There are few people who can lay claim to being an island scholar, soca monarch and a UN award winner to boot. That Akima Paul Lambert has achieved all this and more despite barely being into her third decade speaks volumes about this young Grenadian’s drive.
Born and raised in Grenada, Victoria, St Marks to be precise, in 2001 Akima became only the second woman to be crowned Grenada’s soca monarch. Her winning song, Prostitute, was described at the time as “a lyrical gem that will likely do much to shore up the calypsonian as editorialist, social commentator and tribune of the common people”.
After winning Grenada’s National Island Scholarship, an award given to the student judged to have the achieved the most outstanding academic performance on the island, Akima travelled to England to read Law at Cambridge University and went on to do a Masters in Law at the University of Paris. She’s currently an associate at Cleary Gottlieb, the international legal firm that played a ground-breaking role advising Greece on its high-stakes debt restructuring.
When we meet after work at a bar in the shadow of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral we discuss everything from her plans for the inaugural Grenada diaspora development lecture (taking place on 13 May at the London School of Economics), her passion for pro bono work (in the past she’s travelled Ghana to volunteer for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative) and her friendship with legendary Grenada Chocolate Company co-founder whose life and death have been an immense inspiration to Akima.
Our conversation starts where it all began. In 1998, aged just 15-years-old, Akima was elected to the prestigious ranks of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global 500 Roll of Honour. The award recognizes and honors environmental achievement. Previous winners include former US President, Jimmy Carter and the late Nigerian activist and environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wira. The entry for her award states: “Her strong point is that she talks and writes, with great conviction, about issues which are close to the hearts and minds of the Caribbean people, young and old alike.” It seems that, more than a decade later, not that much has changed about Akima Paul.
So how did you end up winning a UN award at the age of 15?
I was part of an environmental group long before the days that climate change or sustainability were mainstream. I felt so passionately about the issues that I started writing a weekly article in local newspaper on environmental degradation and how small islands would suffer. One of the organisers nominated me for the UNEP global 500 award.
More importantly the experience really peaked my interest in writing from a early age. I carried on writing and started doing calypso and that was because I love writing. I like performing as well, I like drama and realised that I enjoyed the creative side of it the most. Even now with my current job has a lot to do with the fact that I like to write, to be creative and persuasive with language. I think that’s definitely a common thread.
Another random thing, you did a song with Mott Green, founder of the Grenada Chocolate Company?
Yes, Mott was a very good friend of mine. His death had a tremendous impact on me and made me focus on doing the things I’ve always wanted to do. I’d sat with Mott so many times and gone over certain things that I wanted to do and it just didn’t happen. Seeing him die so weirdly it really had a tremendous impact on me.
But he was a good friend. We were in the chocolate factory together one day and he said ‘let’s do a cocoa song’. So we just did a little ditty. I really loved what he did with the Chocolate Company I loved the principle of it, I loved the ethos, that it was a co-operative and that it is Grenadian.[Listen: Smilo Cocoa Powder radio ad (music and lyrics by Akima Paul and Mott Green)]
Whenever Mott came to London we would always meet to go to the theatre or have a glass of wine. I saw him at my wedding – he made personalised chocolates for me. His death spurred me into action this year: I’m working on the poetry book and I’m getting this event together. I thought, ‘Carpe Diem. You’re not too young, you don’t lack experience you just need to go for it’.
How would you define that thing that propels you from environmental campaigning to doing amazingly well at school?
I’m very passionate and I throw myself into a lot of things because that’s just who I am. I’ve always been an all-rounder. At school I used to run, I used to sing, I used to do well at school – I was pretty good at being a geek but I was a geek who liked sports! That was always encouraged. I went to St Joseph’s Convent and they placed a heavy premium on being multi-faceted. It’s that whole ‘why not’ philosophy’. It made me feel that there was no limit on what I could do or on what I could say I wanted to do. That really was key in my development. I’m not sure there’s a common thread as I’m a bit of a contradiction; I can be an extrovert and then a introvert. I have a professional career now and I also don’t have as much time as I used to but I always have many different projects on the side.
My poetry is something I really enjoy. It’s that same malaise; who will write our stories? There’s no one in Grenada writing poetry from the perspective of a young person. Who is telling our stories? No one is and I think that is such a travesty. Because Grenada’s economic situation means the situation people find themselves in is just about survival, it’s just about money. In a society where arts are not able to flourish will be very sterile. I feel almost like I have an obligation. Even if I chose to be a lawyer, someone needs to do it, to chronicle what life is like for people like those who lived in my parish. I grew up in Victoria. They did a poverty survey when I was growing up and we were classed as the poorest town in the Caribbean!
How do you define the challenges the island is facing?
Grenada is a microcosm of the Caribbean in general. The problems Grenada faces are symptomatic across the Caribbean. When we think of poverty we tend to think of the extreme poverty experienced in African countries but I want people to know that poverty is not necessarily about lack of food it’s a very layered concept. There are people who have food and clothing but they are malnourished intellectually, or socially they’re not playing an active role in their society, they’re marginalised. Those sorts of issues need to be ventilated.
At the same time I don’t want to paint a picture that there are only problems. One of the greatest things about Grenada is that we are tenacious. People can live through most adverse conditions. I always say, ‘I was poor growing up but I never knew it’. It’s all relative and I think that’s what I want to do – to present who we are as a deeply nuanced and highly complex place. It’s not just paradise – Grenada is more than a place where people check into hotels and sip Mojitos. We are people who have stories and they are worthy of being told.
One of the things that I’m trying to work into the narrative of the way these stories are being told is the way in which your identity, either as someone born abroad as a second or third generation Grenadian or as someone born in Grenada but living abroad, how that shapes and influences the way in which you think about the island and how those thoughts are then received. What is your experience?
I lived in Grenada until I was 18-years-old. I went to Cambridge and then I did two years in Paris and then I came back to London. I think a European filter can be helpful but it also can be dangerous. We always tend to think that we know the fix or we know the cure because we apply that European filter to life in Grenada. It’s very tempting to think that we can resolve it all but one of the things that I really am passionate about is realising that it has to be about dialogue. It can’t be about ‘us’ and ‘them’. There is some of the us and them mentality…
And who are you in that conversation?
I’m Grenadian! I’m British as well but I see myself as a homegrown Grenadian. I see myself as a visitor on this [British] soil. I do recognise that I live in the diaspora so I guess that makes me part of ‘them’ in terms of the Grenadians who live in the diaspora but I don’t think anything could take away the fact that I am ‘us’ as well. My direct experience of growing up in Grenada makes a big difference. I know what it feels like to be preached at and to experience someone who thinks they understand all of the issues and knows all of the answers and who tries to impose something that you know to be different.
The solution has to be about dialogue and that’s what I want to focus on; seeing how best we can all use what we’ve learnt here and not waiting until we get home to do it. Because I think that’s a problem, everyone says ‘oh when I get back home I will do this or that’ but what are you doing right now while you’re abroad? That’s a big issue for the diaspora and that’s a big issue for me.
There are more Grenadians living outside Grenada then there are living inside Grenada. How can we harness what we have here to help and support in terms of the objectives they want to realise back home?
Was there ever the option, given your ambitions, for you to have stayed in Grenada?
I had to leave. To a certain extent I owe my ambition to Grenada because I was the island scholar, I got a scholarship to study in London. There wasn’t really the avenue to study law at the level I wanted to in Grenada so to a certain extent, yes, I had to travel abroad. Living in London, Cambridge and Paris while having the opportunity to interact with different people, it wasn’t just learning about law it was an opportunity to learn about life. That was invaluable. I don’t think you could ever get that living at home.
If you really want to challenge yourself it’s probably necessary to leave but I’m not saying that by not leaving you’re not being challenged, you’re just being challenged in a different way. Although I’m part of the brain drain I’m trying to remedy that. I’m part of the malaise so maybe this is an act of contrition because I’m very concerned about Grenada and what can be done to help the island but at the end of the day the people who are considered the talent, we need to figure out a way to assist.
I don’t think everybody has to leave but if everybody stays, Grenada will have a totally different problem which is unemployment, which is already rife. We can’t be going home to look for jobs. We have to create jobs. That’s the million dollar question for the diaspora.