Post 366.

I’m intrigued by efforts to keep life going as normal. Recognizing the real limitations that people are facing, what’s wrong with slowing down?

Ziya’s school, like many, has done an amazing job of leaping into on-line teaching so that there are due dates for assignments and live stream sessions. It’s a twenty-first century tech-saavy response that should draw big respect.

However, while observing assignments and live streams targeted to students within typical school hours, I couldn’t help thinking of parents already struggling to work from home, inefficiently, and who now have to simultaneously manage on-line primary education.

I thought of the single parents with only one laptop or computer who would have to juggle their on-line meetings and deliverables, and those of their children. I thought of the parents who were still required at their workplaces or were beginning to worry about making ends meet, and wondered at the additional strain of such demands.

In striving to do our best to maintain content, are we working in silos without realizing? How might it be different if we understood our assumptions, as employers and educators, and targeted our efforts and expectations less toward the ideal and more toward the realistic circumstances of those we engage? If students can’t meet those expectations, are these failures theirs or even their parents, or a result of expectations that create more stress in order to be met?

I thought too of how economic inequality sifts our opportunities at this time. For there are parents and schools, from Toco to Cedros to Chagaramas, where children don’t have access to the connectivity, data or computers that could meet the standards of wealthier school communities. For those children already depending on school-feeding programmes, is this a moment that will deepen the class and educational divide?

As a university educator, I thought about my own students. Some are parents who wouldn’t be able to produce school assignments with the same efficiency. Some have moved back home and are left with poor internet capability. Some are anxious about their own health or their family. Some have a partner worried about a cliff-drop in income or one who is at risk for increased alcohol and substance abuse.

Being isolated at home, possibly losing income, caring for sick relatives, disagreement over roles and resources, and having fewer outlets for relieving boredom and anger will increase family conflict. Our social services and call lines are incapable of meeting public need. Some, and their children, are at far greater risk of violence.

There are also students who may not be ready for a fast move to a new on-line normal nor students for whom my classes are their highest priority. Organising group presentations on-line is far more stress and effort than doing so in person on campus. All these things are possible in this day and age, but to expect immediate adjustment is an option, not a necessity.

So, why don’t we opt out of trying to achieve as normal? What if we used this time instead to achieve, but a little less, observing that the world will not end, but that there may be some improvements.

Maybe, we spend less time rushing through the day, without traffic and exhaustion. Maybe, we do more talking now that we are home together. Maybe, children run about in the backyard, and get time without everyday extra lessons for SEA. Maybe, we spent more time with elders, who might be scared and feeling alone. Maybe, we call each other more, across the country and the world. Maybe, we question our old normal and ask if it was really our best. Could we be better about how we use our time, knowing why and how we pursue knowledge, in this moment?

I cut some lectures which didn’t risk my learning objectives. I cut down exam content. I reduced the number of final assignments. Maintaining last month’s rules would simply test survival under increased pressure and show lack of empathy.

I’m not only asking us to consider the balance between keeping up and slowing down. I’m saying that it is possible to enable new opportunities and give breathing space to better priorities. These weeks, and likely months, should be planned as if families, homes and economies are feeling, and soon experiencing, crisis.

Our educational institutions have an opportunity to respond to that in our approach to teaching and learning, in the interest of students, parents and teachers, as if inequalities and their implications persist amidst these weeks’ new realities.

 

Post 365.

Here as in Guyana, we live with myriad injustices, but continue to assert a sense of expectation that state institutions – such as the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) or the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) – will protect us from the likelihood of fraudulent politics which undermine democratic agreement and inclusion.

It is to our credit that, against all odds, we remain invested in rule of law and are provoked into anger at its blatant violation. When that anger turns to violence, however, much more than democracy is threatened.

In their Letter to the Editor, Karen de Souza, Josephine Whitehead and Danuta Radzik, representing Guyanese NGOs Red Thread, Help and Shelter, and Child Link, wrote,

“We are alarmed at the acts of intimidation, the threats, and verbal attacks including sexual threats to women and girls, the physical violence, the reports of property invasion by groups, attacks on police officers and schoolchildren and ethnicity-based attacks being reported in several communities. Recent reports of the loss of life of one young person points to escalating violence which must cease immediately. We condemn and call on all Guyanese to condemn and refrain from all racial and ethnic slurs and actions, to respect the rule of law and keep the peace. We call on all political parties to abstain from provocative statements, ensure that their supporters do not violate the fundamental rights of any citizen and keep all protest action free from any kind of violence or intimidation. We call on the police and security forces to protect the rights of all Guyanese and carry out their duties without bias in accordance with the law of Guyana.”

Invested in each other as one Caribbean family, we are also aware that the precedent set by one signals a risk to us all. In recognition of this, the Caribbean women’s movement and its allies, from at least seven countries, issued a statement echoing the words of these and other Guyanese women. The statement reads:

“We, Caribbean advocates for social justice and gender equality, join in solidarity with the people of Guyana in calling for compliance with the rule of law and specifically with the election procedure in Guyana. A damaged electoral process will negatively affect the likelihood of social cohesion in a country scarred by ethnic and political polarisation. The people of Guyana and indeed the Caribbean deserve better from political actors.

They deserve political leadership with integrity and that honours the collective will of the people. We particularly share our deep concern for the safety and security of all Guyanese and call for peace and calm in all communities. Not one more life should be lost.

We support the call of CARICOM for the lawful completion of the electoral process in Guyana by ensuring the tabulation of results in all regions using the Statements of Polls and the offer of the Chair of CARICOM, Prime Minister Mia Mottley, to personally assist with dialogue, if needed, once there is acceptance of the results of the lawfully declared elections.

All parties should do their part in ensuring an engagement that is transparent, accountable and which builds trust. Political parties should dialogue with civil society and build consensus on the way ahead. We call on the political leaders to issue a common call for peace, respect and community-mindedness, showing their concern for all people and their safety and well-being.”

No electoral win can be a victory when safety, harmony and dignity, however inessential these seem, immediately become threatened too.

As long-time Guyanese activist  Vanda Radzik wrote last week, “What we see unfolding before our eyes is the poison that emanates, in a heightened way, from the recurring contest between two forces – hell-bent on “winning” power – at the expense of our nation. Being drawn into foolish political, largely race-based camps, with hatred and fear stitched into the fabric – for winner and loser, alike – is a recipe for disaster. It has to be stopped in its tracks now.”

Watching how quickly abuse of power and process devolved into public confrontation in Guyana and noting that, in our Local Government election, there were complaints about insults and abuse from supporters of the major parties on Nomination day, we should not only wet our roof but avoid irresponsibly starting fires in the backyard of our own racial and political tensions.

Trinidad and Tobago’s major parties should therefore re-affirm commitment to the Code of Ethical Political Conduct for the upcoming general election. Meanwhile, we look on at Guyana’s election imbroglio and hope for peaceful resolution.

Post 365.

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On Saturday from 2pm, all of the nation is invited to the Annual Women’s Rights Rally & March at the Queen’s Park Savannah. There, Trinidad and Tobago will join the world in commemorating International Women’s Day, officially marked on March 8th every year.

International Women’s Day cannot be reduced to activism against violence against women and girls, but women are being killed by men, mostly their partners, at shocking rates across the region and the world, and public affirmation that their right to life matters and that such violence has no tolerance in our society should bring us all out of our homes.

The other issues that impact women’s lives also remain; from work-family balance and unequal responsibility for care of children, the aged and the ill to the fact that choice to access safe and legal termination of pregnancy is still denied by the Trinidad and Tobago state to the reality of women’s vastly unequal representation at the highest levels of political decision-making.

However, International Women’s Day is about much more than acknowledging continuing injustices in the lives of women and girls. It is also about affirming centuries of struggle by women to secure their rights. This year, it is also about remembering the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

This was a resolution adopted by the Fourth World Conference on women in Beijing, China in 1995. The conference was a global gathering of tens of thousands and created one of the most progressive blueprints for advancing the rights of women and girls. It aimed to remove obstacles women face in their public and private lives through ensuring their equal share in economic, cultural, political, and social decision-making.

25 years after the Beijing conference, we must now define our own vision for the next 25 years. The “Generation Equality: Realizing women’s rights for an equal future” global campaign expresses just this, demanding equal pay and equal sharing of unpaid domestic labour, an end to gender based violence, better health-care services and access to such services, and women’s equal participation in politics and decision making.

The campaign has six major demands: justice and peace for all, environmental justice, equal participation in politics and decision-making, freedom from violence and discrimination, economic rights and opportunities for all, and access to sexual and reproductive rights. Each of these is inspired by the vision of our foremothers, as articulated in the Beijing Declaration, but each of these walks in the power, beauty and light of a another generation finding its fighting spirit.

In Trinidad and Tobago, we will also continue to rejuvenate our commitment as a nation to the theme and goal of “Power in Action”. This is the most fundamental of civil society calls, recognising that power is always with people, in our most collective movements, and in the difference each of us can make to the world.

On the ground here, International Women’s Day presents an opportunity to honour women, and the work they contribute to sustenance and transformation of communities the Caribbean. It is an opening to encourage another generation to bring their own issues, experiences, vision and peer communities to the most inclusive and fearless gathering that the nation can produce, and to play active roles for justice and change.

It is a reminder that we always can do better in including those whose rights get left behind, and taking into account that girls and women live multi-issue lives as persons with disabilities or from rural communities or as LBGTI+ citizens. Finally, it is an affirmation that the end to our social, environmental and economic crises can only come when we are prepared to act, not only for ourselves, but for each other. There could hardly be a more fundamental message to us at this time in history.

Some may say they are tired of marches and skeptical of what they achieve. However, this isn’t a protest march with a single specific aim. It is a symbol of a nation’s recognition of the rights of women and girls. It is a moment when men and boys can affirm their solidarity with diverse communities of women seeking justice. It is simply a gathering which exuberantly and inter-generationally brings together history, tolerance and aspiration in our own words and with our very bodies.

Bring your drums and tambourines. Bring your placards and banners. Bring water in reusable containers. The march starts at 3pm outside of Whitehall. See you there on Saturday at the Savannah in Port of Spain.

Post 364.

Carnival is interwoven with our lives, but representations of it tend to focus on the public and performative. Our narratives also emphasize the big Carnival bands and big musical names. However, as we close this season, I’d like to reflect instead on the little stories we don’t see, particularly in relation to children and family.

On Carnival Friday, Ziya won her school Calypso Monarch competition with her entry, ‘Send Parents Back to School’.

The song was produced by her dad, Lyndon ‘Stonez’ Livingstone, who is a long time DJ and producer. Born into Trinidad and Tobago’s spoken word movement through Rapso in 1998, but having moved away from both poetry and performing as work and motherhood took over, I get a connection to the past through writing calypsos for Zi.

Though our marriage has moved on since the days when he would produce for me, when a DJ and a poet have a daughter, we get to nurture an intergenerational love and engagement with local culture. We also get to be better people and parents from having to come together each year to cooperate for her. Through the growing pains of creating new relationships and definitions of ourselves, it’s no small truth to say that calypso has helped to keep our sense of family together.

For a long time, we looked at our shy, cautious and hesitant child, and wondered if she would grow into her confidence. Now in her fifth year of a little school competition, and her second win, I was amazed to see a blossoming nine-year-old command her school stage; her stance powerful, her delivery strong and her performance bold.

She wanted the prize money, to buy Lego and mint gum, she had developed a sense of ambition and competition, and she was increasingly willing to take risks publicly. Other parents may have similar stories of Carnival’s opportunities for confidence-building, and may be able to say this about drama and sports, but it was calypso that did it for Zi.

There may be much to debate about the value and legacy of these last weeks, but this is one quiet and small story that Carnival has left with me. It’s like this around the country, in pan sides filled with youth, in family mas camps where children learn about the spiritedness of masquerade while still at the breast, in musical homes where young bards begin to follow in elders’ footsteps.

In each of these, there are not simply stories of fete and wine and rum. There are also real moments of separated parents sharing common commitment and joy; of little children learning about Carnival as hard work, shared effort and a labour of love; and the awkwardness of self-doubt blooming into new-found capacity to aspire and achieve.

As so many want for their children, we wanted Ziya to learn about what it means to speak up for her generation and to connect to others so that they can see their reality in what she advocates. We wanted her to see that a hook is a clear message which can signify an historical moment. We wanted her to know that the more she knew about her country is the more resonant her voice could be across time. We wanted her to know that social commentary had to be more than a lament, it had to capture imagination while being accessible to anyone willing to listen.

So, we kept the lyrics simple:

Children, what to say? Like Trinbago gone astray. Crime and violence is the rule. Send parents back to school!

Like adults forget all their learned. Set bad example with no concern. We fed up, fed up not being safe. Parents must learn how to behave.

So put on your uniform, shine your shoes. We giving tests and homework too. First class is basic civics, and revision until the country fix.

Ting a ling ling. School bell ring. Too much adults misbehaving. Ting a ling ling. School bell ring. Back to school every morning!

Tell Gary Griffith, we have a plan to fight criminals across the land, teach about the country we should have, put the future in parents’ school bag!

Children, what to say? Like Trinbago gone astray. Crime and violence is the rule. Send parents back to school!

As critics cross swords over what was wasted and gained, this is a story of Carnival’s possibilities for togetherness and growth.  As a grateful mother of a little girl, this is therefore also a small ode to kaiso.

Post 363.

Kes’ 2020 hit, “Boss Lady”, is a catchy representation of men’s current negotiations with sex, labour and power.

It describes a time when our society considers itself in a crisis of masculinity typified by men’s lower enrollment in tertiary schooling, their turn away from the formal economy, and a shrinking, male-dominated industrial and energy sector. “This economy”, Kes sings, “have meh looking for wuk”.

By contrast, over decades, women have capitalized on educational opportunities and, to the extent they are available, secure jobs. They have also mobilized traditionally feminine skills in beauty, catering, sewing, jewelry-making, suitcase trading and childcare to survive in the informal economy in ways that enable greater economic empowerment and more say over their lives.

Women still experience unemployment at higher rates than men, but the educational trends will eventually shift the income trends. This won’t topple patriarchy, but it will make men contend with their role differently, offering their labour, including sexual labour, to women on renegotiated terms.

We’ve long heard this narrative in UWI principals and prime ministers’ worry that women wouldn’t be able to find suitable husbands. Yet, neither of these authorities considered that women may become more interested in men for sex and labour than marriage, or that sex and labour may ultimately be what men are most able to offer.

This is a fascinating twist, for women, such as secretaries, were the ones historically sexualized by a boss man, and were eroticized in pornographic fantasies of a willing maid providing both domestic and sexual service. What happens when men start offering themselves for such “wuk”?

As early as 1935, Attilla’s calypso, “Women Will Rule the World” warned that, once, women only wanted to be a mother and wife, but now there is “no limit to their ambition”. He lamented that women would become “tyrants” expecting men to scrub floors, wash clothes, and mind the baby when women go out at nights to roam.

By 1987, amidst an economic decline, Tambu’s “Yes Darling” expressed similar dread about changing sexual relations. The song is about Tommy who was once breadwinner, and used to boast about how hard he had his woman working. But, “One day he lost he wuk and end up home/ Now she turn breadwinner, and he become housemaker/Man she have him working, the way he had she doing/Each day as a rule, she have Tommy working like a mule”.

Simultaneously, women seized on the theme of “Woman is Boss” when it comes to excelling at “caring, sharing and achieving”. From Denyse Plummer to Destra’s “Independent Ladies”, this has been a feminist narrative of doing as well as or better than men, but also doing well without them if women had to earn, save and also raise their babies on their own. A “real woman” echoes Patrice, “own house, car and land” and “take charge of yuh man”.

Women also began to respond to men’s anxieties by expressing desire for a worker man; a play on the sexual pleasure of a cocksman, but one who also provides satisfying manual labour. “I want you to take your broom and sweep my yard/You better brush it good or we go fall apart/Don’t give me no shortcut thing, you have all day and night/I had to satisfy, so you better do it right”, thus sings Denise Belfon in the 2001 song, ‘Work It’.

No surprise, then, that Kes offers his physical and sexual labour to a woman boss with a job vacancy, who is looking for a flawless resume, guaranteed proper ‘wuk’, and a #1 employee.

It’s not coincidental that, after decades of apprehension, up to Blackie’s 2009 ‘Ah Hook’ where the fellas considered him a “mook” for doing his lady’s laundry and ironing, men may be re-considering what they offer to well-educated, financially-capable and successful women.

To that end, in a sexual economy with changing relations of gender and power, well-equipped men will always have a job which women want done, whether it involves a broomstick or a hose to water their garden.

What’s fascinating is that the double entendre isn’t simply about sexual suitability, but also about an ability to meet a boss lady’s domestic needs.

Derrick Seales’ 2020 tune, ‘House Husband’, nails this moment by circling back to Attila’s fears. However, man-woman relations have changed so much, he now sings about proudly washing clothes, cleaning the house, vacuuming and making up the bed night and day.

“Put that wuk in front of me” concludes Kes, “and I go come in right away”.

Post 362.

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Sunday was my dad’s birthday. He would have been 77 years old. Under blue sky, I visited the family cemetery plot, where his grandfather and both parents are also buried, and wondered about what kind of relationship one should have with the dead.

I hadn’t seen him on his last birthday and wasn’t sure if I regretted it or was at peace with my reasons. Now, here I was on this birthday, six feet above him and unclear whether it mattered, whether he knew or what to feel.

Such mixed feelings extended to the grave itself. My dad wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered on his mother’s grave. Cremation is forbidden in Islam, and was unthinkable to us, creating a persistent sense of discombobulation that I’d failed to fulfil his last wishes.

As I stood looking down, I considered whether he felt suffocated by soil and trapped in the dark. I wondered if he feared the angels, Munkar and Nakir, who interrogate the deceased and accompany the soul on its journey to Jannah or Jahannam, or the dimensions of Heaven or Hell.

One late night, a few weeks after his burial, I stood looking across heavy rain to the cemetery fervently hoping that my dad’s sense of justice, his contribution to the region, and glimpses of his generosity, love, goodness and humour would have transformed his grave into a luxurious space for his spirit to await an afterlife beyond our comprehension.

If not, the angels would have beaten him brutally, as they do sinners and disbelievers, in what is feared as the torment of the grave. It’s not for the faint-heartened, for the dead is struck a blow with an iron hammer which could turn a mountain to dust, the grave narrows and compresses until the body’s ribs interlock, and the soul is torn from the body by cutting veins and nerves like a skewer ripping through wet wool. I was surprised one could worry for the dead. I chastised myself for not doing what he asked.

I had selfish reasons justified by the merest of fleeting memory. I had stood next to my dad with my hands cupped at his mother’s funeral, at that very grave, when I was four years old. It’s a vivid, slightly blurred and instant image, like a polaroid. Something about it rooted in my heart. I held on to it like an old, precious photograph. He seemed so tall then. I was so little, loyal and adoring.

Forty years later, I couldn’t let him go without the same cupped gesture. There was inexplicable solace in this repeating image, for I was a child then and it was the child in me burying my dad now, connecting to him almost as the four-year-old I was at the time, imprinting another layer on memory.

My dad had also fasted for Ramadan, and was praying in the masjid, built on family land where he was born, the day before he died. The cemetery was close by; it was an unexpectedly small circle of life. He had returned home in both belief and location. He would be able to answer the angels’ questions. A Muslim burial was without question.

So, on Sunday, I found myself at his grave while my brother pulled away overgrown grass, and I contemplated whether the three generations buried below our feet ever conversed, whether they quarreled and forgave, or shared each other’s sighs, whether their spirits intermittently roamed, or whether the stillness and silence was peaceful.

With Ziya nearby, I told myself that being buried in your mother’s grave is the most profound kind of return. It must be more comforting than returning to one’s religion, childhood home, or perhaps entering Heaven. There is no closer relationship with another human being for, once, two were only one. The thought seemed to quiet the blurry four-year-old hovering in Sunday’s heat, and her imprecise worry.

One night, my sister and I both dreamt my dad. It felt like he came to visit, appearing from nowhere, returning nowhere. I learned that to dream those who are gone is a gift, and sometimes it makes you grieve.

This time, I left without significant emotion, but deep exhaustion. The afterlife is a whole world to be constructed in one’s imagination. It takes time, remembering and realization to find the right pieces to give it solidity and harmony.

Relationship with the dead also requires nurturing grace and forgiveness along the way.

Love lives on, Dad, happy birthday.

Post 361.

Basketballers like Kobe Bryant become larger than life icons even for those who don’t  follow the sport or its athletes. At school, Ziya had an assignment on basketball requiring her to draw a court, map the positions, and profile a player. She got in the car talking about Kobe Bryant. I was certain that she had no idea who he was, but he was a name that she sensed was popular among the children, so she had a personality to describe that carried pop cultural cool.

Does it have to be a male player, I asked. No, it doesn’t, she responded tentatively, like thought of any other kind never occurred to her. Will any of the children focus on women basketballers, I ventured. No, she said, definitively, as if horrified. I think you should focus on players in the WNBA, I volleyed back, launching, as feminist mothers do, into a whole explanation of why.

I’m always concerned about androcentrism – or male-centredness – in children’s hidden curriculum. For the little class gazette which Zi and her classmates started, we had repeated conversations about why the sports section shouldn’t only focus on men’s football leagues. Your whole editorial team, both boys and girls, should make reporting inclusive and fair, and not let women in sports be less visible or valued, I’d encourage her.

In an age with Serena Williams, Simone Biles, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, news about women in sport reports on athletic excellence, worth knowing by all. That boys don’t instinctively know this and that girls have to be pressed into even raising it tells us much about gender socialisation and its early normalising of gender inequality.

Tears burst out at my suggestion of profiling a woman basketball player. Kobe Bryant, she insisted, everyone else will be doing players like him. You can’t have a class where no students choose any women at all, I persisted. Why does it have to be me, she wailed. You have a responsibility, I said, we all do.

After so many readings of ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls’, where she could see how so many women scientists, architects, inventors, athletes and activists are never taught to us, appear to not have made the vastly significant impacts they did, and seem to never have existed at all, this was a moment bringing home how knowledge matters.

Tears and quarrelling from the backseat. The teacher wouldn’t allow it. No other children would have women players. No one would know her player. Everyone would say she is weird. They would make fun of her. She was terrified of being different and not fitting in.

You’re a lioness, not a sheep, I said. I’m an amoeba floating in the ocean, she grumped, a reference to a different rant I have about being too passive, becoming dominated and bullied, and understanding her capacity to control what happens to her.  Every time she protested, I made baa-ing sounds. I said all I am hearing is sheep. You are a lioness. Roar. The baa-ing made her laugh despite her hysterics.

At home, we looked up women basketball players. Just look, I said, then you can do Kobe Bryant, it’s fine. As we searched, she discovered how many of these women have amazing stories, how they are as ambitious about winning as they are about being team players, and how many won Olympic gold medals. One of them is only five feet six inches and her team boasted about her playing like she’s 6’5. Ziya’s tiny and that caught her eye. It was like a world of inconceivable achievement opened up for the first time.

Then, as a cool evening breeze circled around us, she quietly chose a player and copied her biography. No fuss. No self-doubt. No fear about being weird. I’m proud of you, I said.

We have a similar struggle with adult media. It shows why norms are so hard to change, why those pursuing change are derided for being the odd and difficult ones, why girls are so likely to conform and boys so likely to consider gender equality a struggle which isn’t theirs, for nowhere are men under-represented in sports, politics or business nor is their over-representation even noticed.

Some may think that nine years old is too young to confront these issues, but these issues are already socialising children before they have the capacity to recognise they should resist. In the end, it wasn’t Kobe. It was Dawn Staley. Zi coolly finished her homework like a small, tentative roar.