Nepali Times
Here And There
A volcano in the Caribbean


The British are up to something interesting in the Caribbean island of Montserrat, 700km south of me here in Miami, capital of the weird world. It pays to keep an eye on the Brits. They didn't conquer half the world in the 18th and 19th centuries by luck alone. First though, a little background.

Poor Montserrat was once one of the happiest places in the world, a tropical paradise. A mere flyspeck at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, it escaped the wave of decolonialisation that surged in the 1960s as European countries (with the exception, as ever, of France) shed their imperial possessions. Montserrat was too small to be independent on its own, too proud to be part of some nearby island's confederacy. So it chose to remain British.

Britain didn't really want this, but being a democracy, it went along with the wishes of the Montserratians and let them stay as one of London's last colonies. It was good for tourism, good for the locals who wanted to go to the UK from time to time and a few pounds sterling flowed in as aid. The UK connection also kept American culture at bay. Montserrat remained stubbornly British, despite its pretensions to being Irish. The national symbol is a shamrock and all of the names of the inhabitants are O'this, or Mc'that.

Slavery was a distant memory. The British governor and London ruled with a light touch, letting a vibrant local democracy take root.

But something was brewing deep under the earth that was to be the snake in this paradise. For Montserrat, you see, was the tip of a vast undersea volcano.

One day in 1995, a subterranean explosion surged up to the surface in a hill called Chance's Peak. Until that day, the hill had been a tourist attraction with steamy vents and hot water geysers showing that it was actually an active volcano.

But in 1995 and in subsequent years, lava and volcanic ash rained down on more half of the island, destroyed the quaint wooden buildings of the capital and drove half the population into exile. It also wrecked what tourist industry there was and proved somewhat of an embarassment to Tony Blair's newly elected Labour government in Britain.

If you see Claire Short in Nepal anytime soon, ask her if she has any "golden elephants" in her carry on baggage. She endeared herself, as DfID minister, to the Monserratians, by asking rhetorically if she was supposed to send them "golden elephants" when they were asking for more aid.

Anyway, paradise was lost. But now, DfID has cut off funds to Montserrat to pay for repairing damage caused by British and American military action in Iraq. And the latest wheeze to get the Montserratian economy moving again: nothing less than a 'School for Natural Disaster Management'. Jobs, foreign currency, fame, all coming Montserrat's way courtesy of Britain and Chances' Peak.

Now here's some thinking we could apply elsewhere. India could teach the world how to take over jobs from developed countries. South Africa how to heal racial divisions relatively painlessly. Pakistan, I'm positive, has much to teach us about how to handle America. Nobody does it better. And Nepal? What sort of school could Nepal run? Let's get some readers' suggestions on this with the best (and worst) printed in a future column. Nepal's School of ....... You read it here first.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)