One afternoon I was talking with a hotel worker. Like many of the interactions with Grenadians I met, what started off as “small-talk” quickly turned into an in-depth and honest conversation. We began to talk about hurricane Ivan that struck the island in 2004 and devastated the island’s infrastructure, left many without electricity for almost a year, and destroyed many of the trees the people harvest for exports. The woman recalled the experience, “Everything was destroyed. Everything.”
What the woman went on to say about the experience astounded me, “Overall it was a good experience.” In no way was I expecting her to shed positive light on this situation. How can living through a natural disaster be a positive experience? She explained, “We were forced to rebuild the island. We came back stronger. Instead of having television and radio to distract us, we interacted with our neighbors and became closer.”
There were many other examples that demonstrated how strong and valuable the social networks are in Grenada. Walking through the town with one of the Grenadian officials who we worked with on the policy was one such experience. Virtually everyone said hello to the woman we were with. There were greetings, hugs, and laughs at almost every block. We were introduced to countless individuals with warm greetings and felt very welcome even though we were guests in the country for a week.
This same woman described to me a tradition inherited directly from Africa that is practiced in Grenada. She explained that a group of people, usually a group of coworkers or friends, forms and informal arrangement in which everyone pays a set amount every month. Once a month, it is someone’s turn to collect the money. This arrangement exists completely outside the banks and relies on the trust and agreements made by the groups.
The social networks here are extremely strong. As a public health professional, I look at this fact as an essential community asset that needs to be fostered for improving the health of the population on the island. Interventions could, and should, take advantage of the strong social capital maintained in the communities.
Emergency preparedness measures could utilize the lessons learned from hurricane Ivan. Government officials maintain social proximity and could be pivotal players in developing and implementing new public health interventions or policies. The layperson’s strong networks could also be harnessed for the delivery of public health initiatives.
It is important for us as students and professionals to realize that while other communities such as the Caribbean islands may not be as “developed” as our own, they have many unique assets that must not be neglected when considering how to tackle public health challenges. We need to challenge ourselves to not only focus on what a community lacks and learn to emphasize what a community has. By doing so, I believe our field will be able to develop programs and policies better tailored to individual communities and more likely to succeed in improving public health.