December 2014


Post 173.

The other day Ziya told my mother she wants an iPhone for Christmas so that she can check her emails from her friends, despite the fact that neither she nor they yet read or write. She’s also been quarreling that she’s asked me to take her to the North Pole and I haven’t yet.

Every time she brings it up, I think about hauling her tail across the world to Alaska in winter and giving her the thirty seconds in minus forty degree weather that she needs to realize that no one is sashaying in dresses in magical winter castles or dancing with red nosed reindeer. She also likes to have long discussions with me about her love for snow, which she’s never encountered.

While she associates this month with Christmas carols, houses ‘lighting up’ and getting a slew of new, battery-powered everything, I find myself looking forward to the tall Immortelle blooming, across from my window, as it does every December. Its deep orange flowers cost nothing, are not made of plastic, were not imported from the US or China, don’t require electricity, and could never be wrapped in the paper from a felled forest, typically only briefly used and then discarded. It’s a quiet gift that makes me happy simply being here.

I’m grateful for what that brash coppery red abundance does to my tired spirit at the end of a year, just as I’m grateful that there are still rivers clean enough for me to swim with my daughter, leaving us both baptized from a Christmas eve high mas of water, sky, sun, green leaves of all shapes and fresh, clear air. I think about this a lot while watching Santa Cruz change around me, seeing the bamboo that once lined the road lying cut on the ground, wondering why my garden is so empty of butterflies and bees, and hoping that many species of bats and birds still can find a home in these not yet fully concretized hills.

As we buy and buy, I wonder, who from among us will see beyond our man-made ways of celebrating, and give back to the trees and the rivers, and to the lives that inhabit them? For surely, this living planet is the most sacred of gifts we will ever receive.

Indeed, what if we didn’t only give to each other, and didn’t only give what we could make or buy, instead giving more of what we all need; peace, love and sustainability. I think about this every year as giving makes us also throw away so much, wrapping, boxes, plastic containers, Styrofoam and more. I think about this as Old Year’s night approaches and, increasingly, piercing fireworks dominate the dark, making me feel desperately sorry for the baby manicous and agoutis, and the nests of birds, whose precious wild space we in Santa Cruz, like so many other encroaching neighbhourhoods, have come to dominate and now thoughtlessly, thoroughly disturb.

What if Christmas included showing love and care beyond ourselves, would we think about our spending and consumption differently? Would we be more likely to look beyond what comes from a store to all that this time of year offers, including the blossoming Immortelle? Right now, she’s all about the loot, but I hope one day Ziya will appreciate more than the material, and also value tropical, island-rainforest gifts that are wild and free.

For now, it’s baby steps as I figure out how to appreciate and share peace, family and sustainability, and as I engage with her understanding of gift-giving, lighting up and North Pole cold realities.

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Post 172.

One day I woke up and realized that I was twice as old as the university students I teach, cast as too serious about school work, obedient to an institutionalized hierarchy and long past any connection to rebellious irreverence.

I thought about this when a student came to tell me her essay was late because she was too busy with activism. We were on break, during a guest lecture that challenged gender studies’ students about academic feminists’ commitment to more than our own professional advancement, to the everyday needs of women’s lives and to social change. Why laud writing books when we should be helping communities prevent another abuse of a woman or child? What was achieved by articles instead of direct action?

With the guest lecturer’s questions resonating in her mind, the student felt she was on strong footing to school me on the truly radical politics of a late essay justified by on-the-ground civic involvement.

I laughed quietly because she reminded me of myself when I had that heady certainty that those older than me had given up the revolution for work wear and girl shoes, monthly salaries, and the class privileges of Babylon. She thought I had sold out, not continually redefined subversive commitment.

I told her the story of my University of Toronto lecturer, Guyanese Arnold Itwaru, who assigned us an essay on our Caribbean identity. Weekly, while reading Kamau Braithwaite, Franz Fanon, Eduard Glissant and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o outside of class, I’d tell him I couldn’t write the essay because I had no nation language, only the colonizer’s English, and only equally foreign forms such as poetry, prose and plays to substitute for the alienation of academic writing style.

Given that class was all about decolonization, and we were so inspired that my nineteen year old friends and I had stopped eating with knives and forks and forever forsworn jackets, I was sure Professor Itwaru would understand I was wrestling with the whole point of essays and education.

Indeed, I had called up my mother from my dorm room and asked her if she wanted me to get a degree or get an education. Any parent or person over nineteen knows exactly what she said.

I had also just challenged my college’s insistence that we wear academic gowns every night to dinner in our dormitory dining halls. Trinity College, at University of Toronto, took and still takes that tradition seriously. Naturally, I wasn’t down with wearing no symbol of academic, colonial elitism on my post-independence, fervently brown-is-beautiful shoulders.

The college said to wear the gown or get kicked out. I said me and my Iranian comrade sistren would go to the press about racism. They said ok, the college will collectively vote on your right to refuse in one week’s time, wear the gown until then. We complied by painting ‘fight the power’ and ‘oppression’ in red, with our hands, down the front of the gowns, and walked in to eat with young Marley as our life soundtrack. Turns out, we successfully argued for a decolonial right that was non-existent before, winning by three votes in a packed room. In May, Professor Itwaru accepted the paper that was due in December, and gave me an A.

Now on the other side of youthful idealism, that is being seen as neither youthful nor radical, I appreciate that scholarship can save lives, and that reading and reflection can enable better activism. Education is both a practice of discipline and freedom, I told my student. I understand why my mother wanted me to graduate. Now, write that essay.

Post 171.

Amidst signs from Guave Road farmers showing government’s crop destruction in Chagaramas, banners from Tacarigua, increasingly intoxicated folk singing about Kamla drinking puncheon, and a cute Indian rasta with long dreads who danced spiritedly the entire way, last Friday found me in Port of Spain marching against corruption.

Amassing with unions can be pure joy for their unique sense of collectivity and reminder of popular strength. When else will exuberant songs and drums echoing through the street remind you that labour needs to hold the reins of power and that we might indeed overcome economic inequality and exploitation. Someday, someday.

As an anthropologist and activist, my instincts were to read all the handmade signs, walk within the energy of the unions represented, from contractors to oilfield and communication workers to UWI staff, and, as I was to speak on the platform later, give voice to protestors’ own ideas.

I especially tried to talk with women. One carried so much heavy determination to survive domestic violence and current unemployment that I couldn’t imagine how to begin to talk about politics. I could have connected her with a job, but despite having a computer, she didn’t have typing skills. Feeling her defeat, I could only think, may Jah provide the bread.

As I moved through the ranks, asking people how they would end corruption, many weren’t interested in talking, maybe because they wondered why an Indian like me, maybe ah UNC, was asking such questions. Such reticence wasn’t surprising. Dishonesty is the historical modus operandi of every party, yet this was opposition not national politics, personalizing corruption with a capitalized, yellow K.

Some women I spoke with lamented that race was holding back the country, but were clear that racism was worse now than ever before. One man said he’d end corruption by bunnin down Port of Spain. Most just said the solution was to vote out Kamla. I countered that PNM history tells us corruption isn’t because of this Prime Minister. Remember Tarouba Stadium? But, that mood wasn’t there amongst unionists, MSJ supporters, ILP members, PNM faithful, San Fernando workers wanting their back pay, and others wronged and disappointed by a Minshall-named ‘Mama of Mamaguy’.

A number of women told me that we can’t end corruption, we doh have no power. But then why march? On the platform, I hoped they heard me honour Caribbean women’s long tradition of resistance against oppressive systems which used sexual and other kinds of violence, including the law, to control their rights, bodies and fertility, paid women less than they paid men for the same work, and assigned them tasks worth less pay. This is why our great-grandmothers fought in their numbers, to give us this capacity we have today.

I didn’t expect marchers to bring up procurement legislation, political party financing reform, whistleblower protection, increasing police convictions for state fraud, reviewing operations of our tax department or strengthening the Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) process. Yet, it’s also clear that unions need to make such specific solutions household words as well as call workers to the streets. They need to show how corruption bankrupts the treasury, and undermines the quality of schools, roads and hospitals, leaving the poorest the most hungry.

My speech emphasized that communities must be connected to each other, not to political leaders, and disrupting any myth of Indian women’s docility, I was clear that Jack Warner doesn’t have the moral authority to be on any anti-corruption platform with me. I then left early for a date with my husband, to give enough time and thought also to marriage and family.

Post 170.

After rainy season, Ziya, her Amerindian godmother and I are going to roam the country taking selfies. Also taking the practice of being ‘independent ladies’ seriously, we are stopping at sites where colonial names replaced Amerindian ones and bad ass posing next to those signs with the little remembered Amerindian ones held high. Why?

I had wanted to give Zi a map of the country with as many of the original names as possible, replacing the Spanish, French, British and other names that were imposed through conquest. I wanted her to see her belonging beyond its colonial representation. To understand that this place where the contemporary meaning of ‘dougla’ was invented and could be positively claimed, only existed through the historical meeting of Indians and Africans on once indigenous people’s lands.

That those names have disappeared from our knowledge remains a colonizing act, one claimed as our right at the birth of our independent nation, one for which we remain responsible today.

Because that map doesn’t exist, Zi, her godmother and I were going to make it ourselves, not as a flat, sepia etching as if Amerindians only existed in the past, but as if they continue to live and breathe in the making of Zi’s own memories. For how does teaching an Indian-African mixed girl to connect her navel string to the Mother Trinidad and Tobago of her indigenous godmother enable her to love here differently?

If she became Prime Minister, might she value Parliament’s grounds more for its Amerindian rather than Westminster heritage? If she became a judge, how would she adjudicate future Warao land claims?  As a citizen thinking about highway development, how would she understand the significance of the skeleton found in Banwari Trace being known as the “Mother of the Caribbean”?

Planning this decolonizing adventure, I’ve been reflecting on Eric William’s words that there is no Mother Africa nor India, England, China, Syria or Lebanon, only Mother Trinidad and Tobago, an Amerindian Mother still not called by her original woman’s name.

And, in questioning Mother Trinidad and Tobago’s genesis as conceived by the men who doctored her birth, I’ve also been reflecting on who Mother Trinidad and Tobago has been allowed to be by those who since ruled.

Independent Mother Trinidad and Tobago hasn’t been allowed to be lesbian, for example, which is why women’s desire for other women is criminalized, not since colonial times, but from as late as 1986 when the jackets in Parliament decided that the sole purpose of this Mother’s sexuality was to service a mister or face a jail.

And, except for between 2010 and the present, Mother Trinidad and Tobago has been dominated by men, mostly elite, mostly African and Indian, mostly against their Mother championing too much feminism. So, from 1956 to today, Mother Trinidad and Tobago continues to end up in public hospitals from unsafe abortions along with thousands of other women.  Even with a grandmother holding prime ministerial power, Mother Trinidad and Tobago can’t yet get a gender policy approved or sexual orientation explicitly protected in the Equal Opportunities Act or reproductive rights.

In a little girl’s reconceiving of Mother Trinidad and Tobago on more feminist, more indigenous terms, for she may have only one mother, but she has a godmother too, in telling her that being an independent lady isn’t about your relationship to men and money, but to emancipation, and in making selfies that frame all this in Ziya’s inherited mix, you’ll be surprised at the political potential for the young to imaginatively play with the power of self-definition, even in relation to citizenship.