January 2015

Ronald Alfred. Copyright Maria Nunes(Photo: Maria Nunes)

Post 177.  The Whipmaster’s Secrets

There is a Carnival that you can buy with $1200 all-inclusive tickets, a Carnival that you can purchase by scrolling a catalogue on-line, and a Carnival where rum, bacchanal and bum-bum time prevail.

There is another Carnival that you cannot access with money, that requires you to earn trust over time and one on one, and that cherishes sacrifice, strength, and preparation through abstention from alcohol, meat and sexual relations.

You could put on a costume, but you soon learn that carrying it is more about discipline and seriousness than jump up and freeness. You could want to practice fancy steps and fling rope, but you soon realize there are stories to respect, bush leaf tea to drink, root and flower medicine to rub, and a rhythm you have to hear before your mask could transform into a mas, and before you can crack a whip like a conductor leading an orchestra drumming on nothing but thin air.

There is a Carnival, weaving through the masses of bikinis and beads, which most will never notice. They will think they are merely seeing “traditional” colours on display, not realizing that a small group of the fiercest and most feared in the country could only dazzle so because of old secrets still shared beneath the boom of big trucks.

Like plants scattered across the central range, some of those secrets come from India, some from Africa, some from Amerindians, and some were invented precisely because Carnival was created right here.

This is the Carnival where such knowledge is both fiercely guarded and handed down over generations. So, come Monday and Tuesday, all those secrets, from a powerful foot stance to a remembered battle chant to a sun-drenched oil to a special weave of natural and man-made fibers, make a convois with the mirrors, sequins and whips, creating a battalion of uniquely painted, tightly wired faces advancing, seemingly, without emotion or fear.

Yet, in this Carnival, commitment to nation and culture is so deep that the hurt it risks could, just almost, stop a man from taking his art on the road. You see, MPs could break hearts with promises they don’t keep, and the recognized VIPs are those with office, who set rules and write cheques, rather than those with life-earned skills and leadership.

Still, this is a Carnival refusing defeat, so a front yard might not be paved this year or next in order to give all to dreams of community, and a vision for a Jab Jab Academy, deeply grounded in relationship to land, will yet again be defended from party financiers and strong-armed police.

In this season when men lose their reason, it’s clear that if a Jab Jab Whipmaster’s spirit don’t take you, there is only one Carnival you will ever know, the other one slipping by, right under your gaze, but unseen.

As I listened to his stories of both sharing and protecting, I walked amongst his sacred plants, shared his quiet anger at the disrespect and poverty faced by traditional mas makers, felt his untold anguish at the clearing of forests where memories were held and spirits released, and appreciated the value of fairness in the life of a family committed to mas.

Last Sunday in Couva, I learned that one thing a Whipmaster knows is how to take pain, which is why so many of his secrets are for healing.  Yet, as I left, I wondered if those secrets, meant to protect the skin under the material and masks, could also protect from a Carnival whose injustices cut more deep than lash.


Post 176.

Je suis Ayeesha. Three years old.

Je suis Maezol. Eight years old.

Je suis each of dozens of innocent children killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. For there is no self-censorship such as curtailing all that you do, and learning to wish for dark clouds rather than clear skies, simply to survive.

Je suis an unnamed Nigerian girl, misrepresented in this week’s press as a ‘suicide bomber’, though there is no evidence that she was suicidal and she was never a bomber, but another innocent child among the others murdered.

Je suis Mary, Esther, Blessing, Glory, Fatima, Awa, Rahila, Rejoice, Hauwa and Zara, who were also kidnapped by extremist men and may never again experience freedom from daily fear, injustice and violence.

Je suis the jailed Bradley Manning who exposed how unarmed Iraqi civilians were massacred by US troops from their helicopter, without any trial by jury or right of appeal, for nothing close to satire or blasphemy. Je suis Raif Badawi who is sentenced to flogging and imprisonment in Saudi Arabia for criticizing Wahabbi rule.

Why choose Charlie but not Ayeesha? Why see an attack on us all in religious-based violence without also seeing it in state violence, class violence and corporate violence? This is a good moment to denounce all violence that forces silencing of dissent and critique, and acceptance of injustice and inequality.

Je suis Charlie to evoke a global defense of truth, justice and freedom for all, and to mobilize a politics that equally abhors the violation of some individuals in some places as much as it does in others. Je suis Charlie to refuse distinctions regarding torture, terrorism and armed violence, and to challenge dogmatism regardless of who imposes their worldview with guns and war.

It’s absolutely true that self-righteous religiosity, whether Islamic or Christian, powerfully continues to deny equality to some because of their gender or sexuality, resist women’s complete autonomy, and perpetuate the violence of illegal and unsafe abortions which kill tens of thousands of women worldwide. It is also true that nationalism combined with state violence decides whose bodies matter, which countries we emotively connect to, and whose lives can be ignored by citizens, media and states.

Forty-seven nations’ politicians gather in solidarity in Paris while state terrorism against other innocents fails to make us sufficiently act against the intolerance behind such crimes. Indeed, one cannot blame cartoonists, French racism, Western colonialism and war, or economic deprivation for provoking a ‘Muslim’, Algerian or masculine response. An egotistical claim to sovereignty over others, meaning the assumed right to repress and kill, is at work here and it is as illegitimate when claimed by individuals or nations. This is therefore also a moment to remember that contemporary religious fundamentalism, state militarism and extremist male violence are entangled in ways that it is ahistorical to deny.

The hijacking of religious tolerance, individual freedom, women’s rights, collective peace and global as well as local forms of economic equality connects Charlie Hebdo with Nabila Rehman who was picking ochros in her garden when drone missiles killed her grandmother, injuring her and seven other children.

Will we identify with freedom for all or sacrifice fairness for tribalism? This, to quote Maajid Nawaz, “is the difference between choosing principles and choosing sides”. An attack on anyone’s human rights is an attack on all we cherish, and all that connects our humanity across every national border.

Je suis Mahmoud, a Palestinian teen who rushed to help Israelis attacked in a West bank supermarket.

Je suis Charlie. Je suis Ayeesha. No to all terror. Not in my name.

Entry 175.

Adults are not so different from four year olds.

We have to overcome fears, try even when we think we can’t to make it through something, and be willing to accept offers of kindness that help us let go of our egos and our tears.  Perhaps, some have it completely figured out, but mostly I know adults still growing up, imperfect and working on self-acceptance, hoping to be as open to what the next day brings as aware of who they wish to be when it comes.

Given that similar challenges appear in one life stage after another, we need to continually claim more skills, confidence and resilience than we might have in the past. It’s good to begin to recognize this even if you are only four. Indeed, watching children’s life steps should make you reflect on your own, whether you are forty years old or four score.

Ziya and I were at the CDA’s Zip Line park which features a multistoried tree house linked by suspended bridges. This unique space has potential to combine child friendliness with substantial tree-cover and flowering plants that could provide the additional adventure of observing a wider range of wild birds, pollinating bugs and butterflies than found in contemporary backyards.

Most play structures are in corporate franchises devoid of green space. Those outdoors have primarily relegated trees to their edges, abandoning not only public savannahs but also children’s play to brutal daytime heat, denying care givers and infants shady space to stay close, and disconnecting recreation grounds from their biodiversity potential.  Taking your child to these structures re quires you to squint through blinding sun or wait until cooler evening.  Did those designing play parks pilot them in the role of a tired working mom or dad dedicated to quality time on a blistering weekend? Why would stones and pebbles cover the ground under St. Clair’s play structure so that children falling from the monkey bars land on, yes, rocks?

As Ziya climbed to the top of the tree house stairs and paused at this wonderful example of what public play options can instead look like, fear of heights or new things propelled her back down. Lifting her, we insisted she go across the bridges while she screamed for bloody murder, preferring to miss out because of her terror.

When we came down, through her sobs and while wondering if I was a bad parent for making her confront her limits, I explained that when we are afraid, we all have to be brave.  After much coaxing by my sister, Zi tentatively agreed to go again with her, and managed it all without a meltdown.

Crucially, a little girl called Honor saw her troubles and took her hand, encouraging her across the bridges, taking her time, talking her through, and accepting Ziya’s trepidation until she accomplished something she initially couldn’t face.

Not all children are boisterous and brave. Not all are confident and carefree. Not all are immediately comfortable with new people, skills and opportunities. Not all will march past their fears, focusing on the potential ahead. But all children need to practice being their happy selves outside of their familiarities, and draw on support from family, friends and even strangers to grow surer and bolder.

Are any of us different? If a four year old could dry her tears, let herself be vulnerable and desire more than anything to be proud for trying to be brave, regardless of long it takes or how far she gets or how much hesitancy remains, she’s one step closer to the resilience we adults are still acquiring each day.

Entry 174.

When I woke up this morning, I didn’t expect so much had changed overnight, while you were feting, sleeping or hoping for the explosion of far-too-many fireworks to be over.

With Section 34-esque timing and secrecy, a technically sound, politically unfettered cross-ministry team initiated a well-funded, national recycling programme. For what kind of small islands government shrugs at the unregulated garbage filling fields, forests, drains, rivers and coasts, has no mass education programme on waste reduction, and can’t yet stem the rising tide of disposed plastic everything?

No more will garbage be collected by just anyone with an extra truck, Hilux or party contact, and then dumped, well, anywhere. From today, a package of farsighted regulations, services, incentives and information will make us all grow up and stop selfishly leaving our children’s grandchildren to decry our thoughtlessness about what we buy and how much toxicity we put out at our gate.

Indeed, Blue Waters now lets you return all your empty bottles. Massy Stores and other groceries have stopped wrapping every sweet potato, beetroot and cabbage in plastic and Styrofoam, and customers will give you cold cut-eye for not re-using plastic and cloth bags.

This year’s Entrepreneur of the Year won’t be the guy who excelled at taking over-priced all-inclusives on the road, but the citizen whose big idea generated the least garbage or the company whose accounts show financial responsibility for the waste created by their products, rather than relying on us to subsidize their books to public disadvantage.

As you read, Poui trees are being replanted along every possible by-way and highway, for the happiness-seeking souls in the Ministry of Transport remembered how those dry season flowers lifted the spirits of those stuck in traffic, carrying home road rage, or without air-conditioning.

Ordinary civil servants’ concerns about the desperate need for more shade for those walking, timely, safe and sufficient public transportation for those traveling, bicycle options for day and night in cities and towns, and green interventions to urbanization were, late last night, finally understood by Cabinet to be about widespread quality of life, not environmental elitism.

Similar intentions blossomed in the Forestry Division, whose 2015 motto is ‘Forestry Multiplication’ and whose radical target is to prevent hillsides from being illegally quarried or clear-cut and, finally, washed away as a flood of mud.

So inspired were those in the Ministry of Planning that they immediately scrapped as many metres of concrete as they could from the popularly-distrusted ‘development’ plans for Invader’s Bay, instead prioritizing mangroves, indigenous trees, biodiversity, and low impact, low-cost fun for citizens, particularly children from our poorest communities. Their new piece-de-resistance is a Minshall-dreamt Red Square of 144 flamboyant trees, more alive, more revolutionary and more sustainable than any paved-over Russian equivalent, showing an ability to apply our Carnival mastery to making “living works of art”.

For once, this election year, recycling will not just occur within and among political parties while, from education to economic inequality to national budgeting to our health system, candidates fall far short of “powerful, liberatory ideas that raise our pores and imagination”, to quote my bredren columnist Colin Robinson.

I woke up this morning amazed to be suddenly beyond our non-functioning state institutions, corrupt elites, short-term hopes, acceptance of violence, unequal rights, excess in the name of culture, and reluctance to measure our individual worth beyond a box of dead. Overnight, truthful leadership became accountable, and civic organizing appeared collective, fearless and committed to our own power and care.

If this was true, and it can be, this would be a genuinely new day to a new year.