July 2018


Post 295.

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“If people truly catch the spirit,” Ziya reasoned, “then it means that gods are real and, if gods are real, then magic is real because gods are basically magic”.

She may not have had the right words, but so went her seven-year-old murmuring on Saturday as we headed home from the annual Heritage Masquerade Festival hosted by the Omo Oduduwa Institute.

Two hours earlier, we were driving into the winding roads of Petit Curucaye in San Juan as light rain hovered on the hilltops. I was thinking about my own atheism and, yet, the importance of valuing the pantheon of possibilities by which your neighbours make spiritual sense of the world.

Drumming had already begun when we arrived and we sat listening to the depth of refrains remembering Zion and calling on the Egungun, who are regarded in Yoruba tradition as a manifestation of the spirits of ancestors.

There was so much I couldn’t explain to Zi. We both know far too little about Ifa/Orisha practices, and what they can teach about spirituality, and communion among the ancestral, divine and earthly.

It really does require an invitation, or mutual openness, to grasp the significance of different colours, of deities and the designs on shrines, of invocations with white rum and water, and blessings asked for and given with ash, smoke and fire.

Most humbling was seeing the combination of Black Indian masquerade, specifically born out of Trinidad’s Carnival, with Yoruba practice, which survived the crossing of slave ships, and is ancestor to Carnival itself.  Black Indian masquerade, like Ifa/Orisha beliefs, especially combines African traditions with reverence for those who came before on this land.

Indian mas, whether Red or Black or Fancy, traces its lineage from Indigenous People’s beliefs, designs, and ancestors from across the hemisphere. It invokes them in the practice of Carnival mas making, and as a warrior mas that is reverently worn, shaping self and life not just for two days, but throughout the year.

We think that Indian masquerade makers are simply Africans or Indians, or Orisha or Hindu, or wire benders or electricians, but even when not wearing this masquerade, its spirit walks in their shoes.

This is the thing about Trinidad carnival. Spirituality is not just about the main religions we can identify. Blue Devil, Jab Jab and Indian mas are equally spiritual, where medicinal plants and moon phases matter, where ancestors are called upon regardless of their race, and where sounds, calls, chants and dances are sacred, handed-down languages.

As the small procession made our way down the hill, led by two Egungun wrapped in red and yellow cloth with wooden mask faces, we stopped on the Santa Cruz Old Road at the La Venezuela statue of an Amerindian man.

There at the junction, water was poured in all four directions to acknowledge the universe and all its elements, the Indigenous presence in Santa Cruz, the river that was once honoured as both life and as escape from colonial authorities, and the contribution of African rites to recognizing the land and all our people as now, here, together in shared survival.

The procession gathered by a small Spanish-style, concrete gazebo further in. It wakes you up to remember that there are a thousand places sacred to First Peoples, which could change how we ethically move through this space if only we continued to honour them as sacred today. It’s easy to forget that we walk on the bones of those from the past.

At both spots, spiritual manifestation highlighted the momentous resonance of the moment. Zi stood observant of a worldview she was witnessing for the first time, deep with questions about gods, ancestors, cultural traditions and reality, and turning to a child’s framework about magic. Hopefully, such wonder is only a beginning.

From attending church with her grandparents, Zi has become more familiar with Christianity. I took a world religions approach to school so, last year, Zi was in Hindu classes and, next year, she’ll be in Muslim ones. I felt she should understand different belief systems, be able to connect with Trinidad and Tobago’s diversity, and decide for herself what role theology, or the study of God, plays in her life.

In my rear view mirror, I could see her murmuring as her mind worked through what such a new experience meant. Above our heads, the hovering rain finally began to descend.

 

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Post 294.

In a society still recovering from the inhumanity of slavery and indentureship, our most important commitment is to non-violence, in all forms and in all relations. Non-violence isn’t just about not beating. It’s far more than refusing physical brutality or harm.

Non-violence is about seeing the God in another, recognizing them as born into the world with their own specific struggles and their own divine breath and heart, just like you. I suppose it’s been better said as, let he or she who is without sin cast the first stone. Therefore, with the same sense of its righteousness, put down your stone.

Each of us carries secret sins that we know would change how others treated us if only they knew. This includes the most pious, who have the hardest to fall and the most to hide, for the only way to distance yourself from the others whose imperfections, mistakes and faults seem so obvious and true, is to cast them as therefore less deserving than you.

What if we started differently? As all deserving equal rights and justice, as all deserving compassion and care, as all deserving the right to be, and to be safe and loved, in the ways which we want for ourselves.

I thought about this hope, and how it will be held aloft as our highest ideal at Saturday’s Pride Parade, which will be held at Nelson Mandela Park in Port of Spain, from 2pm.

At the march in Barbados, which occurred without any violent response, a generation of young people came with their messages. One, by a trans woman, plainly and powerfully said, “reclaiming my humanity”. She’s right, it’s the same thing that protestors are doing in response to unjust police killings. It’s the same thing that’s sought in leaving an abusive partner. It’s the fundamental achievement for enslaved African people that is commemorated on Emancipation Day.

Another poster said “sexual orientation is not a choice”. This is good to remember next time we judge our brother or sister, or son or daughter, and refuse them familial love, because of who they are. I’ve thought about this many times, that the choice is less theirs than it is ours, to refuse to be the sinner who casts that first brimstone, knowing that such violence is only a sign of our own imperfection. Whatever your House of God, you are loved no more or less than folk who are LBGTQ+.

Such recognition should make you sit in your pew, or pray on your knees or perform aarti with a little more humility.  As one sign put it to those living in Barbados, “There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s a lot wrong with the world you live in”.  What’s wrong is that we think a respectable façade gives us enough legitimacy to deny another’s humanity, and to do so violently if we so choose, simply because they don’t maintain the respectable façade we do.

On Saturday, it would be beautiful to see LBGTQ+ people free to be themselves without the condemnation of others who should not cast the first stone. It would be beautiful to see religious folk and leaders march in solidarity because they see the God, and the divine breath and heart, in those it’s easy to hypocritically judge.

You may think that manhood and womanhood are under threat, but it is your own humanity, the God in you, that is at stake. One final sign said, “love thy neighbor as you wish to be loved”. On Saturday, the Pride Parade will express a collective wish simply to see this divine aspiration together achieved.

Post 293.

On dewy mornings, my mother’s white car slowly crept under the Poui trees. They were mostly lilac and pink, but sometimes yellow. I lay on the backseat on a pillow listening to 1950s music, and looking up at the endless blue sky out of the back windows. I was eight years old, and the traffic from St. Augustine to Port of Spain meant being guided for a little way by the soft colours and even softer petals carpeting the hollowed grass between north- and south-bound lanes.

Along the highway, the Pouis towered like hallowed deities surely no one would put God out of their thoughts to desecrate. Thousands of people passed them each day, twice, their wearied spirits lifted by the flagrant flounce of such exuberant blush and dry season bloom.

Those trees were a backdrop to my childhood. I knew their scalloped, slender bark, and their branches reaching like a breath of fresh air, like oxygen for bodies and minds slumped and dying in daily exhaustion, tension and car fumes.

The resilient green of the Northern Range filled the landscape on the right, Kay Donna slowly inched closer and then past on the left. Poui trees lined the middle, reliably beautiful like ladies bejeweled in yellow afternoon light, or like the sweetness of being serenaded by your beloved on lavender-hued evenings of patient, gentle courtship.

I don’t know if the past gifted you these memories, but that’s all they are now. The Pouis are gone, the gutted scars in the ground where they once stood tell a story of loss of the sacred for the generations for whom these trees were as close as family, a rare thing in a country which finds common solace in concrete.

It’s the same neglected promise of care that lets Port of Spain’s most beautiful buildings collapse under the weight of modern ambitions, and abandonment of beauty as a public good. It’s the same disregard that would have Pres-T-Con replace iconic iron bridges with slabs that stubbornly block the pleasure of looking at the rivers as families drive over, as if nothing matters in the entire surrounding ecosystem but the authority of soulless engineering.

It’s the same disinvestment in a higher good that meant Maracas is somehow uglier, the view of the sea shortsightedly blocked from those passing the beach, and the mangroves abandoned like cheap trash rather than rehabilitated with science displays for children to run through with sandy feet, and a small boat tour that can explain why trees are more sacred than contractors’ profits.

The Pouis, torn from the ground for a planned interchange, feel like any one of us is dispensable, without mercy, nostalgia or tears. In the normal, crushing march of progress, it’s just a matter of when your time comes. And, when it does, will anyone care?

Did you ever bring us beauty? Did your soft petal fingers gently stroke thousands of heavy hearts trying to get through a hard day? Did we know you like we know our own childhoods as you stood by, pink, lilac and sometimes yellow, for decades?

A whole generation of little children will never share these memories. Maybe it’s better they will neither understand or care what they’ve lost. It’s unlikely any Pouis will ever be planted again along our highways unless their planting was budgeted in the interchange’s plans. That aesthetic is for long-time, like an old Hunter Hillman car which today would feel quaint and obsolete, or like a teacher riding a bicycle to school in the cool, early dew.

I don’t know when I reached the age when nostalgia aches in your chest, but I now know how it feels. Perhaps, thousands of others also look at the emptiness left, unprepared for the turn of time from colour to black and white. Once, I could renew my childhood memories of lying in the backseat of my mother’s white car every morning, connect to a small self that once looked up at the sky.

Those moments were already in the past, and the Poui trees were all that was left. Now, when I look, I still see them, like mourning ghosts, though there’s nothing there, but my own soft grieving.

Post 292.

Imagine your little one in a pre-school graduation. The room is decorated with sparkly “congratulations” signs and balloons. The children are fresh-faced and lovely.

Reading Rainbow Preschool from San Fernando has been doing this for 23 years. Ziya had a school celebration when she moved on, but it wasn’t Americanized, as is fashionable now, with gowns and caps and all.

Here, at my first time attending a formal ‘graduation’ of this kind, there weren’t any gowns, just lacy white dresses, socks and shoes for girls, and little boys in crisp white shirts, black pants and black ties. It was classic Caribbean propriety for children, the kind that makes respectable grandparents feel all is still right with the world.

I was there as a guest speaker, following in the footsteps of school principals Patricia Ramgoolam and Dr. Michael Dowlath, politicians such as Razia Ahmed and Gillian Lucky, and past Mayor Gerald Ferreira.

Sitting to my left was Reverend Joy Abdul-Mohan, who not only spoke at the first graduation, but who suggested the school motto: Do the best…to be the best.

On my right was boxing world champion Ria Ramnarine. Her story of pursuing martial arts as a young girl, despite family wishes, is legendary. In an excellent skit, little Ria pretended to knock out her opponent in the cutest way imaginable, with the whole room of parents beaming with pride and laughter. Later, her biography was recited while she received her gold belt.

One scene depicted a courthouse where lawyer Kamla Persad Bissessar, dressed in yellow, and Justice Paula Mae-Weekes, in robes, disciplined bad driver ‘Motilal Baboolal’. In other scenes, Shanntol Ince, paraolympic swimmer, and Jean Pierre, acted out their winning athletics, receiving awards while tiny presenters described their achievements.

For the past two years, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) has helped organize a march for International Women’s Day. Scene Three was this march for women’s rights, gender equality and an end to violence against women. There were about eight children who all received placards handed out by a teacher, encouraging their learning about protest for peace and justice.

The first march took place exactly sixty years ago in San Fernando. I knew that we were continuing its legacy, but I didn’t believe I’d ever see feminist struggles taught in pre-school. Tears kind of came to my eyes.

On stage, Reverend Joy and two IGDS faculty, Professor Rhoda Reddock and myself, were interviewed by, of course, little Akash Samaroo and Khamal Georges.

The children’s lines consisted of actual text from the press. The little girl, whose costuming made her look uncannily like me, recited March 2018 data on one in three women experiencing violence in their lifetime. She provided accurate analysis, focusing on gender and economic inequality and failure of services.

On stage, little Joy was dressed in her make-believe priest’s collar. Humorously, Reverend Joy herself looked exactly the same. I was won over by the idea of a preschool graduation all at once, if this is what they would be.

Children portrayed beauty queens, and iconic singers such as Daisy Voisin, Drupatee Ramgoonai and Calypso Rose. Impressively, ignoring homophobia, Michelle Lee Ahye was also honoured and adorably displayed by a girl with braids, and a flag for a cape, highlighting that women’s achievements really can most matter.

In my talk, I celebrated five other women whose steps we should also follow.

First, Anacoana. Haitian Taino queen and mother who fought the Spanish to her death. She was only 29 years old. Second, Queen Nanny of the Maroons, an Asante who escaped plantation slavery and is considered to have freed another thousand enslaved Africans in colonial Jamaica. Third, Claudia Jones, born in Belmont, the mother of Notting Hill Carnival, and so influential in the international Communist Party that she’s buried to immediately left of Karl Marx, Communism’s founder.

Fourth, Dr. Stella Abidh, the first Indo-Trinidadian woman to become a doctor despite Presbyterian clergy’s protestations against women’s advanced education. Her father was a unionist and County Council representative who supported her dream. Fifth, Ruth Seukeran, former San Fernando Councilor and political organizer whom few know was one of the speakers at the first international women’s day march, oranised by Christina Lewis and the Caribbean Women’s National Assembly, in 1958.

Pre-school education is more powerful than I credited, and the ideas more progressive than I’d ever hoped. Sparkly congratulations to pre-schools who put such love and commitment to making not only children and parents, but path-breaking women, honoured and proud.

Post 291.

Minister of Education Anthony Garcia needs extra lessons on what not to say about the SEA examination.

Last week, he found it important to note, “The student who placed first in this exam, in other words the student who scored the highest, was a male student…For some time we have been noticing that our girls have been outperforming the boys where first place is concerned…From the fact that a boy was able to top the exam, it seems as though our male students have improved.”

These statements reflect appalling and invalid assumptions.

Traditionally, families didn’t invest in girls’ education because girls were expected to marry, be helpmates and be financially provided for by boys. Boys were expected to have access to better paid employment, be able to invest more in their careers, and to exercise leadership and authority in spheres of work more greatly associated with or dominated by men.

That changed over the last decades. We began to think of girls and boys as human beings with an equal right to educational achievement and economic independence. Reforms also significantly reduced gender stereotyping in school content even if it continued to rule the hidden curriculum of girls’ and boys’ socialization.

Are boys’ struggling against beliefs in their natural role of caring for children and greater economic dependence? What’s the basis for emphasizing a boy ‘topping’ girls in the SEA examination? What historical inequality or entrenched sexist ideals are boys overcoming that we want to highlight?

Shouldn’t we also consider the significance of one boy doing better than all the other boys? Does it only matter that he dominated the girls? Why does that matter at all?

Public response to girls doing well in education has been moral panic about emasculation. From girls’ success emerged baseless opinion about women teachers’ inability to be role models for or competent teachers of boys. This insultingly assumes that women cannot be role models for all human beings, and that there is something wrong with boys seeing such adult humans worthy of emulation.

‘Single mothers’ were also wrongly blamed. Greater poverty and absence of fatherly sharing of care and costs are factors, but blaming boys’ exam ranking on resilient mothers managing many challenges again shortcuts to emasculation as the issue.

Is it that boys must have dominant manhood enforced in order to do well? And, if so, what are the implications for girls, who will grow up in a society where, despite their educational successes, about 35 000 women will experience male partner violence in a twelve-month period. Are we prepared to pit boys and girls against each other whatever the costs?

‘The war on boys!’ was a backlash slogan which positioned girls’ beating books as an attack on masculinity itself. As if boys didn’t have a long history of reading, as if school had not always involved hours of sitting still, as if boys and not girls needed more play and active learning, and as if the demands of subordinated styles of teaching were not bad for all children. This view misdiagnoses current schooling as biased toward girls. At the same time, it is unable to explain how boys can still do well.

Panic also extended to blaming girls for doing too well or being too distracting. More than UWI Principal thought it cool to slight thousands of graduating women students by highlighting, not their historical and hard won success, but their apparent ‘outperforming’ of boys, and the expectation that they take on additional responsibility for helping male peers do well. Our message to girls is that their pursuit of power, capability and achievement should not intimidate boys and men, nor threaten the ‘natural’ balance of patriarchy.

Boys’ educational improvements are necessary, but what do they have to do with girls? Should girls not aim for first place? What, besides a moment of youthful resurgent male domination, is being celebrated here?

When we rate girls’ successes in terms of what they mean for boys, we continue to position males as the standard by which females’ lives are understood. This is called androcentrism. It refers to thinking that continually centres men and boys, and protection of manhood as obsessive priorities. Boyhood and girlhood are wholly irrelevant to children’s achievements unless these ideals in some way hold them back.

Headlines should focus on the urgent national concern of thousands of girls and boys whom schooling fails. For them, violence, mental health, learning challenges, class inequality and gender provide more complex explanation for SEA success and failure.