Fons Eppink mhm
The people of Curaçao were celebrating their ‘Dia di Bandera’ (Flag Day), the first day I set foot on this small Caribbean island (60 km long, with a breadth varying from 6 – 12 km; population 150.000) just off the coast of Venezuela. Proud to be an independent entity within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Curaçaoans still cherish the connection. And that connection goes back a long way, to 1634 in fact, when the Dutch took over the island from the Spanish. Sadly, soon after, Curaçao became an important port of transit (and destination) for the slave trade, like other islands in the Caribbean. Slavery was abolished here in 1863.
Situated at the crossroads of the shipping routes between European, African and North and South American continents Curaçao has, over the centuries, developed into a melting pot of a continuously changing mix of cultures, languages, peoples and traditions from all over the world. ‘Homo Caribensis’ – a wonderfully exciting combination of Africa, Europe and America in a kaleidoscopic variety of colours, sounds and cultural ancestries
Away from thee, dear Curaçao,
we treasure and evoke
the sunny soil and beaches
the pride of one and all.
Hail be to God our blessed Lord,
from now to eternity,
Who made thy children worthy
to be yu di Kòrsou – bred on Kòrsou!
(From the Curaçao National Anthem)
Dutch influence is most strikingly evident in the architectural style of the buildings in Willemstad, the picturesque capital. The elegant frontages of the buildings along the waterfront and the stately mansions in Punda, the old part of town, evoke the style of building in vogue along the canals of 17th century Amsterdam. With one big difference: everything on this island, from official state buildings to office blocks , shops and residential homes, every square inch of wall is decorated in a riot of colours rivalling the hues and shades of the rainbow. A feast to the eye! Willemstad, rainbow city, is on Unesco’s World Heritage list since 1997. No wonder my host and companion, Brother Franklin Clemencia, was appalled by the absence of colour on his first visit to Holland – “ Everything seemed so grey, so depressing…”
The other outstanding feature of the culture of this island is its language. Among the islands of the Caribbean Curaçao distinguishes itself by having developed its own unique vernacular called ‘Papiamentu’. I was flabbergasted to discover that its roots are distinctly African. Papiamentu is a tonal language, like many African languages, with a vocabulary largely derived from Spanish and Portuguese, with a wealth of other influences as well.
I ora nos ta leu fo’i kas
nos tur ta rekordá
Kòrsou, su solo i playanan,
orguyo di nos tur.
Laga nos gloria Kreadó
tur tempo i sin fin,
k’El a hasi nos digno
di ta yu di Kòrsou !
(From Himno di Kòrsou – National Anthem – in Papiamentu)
More than 80% of the population of Curaçao professes to be Catholic. Pretty ochre coloured churches with elegant spires, big and small, dot the urban and rural landscape. Dutch Dominicans were largely instrumental in building up the local church communities on this island. But a distinguishing feature of the local church here are the large number of religious brothers and sisters belonging to a wide variety of congregations, again almost exclusively from The Netherlands, who helped to set the educational system on a sound footing from as early as 1842, and organised the healthcare. Even a few stray Mill Hill missionaries came to make their contribution for a number of years during the second half of the 20th century!
Almost all of these Dutch priests and religious have now retired and returned home. The number of local priests and religious is still woefully inadequate. Some Philippino, Polish and Latin American priests have come to fill the gap. Bishop Luis Secco strongly supports the Neocatechumenate Way introduced from Venezuela. But, as is the case elsewhere, their presence causes division. Judging by the people I met at the retreat that I was privileged to give, the laity are also, slowly and hesitantly, beginning to find their voice.
Fons Eppink mhm
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