Mama and Me on Montserrat: The Volcano

written and illustrated by Jan Bester

My beautiful island of Montserrat is a very special place. Growing up on Montserrat was a wondrous adventure. Everyday is the same, but also always a little different from all the days before. 

My Mama wakes me each morning, as the sun peaks it's first, bright, golden rays above the horizon and the birds outside my window sing their songs of welcome to the new day.  My special island is green and lush with trees and colorful flowers, brilliant blue skies, crystal streams and happy people.  I pause at my open window to enjoy the view of tall, green trees that cover the distant hills, reaching up towards the sky, until they all but disappear in the morning mist that veils the tops of the hills.  I take a deep breath and sigh--It is all so beautiful. 

One group of the tallest green hills is a volcano, called Soufriere Hills.  This volcano has been asleep for hundreds of years.  A long time ago the Soufriere Hills volcano helped to make our special island.  When it was awake and active, the volcano had exploded with great eruptions, forcing rock and lava up from deep, beneath the ocean floor that built more and more land.  As time passed, the rocks and ash cooled, then trees and flowers grew and turned our island green and lush.  It must have been a garden paradise.  This new land became our little island of Montserrat.

Today is August 21, 1995, another special day because Mama and I are going to town this morning. The best and most special days are spent with Mama. As we walk down the shaded road towards town, Mama tells me another story about our special island of Montserrat. I enjoy hearing her old stories about our home and the courageous people of the island. Our people are strong in faith and strong in their love of Montserrat.

As Mama tells me how the big hurricane in 1989 destroyed many homes, she points to the three houses further down the road, telling me their roofs had been completely blown off in the fierce winds of this hurricane.  Many people lost their homes and possessions. It took a long time to rebuild, but today the island is a happy place again, with shiny, new metal roofs, replacing those that had been damaged or destroyed.  At this time of the day, some of the new metal roofs almost look like mirrors when the bright sun is shining on them and the island seems to sparkle in the mid morning sun.

Suddenly, in the middle of Mama's story about the hurricane, we hear a low rumbling sound. I have never heard a sound like this before. The earth begins to shake under our feet as the rumbling sound grow louder and louder and louder. Mama and I look up towards the green hills, up to the Soufriere Hills. Our eyes grow big and we are frightened. The volcano is waking up.

Mama and I turn around, forgetting our trip to town and rush back towards home. We run as fast as our legs will carry us. The volcano's rumbling and roars become even louder. Behind us, great plumes of ash rise from the top of the hills, going up and up into the sky, above our beautiful little island. The trade winds blow the heavy ash, as more and more ash comes from the volcano. There is the noise of thunder and flashing lightening in the dark ash clouds as it covers the sky. The bright sunlit day turns to black. Within minutes the morning becomes the darkest night I had ever known. It is hard to breath or see. The ash burns and hurts my eyes and throat as we run towards home.

Finally we reach our house. As soon as we get inside, Mama and I rush to close all the windows and doors as the black and gray ash settles to the ground, but still the ash finds it's way inside, between the louvers of the windows and from the cracks around the doors. Mama and I hold each other tight, not knowing what will happen next. The volcano continues to roar and the floor shakes. Outside is total darkness. 

Rap, rap, rap, there's a loud knock at the door. What was outside our door? Rap, rap, rap. Mama opens the door, just far enough to peek out into the darkness and we gasp when we see what looks like the eyes of a ghost or a jumbie staring back at us.  Then a voice cries out, "Please, let me in, let me in".  It is our friend Derek.  "Hurry in and close the door quick".

Derek had been close to the volcano earlier in the morning and was exhausted after such a long run to safety.  No one had ever thought the old volcano would ever wake up, but we knew it was definitely awake now.  Derek had been caught in the heavy ash fall and was covered in grayish black ash from head to foot. Mama gives Derek something to drink to help cool the burning in his throat. We wait and wait and pray, wondering if the worst is over or if more was yet to come.  It will take some time for all the ash to settle and fall to the ground.  Our world was turned from the beautiful, clean greens, to a world of dirty, gray, choking ash.

After most of the ash has settled, Mama and I started to clean up the ash that had blown into our house. Outside, Mother Nature's rains will wash away much of the gray that has coated the grass and trees. On the radio, the scientist and volcanologists are warning the people that the southern part of Montserrat is no longer safe and now we all must move to the north end of the island where we will be safe from the volcano's eruptions and hot ash. Mama and I wonder silently how long we will need to stay away from our house, or if we will ever be able to return.  It is sad to think we needed to move from our nice home and go to the north to live in a church that had been turned into an emergency shelter. There would be many people who would need to live in the church for many months. This is a very sad time for our beautiful island. 

I put some clothes into a cardboard box and tie it shut with a piece of twine and gather my school books, as Mama packs her old suitcase with clothes and a few cans of food. We stand at the door, taking time for one last look around.  It is such a beautiful home and we don't want to go. Mama and I have tears in our eyes.  Then we close the door as we leave. We walk past our garden where the little melon, onion and sweet potato plants we had just planted a few weeks earlier, now were covered with ash. Slowly we walk down to the road below.  Turning to the north, both Mama and I, silent, with our hands held tight to each other, on our way to start our new life.

It’s a long and quiet walk. This is not at all like the usual walks Mama and I always share, when she told me the old stories about Montserrat, but this walk is very different and not a happy time. Up and down the road, more people were joining in the long and sad journey to the north. As we climb the hill that leads to the church, we find many of our friends sitting on cots that had been lined up in several rows, against the church's stone walls. With boxes and suitcases everywhere, it looks like an airport more than a church. Everyone is glad to see their friends are safe, but sad and confused by what is happening to their lives and their beautiful little island.

We are happy to be safe, but it is not fun living in the shelter with so many people. The church is very hot and stuffy during the day.  Every night I can hear crying and sadness is all around.

As the months go by, the volcano is still sending large ash clouds high into the sky, but we are all safe in the north. Our once vibrant town of Plymouth is close to the volcano and now covered with ash and volcanic rocks and boulders. There is so much ash in the town, some of the rooftops are completely covered and have disappeared from view.

Everyone needs to stay in the church shelter until  they are able to move to a new house in the safe zone. Many new houses are being built by volunteers and people from other countries who want to help. There is a lot of activity with the big trucks, bulldozers and workers, building all the houses that are needed. Slowly, one by one, more new homes can be seen on the hill above the church shelter. 

After many long months of waiting and hoping, our new home is ready for us. Mama and I are very happy we’re able to move from the crowded shelter and into a home of our own. There are still many other people who have been patiently waiting for a new house too. 

There is much that needs to be done. Mama and I weren't able to bring much with us when we moved to the church shelter so long ago. The first thing I want to do is to start another garden, full of  vegetables and pretty flowers. We will visit our friends and talk about the future. In our new home, Mama still wakes me in the mornings and the birds still sing their happy songs and outside the children laugh and play their games.

Much has changed on our island, but much has remained the same. Montserrat is still beautiful. We will always miss what has been lost and how our lives were before the volcano awoke. We will miss the quiet, peaceful life we had known. Our old homes, the beautiful, green rain forest in the south, the sparkling, cool waterfalls, the many places in town, the old sugar mills and the churches, many gone now, burned and covered in ash, but we look towards the future with hope and faith. 

Our people have always been strong and we are still strong. Now we are starting our island's life anew. Workers are building more homes in the north. New homes, new stores and new shops are being built. We love our special island and it will always be special. Nothing will ever destroy our love for Montserrat. Our island was born from these volcanoes and without volcanoes, Montserrat would never have come to be. We need to remember we are grateful for the volcano, even now. Maybe someday when the volcano goes to sleep again, we will be able to return to our land in the south. We are on Montserrat and we know this is the most special and beautiful place on earth. 

Mama still tells her stories of long ago and today we are in the middle of a new story about Montserrat and the rebirth of our special island. Montserrat and Mama are my special loves. Our story of love will have no end.


About the author/illustrator

Jan Bester enjoys writing children's stories and also painting scenes of the Caribbean, especially Montserrat. She has combined her love of the Caribbean, writing and painting in her "Mama and Me On Montserrat" stories. The beautiful Caribbean with the warmhearted people is where her heart will always be.

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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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