Arriving on the remote South Atlantic island of St Helena, and walking down the main street of capital Jamestown, it’s obvious the place is a bit special. Everybody smiles, greets one another, and makes every visitor feel equally welcome; known affectionately as “Saints“, they are a friendly bunch.
The next day taking a driving tour of the island, courtesy on the road was even more telling. Drivers constantly stopped, and pulled over allowing oncoming traffic to pass. This level of cooperation is uncommon in my experience, every driver displaying remarkable courtesy to other road users, and was charming to witness.
It feels like a village community, a genuine sense of close-knit attitude. Chatting with any of the islanders, it soon becomes clear they seem to know everybody, regardless of where they live on the island, the furthest neighbours, the most remote residents are aware of each other’s business. It’s not merely gossip either, they genuinely seem interested in the welfare of their fellow Saints.
There is also an obvious pride in this community spirit, and whether young or old there seems an extensive knowledge of their history. This awareness isn’t restricted to tour guide drivers, who should be knowledgeable, but every islander has a wealth of anecdotes to share. Open a bottle of wine, or share a beer, and they’re more than happy to educate a willing visitor about their history.
This community spirit even extends to the RMS St Helena, the cargo/passenger ship is the island’s only physical link to the outside world. Manned by Saints, the officers, are also keen to tell stories about the island. Although many have been away for sometime, they are up to date with all the gossip, know all the residents, and obviously keep in touch with the comings, and goings of island life.
Many Saints have moved away from St Helena, working on The Falklands, Ascension, in Cape Town, or the United Kingdom, but even those far removed keep in touch. Islanders are equally interested in what their travelling brethren are doing in the far flung corners of the planet. This village attitude is part of the appeal, and is one reason so many saints are eager to return, and settle once they’ve saved enough to buy land, and build a home.
The close-knit community also seems proud, and supportive of St Helena’s Participation in Enterprise (SHAPE). This non-profit project aids vulnerable adults, providing training towards employment, and aims to look past disabilities. Participants produce a variety of items, often recycling waste products in creative ways, making decorative items for resale.
The demand for these products is high, outstripping production, and although they are popular with tourists as souvenirs, they also decorate many Saint homes. It’s just one example of how the community rallies together, helping one another when any of the residents are in need. It’s difficult to imagine any saint turning their back on one of their own.
I participated in an evening sponsored walk to raise funds to keep a community radio station running. The turn-out wasn’t huge, but it was substantial, and the passion displayed by all the participants in keeping the ‘voice’ of the island going was inspiring. The station is obviously popular, apparently the first port of call for any Saint wanting to know what was happening on their island.
This is the character of St Helena, a close-knit village community that make it a special destination. The remoteness of the island has produced this culture of welcome, the friendly island village inhabited by Saints. They also seem to know how to party, so maybe they can also probably be sinners.