ONE of the best perks of reporting is the opportunity to meet some of the most riveting, charismatic and enthralling personalities — characters that leave the hair on the back of your neck standing long after the interviewer and interviewee have parted ways. Sheera could easily fit into the category of persons you're least likely to forget, largely in part because she has chosen a life for herself which many would consider crazy and taboo and which few would dare to even experience. She pushes the envelope on what society regards as normal and acceptable.
Sheera is like no one you've ever seen before. On the day we met, she wore tall purple headress and combat-style boots laced up to mid-calf. A small tattoo in the shape of a symbol bridges her eyebrows and she has a small tattoo on either cheek. Her otherworldly appearance reminds me of a character that has escaped from a fantasy novel. While sweating in the midday heat, I made a careful study of her mannerisms and facial expressions. If she felt my eyes piercing through her, she never let on. She sat motionless, staring into the lens of a camera as she and her husband Jakatan were being filmed by a French crew for an upcoming documentary on their lives. What makes this film extra special is that it sheds light on a world the rest of us don't read or hear about every day. This year makes it 24 years that Sheera, Jakatan and their four children have been living in the forests of Grande Riviere. Call them extreme or eccentric — their lifestyle has won them many critics, but Sheera and Jakatan make no apologies. Her transition from Eunice Edris Romney of Cap-de-ville, Point Fortin, to 'Sheera, keeper of the forests' began in the late 1980s and was born out of personal heartache.
In 1988, Sheera, or Eunice as she was then known, was at a major crossroads in her life. Her marriage of 11 years had broken to pieces and her husband was awarded custody of the couple's four children. At the same time her world fell apart, Eunice had the inescapable urge to set off on a path of self-discovery, maybe only then, she thought, would she be able to salvage whatever happiness she could out of her life which up until that point had begun to resemble a black hole. Whatever the case, she had to leave Point Fortin. And so on a typical day, with a few dollars in her pocket and all her belongings packed in a bag, she boarded a bus and let it take her wherever it was headed. The journey took her along the winding roads of the north coast. With each turn the driver took on those narrow roads, Eunice felt pieces of her former life slowly fall away. At a certain point, a tall lean dark man with a matted rasta hairstyle boarded the bus. His name was Jakatan, one of the original members of a group of people led by founding member 'Mother Earth' who escaped to the forests to 'live off the land'. They called themselves the Earth People and their way of life was documented in detail in a book by British anthropologist, Roland Littlewood who stayed in the forests for a period of time with Jakatan and others. When Eunice met Jakatan, he had been living in the belly of the forests for years. He listened to her story and invited her to seek sanctuary in the forests. With a nod of her head, the course of her life changed for good.
The deeper the tired and world-weary woman trekked into the forests, she abandoned the symbolic compass that had guided her life up until that moment, and she charted a new destiny for herself. She was no longer Eunice, but Sheera and the forest became home. That isn't to say her decision came without difficulties.
"It's a harsh life, no electricity, endless mosquitoes. Also because they plant the land that involves a lot of hard work as well," said French cinematographer Phillippe Moreau who spent days filming Sheera and Jakatan in the forests.
At first, Sheera missed her former way of life. She grieved for her friends and family and on one occasion she made the trip back to Point Fortin to see whether a reconciliation with her estranged husband was possible, but he had already moved on with someone else. So she returned to the forests and resolved never to leave its boundaries again. To resist any temptation to leave the forests, she resorted to drastic measures and burnt all her clothes and material possesions. For five years, she lived in the nude, and never left the heart of the forest.
"You have to have a really good reason to live the way we do," says Sheera.
"At first I missed my friends and family. It took a lot of adjusting, for instance living without electricity. We have had to move 23 times because each time we built, woodlice would destroy the house. But as I got deeper into the forests and lived naturally I came into contact with higher spirits and got rid of all the things that had enslaved me to my former life, I lost all the fear I had because I read the Bible every day so my spirituality became stronger. Looking back, I could say that the years I have spent in the forest are filled with some of the best memories."
The birth of her children are undoubtedly among her favourite memories. Deep in the forest and with the help of Jakatan who took the place of midwife, doctor and nurse, Sheera gave birth to each of their four children Life, 21, Mother Nature, 19, Jungle Shango, 16 and Earth, 12.
"Because of that experience my husband and I are much closer. He now has more respect, love and affection for me," she says.
The forests and everything in it have given up their secrets to Sheera and Jakatan. They know the name and purpose of each tree, herb and plant and can point you in the direction of streams of water. The very earth is the lifeblood of their existence, their survival is dependent upon it. Everything they eat is planted by their own hands, and Sheera makes her own clothes. Not surprisingly, Sheera now has an intimate bond with the plant and animal worlds. During one of her pregnancies, a mapepire remained coiled in a corner of the family's kitchen and stayed there for nine months. Sheera and her family are strict vegetarians and feel an acute pain when the sound of a hunting rifle pierces the quiet of the day. On more than one occasion she and Jakatan have frightened off hunting dogs that were in quick pursuit of deer.
Sheera and her family may live isolated from the rest of the village of Grande Riviere but they have not given up on community life. They attend village council meetings and in the event one of their children falls ill, they avail themselves of the services rendered by a doctor who visits the community every Thursday, Sheera has also maintained contact with her children from her previous marriage.
Sheera is now 55. I ask how long she intends to stay in the forest.
"For as long as my life permits," she says.
"When I'm here I feel happy, like I'm adding life onto my life. When I leave I feel as if I'm dying."
But for the sake of her children, Sheera wishes for a piece of land close to the road that they can build on, that way getting transportation to and from school would be easier for her children. She makes it clear that when the children get older they can choose their own destiny, especially if this means leaving life in the forest altogether.
"They are bright children, healthy and self-reliant, but we want them to get the best education possible so that they could see about themselves later on. I want them to see and experience both worlds so that they will not feel that we have fooled them," she says.
For some, the forests represent nothing more than bush and lots of mosquitoes and insects, for Sheera it represented rejuvenation and healing during what was a difficult time in her life.
"For those who have never experienced this life, it's easy to discriminate and fight against it. And unfortuantely those people are in the majority. That's why I want them to see the film when it's done. But still, I would recommend this life to anyone in need of healing and spirituality, living in the forests, being at one with nature and living naturally is the best," she says.
And she should know, for it was deep in the forests of Grande Riviere that Sheera went from lost to found.