Cultivating arrowroot in Colombier;

A traditional skill brought back to life

At the entrance to the village of Colombier, you will find a large stoned positioned at the side of the road. This inscribed stone is a monument dedicated to the arrowroot cultivators of Colombier who still tend to this crop. It was implemented by the Nature Valley Association of Colombier, which staged the root’s first cultivation, a so-called jollification, this year. A banner of the association shows the arrowroot plant and the traditional mortar the root is pounded in.

This association is based upon the arrowroot as it symbolizes an old tradition of cultivation that is slowly being forgotten and needs to be remembered, according to the president and the secretary of the association, Vernicia Brooks and Vivian Roberts. The association formed out of a need to focus on St. Martin’s heritage and more specifically on the customs of Colombier.

Vivian Roberts explains that arrowroot is a staple Colombier crop that is harbested around March. Arrowroot cultivators dig up the root and replant new shoots. The roots are then washed, peeled and pounded into a pulp. This is done with a pestle on generations old mortars made from tree trunks. The pulp is rinsed with water, strained through a cloth and the water is set aside. The process is repeated a couple of times whereby the arrowroot starch sinks to the bottom of the water basin. Once the water is scooped out, the starch is laid out to dry on big sheets.

In Colombier this arrowroot thickener is made into a very nutritious tea or is cooked with milk to nourish babies. The root is also said to relieve upset stomachs, which is why health food stores around the globe carry arrowroot cookies. It can be used as a poultice for smallpox sores as well, and as an infusion to aid the urinary tract. It is also a mild laxative. According to Vivian, the people of Colombier would clean their jewelry and starch their clothing with the root. Apart from extracting nutritious arrowroot starch, the root itself can also be boiled and eaten, just like carrots for example. Unlike carrots, however, the root tastes a bit bland.

Arrowroot was formerly cultivated by Amerindians, who are said to have applied the pulp to poisonous arrow wounds to draw out the toxins. It is questionable, however if this application gave the root it’s name or whether the name comes from the shape of the plant itself, which resembles an arrow.

In slavery times, revenues were gathered by selling arrowroot starch to the Dutch side of the island, as it was scarce there. The thickener was also exported to other islands throughout the Caribbean. Vernicia and Vivian explain that people used to come from allover to purchase Colombier arrowroot starch, which was known to be the best quality.

Traditional arrowroot cultivation has been passed on to Vernicia and Vivian by their mothers and grandmothers. They recall that most people in Colombier used to own a garden of arrowroots, but not many plantations are left nowadays. They know of only one woman whose daughter has taken over the farming and is still growing crops Arrowroot cultivation requires maintenance. You stand to lose your crop if you don’t maintain your patch of toots every two or three years. Arrowroot can be considered a cultural icon and it should be treated as such. Vernicia noted; “When you pound the roots iy gives you a feeling of nostalgia; it is part of our ancestral traditions, so much so that it gives me goose bumps.” Vivian tells the story of the young man who came to Colombier and just wanted to pound. “He pounded and pounded and then he left; he had a need!” Together they say: “ The youth of St. Maarten don’t get the old traditions passed on to them and they have a need for them. They are not challenged and are easily influenced by peers. The youth in Colombier face the same issues as the youth on the rest of the island. It is imperative to know about your past in order to live in the future. You need to know where you come from in order to know where you’re going.

The Village of Colombier still exhumes a sense of “rooted-ness”. It has managed to escape the mechanical arms of development to a degree and that is quite a feat in today’s society. Vernicia: “People never used to like coming into Colombier. It was too far to go inland. People used to say we lived in the Kunuku (bush). Now, however, the village brings them back to their past.
The Nature Valley Association aims to preserve the islands heritage. It organizes gatherings, so-called concerts or socials, where they sing traditional songs, dance and act out plays. Some of the songs have been thought to be long forgotten, but the women keep them alive.
They both demonstrate, singing lyrics of a traditional song:
“Come down lady with the hokey pokey.
Come down lady with the hokey pokey.
Walk back lady with the ice and jelly
Come back lady with the ice and jelly
Ice and jelly, 5 cents!”

Vernicia adds that whilst they are singing others would act out the contents of the song. Many old songs are preserved this way, amongst them: “My bonny lies over the ocean” and Roll down the barrel.” Their next project is a cassava celebration. Casava is another plant that used to be traditionally cultivated. It was once planted alongside the arrowroot and baked into bread and cornmeal or boiled into porridge and farina.

At most of the Association’s festivities other traditional foods are served, such as callaloo, fish and dumpling saltfish and johnnycake, cornmeal, and smoked herring with rice. These plates are washed down with fresh juices like tamarind juice, golden apple juice and lime and ginger juice. At the cassava festival they also make a customary dish called Bambola. This is made from cassava, grated coconut and brown sugar and according to both women: “Delicious!”

Two to three times a year the association prepares soups, about 10 different kinds! Vernicia: “Soups used to be very much part of local fare. My mother used to cook us pea soup and chicken soup. It is good to show that food here doesn’t only consist of chicken leg and johnnycake. Soups should be eaten more, they are very nutritious.”

During these events, old time objects are exhibited as well. Antiques such as coal pots, traditional irons, cassava baking pans, face basins and rub-boards (used for washing clothes) are laid out so that everyone, especially the youth can familiarize themselves with these objects of a not so distant past.

On Saturday March 22, the association will arrange its third annual Easter Egg Hunt fundraiser. With the funds it raises, either the senior citizens or the children children will be taken on outings.

Future plans include organizing traditional Christmas caroling, hosting Mother’s day and Father’s day socials for Colombier’s seniors and hopefully, establishing a youth center in Colombier.

Taken from The Daily Herald; March 15th 2008
Written by Sanny Ensing