May 2018


Entry 286.

Beyond the Bullet.

I met Caron Asgarali under the hot sun on International Women’s Day this year. We were standing amidst booths in Woodford Square when she told me her story of being shot in a robbery; the bullet shattering her jaw. Its path missed her heart, but near fatally pierced her soul. Such horror stories crisscross our landscape today, like terrible scars.

I glanced at her face while she spoke, seeing only an incredibly beautiful and courageous woman. Somewhere in a corner of my mind, I thought about how we associate beauty with flawlessness and perfection, until we meet those individuals who show us that it is far more a light that shines from within. It was a reminder to pay attention to and respect unexpected lessons.

Caron spoke with the gentleness of a lamb, but the fierceness of a lion and I imagined how I may never have had the privilege of meeting her. You never know which person next to you is the walking wounded or whose force of spirit can hold you rooted to the spot while all you do is listen. Maybe you have to feel it to know how humbling it can be to simply look someone in the eye.

I learned about her efforts to establish Project R.A.R.E. ‘Raising Awareness on the Ripple Effect of gun violence: promoting peace and building resilience’ is the longer title, and ‘transforming hurt into hope’ is her vision. I have a huge amount of respect for groups like this, led and sustained by citizens from across the country, who are individually committed to helping us all develop empathy, humility, forgiveness, respect, gratitude, and personal and community responsibility.

Connecting to her seemed to open a door to connecting with other survivors. On Monday, RARE organized a forum on gun violence at UTT. I came in just in time to hear the testimonies of Kyle Phillip of East Mucurapo Secondary School, and Jeremiah Ferguson of El Dorado Life Centre, run by Servol.

Both young men told stories of having family members shot at and killed. Kyle himself lost a cousin the night before his speech, and broke down at the microphone, his grief holding his audience still in their seats with its oppressive weight.

It’s such singular stories that pierce your heart because violence and its scars seem in our day and age to have become so ordinary. It’s worse to hear those stories from youth still in school uniform, and to understand that they can’t carry the future of the nation in their school bags if we callously break their spirit and strength.

“Guns are like cell phones in my community”, said Kyle. He described “serious peer pressure from youths in my community that are in my age bracket to get involved in that life”. It was clear that he knew that only education could get him out, though he was “not sure to be here tomorrow”.

“Even now a scratch bomb still sends me into a panic”, said Jeremiah. “The youth of this country are traumatized. The national as a whole is traumatized. It is almost like we are living in a war zone. Is this how a war zone feels?”

His advice is worth repeating: “Youth, if you want to lime on a block, make the library your block. If you want to steal, steal words from a dictionary. You will learn some new words and their meanings. If you want to kill, kill all your negative thoughts. We need change. We need to create opportunities for youth so they can choose other pathways. I lost my brother. Because of a Gun”.

We need to think about gun and gang violence not only as problems, but as solutions for many boys and men who want to access status, respect, money, brotherhood and other markers of real manhood. This is particularly true because poverty emasculates, creating both pressure and temptation to live and die by a gun in a glamourous and profitable, but dehumanizing and wasted life. The traditional association between manhood, toughness and authority, in which we are all still invested, is the real problem. It’s an ideal we teach which is also toxic to boys and men’s souls.

Until manhood becomes also about nurturing, care, emotions and equality, schools will churn our shooters who have found shortcuts to manhood and power, rather than brokenness and failure. Recognising this one day, we will have to forgive them as we forgive ourselves for not quietly listening to this humble truth.

Advertisements

Post 285.

Terror is tightening its steel-knuckled right hand around our throats, and when steel talks everybody listens. Yet, somehow, people continue to try to live as they are used to, raising families, contributing to communities, and nurturing creativity.

That alone is a miracle. To provide a sense of normal amidst the not-normal, for another generation which wakes up not knowing anything else, but deserves so much more. To raise children as if this is still a place where they are safe from meeting murder on any junction.

This seems the best we can do when politicians and police jump up with criminals and abandon citizens, causing collapse of the city.

This long-established and well-known honour among thieves is what most powerfully sets the difference between our reality and our ideal, leaving mothers to tie their belly against such a war federation.

We cannot live as if this terror is only of Lego and Play Dough, not people’s future, family, and daily food. Perhaps this is why people everywhere are committed to children’s collective learning and exuberant joy, knowing that it is to them, not God, we will turn to save our nation.

I thought about all this while sitting in the dark of Queen’s Hall as Lilliput Children’s Theatre, led for decades by Noble Douglas, put on this year’s production of Juliet and Romeo – A Tobago Love Story. Tobago Love, as we all know, is a deep love beset by continuous feuding. Sounds like us, fighting over drug block, over maintenance payments, over votes and over kickbacks when, deep inside, all our children want is more love.

It is a claim to pride in which we are almost failing, which is why Terrence Deyalsingh’s well-meaning, but clueless, insistence on children playing outside fell on so many deaf ears.

After almost fifty years of PNM power, even in the neighbhourhood streets where we’d once played rounders and rode bikes, few parents feel their little ones are safe outside, even supervised. ‘I go tell meh mama don’t send me down dey’, sang the children, already wise, and almost in answer to Deyalsingh’s mocking pretense at their generation’s strange and tragic tale.

But, we may not be there yet. Held in the arms of the darkness, my heart could only lift and lift at the sight of little ones growing up with a chance to dance traditional steps, cooperate in theatrical story-telling, and learn music from the decades that led us here.

The whole audience of adults seemed to feel that if we could just enable them to shine, we could invest all our hope in their Lilliputian light. As Mighty Shadow long told us, it’s clear that we must believe in the little children.

The whole wide world is caught in the mad war between Is and Ought” seems the truest line of the day, as it best explains the fire raining down on temple and town, with so many unfortunate deaths already met and still to come.

Like with the Minister of Finance, the whole country wonders if the charts and graphs of the ambitious King of Is are a lie. Meanwhile, like the King of Ought, few of us can find a way beyond hopeless delusion to how the revolution we need will be done.

Much of Shakespeare is about a play within a play, and about life and art imitating each other. On stage, Juliet repeatedly comes to her senses as she knows Romeo for far too little time, has far too much going for her to sacrifice, is too young to choose both marriage and death, and therefore decides against violent delights that have violent ends.

Romeo acquiesces, setting an example of how to act that big men murdering their women still haven’t learned. Indeed, in the larger national story, its not just women’s subordination, but their empowerment, not just their choice to get into relationships, but their choice to leave, that lead to violent ends.

On stage, communities feud while wanting respite while being threatened with death by authorities with a say over their lives. Seeing it play out before our eyes, perhaps this is why we try to lift our children, despite the trauma of our reality today.

So that they can dream, imagine, create together, nurture, encourage, support each other, challenge, grow, dare to be bold and strong, and engender the principles of discipline, hard work and love.

Maybe we continue to empower our children because we wish that when they talk, everybody will listen.

Post 284.

How to explain the exhaustion a mother feels? As I try to keep up with Ziya’s various school projects, and all the items that have to be printed, collected, bought or recycled in addition to completing revision and homework, I wonder how other mothers keep up. I especially wonder how working mothers manage. Families are collective projects, with all having to pull their weight, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

For example, the International Labour Organisation’s report on Women at Work Trends 2016 shows that in twenty-nine countries surveyed, women spent more time on household care than men. In many countries, except for the UK, Norway and Sweden, it was double or triple the time spent.

The Nielsen Global Home-Care Survey, which covers sixty-one countries, also found that women do the majority of cleaning. Men are increasingly putting in care and cleaning time as well as shopping and driving children to and from activities and school. However, for almost all regions surveyed, except for North America, the percentage of women doing the majority of household cleaning is higher than men doing the majority or it being shared when both those figures are added together.

Such women are also working for wages outside the home. Here, in the Caribbean, where women’s employment numbers are lower than men’s, those women may be working informally, in self-employment or part-time, hence their greater responsibility for the home.

Nonetheless, even when women are working full-time or are the breadwinners, they put more time to management and care of household members and to household cleaning anyway.

In Trinidad and Tobago, according to the 2011 Population and Housing Census, between 24% and 45% of households are female headed. So, on average, two out of three households in the country are headed by men. It is likely that women are also in these households, and that responsibility for families is more greatly shared.

It is unlikely that in the households which are female-headed, which are about one third of those in the country, fair share of care takes place. It is also unlikely that fair share of the costs of raising children also takes place.

Indeed, the caseload related to child maintenance, as mediated by the Family Court for example, points to the challenges of equal care and equal financial contribution for children, particularly among middle and lower-income families, who are not only more likely to end up in the court, but also more likely to experience economic insecurity.

This problem of women’s unequal burden won’t change quickly or dramatically. As Caribbean women of all classes continue to pursue higher education in numbers vastly exceeding men, they will increasingly become primary breadwinners even in households where men are seen to be the head, for headship may be based on the status of manhood, not income-contribution.

At this point, it is mainly in energy, manufacturing and construction sectors that men can provide higher incomes on lower levels of qualifications, but outside of those and illegal activities, we can expect lower-income and less-well educated men’s earnings to be less stable and less able to equally meet women’s over time.

It is also reasonable to expect that, at least in the short term of the next decade, many men will not take up the majority of housework, elder- and childcare, even when they earn less. First, globally, this has been delegated to other women, especially domestic workers, aunts and grandmothers.

Second, even where time-use studies indicated the reverse, in a 2015 survey of eight countries from Brazil to Rwanda, between 36% and 70% of men reported a role “equal to” or “greater than” their partner in childcare. In other words, women’s unequal contribution remained invisible, uncounted and undervalued.

The picture of women working full-time, contributing more financially as well as putting in more hours of care, cleaning, cooking and management at home is the near future. It will affect women in married, common-law and visiting relationships, and those that are without partners.

This is one explanation for the exhaustion that mothers feel, and its toll on their emotions and health. If there are any women out there for whom this sounds familiar, know that, my sister, it’s not just you.

Post 283.

All you have to do is walk around with your eyes open. Words said to me by Lloyd Best, one of the now-deceased founders of the 1970s Tapia House movement for a politics that empowers everyday people, not political elites.

I was already following this path, but have lived by these words since. With your eyes open, you can understand much more about our geography and its history.

Take the road from Grande to Point Galeota, and take your children with you. First, your drive through Sangre Grande and Sangre Chiquito (Big Blood and Little Blood) marks the path of slaughter following the Arena Uprising by Indigenous people in 1699, and their subsequent massacre after killing the Spanish Governor and priests.

Eight-four were captured on the run, sixty-one were shot, the rest were tortured after revealing that they were beaten by priests forcing them to attend Catholic services and to labour in the encomienda system. Later, twenty-two were hanged and dismembered, and the women distributed as servants.

Just past the slope to Manzanilla, named by the Spanish who thought they saw “little apples” on the trees, Nariva Swamp begins to emerge on your right as the ocean flings itself onto the shore on your left. It’s in Nariva Swamp, on the sacred Manatee Island, that the surviving Indigenous rebels were caught.

Full of biodiversity and village history, the Swamp became a protected wetland in 1993 after marches and protests against the effects of illegal rice farming, organized and led by women such as Molly Gaskin and Karilyn Shephard of the Wildfowl Trust. It’s hard to imagine such public protests to protect our ecology today.

You might buy watermelons at the side of the road, in front of the villages of Kernahan and Cascadoux, which began to be populated during the second World War when Trinidad was providing food through its ‘war gardens’. In 1999, I was a researcher documenting the lives and beliefs of those villages and, led by Andrew from Cascadoux Village, scaled the cliff-sides of Point Radix, over the ocean, exhilarated and barefoot.

Andrew later fell while picking coconuts, leaving him disabled. Even while remaining positive, as I visited him while Ziya went up to the mud volcano bubbling behind his house, he talked about how the PNM government took away his food card when they came into power. “It was so little money”, he said, “I don’t understand why”.

It’s a UNC constituency, so these things happen. The PNM also closed the Guayaguayare fishing depot, a glossy, windswept compound with storage facilities for fishermen which was opened by PM Persad-Bissessar in her day and with much ado. Why would they so completely lock the local people out?”, I asked UWI historian, Professor Brinsley Samaroo, “because that’s politics”, he said, reminding me just how little we effectively fight for our rights in the face of party leadership and their practices of punishment and reward.

Guayaguayare means the “clashing of waves” and Ziya, my seven-year-old, was keen to visit a place she’d heard about in an often-played, slow love song to the area by Trinidadian musician Drew Gonzales and his award-winning band, Kobotown. One day, going to Guyana, Zi may visit Georgetown’s famous sea wall, and recollect our own small island version.

Still open are the old green and blue grocery shops of John Lee Lum who, at the turn of the century, helped found the Guayaguayare Oil Company  along with Randolph Rust, from whom Rustville gets its name. Rust drilled the first successful oil well, and looking at the thick mangrove tentacles embracing Pilot River, you wouldn’t know that early drilling took place there.

To the left are rigs and tankers out at sea, and closer in is Point Galeota’s centre. Ziya stood contemplating two wells pumping out the compressed fossils below. As sohari leaves danced nearby, I wondered if the crude oil she saw in black pools around the pumps was a sign of our times, their presence soaking into our land. Perhaps, all – the fossils and the money – will be gone when she reaches my age.

If she keeps her eyes open to enough for long enough, she’ll connect those very pumps to Galeota’s tiny South-Eastern wealth, and sea level rise that will almost certainly claim Manzanilla’s coconut trees, the anaconda-like Mayaro road, and all this history.

Then, she’ll be left to picture chip-chip gathering, and the spirituous silk cotton tree at the mouth of the Ortoire River, in her mind’s eye and from childhood memory.

Post 282.

Think of your love for lyrics, and how the right words can draw your attention, change your opinion or just cause your heart to pulse a little harder.

We know well the compelling wordplay of calypso and extempo, but are less familiar with the tradition of rapso or what the community refers to as “the power of de word in the riddim of de word”. Even lesser known, though long kept alive is a local tradition of spoken word. It has just as much to make a politician cringe. Strike poetry, like a match to the sulphur of your tongue, and watch how paper can turn to fire.

I sat in Sunday’s audience at NAPA, enraptured by the energy at 2 Cents Movement’s spoken word finals, and the sixteen voices of another generation continuing this poetry tradition.

Deneka Thomas, the winner of the competition, confidently flung fire like sparks from black, sharp, flint stones. Her piece described all that is contained in a closet, all that is hung in it besides clothes, haunting like monsters whose shadows fall out and reach for your bed, highlighting how unsafe one can feel and be even in our own bedrooms. Closets are where secrets are held and abuse is buried, leaving you no less afraid. Closets are where LBGTI youth exist in fear of hate just outside the door. Closets are places that many hide, hoping the dark will protect.

Deneka was brilliant, which is only to be expected from a young, but experienced poet, who has visibly gone from strength to strength over these last years. She championed over a slew of other pieces by both women and men which focused on consent, violence and equal rights across sexual orientation. Young poets also spent their three minutes on economic injustice, like poetry thrown to blow open the stereotypes and status quo of gang-defined zones.

Young women in particular highlighted changing aspects of childhood brought on by inter-generational addiction to electronic devices, represented the voice of the earth rebelling against our destruction, and described the experience of being asked for a dance that seems stilted, much like the democratic act of voting for a party that you mistakenly think knows the right steps.

These women, and Deneka herself, are part of women’s spoken word history. Cheryl Byron was the first woman to peform rapso in a calypso tent in 1976. Kiskadee Karavan famously burst on the scene, with the band Homefront, featuring Gillian Moor alongside Ozzi Majiq and Kinky Dan, and their hit, “Free Yuhself (Give Yuhself a Chance)” in 1992. Brother Resistance carried the movement for decades, supporting other rapso women like Sister Ava and her band, when they began to perform in the 1990s.

As I’ve written before, I know the story well from about 1997 when I ‘broke new ground’ with Brother Resistance’s movement, which trained young poets for the stage, bringing in the expertise of Ataklan, Wendell Manwarren, Brother Book, and Kareja Mandela. Deneka’s fearless and decriminalized woman power built on the first pieces about women’s sexuality performed as part of Izavibes, imagined into being by Lisa Allen-Agostini and her brother, Dennis, following the earlier ‘Holy Underground’. Izavibes was midwife to the Ten Sisters Poetry and Song Movement which produced the only CD collection of women’s poetry in the country. Conceptualised by Paula Obe and Aneesa Baksh, from North to South Trinidad between 2000 and 2004, same-sex desire was defiantly delivered alongside other women’s wise words.

Ten Sisters begat the Speak Easy, hosted by Dara Njeri, which was continued by Songshine, led by Gillian Moor. From there, UWI Speak, Writers’ Block and other young collectives emerged, nurturing another generation of women like Ivory Hayes, now a young veteran to the stage. Those young women on stage last night, and the young men continuing to use poetry to promote conscious lyrics and politics, are inheritors of this women’s history of protecting and performing poetry.

Poets love lyrics because words can be stripped, like torn sentences, to softly bind pain like bandages. As Deneka showed, words also provide the kind of glinting steel that make closets openings for more imaginative worlds and for subversive escape routes long mapped by underground passages.