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Barrel necessities: Caribbean stories of love and affection

Like many in the diaspora, Dr Adom Philogene Heron, has spent several weekends since Hurricane Maria battered the island of Dominica filling blue shipment barrels with tinned foods, dry goods and other staples to meet the needs of families in the wake of the storm. In this post he explores the biographies of these symbolic holders of love and affection that are ubiquitous in the Caribbean.

On 18 September 2017 Hurricane Maria battered the island of Dominica, killing 31 and disappearing 34. Maria destroyed homes and damaged 90 per cent of the island’s structures. She razed the agrarian island’s abundant ‘garden’ farms to the ground. Many subsistence farmers, and those dependent on them, are without food. The island is hurting.

I, like many in the diaspora, have spent several weekends since the storm filling blue shipment barrels with bottled water, corned beef, tuna, pasta, oats, soap, candles, detergents and a host of other essentials to meet the needs of families in the wake of Maria. As a result of looting many local stores closed on the island. Furthermore, humanitarian relief is piecemeal and personal food stocks, if people were fortunate enough to have accumulated them at all, are depleting. As such, personal barrels and general food aid are in high demand.

And so ubiquitous are these blue (plastic) and brown (card) barrels in the Caribbean (and her diaspora), that when me and my mother were trawling the aisles of a supermarket collecting tins by the crate-load, an elder Jamaican woman who appeared to be coming from church asked us with a warm smile: ‘You all are fixing a barrel for you to send for your family?’

Symbolic holders of love and affection
This ubiquity made me want to explore the biographies of barrels further: to ask where they come from (like the social life of the oil drum-cum-steel pan, some are second hand from industry) and where they go (into homes, basements, yards and gardens); how they become literal containers of material necessities and symbolic holders of love and affection; and how they morph into quotidian features of the domestic landscape (emptied of consumer goods, used for storage, holding water or germinating seedlings).

Reading up on the subject I was able to position this acute need for barrelled goods in the context of a hurricane alongside examples of more quotidian barrel-sending to support children, provide everyday familial relief, or simply treats, technology or the latest fashionable garments. During such reading I encountered Lisa Harewood’s Barrel Stories project, which shares the narratives of children left behind by emigrant mothers; children sometimes referred to in Caribbean sociology as ‘barrel children’.

But, as I read the article below, about Harewood’s project, my thoughts were cast to Robyn Seller’s fine, though lesser known article, Out of State, but Still in Mind. It reveals how barrels and other goods sent by emigrant kin bring about their extra-local presence in the lives of loved ones ‘at home’. These are barrels are sent bearing love in material form – but whether the child receives them in this vein is perhaps another matter.

I would add, in Dominica at least, that this process is part of the cultural ethic of ‘not forgetting’ ones kin (as people put it); not allowing distance to make you fail to support elder and younger dependants ‘left behind’ when one migrates. This centring ethic (morally orienting emigrant hearts and imaginations towards Dominica) intends to keep the idea of ‘home’ and loved ones ever present in the minds of outer-national kin.

Therefore, using this counter example we can see two sides to the same story: one is an expression of love that attempts to bridge vast distance; the other, a feeling of loss where such material gestures have fallen short.

Barrel stories: history project captures the Caribbean migration experience: Repost of an original article by Celeste Hamilton Dennis
An empty barrel is many different things for someone living in the Caribbean. It might capture rainwater in the backyard, be cut in half to make a kitchen garden, used as a chest of drawers, and more. The story of how it arrived at the person’s house, however, is the same.

The tan paper or blue plastic barrel is sent home from a family member who migrated overseas. The items in the barrel – everything from canned food to clothing to sweet treats –are a source of financial support, as well an attempt at an emotional connection.

‘[The sender] is trying to communicate and express something. But it’s always going to fall short,’ said Barrel Stories founder Lisa Harewood in an interview with ivoh. ‘And in keeping the barrel, you’re constantly reminding yourself of the person who’s missing. The barrel can be a really complicated, conflicting thing for people.’

Harewood, filmmaker and founder of Gate House Media, takes her audio recorder around the Caribbean and its diaspora and talks to former barrel children in an attempt to find out what it means for them, the family and the parent. Oscillating between heartbreak and hope, the stories run the gamut of experiences.

While some participants use their real name, many choose to remain anonymous or use pseudonyms. Caribbean migration is a sensitive topic – barrel children tend to avoid talking about much fearful of being seen as ungrateful. After all, a parent acquiring a visa to live abroad in the hopes of making a better life for the family is regarded a privilege.

But as Harewood has learned, the feelings are complicated. The project began from outreach around Harewood’s first short film, Auntie, about a caregiver grappling with her child’s inevitable reunion with her birth mother. After screenings people would share their own story of being a ‘barrel child’.

Harewood herself, although not a barrel child, was shuffled between family households in Barbados when she was younger. She wanted to facilitate Barrel Stories precisely because it wasn’t her story, but one that continues to be commonplace.

‘Unfortunately the Caribbean is a place that’s chronically, perpetually challenged in its development,’ she said. ‘If you’re a parent leaving your child behind, you’re often doing it because you want your child to have a chance at a better life.’

While countries like Jamaica have identified barrel children as a social problem, it’s hard to pin down exact statistics elsewhere and study its effects. Mainly because people are afraid of putting their immigration status at risk, or have the state intervene in their caregiver arrangement. Globally, however, there are an increasing number of female migrants. What Harewood can infer is that more mothers are leaving.

Price to pay for Caribbean people’s resilience and resourcefulness
Barrel Stories has scant voices of the parents themselves, which Harewood would like to change. Of the few stories that feature a parent, however, a conversation between a mother and son has stuck with her. The mother recounts her harrowing experiences abroad after migrating, including being in an abusive relationship, working 130 hours per week, and saving up money for her children’s plane tickets only to find it was a fraudulent scheme.

‘She’s an incredibly strong woman and afterwards her son and I had a conversation about this kind of toughness. I think we’re a little too bought into this image of Caribbean people as some of the most resilient and resourceful people in the world. We’re not showing our vulnerabilities,’ she said. ‘I want to show that while we’re incredibly resilient, there is a price we pay. It takes a toll.’

The process of recording these stories have been emotionally difficult for Harewood, who says she can’t help but feel a duty of care to people beyond taking their story.

‘What I can offer them is an outlet and hope that it is a start of some kind of healing. And there are also the stories that lift your spirits because they show arrangements that work where children feel loved and cared for.’

Harewood posts resources on the site such as academic papers, books, art and films for barrel children to access. Although most participants express relief after they’ve shared their story, she doesn’t generally hear from them again. A few have used their recorded story as a tool to have a conversation about the past with their families.

Ultimately, Harewood wants Barrel Stories to encourage more people to speak about their experiences, and she hopes to create an interactive site where they can upload their own stories. There are plans for projects in other regions – the Philippines and Nigeria, for example – where migration is equally as common. The stories need to be told.

Dr Adom Philogene Heron lectures in social anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. His doctoral project, Fathermen: Predicaments in Fatherhood, Masculinity and the Kinship Lifecourse, charts the complex kinship trajectories of men – as lovers, fathers and grandfathers – in the Commonwealth of Dominica. His Fathermen blog encourages conversations and debates on men and kinship in the Caribbean cosmos. He is currently developing  ‘Surviving Storms’, an  inter-generational oral history conversation between Caribbean experiences of hurricanes and people’s everyday adaptations to climatic uncertainty.

More information
Barrel Stories oral history project captures the Caribbean migration experience

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