyòl and making its publications available in digital formats and on online sales platforms.

Kwéyòl in Education

The issue of Kwéyòl in education has been the most challenging one for KEK. From its very inception, KEK has considered the teaching of Kwéyòl in schools as a fundamental strategy for ensuring the survival of Kwéyòl in future generations. One will recall that during the first years of Jouné Kwéyòl there was a strong emphasis on the language and conducting classes in Kwéyòl. While this was quite welcomed as a 'one day wonder', many parents, teachers and policymakers were still wary of having Kwéyòl taught in schools, arguing that this would affect the students' learning of English.

In light of the experience with Jouné Kwéyol, KEK proceeded to carry out some background work and research on the issue. In this regard, KEK conducted two surveys during the 1990s to assess attitudes toward the teaching of Kwéyòl in schools among students and teachers respectively. KEK also carried out in-house workshops on developing strategies for introducing Kwéyòl in schools utilizing the expertise of specialists such as Paulette Jno Baptiste of Guadeloupe. KEK also introduced special activities such as the Kweyol Spelling Bee in 2010 and the Kwéyòl Choral Speech Competition as a way of engaging students with the language. In 2019 KEK worked with the Ministry of Education in developing a pilot project in schools. KEK members also contributed to the development of a draft Kwéyòl curriculum for schools. Individual members of KEK taught Kwéyòl courses in a tertiary education setting such as the Uwi Open Campus and in non-formal settings. Following the death of Felix Henderson in 2020, the current Minister for Education announced an initiative entitled a Five Minute Pause for the Kwéyòl Cause for all schools on the island. Prior to his passing Felix Henderson made an appeal to the Minister for Education to make every effort to introduce Kwéyòl in schools. Apart from the curriculum initiative, the Ministry of Education is considering the development of a policy on Kwéyòl in Education. All in all, the combination of various initiatives and advocacy efforts by KEK, its individual members and other stakeholders such as UWI Open Campus, Creole Heartbeat and DBS Radio has resulted in a more favourable attitude among the general population towards Kwéyòl in education. The passing of Felix Henderson, Marcel Djamala Fontaine and other Kweyol stalwarts have brought a sense of urgency to the Kwéyòl in Education issue. Certainly, this issue will continue to be on the front burner of KEK's programme in the years ahead.

Kwéyòl International - Bann Zil Kwéyòl

During the past three decades, KEK has played a key role in linking Kwéyòl promotion, preservation and development efforts in Dominica with the wider regional and international creole movement grouped in organization called Bann Zil Kwéyòl. Institutions such as the Université des Antilles (et Guyane) in Martinique and Guadeloupe, the Folk Research Centre in St.Lucia, CORECA in Guadeloupe have played vital roles in supporting KEK's work and linking KEK to the wider regional and international creole movement. KEK participated in numerous conferences, symposia organized in Bann Zil Kwéyòl member countries and collaborated on various projects of a bilateral or multilateral nature.

One of the key contributions of KEK and Dominica as a whole to the international Kwéyòl movement was the creation of International Creole Day patterned on Dominica's Jouné Kwéyòl. The decision to establish such a day was taken at a meeting of Bann Zil Kweyol in Lousianna. The KEK delegation, led by Felix Henderson and including Marcel D'Jamala Fontaine and Anita James, made a presentation on Dominica's experience with Jouné Kwéyòl and recommended that such a day be introduced at the international level. It was decided that October 28 would be observed as International Creole Day. As a result, International Kwéyòl Day was observed by a majority of Bann Zil Kwéyòl member countries on October 28, 1983, for the very first time.

International Creole Day has had a tremendous impact on the creole community of nations. The premier national festival in Seychelles for example is the Festival Kreol which is held to coincide with International Creole Day. Today International Creole Day is observed in all countries of the Kwéyòl world and in countries with significant creole diaspora populations such as France, the United Kingdom, USA and Canada. KEK also played a major role in Haiti's participation in International Creole Day worldwide celebrations when it hosted a visit of one of the leaders of the Haitian Kwéyòl movement, the late Sony Esteus of GREPKA/SAKS in 1993 in which he observed Dominica's Jouné Kwéyòl celebrations. This visit resulted in Haiti joining the rest of Bann Zil Kwéyòl member countries in the observation of International Creole Day.

The observation of International Creole Day over time eventually led to numerous Kwéyòl-themed activities being held throughout the month of October in all countries of the Kwéyòl world and their respective diaspora. October is now regarded as Creole Heritage Month/Mwa Kwéyòl. The hosting of an International Creole Symposium in Dominica in October 2013 by KEK and Co.Re.Ca of Guadeloupe to mark the 30th anniversary of International Creole Day is testimony to the recognition by the international creole community of the role of KEK and Dominica in the growth and consolidation of the international creole movement and culture.

Dominica as a Centre of Excellence

As part of its international linkages, KEK implemented a project of a collaborative nature with the University of Bedfordshire (UK) from 2019 to 2021. The project entitled 'Dominica as a Centre of Excellence in for the Preservation and Celebration of the Creole Culture through Language, the Arts and its Indigenous Kalinagos'. was the brainchild of the late Dr. Violet Cuffy, a Dominican, who was a lecturer at the said University. With funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) the UK, the two-year project was implemented in the United Kingdom and Dominica. The production of the Tradibelle Cultural Group's album was one activity of this project. Other activities carried out in Dominica included field research and data gathering, the UWI Open Campus Country Conference on Creole and a Youth Creole Symposium, both in 2019, the production of Creole Conversations – a video interview series with creole and Kalinago specialists and video documentaries on Kwéyòl in Education and Kalinago Language Revitalization efforts.

Future Directions

As it wraps its anniversary activities, what does the future hold for KEK and for Kwéyòl generally? What are some of the critical challenges being faced, what actions are needed going forward and what role for KEK in all this? Among the critical challenges facing Kwéyòl are obviously the longstanding issue of Kwéyòl in education, the development of a national language policy, expanding the role of Kwéyòl in the media and other domains such as Parliament, engaging the younger population with Kwéyòl, promoting the standard writing system, increasing the visibility of Kwéyòl in signage and public spaces and utilizing digital and communication technologies in developing and disseminating Kwéyòl learning and reference resources among others. There is the issue of new words entering the language and the need for a language authority such as a Kwéyòl Academy to consider such matters. The issue of funding for Kwéyòl-based initiatives is also critical.

Clearly, KEK will continue to play a critical role in addressing some of the key challenges and issues mentioned, in guiding the Kwéyòl preservation, promotion and development efforts generally, doing the necessary advocacy work, and assisting in the formation of new institutions as appropriate and maintaining connections with the creole movement worldwide. During the past year, KEK has been gearing up for this new period of work by expanding and rejuvenating its membership, setting up internal working committees and structures and increasing its outreach and media presence. The work of KEK during the past forty years has had a tremendous impact in Dominica and in the wider creole world, some of which remain unknown or unrecognized here in Dominica. The 40th-anniversary celebrations were in part aimed at redressing this. KEK is now looking forward quite eagerly to a new period of work and programming with the aim of making Dominica a Centre of Creole Excellence and a veritable cultural capital in the Eastern Caribbean and the wider creole world.

-By Gregory Rabess