The bliss of snaking through Manzanilla’s coconut trees was enough to make the drive worthwhile, but the community spirit that I encountered in Mayaro was, unquestionably, the highlight of the day.
I was there to give a talk for International Women’s Day, being celebrated for the third year in this little corner of South-Eastern coast, adding to the other events happening all over the country all through March, and continuing to honour an agreement made by over 100 women from 17 countries in 1910.
Always socialist in its politics, International Women’s Day originally aimed to strengthen women’s protests against exploitative working conditions, their participation in politics to advance their rights, and their knowledge of those women who came before, who unapologetically resisted regardless of what was expected of them because they expected more for themselves.
This Saturday was no different. Carla Walcott, granddaughter of Clotil Walcott, was there, continuing to call for domestic workers to be considered workers under the Industrial Relations Act and to labour under decent conditions of employment. One women’s group spoke passionately about tending to women’s loneliness, donating to those unable to make ends meet, and listening to the ones trapped by abuse. Men spoke about their realizations that full emancipation of a people is not possible without full equality for all. Girls were being mentored so that they develop ambitions that defy the limitations of their gendered and geographical realities. How humbling to remember that it isn’t petrodollars that keep us together, it’s the cooperation and commitment shown by many unsung individuals, who step out of crease for those more vulnerable, simply because they are people who care.
I hoped to tell stories, those of my great-grandmother, grandmother and daughter, those of students at UWI, those of ordinary Indian and African women who had their own ideas about their desires and dreams, and who collectively organized housewives, the unemployed, the hungry, the anti-war, the oil and sugar workers, and the not-yet unionized. Even if only the words leapt off the page, I wanted to name Haiti, Cuba and Grenada, so that we remember not to forget their stories too.
In the end, it wasn’t my stories that defined the evening. It was the story of Pearl, a woman from Mayaro who told me about the trials of raising her daughter on her own, struggling to build her house, and ensuring that her child traveled to St. Joseph’s Convent daily and later could finish her degree at UWI. Pearl’s combination of exhaustion, pride and recognition that, with her daughter grown and gone, she now had to define herself anew is the story of so many mothers, including my own. Pearl wrapped me in a hug as soon as I stepped out of my car because she read my stories each week. Connecting us is what stories do.
This is probably why Suzanne from the Heart of a Sister Foundation told me that she planned to publish her own story, titled Happily Ever After. Not because there is ever a fairytale ending, but because even when there isn’t, we can make do and do well, even encourage each other. I drove away after making Mr. Mutota and the South African High Commissioner promise to tell me their stories of NJAC in the 1970s and mobilizing against apartheid in the ANC.
In the darkness, Manzanilla’s narrow road seemed to hold these histories in its breath, like a flute waiting to be played. Mayaro retreated, leaving me its stories of struggle and community, and its spirited refrain as a call and response to more than one hundred years of International Women’s Day.