Time stands still in Touna Auté, Dominica

This is a real Amerindian village, not a quaint replica for the benefit of tourists. Paul Crask visits where Dominica’s past meets the present

  • Visiting the home of Kalinago basket weavers. Photograph by Celia Sorhaindo
  • Traditional Kalinago basket weaving. Photograph by Celia Sorhaindo
  • Kanki, a Kalinago dish of sweetened manioc and spices. Photograph by Celia Sorhaindo

Irvince Auguiste, architect of the Touna Auté project, invites me into his kitchen, where his wife Louisette greets me with a big smile and a glass of freshly squeezed tangerine juice. It is delicious.

Auguiste and Louisette are getting very used to people coming into their home, because that is the essence of the Touna Auté concept. Unlike the nearby Kalinago Barana Auté, or Kalinago (model) village by the sea, Touna Auté (village by the river) is not an exhibition of how Dominica’s indigenous people used to live. It is a unique insight into how they actually live today.

Numbering around 3,000, Dominica’s Kalinago live in a communally owned mountain and coastal territory on the east of the island. The Carib Chief and Carib Council manage the territory’s affairs from the village of Salybia, and, as he has already been chief once, I can tell Auguiste has designs on a second spell in charge.

He explains how a trip to a remote Indian community in Venezuela inspired the concept of Touna Auté, a living village that could generate income as a tourist attraction as well as preserving, developing and promoting Kalinago cultural identity at home and abroad. His enthusiasm for the project is infectious and it is easy to see why it’s already proving such a hit with visitors.

To live in Touna Auté, first of all you have to be Kalinago. This group of South American Indians migrated northwards along the Lesser Antilles island chain before the arrival of Columbus. Ousting earlier Arawak-speaking settlers, they brought with them traditional skills such as canoe-building, hunting and fishing, as well as an innate understanding of and respect for their natural environment. Over the years, these adventurous Indians developed an identity of their own, akin to, though distinct from, their mainland relatives. They were referred to by Europeans as Island Caribs, or simply Caribs. Though almost entirely wiped out by European invaders, some of the region’s indigenous people survived and now live in this semi-autonomous area of Dominica, making the self-proclaimed “nature island” unique in the Caribbean.

The second requirement of Touna Auté is that you have to agree to actively participate in the project – essentially living a normal life within a tourist attraction. For a visitor, it feels intrusive and somewhat voyeuristic at first, but the more Auguiste explains how it works and shows me around, the more captivated I am by the idea.

It has been raining, and we slop along a muddy track to the village carbet, a large, thatched, open-sided structure that was traditionally the place where the men of the village would live and where community affairs would be decided. Today, Kalinago men and women live under the same roof, and the carbet functions rather like a village hall, as well as a picnic area for visitors. Running alongside the carbet is the Pagua River, where, Auguiste says, visitors can cool off after their tour. A short distance away is one of four houses that are currently part of the Touna Auté experience.

“When visitor numbers increase,” Auguiste explains, “we will incorporate more houses into the tour. There are about 30 in the village so far, but at the moment we only need to use these four.”

The first we come to has a small thatched shelter in the yard that accommodates wooden benches, a table and a traditional sugarcane press. I am greeted warmly by the Kalinago couple who live here, though they strike me as a little too shy and fragile to be subjected to a stomping herd of cruise-ship visitors. Their home comprises two buildings, a simple wooden house and a traditional outside kitchen, from which wisps of smoke emanate. Their children run around my legs playing with kabouwé, a small wooden cart.

“This home is where visitors can come and see juice being made, and sugarcane being pressed. They can have a go themselves, drink as much as they like. They can see the kitchen, where food is cooking, usually meat being smoked, and they can even try some,” Auguiste says.

I ask the couple if they’re comfortable with strangers coming to see how they live. Isn’t it a little peculiar? But they laugh and tell me they enjoy meeting new people from different places in the world. It is an education for their children, they make a little money and, well, it’s pretty easy work really.

We walk along the road to the next house. It also has a thatched shelter in the yard.

“This house is really all about vegetables, fruits, herbs and animals,” says Auguiste. “Visitors learn about what we eat and grow, how we use different plants for herbal remedies and so on.

“It’s amazing how the simplest things really captivate them,” he says. “Look, take cashews, for instance. Most people don’t know what they look like on a tree. The same goes for avocado, coconut, guava. Even grapefruit and banana.

“Look over there.” He points to a wooden chicken shed. “They even get excited about real live chickens.” He grins. “No plastic wrapping here.”

How do people generally react to the Touna Auté experience? Auguiste says they enjoy it, but he is sure some people don’t quite know how to take it.

“And I understand that. When I was in the village in Venezuela, I was really surprised to learn that the headman only spent weekends there. For the rest of the week he was in Caracas practising law! Though he was an educated man and he regularly experienced the sights and sounds of big-city life, he couldn’t wait to get back to his village. And, of course, his village benefited from his skills as an advocate.

“You see, despite everything, this is how many of us prefer to live, even in the modern world. My concern is that Dominica’s young Kalinago who are lucky enough to get educated and maybe even study abroad will not behave in the same way as the guy in Venezuela. There is always the temptation to either stay away or return with a superior attitude.

“The challenge is to say to ourselves, look, it is not only okay for us to live in a traditional way, there is actually a lot to be said for it. It’s just a matter of striking the right balance.

“Look at me, I have a laptop. I’m even thinking of getting a Blackberry,” he smiles.

The Kalinago are packaged as one of Dominica’s many crowd-pullers, and I can’t help wondering whether, by living their lives within a tourist attraction, they may be reinforcing a Dominican failure to see them as much more than this. Auguiste is philosophical on this subject.

“If Touna Auté can attract half as many visitors as the Emerald Pool or the Trafalgar Falls, then I’d be happy to deal with that problem,” he says, referring to Dominica’s most frequently visited sites. “Right now, I don’t feel we even get the share of tourism business we deserve. We are unique, after all.”

We agree that I should come back in a few weeks and tag along with a tour, to see how the project works in practice.

Auguiste is beginning his third tour of the cruise-ship season. A group of around a dozen pale-skinned visitors crowd around him as he makes his introductions. He is still finding his feet as his project continues to evolve. As I watch him tell the story of his people and introduce them to the carambola, golden apple, plantain, coconut and mango trees growing all around, I can’t help noticing the almost visible gulf between him and his audience. I hope Auguiste is going to keep them hooked with history, fruits and heritage.

He does. The larouma basket-making goes down a treat. Camcorders appear as all the children have a go, and dads become film-makers. Everyone seems to be grinning. Auguiste leads the group towards his home, where his daughter, Verena, stokes a fire and prepares to demonstrate the art of making cassava bread. She smiles confidently as her audience, seated around her, hang on her every word. She explains the bread-making process, shows them all the ingredients, and then pours the mixture into a bowl perched between three rocks over the fire. Whilst it is cooking, her dad chops a coconut and hands pieces around. He then produces a cocoa pod, breaks it open and shows everyone where chocolate comes from. Father and daughter now have the group hooked and I can’t help smiling as I watch children from Hershey, Pennsylvania, chewing on cocoa beans.

With renewed confidence, Auguiste leads the group to the sugarcane press.

I wave goodbye and head for the kitchen with Verena, who has been preparing some traditional kanki (an Amerindian dish of sweetened grated manioc and spices, steamed in a banana leaf) for me whilst trying to manage her cassava-cooking display and take care of her playful younger brother. Sitting on the stoop and eating, we hear laughter in the distance and I hope it is a sign of greater things to come.


For tours of Touna Auté, Irvince Auguiste can be contacted by e-mail at: onenicepeople@gmail.com
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