March 2015


Post 184.

Daily I grow more fed up with the People’s Partnership’s door-in-your-face approach to public accountability.  Whether in relation to the complete lack of consultation or transparency regarding the Miami Vice-inspired concretization of Chagaramas, or Jairam Seemungal’s bizarrely negligent statements in relation to SIS land grabbing in Couva. Or Minister Ramnarine’s apparent willingness to oversee disquieting disbursements through NGC’s Corporate Communications Department, finally explaining those vacuous full-page ads about ‘happiness’ conjured up by the government’s most expensive spin doctor. Or public servant revelations of ‘Prisongate’ plagiarism and lawyer-garbed tiefing, which were connected directly to ex-AG Ramlogan’s office, and which the PM dealt with herself, Lady Macbeth-like.

Amidst such untrustworthiness is the shutting down of one of the Green Fund’s most successful projects, Plastikeep, which has made citizens of all classes, business owners, and forty-two schools of children as passionate and committed about recycling as one could ever dream.

Without justification, Plastikeep has been given until the end of the month to pack up its collection bins and to tell all, who now wake up with new feel good routines of environmental care, that their plastic will no longer be collected from next month, despite Plastikeep having a system in place to collect and export it. Now, where will it go? Again, to our landfills, poisonously and purposelessly.

The EMA says it is going to introduce a national recycling plan, but no citizen has ever seen this plan detailed on paper, knows when it will start, has been assured that it will be done through door to door collection as it must, or can be shown an accountable and ready infrastructure in place. Such a plan would also require tax incentives and legislation, currently non-existent.

Maybe the EMA will build on the well thought out plan being championed by local government officials, but there’s highly suspect jostling for Green Fund money, between SWMCOL, and the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, headed by Ganga Singh.

It’s Minister Singh, of desalination plant notoriety, who needs to immediately account for why he hasn’t yet approved a third phase, and even expansion, of a project that the Green Fund’s own Executing Unit and Advisory Committee support, and why his Ministry is hungry to make Green Fund cash available at this moment to administer well, nothing, when refuse collection isn’t even under his Ministry’s portfolio.

The fact that Plastikeep has created community happiness, togetherness and hope without giving Ernie Ross a dollar, and has inspired communities across the East-West corridor’s ‘marginal’ constituencies, may mean little on the road to victory that follows Persad-Bissessar’s index finger.

Every one of our votes counts, however, and a genuine groundswell is more personally and emotionally connected to this programme’s closure, without proper accounting for why, why now and why with nothing else in place, than politicians realise.

Plastikeep gets 1% of the Green Fund’s yearly income of about $300 million, and makes more difference to our lives than the unaccounted millions wrapped up in NGC, and Chagaramas’ questionable development.  This can be an election issue if we decide.

Additionally, every political rally until September should end with properly collected plastic being dropped into available collection bins the next day. Minister Singh, how about non-partisan advocacy to make that both parties’ reality, from next week? Rowley, surely you agree?

Which party does it, if any, would show who really loves the little children inheriting our garbage ridden coastlines and country, and it would show more care for future generations than any platform robber speech. School children are learning a lesson in civics, and are ready to protest to protect Plastikeep.

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Post 183.

Ziya's first Phagwa

Ziya’s first Phagwa. Photo: Nadia Huggins

For years I stopped attending Phagwa celebrations, finding my own experience too full of male aggression for me to want to return. Some, though not all, young men seemed to find an excuse to touch women in ways that they, not the women, decided was ‘fun’, in ways they were unlikely to touch men they don’t know, and in ways that race, religion, tradition or culture seemed to justify as their right, even if it was unwanted.

Unwanted touching for any reason by anyone determines that line between what is acceptable and what is harassment and violence. Males could gleefully romp with their bredren, even grab other men they didn’t know in the same way or to the same extent, but I wasn’t comfortable with masculine norms setting the rules of consent regarding my body.

This, in a society where women, like 34-year-old Jessica Brereton, can’t consent to leave relationships without being harmed, where Magella Moreau and I stood covered in Phagwa’s jubilant yellows and pinks, remembering how consent was denied to Marcia Henville.

This, in a society where hundreds of girls are sexually abused yearly, many within Indian families whose preference for silence over shame teaches girls to live without a right to consent. This, in a society, where we are so undecided about the terms of consent that adult male sex with a fourteen or twelve year old girl constitutes rape unless it is legalized under common law or the Hindu or Muslim marriage acts. This, in a society where no sexual harassment legislation exists to protect women workers’ consent.

I was done with wondering each Phagwa how many men would try to clamp their hands completely over my mouth and eyes. And, as much as women also filled their pichakarees and flung bagfuls of abeer at friends and strangers, none ever left me choking on mouthfuls of powder, desperately trying to stop my eyes from burning or angry that ‘no’, ‘don’t’ or ‘stop’ meant little.

I always wondered why no cultural organisers or religious elders used their microphone to say, listen, those colours are ceremonial gifts, not a threat, and this is a community space where women should feel asked and respected, not attacked or manhandled.

Yes, you can’t play mas and fraid powder, but I wasn’t afraid of the soaking or powder. And I’m a woman who has played many jouvays without anyone’s protection, enjoying a rite where the hands of men and women, including those I didn’t know, left me oil black and devil blue, and without feelings of violation.

I returned to Phagwa on Sunday, not at the Divali Nagar, but this time at the Hindu Prachar Kendra’s celebration in Cunupia, so that Ziya could experience Holi for herself, with her godmother, dad, and friendly children she knew.

It was beautiful. A living canvas undulating over rhythms and melodies of pichakaree singing. Collective art more valuable than anything on museum walls. Men and women, whose names I’d never know, playfully hand painting our clothes, arms and faces. We left, dusty and damp swirls of orange, purple and green, just as mixed circles began joyfully dancing.

I mostly kept Zi with me, because it made her feel safer and because I knew I’d be less of a target with her in my arms, but I know women there who had the same experience I never grew used to.

You learn how to try to stay safe, as all women have to, or to devalue your needs because there appears nothing you can do. Holi could provide one community where we don’t encounter such lessons too.

 

Post 182.

At one primary school, the friendly teacher interviewing Ziya looked up from reading her form when, under religion, I listed ‘none’. ‘None?’ she clarified incredulously, examining me anew, like I was a zaboca that beguiled with firm, green potential, only to appear blackened when cut open.

Inside I chuckled, sometimes Zi decide she’s Christian, and the other day asked me what a soul was. Other times, she loves the azan, making up her own sounds to the call to prayer, and asking to learn Arabic. Yet, she’s being raised by an anthropologist who will teach her to value the cultural richness of religious cosmologies while emphasizing that the earth, with its sky, rivers, seas and forests, is her most inclusive temple, mosque and church. Modern world religions have historically considered that kind of peasant approach to the divine ‘pagan’, but no need to write that on the form, right?

At another school, the kindly principal asked me what I teach at UWI and, when I responded that I teach feminist theory, nodded sagely as she observed me closer, concluding that that explained a lot, gesturing with both hands at something seemingly telling about my appearance.

Another chuckle, because before our interview, Ziya’s teachers had neatened her hair and reminded me to smile, likely noting that it hadn’t occurred to me to dress either of us any different than we would for a normal school or work day, dressing to impress enough to get into a school not how I roll.

It was news to me that children had to even interview to get into a primary school. Suddenly, I discovered the conversations long being had by parents of other little brown sapodillas, focusing on the strictness of teachers, the friendliness of principals, the school’s SEA results, and the balance between academic and other activities.

Choosing private schools reinforces class segregation, but sometimes you weigh your politics against the learning environment best for your child, focusing not on pass rates, but on music or science opportunities or school teaching philosophy.

My dream is for a primary school where children learn through play, experimentation, interaction, innovation and unselfconscious creativity. I wish that primary schools would spend more time on agriculture and biodiversity, for what knowledge is more important than how to grow food and save our planet’s ecology. I’d love desks in circles or cool-shaped collective tables, rather than the efficient and militarized organization of rows of student bodies.

Mostly, I hope for a primary school where Zi learns about care, cooperation and self-confidence and not just competition, where she learns how to be responsible for her rights and freedom, not just obedient to discipline, and where she learns to value speaking up for social justice more than her own social mobility.

When some of the top scoring students in the country come to UWI, I meet them mostly unwilling to speak out publicly, mostly inattentive to global affairs, mostly disconnected from our region’s ecology, mostly without compelling inner curiosity, and mostly familiar with treating each other like widgets rather than interconnected, fearless human beings. Students are clearer on exams than comprehension, critique or how to connect seemingly disparate ideas.

With one more interesting school interview to go, I’m wondering what options are best and what decision to make. Passing tests is considered important, but I’m interested in passion for and openness to all forms of knowledge, whether from making mushrooms grow, observing how mas is made, googling social movements or practicing meditation. Education should make us better selves and world citizens, and such understanding starts with how we school our children.

Post 181.

As Saturday’s crescent moon rose over Cazabon Street in Belmont, people gathered from all over the world to remember Claudia Vera Cumberbatch, better known as Claudia Jones, on the one hundredth anniversary of her birth.

There were also gatherings in Harlem and London, but it was the few dozen holding hands in a lamp lit circle on a ribbon of rough asphalt, who got to hear the unexpectedly beautiful percussion of corn and rice rolling like rain off the galvanize roof of her childhood home, and who witnessed the first time that African invocations, water, palm oil, memories and appreciation were offered from us here to this little known daughter of the soil.

For women busily going about life, organizing communities, hand sewing their traditional portrayals for Carnival, establishing their own incomes, dreaming of being writers or wanting to make a fairer world, Claudia Jones is the inspiration whose picture you could pin to your clothes, like Bobo Shantis do with Haile Selassie, to remind yourself that articulate, fearless and powerful women have long been home grown.

Born in Trinidad, on February 21, 1915, Claudia Jones became the leading black woman in international communism between the 1930s and 1950s. While living in the US, she was arrested and imprisoned for ten months for giving a speech on “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace”. Facing deportation and eventually choosing exile to England in 1955, because Trinidad’s Governor was too frightened of her movement-building capacity to let her resettle here, she organized the first Carnival celebrations in London. Her belief that “a people’s art is the genesis of their freedom” established the precedent for every Caribbean Carnival now held around the world.

A communist, pan-African and women’s rights political agitator, more radical than any men of her time or region including Marcus Garvey and CLR James, Claudia Cumberbatch began to write as Claudia Jones to throw the CIA off her tracks, knowing that the US government considered her a threat. She was indomitably bad ass, crossing out the job title of secretary that was put on her passport, and writing ‘journalist’ instead, the only right thing to do for an immigrant woman who later wrote for and edited youth, women’s, workers’ rights and African American magazines, and founded her own newspaper, The West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News.

Last term, my students and I read Left of Karl Marx, Carole Boyce-Davies’ book about Claudia Jones’ life and politics, marveling that she even met China’s Mao Tse-tung and Martin Luther King Jr. I wanted them to know that when Caribbean students learn about transnational, anti-imperialist, anti-racist feminist theory, we don’t start with US Black feminism and Angela Davis or Third World feminism and Chandra Mohanty, and we don’t start in the 1960s. We start decades earlier, in Belmont, with the thinking of Claudia Jones, an activist, intellectual, cultural worker and writer without any degrees to her name, now buried in London, to the left of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.

Yet, even having taught her book, it never occurred to me to turn onto the lane where she walked as a child and to look up at the same moon she would have seen, on her birthday. It did occur to those who invited the nation to honour a woman who died, at forty-nine years old, alone on Christmas day.

By putting passion and pen to our principles, making transformation of black working class women’s lives our marker of change, and unapologetically pursuing equality and emancipation for all across the world, may we mightily walk in the footsteps of the path-breaking Claudia Jones.