Post 169.

If you parent a little girl, the amount of time you spend with her can be scientifically measured by how many songs you know from the movie ‘Frozen’. Disney has merchandised childhood, meaning the making of local memories can barely be conceived beyond its corporate monopoly on everything from birth to birthdays.

Zi turned four on Saturday, and her little celebration was only missing the ‘Frozen’ Elsa outfit and bouncy castle. You can fight Disney, as I tried, insisting for the first two birthdays on cake and other decorations that were not marketed by US media to us in the Caribbean. But, you will find yourself alone in the wilderness of Santa Cruz while your mother google maps the country for Dora or Elsa icing designers, your mother in law invests in customary birthday paraphernalia, and no one else actually cares about the intersections of capitalism, post-colonialism and childhood.

After all, generations of Caribbean people inherited Disney characters as globalized symbols of play and joy, just as we once inherited British ones, identifying ourselves as world citizens this way.

And, it’s all done in Ziya’s name as if only a bad mother would deny her harmless normality, and deprive her of the chance to be like her friends with their own Disney themed birthdays. Indeed, little girls are astute observers of childhood status markers, and pre-school playgrounds feature complex conversation about gender socialization, class belonging, modernity and conspicuous consumption.

Thus, Ziya’s birthday cake icing comprised expertly made (and delicious) blond Elsa, blue icicles, silver snowflakes and Olaf the snowman, all proudly displayed on a humid, tropical afternoon. My mother requested a brown girl with black plaits be crafted from icing and placed next to Elsa in an attempt to mediate between Franz Fanon and ‘Frozen’, and I kept my politics to myself for family requires compromise, fantasies are part of childhood and I survived much Disney-defined fun, parties, toys and clothes with critical consciousness mostly intact.

I looked at it all thinking that this is why Ziya insists on being a princess when I explain the power of African empresses. I thought about the far fewer options for Caribbean-themed birthdays, with our own icons, myths and landscape, and how we repeat an old colonial familiarity with daffodils and practicing ‘proper’ English through the reading of British colloquialisms in books by Beatrix Potter. We celebrate escape to elsewhere, TV, overseas or other selves.

Teaching what we have learnt, survived and fondly remember, we establish the connections that craft our children’s sense of themselves and place, the lens from which they assess what is presented as who they are, and their practices of validating their own bodies, ecology and stories. It makes sense for bleaching creams to line Pennywise shelves, for government officials to defend a leisure complex, which turns its back on the existence of the coast whose mangrove it decimated, and for the meanings of development to be determined by FDI, or foreign direct imagination.

Feminism offered some future consolation. Disney is now stirring sprinkles of independence, fearlessness and sisterhood into tales such as Sleeping Beauty and Alice in Wonderland. In ‘Frozen’, the story doesn’t end with a prince, hapless damsel rescue or marriage as the happily ever after. Thank goddess.

This is how the world of a just-turned four, sapodilla-brown girl is defined by media, US corporate power, family, femininity, Caribbean feminism and more. Like Frozen’s Elsa, may Zi find the freedom to not hide who she has grown up to be. Like Anna, may she celebrate each year she grows into the hero of her own story.

 

Post 168.

I was unapologetically proud when Kamla Persad-Bissessar became the country’s first woman Prime Minister. I loved her clean election campaign in comparison to the PNM’s labeling their opponents ‘skeletons’ and throwing insults for cheap political gain. I was completely excited that this astute politician could defeat lesser men and lead a complex coalition, unlike any other Caribbean leader before, and miles ahead of PNM’s go-it-alone politics. I’d watch Persad-Bissessar on TV and teach my daughter the name of the first Indian woman to crack that glass ceiling.

At one meeting, along with feminist grandmothers like Hazel Brown and Brenda Gopeesingh, I breastfed Ziya while the PM talked with us and I took notes. I wondered who before had breastfed while with a PM in a Cabinet meeting room, and of course Persad-Bissessar didn’t even blink, knowing that this is what women can do in boardrooms when grandmothers and mothers hold office.

I liked the little decisions the People’s Partnership made, for example to ban hunting despite a myopic ‘no hunting, no vote’ campaign, to actually answer the parliamentary questions put to the government, and the initial choice to put the gender machinery in the ministry of planning. I took heat from all kinds of people because I was seen as too silent and too uncritical in Persad-Bissessar’s first years. It was because, perhaps naively, I had such hope.

Since then, I’ve found myself ending up and again on the side of citizens, led by other women, mothers and grandmothers, protesting through media and on the street. My hope has tumbled, knocked down by bad appointments, murky state spending, the homophobia of the Children’s Act, patron-clientelism, mishandled electoral changes, and the most recent reliance on PR and attacks.

I fear for the PM in this showdown with Wayne Kublalsingh. I wish she knew that his death will leave no escape from regret. By first marching against the highway and then switching position once in power, the PM created the path that led to this moment of reckoning. Her own supporters may spin around and say why not have chosen mediation, why not just agree that properly done hydrology and cost-benefit analyses were due, why not just publish the contract signed in this billion dollar deal, why not tackle people’s transportation problems in a way that built consensus rather than division? What about compassion? As we grow more committed to accountability, which we will with each decade, the principles at stake will grow increasingly clear.

I wish I could thank the PM for setting the standard for how development should best be done to benefit the entire nation. I wish I could ask her what her grandmother and mother would advise. I wish I could congratulate her for ending this as an informed, transformational leader would. I wish that, as woman, she would roar at the financiers who want to act as puppet masters. I wish her decisions meant there would be no future struggle over the same issues, taking up time for committed and concerned citizens like you and me.

Being a woman is public and personal, for government sets the context for the intimate, for love spans ecology, neighbor and nation, justice and future, just as it does family. Knowing more than wishing is necessary, I wake up wondering which words and deeds can help make the world right. These days I awake almost holding my breath, wondering how stories I’m telling are going to end. Knowing that the country I love is at a turning point, I wish the PM would inspire again the hope I felt in 2010.

Post 167.

One morning, after dropping Ziya to pre-school, on time, I drove away thinking about her teachers’ emphasis on preparing her for primary school next year. What no one talks about is how much pre-school is primary school preparation for parents like me.

I suspected her teachers knew this given that, when Zi was entering Year 1, I somehow didn’t know that you are supposed to show up at school registration day with actual documents and not just the child. I caught them exchanging glances like, well, there’s one every year and, indeed, here she is.

And, now that she’s in Year 2, how was I supposed to know that Zi would be self-conscious walking into class after it started because we arrived late? First, that she would be self-conscious about lateness at three years old never occurred to me. Second, I thought pre-school was where children went to learn through play and could join in activities anytime. Apparently, not. It’s all about routine and schedule and also learning discipline. Who knew?

I’m good at books-related parenting and Zi’s library covers everything from astronomy to dinosaurs to art history with gorgeous and child-friendly artwork. I’m good at giving her life experiences, whether of rivers, restaurants or protests. Zi marched with citizens saying no to the electoral run- off proposal, imposed without adequate consultation. She participated in the climate change march, giving us a chance to talk about how the birds, animals and marine life need their homes protected too, though she was primarily focused on her snocone. She almost lives by Yara river. Her godmother, aunties and I give her abundant experiences of good food, leading to her suddenly declare her love for decaf cappuccino last month. Don’t ask.

Aside from this, I’m often too preoccupied to notice that forgetting her virtually empty, mostly symbolically important, schoolbag is a big deal. I figure Zi’s got to learn that few things constitute a crisis. I tell her better to make Pete the Cat’s “‘Buttons come, buttons go. Do we cry? Goodness no”, her survival motto.

My mother practically started a custody case when she realized I would have blithely sent Zi to school in ordinary instead of Indian clothes for Divali, prompting her to rush to Chaguanas to spare her one grandchild not fitting in or having the whole experience. I mean she’s got a lifetime to wear shalwars, right?

I didn’t think about starting the school year with a new lunch kit just because her current one is rusty or her best friend got a new one or it’s what parents normally do. Zi had to have a talk with me in her ‘mummy, you should have’ admonishing voice while I rolled my eyes, but listened.

Zi’s teachers finally took charge when I was explaining that I’d forgotten to dress her in Republic Day colours as requested. They sent me an email announcing that when children do what teachers ask, they get rewarded with a sticker. It seems I’m now on a sticker system, with my own chart. Not the other parents, just me.

Zi’s being prepared for primary school, but my learning curve includes getting her to school on time, mostly. I make sure she’s got her show-and-tell in her bag, mostly. I remember to collect her on afternoons without setting an alarm or being reminded by a concerned co-worker, mostly.  She’ll be dressed in proper outfits for all national days from now on, mostly. It will have taken, not just her, but me, two full years to be prepared for primary school, mostly.

I thank her teachers.

Now, where’s my sticker?

Post 166.

I told myself that I’d be there to support Wayne Kublalsingh’s second hunger strike, even if I disagreed with it as a strategy, because you don’t leave soldiers to fight on battlefields alone.

You might disagree with their battle plan, wonder at their choices, get vex that they don’t follow your suggestions, and anticipate the victories as well as onslaught of wounds, but soldiers who decide to die fighting deserve more than dismissive derision.

I mean soldiers who put everything into the trenches of citizen organizing for more than a decade for no personal gain, and who have fought without guns, mudslinging or dogs of war for communities’ sustainable needs. Soldiers who ran out big polluter industries which would have gorged on our precious island resources, exported the profits, and left our children along the South-West peninsula mired in waste. I mean soldiers who won’t give up our rights to state accountability for any version of development, and who won’t let politicians conveniently and falsely make us choose.

While these soldiers step into the deep fog ahead, steeled by will, experience and principle, there is work for us to do.  This is my tenth column on the HRM since November 2012, every word as personal as it is political. I’ve often visited the handful of older folk, sitting peaceably outside the PM’s office for more than 200 days, forever imprinting in my mind that image of their little tent facing the façade of prime ministerial authority.  Listening to the women of the HRM marvel at never imagining quiet, rural mothers could challenge the PM, I’ve seen examples of empowerment for young Indian women.

I came of age under citizen soldiers like Sheila Soloman, Angela Cropper, Norman Girvan, Norris Deonarine, Rhea Mungal, Desmond Allum, Michael Als, and more. Their ghosts stalk our apathy. They remind that history is made by individuals handing on a sense of people power to another generation. They forewarn that some successes may only be an edging back of government secrecy and domination, some will take more than our lifetime to achieve.

Through these weeks, I’ve listened to people saying the ‘environmental movement’ should just give up on this as if giving up is what Caribbean people do, as if one tenth of our budget isn’t a public issue. I’ve listened to others divide south from north Trinidad as if a nation is best guided by the spin of divide and rule. I’ve seen million dollar government propaganda distract from the billion dollar questions.

Perhaps naively, I hoped that, against such a Goliath, we could win with our little slingshots of truth.  I’ve also listened to Sunity Maharaj sagely caution me that, if I think back to the Amerindians, to the long struggle since colonization, I’d also remember that crushing, arbitrary defeat after defeat is part of our legacy.

I could write about the dilemmas of choosing a primary school where teachers will not beat my child, and the worry of sitting in parent-teacher meetings hearing that her confidence doesn’t match her vocabulary, but I find myself more concerned with the complexity of power and its hidden curriculum, less likely to produce solidarity than indifference and cynicism.

Our work ahead is to decide what this moment will mean.  When mega projects cost us more than they should, ecologically, financially and socially, I ask myself what Ziya will think of the sides I took, and my own accountability.

May soldiers also help her learn how to educate, advocate and mobilize. In your own future dark time, Zi my love, may they still haunt those aiming at your dream.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

On Wednesday 22 October, I visited Wayne at home. Lying in his bed, looking hollow but radiant on Day 36, he pointed to a sketch he had done of three men – Martin Luther King, Walter Rodney and Martin Carter.

I had written this entry the night before, hoping to explain my own involvement, what I understand true soldiers to be, and why Wayne didn’t need to live on to lead another future struggle – for that is our responsibility. It was late when Express reporter Kim Boodram had called to say she had seen Wayne and was horrified at his state. I felt darkness like a weight pressing on my fingers, wrists, arms, shoulders and neck as I sat at my desk listening. I had not yet ended this entry and found an articulation of my emotions in Martin Carter’s

‘This is the dark time, my love’.

His brown beetles are soldiers who trample the slender grass, who produce oppression and fear. I thought of independence as the change to our own forces of authoritarianism and the guerrilla citizens who help us learn how to defend ourselves. I thought of the jumbie Wayne, now in human body, but perhaps moving to another form. I thought of how I carry the formidable commitment of civil society within me, like a pantheon, and my hope that Wayne’s spirit would also usher us ahead.When he showed me the drawing, I read this to him, glad that Carter’s truths continue to haunt us. The next day was a gathering to shed light on the darkness of governmental secrecy and domination. Light, not violence, is our weapon. 

Gabrielle Souldeya Hosein

Post 165.

Sunday was different.
 
After working for weeks to build support for Wayne Kublalsingh’s hunger strike, Sunday’s gathering was the first sign of popular momentum.
 
Individuals had been visiting the camp outside the PM’s office, and advocacy by Merle Hodge, Clyde Harvey and Peter Minshall was visible from early. Union and MSJ folk, led by David Abdullah, had joined, and were part of a larger show of solidarity by civil society. Columnists had begun to write of the Armstrong Report as national issue, and a route to justice for citizens challenging top-down government.
 
Along with women’s NGOs, feminists from UWI were the first to publicly demonstrate collective solidarity with the long struggle of the women of the HRM. For the first time, some of my students who came with me understood the difference between online and street activism, connected to the sacrifices women make to speak truth to power, and faced their own responsibility to be more informed.
 
However, planned only since Friday, through our small but collective effort, Sunday’s gathering of about six hundred was organic and genuine. Nobody was bused in. Nobody came to deny the highway they need to those traveling from San Fernando to Port Fortin. Nobody was paid or pressured. People came with their own flags. They gathered to hear why mediation was a strategy for a mutually acceptable end to this eight-year standoff. They prayed and softly sang.
 
There was an instant of magic when Minshall told everyone to raise their candles and deyas, for all of we is one with such citizen effort, and in that second the only two streetlights near us in Nelson Mandela Park switched off, perfectly on cue. One could have thought it was only Minshall’s obeah if it were not for the fact that Father Harvey was inside the medical centre praying with Wayne. As Harvey said, ‘Let the celestial light…’, electricity dipped in the room, same time Minsh in the park was doing his vodou.
 
Arriving, Mrs. Persad-Bissessar must have been struck by the numbers and the energy, as every politician notices when people take to the streets, and her assistants taking pictures would have recorded citizens like me who are not PNM, ILP, COP or anti-government. Worth noting, the majority of people there probably comprised the sleeping tiger of that ‘third’, untethered force who helped vote in the PM in 2010.
 
Amazingly, even when the vigil was over, everyone stayed waiting for her to emerge from meeting Wayne. People waited, without being asked, hoping that the miracle of a middle ground would be found, hoping for more than a PR play. The waiting led some to shout shame, and to threaten blocking the PM’s car. The women of the HRM began to resolutely chant ‘reroute’. Others stood silently, holding their lights, their peaceful presence voicing their principles and politics. Such multiple dynamics are the risks and strengths of the momentum ahead.
 
Aggressive polarization is also growing. On social media, it’s mostly insult and blame of the PM, Kublalsingh, anybody really.  The irony is that, fundamentally, and in quieter conversation, all ‘sides’ can realize we have shared priorities and needs for the best traffic solutions, wisest use of our budget, state transparency from truthful politicians, and least destruction of our children’s environment.
Despite circulating misinformation, political division, frustration and cynicism, our current lesson as a society is how to weld all these scattered pieces, emotions and agendas into at least one idea, precious and whole, on which we agree. As more join the fray, our challenge is to widen recognition of the common ground that is our reality.
 

DON’T LET SPIN WIN.

In citizen struggles to hold governments accountable, their Goliath is spin. Suddenly, we find ourselves pelting stones at each other, distracted from resisting strong-arm domination.

In the long battle waged by the Highway Re-Route Movement, the government’s response has only ever been such spin.

SPIN 1

Everywhere, government highlights the suffering of the people who desperately need a highway. This positions them as saviours, motivated only by their selfless commitment to caring, and makes anyone who questions them an unfeeling, privileged, foreigner-to-South whose only aspiration must be to unconscionably let people suffer.

Why is it spin? It absolves the government of actually addressing any of the legitimate claims that all citizens have to see the studies, such as hydrology reports and cost-benefit analyses and social impact assessments, that we are due as a nation, whether you are from South or North, particularly when 200 000 truckloads of aggregate from the Northern Range is at stake.

You might not understand the details, but these studies are the last forms of protection that citizens have against mega projects that will cost us, ecologically, financially and socially, more than they should. We should be defending the fight to have these studies properly done and in the public domain at all costs, if only for our children.

“The government cares about people’s suffering, Kublalsingh does not. Give in to state wisdom! No need for public documents or clear answers! Build the highway!”

This is the wafer-thin spin being offered like redemption at communion. The request for such studies and reports remains legitimate, especially for the people in South, but we are too busy pelting stones at each other to build our defenses and to take charge of our own power to decide for ourselves what is best for us.

Be clear, there must be highways and they must also not cut corners along the way.

SPIN 2

The government’s next tactic has been to say that the HRM has lost in the courts and therefore its claims are illegitimate.

First, the HRM lost the injunction because the judgment took too long to come and, ironically, construction was too far gone, not because their expectation to have answers was incorrect.

Later, they lost because shifts to the path of the Debe to Mon Desir Highway over the many, many months of the court case meant that the original claimants were not the ones in immediate danger, not because their struggle is illegitimate.

Their call for the studies, and the totally neutral, civil society led Armstrong Report’s call for the necessary studies, has never been illegitimate. That was never up for consideration in the courts. It is not even up to the courts. It remains a decision for us to make regarding the extent which we are willing to be ruled by secrecy.

Government spin tells us to leave what is ours to others to decide. But losses in court do not in any way make it less legitimate to say: Show us the Studies! Show us your justifications! Show us the properly done impact assessments! Show us how the billions will be spent!

It remains our national right to know.

SPIN 3

The third strategy has to been to call the HRM and Kublalsingh to account. Show us your foolproof alternate routes! Have they undergone rigorous hydrological assessment? Show us your medical records? Where are your documents to prove why we should believe you? You are avoiding answering for yourself! We have asked clear questions in the press and you are providing no clear answers! Charlatan! People with secret agendas seeking to distract the population from their real needs! You! You! You!

And, more stones rain down between citizens uselessly, for neither Kublalsingh, nor the HRM will be responsible for the damage to the hydrology of the Oropouche Lagoon or to the Northern Range or to long established communities or to our national deficit or even to the processes of accountability and transparency to which we are due.

Meanwhile, PM Persad-Bissessar, AG Ramlogan, Ministers Rambachan, Barath and Khan, and Carson Charles sit back to watch Goliath come out to challenge us, and we sit in our concerns, divided against each other, no better informed about or willing to represent our rights, retreating into gratefulness to our saviors regardless of the murkiness of their salvation, and questioning our power to get both the needed highway and every single page of due process which should already be in the public domain.

We fall for the idea that it is either or. Either highway or rights. Either transparency and accountability or much needed development. That’s just spin.

THEIR GOLIATH IS  SPIN

This is what spin does. It sets up false options. It tells us to decide from falsely limited choices. It distracts us from seeing that, yes, we can get all we deserve, and makes us be grateful for much much less. It makes us compromise so that next time we fear the bruises that we will rain on each other and we keep quiet so that spin and shadow become all we know. It makes us pelt stones at each other and let Goliath trample on in.

And that spins out of control. We don’t ask questions about corruption by the millions anywhere anymore. We don’t ask questions about untendered contracts. When citizens take the government to court just to get the information they keep locked away, we think poor souls, fighting a lost cause, they should just give in, we have lost so many times already, what is once more.

That is what spin does. It tells you that war is peace, when you know that peace doesn’t seek to kill. It tells you I beat you because I love you baby when you know it’s control behind violence, not care.  It tells you that you don’t need to see properly done hydrology reports or environmental impact assessments or explanations for why billion dollar contracts go untendered to corrupt companies because those are not also your needs when citizens are saying, yes, those are in fact our needs, and our rights, and we will not let you diminish what we know to be true.

Any government that avoids transparency is hiding something. Any government that pits citizens against each other is hiding something. Any government that pays Ernie Ross, the government’s biggest paid Ad Man,  millions of our money to fool us up about the right questions and answers are when we have been asking the right questions and not getting answers to them yet, is hiding something. Any government that turns to spin is hiding from truth.

The million dollar spin is coming to distract us from the billion dollar questions, to turn us against each other and to allow the government’s Goliath to make us give in.

Stay focused on getting both solutions to transportation suffering and solutions to government secrecy. This is about our money, our communities, our environment and our future.

Join for as much as we can get and as best as we can get it.

Don’t let such spin win.

#reroutetnt #democratizedevelopment #showusthestudies #reroutegovernmentspin

Post 164.

Close to the Highway Re-route Movement and Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh’s second hunger strike, there have been moments of self-reckoning, of seeking optimism in every step forward, and of continuing to weave passion for a better world with level-headed analysis about the actual terrain.

I’ve asked myself what constitutes a movement and how many must comprise its ranks? Are a handful of active individuals with wider, more passive public sympathy enough?

What happens when those few individuals become worn down, hopeless, unable to sacrifice more, and alienated by others who find them too troublesome or disloyal? What is our role in supporting them and how can larger popular energy be genuinely gathered rather than appear as manufactured momentum?

What does it mean when the public does not rally en masse behind citizen challenge to state power, but when that engagement is doubtlessly better for public life now and in the future? Wrapped in the mix of public dialogue are also PR spin, media control, prejudices, misinformation, anger, fear and an array of other pressing sufferations. How to effectively engage our volatile but potential paradise with clarity and conscience, knowing that the status quo is backed by elite silences, political party loyalties, narrowly calculated development models, entrenched interests with bigger resources, and complex histories of distrust?

It’s easy to sit back and criticize what ordinary citizens, fighting for one kind of justice or another, haven’t done, to have the privilege of hindsight in evaluating their strategy, or to misinterpret their failures as proof of their illegitimacy.

It’s easy to point to questions of ego or single-minded leadership as if reflection on ego, pride and single-mindedness isn’t part of our own being human too. It’s easy to be uninformed, to disparage and to resort to quick anger. Rather, we should be asking how we can build consensus, connect to each other in ways that reveal resolution, and hold each other as allies whatever our differences, for aren’t we all called on to create one nation?

Hard and honest answers are necessary for the consciousness raising, advocacy and organizing that seem endlessly ahead, whether in relation to governmental transparency, gender equality, ending violence or preservation of the only ecosystem we will ever have.

In reckoning, I’ve asked myself what kind of leader I want to be, navigating between clear personal vision and responsibility to a shared mandate. I’ve thought hard about how the revolutionary act of motherhood, a feminist commitment to public politics but also to family, must be a strategic guide. I’ve questioned the implications of using guilt or pressure, or even unfairly disparaging citizens or officials’ names, avoiding the manipulation, and divide and rule of politicians. I’ve wondered at the costs of giving your lifetime or your life to a political principle, and hope I could find any of that commitment, knowing that there should be no other way to live.

These past weeks of this unique hunger strike, whatever its outcome, have brought me up close with passion, for who feels it knows. Wayne’s individual defense of democracy, community and sustainability as inalienable from development’s meanings is only part of a much larger collective which will soldier on for rights, justice, accountability, compassion and more, in every way we can imagine, in the ways already ongoing, fearlessly.

When in doubt, there is always our own Caribbean history, reminding that change is always possible, and that we inherit a homegrown spirit of defiance instead of defeat.

These are dread times, but when have they not been? What to remember from this moment? To keep giving life to optimism, passion and uncompromising truth.

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