Fi Wi Sinting, Jamaica!!!

By Talia Whyte
February 18, 2008

Port Antonio, Jamaica - I have to admit that I used to be a typical tourist when I traveled to Jamaica. In the past I have climbed the world famous Dunns River Falls and danced to Bob Marley sounds during limbo parties in exclusive beach resorts in Ocho Rios and Montego Bay. I have even had the pleasure of a persuasive Jamaican man take a romantic interest in me.

However, a meeting with a conscientious Jamaican two years ago gave me an opportunity to get a different perspective of the island.

In 2006 I went on an educational tour of Jamaica led by Pauline “Sista P” Petinaud, a colorful businesswoman and community activist from Port Antonio. A longtime Rastafarian who dons dreadlocks traditional African garb full time, Sista P has dedicated her life to teaching both Jamaicans and tourists about the island’s true cultural heritage. She says that the rise of corporate tourism in Jamaica has had a damaging effect on the Jamaican psyche. While it is true that the tourism industry generates millions of dollars for the Jamaican economy, Sista P maintains that most of that money not only doesn’t reach the majority of the island’s poor population, but tourism has reduced the island’s history and traditions to just reggae, rum and fun in the sun.

“I wish more people would see what my country really looks like,” she said in 2006.

Like most American tourists, my knowledge of Jamaica was very limited to “herb” smoking and Bob Marley music. Being a Jamaican-American, I started to feel embarrassed that I had such a superficial understanding of my family’s homeland.

So, when I got an arousing email from Sista P last November announcing an event she hosts during President’s Day weekend that will “celebrate Jamaica’s African heritage and the Rasta movement,” I didn’t hesitate to purchase my airline ticket to attend this.

Fi Wi Sinting, Sista P’s brainchild, is an annual, outdoor festival of arts, crafts, food and entertainment that takes place near the lush mountainside in Buffs Bay, Portland. It started 18 years ago as a fundraiser for the Content Model School, which provided alternative educational skills for kindergarten-age students in nearby Hope Bay. The first Fi Wi Sinting was a small gathering of 30 attendees. In the ensuing years the festival has grown into a must-attend event attracting over 3,000 people from around the world who want to support sustainable tourism.

The festival’s name is Jamaican patois for “it is ours,” as Sista P tries to convey to Jamaica’s African heritage is something to be embraced by all people of every stripe. The growing grassroots movement behind the festival is largely due to those in the community who value its contribution to the island. One key fact is that almost all the money made during the festival stays in the community. Sista P employs an army of locals to do everything from selling tickets to landscaping at the festival site.

Despite the manpower, by the way Sista P was moving around with a cell phone semi-attached to her ear days before the event, I would have guess she was doing all the preparations herself. On the eve of the festival I drove around Port Antonio with Sista P, her daughter Subira, and her cousins from New York purchasing food from local farmers to prepare for the festival performers. While assiduous planning for Fi Wi Sinting begins in May every year, for Sista P, nonetheless, all the hard work is a labor of love that is worth the time.

“Jamaica is a black country,” she said while walking the festival grounds for any last minute problems, “but people here don’t know about their African heritage. I want people to learn something besides dancehall and reggae.”

An education is certainly what attendees get at Fi Wi Sinting. When I entered the site the day the festival opened, I had a choice of “classrooms” to go to, as the site grounds were divided up into different sections to learn about the black experience. In one classroom I listen to a band play the sounds of Mento, a type of folk music Jamaicans created during slavery using their own handmade instruments. Across the field I hear in another classroom three elder Rasta men perform a Nyabinghi chant. My fellow pupils were equally immersed in the atmosphere as I was. Many of them swooning to the sounds were also dressed in colorful West African clothing or wearing the Rasta colors of red, black and yellow.

The festival edges were lined with vendors, many of whom had traveled from all over the island to be there. For many of them sales from the festival is the only revenue they will receive for the month. While some of the vendors sold Bob Marley t-shirts, what I did find in abundance were books and posters about other Jamaican heros, like Marcus Garvey, Michael Manley and the Maroons, runaway slaves who fought off British colonists during the 18th century. Fi Wi Sinting is also a vegetarian’s paradise, with natural fruit juices and callaloo rotis to soothe the palate.

“I am having a lovely time,” said Mary Turner, a second generation Jamaican-American from Chicago as she wolfed down vegan chocolate cupcake. “Everyone here is friendly and loving to one another.”

The friendly environment is also due to the fact that this festival gives tourists to the island the opportunity to directly interact with other Jamaicans on a personal level, an opportunity rarely seen at the exclusive beach hotels. Whether it was a conversation about the Barack Obama phenomenon or the new World Trade Organization’s decision against the EU’s import tariffs on Jamaican bananas, it seems like Sista P’s dream has finally come true.

As everyone grooved the night away to Senegalese pop music at the African dance party, led by none other than the international renowned dub poet Mutabaruka, I thought about if I actually finally saw this island in a different way. And then I quickly said to myself, “Of course, it is mine. It is ours.”

Fi Wi Sinting is generally held every year during President’s Day weekend in Buffs Bay, an hour’s drive outside of Port Antonio. For more information, go to www.fiwisinting.com.

Talia Whyte is a Boston-based freelance journalist

Copyright 2008 Talia Whyte

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