momentous trivialities: diary of a mothering worker


Post 398.

In recently announced changes to the GATE programme, undergraduate degrees will remain subsidized to an extent determined by a means test. Post-graduate degrees have been substantially defunded for future students.  

Regarding reduction of tertiary education subsidies, and the increased availability of loans, the effects are well-documented in the US, which made this switch in the 1980s and has since witnessed skyrocketing student debt and family indebtedness; resilient labour market inequality by class, race and gender; and exacerbated economic slowdown.

In her prescient book, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, Melinda Cooper describes student debt as a “lucrative interest-bearing asset in global securities markets”. It works for both governments and banks. The first can still assert that tertiary education is accessible to all despite shifting from free access to university whether rich and poor. The second can profit from state policy to replace or supplement public funding with private deficit spending. 

As Cooper puts it, “Instead of the government going into deficit to spend on public services…the individual consumer would go into debt to purchase these same services”. Fiscal austerity and credit abundance are being presented hand in hand, and as the national economy continues to contract, this is a policy direction that we can anticipate. 

It will be interesting to see if tertiary education loans increase. One could argue that families are responsible for their children’s education, but one could just as well argue that decades of corruption and mismanagement have wasted billions of dollars that should have been available for investment in education as a public good and economic stimulus strategy (though, for us in the Caribbean, this is undermined by emigration and ‘brain drain’). 

Some families will be able to afford their children’s tertiary education, and even post-graduate degrees. Low- to middle-income students will likely hit a qualification barrier if they cannot afford (rising) tuition and other costs. In reality, most students cannot qualify for a loan on their own so that student debt becomes a familial and intergenerational obligation. 

Additionally, Cooper notes, “a student with no assets or savings is more likely to have to defer, refinance, or default on a loan, accumulating a much longer temporal burden of interest payments than the student who can pay on schedule”. Alternatively, for Trinidad and Tobago, where for decades women have graduated from university in higher numbers and yet on average earn lower incomes, loan repayments could be a higher portion of monthly wages, acting as a form of regressive taxation. 

Cooper describes this as a way that “private credit markets…perform democratic inclusion without disturbing the economic structures of private family wealth”. Simply put, in repaying loans, with interest, poor families will spend more on education than wealthier ones who have less need for additional funds and greater capacity to repay. 

The government analysis that led to the recent GATE reforms isn’t clear. Is the expectation that students will turn to vocational training, the labour market, or other options? This makes me wonder whether the government forecasted the effects of the recent GATE reform, and has a macro plan in relation to those effects.

That macro plan should differentiate the student population affected by class, age and gender. For example, at UWI, 63% of students are women, 37% are men. This means that GATE has been an irreplaceable source of public investment in women, who are the main sex seeking both undergraduate and post-graduate qualifications (except in Engineering), principally to improve their chances in the economy. 

The majority of UWI students are also 18-24 and young women in this age group have the highest rates of unemployment, possibly because they are deferring employment for education in order to improve their chances beyond low-waged retail, service and clerical jobs where women remain clustered. Since 2015, enrolment has been dropping in all faculties except for Law, and Science and Technology, suggesting the economic downturn has already been making an impact. So, it’s a perfect storm out there for students – increased unemployment and decreased access to higher education. What choices do we expect them to make? 

This is an example of how austerity measures have feminized impacts, and so too may be education-related increases in private debt. At the same time, public debt financed vanity projects, such as the port in Toco, and other construction stimulus plans, will disproportionately benefit men as they comprise 80% of that sector. I’ve been calling for gender responsive budgeting, which makes visible such inequitable costs and benefits of gender-blind fiscal policy, for precisely this reason.

Post 397.

I had been quite disturbed a few weeks ago when I overheard a conversation between Ziya and a friend. They were discussing Donald Trump and whether he had Covid-19, at a time when his purported infection, vaccine experiment and full recovery were campaign fodder. One said that she heard he had it, the other said that he could be lying, and I thought what a world in which to be growing up, when children have no idea if adults, and leaders, are telling the truth.

Over on Saturday night for Ziya’s 10th birthday sleepover, the little friend sat with us watching Kamala Harris’ speech. Zi had been excited about the campaign and the debates, and knew early on that there could be a Dougla like her as the first woman Vice President, making US history. She was aware that my family in the US had been feeling unsafe, fearing a triumph of Trump and ascendancy of the ‘white right’. 

We had even discussed what that phrase meant one night, and I had ineptly explained what politically left and right referred to, going back to Karl Marx and, from there, muddling the rest from working mother exhaustion. 

So, it had been a few weeks of discussions whenever her antenna picked up snatches of campaign news and opinion, like a nine-year old version of BBC news. And, it was big tears the night of the vice-presidential debate when I made her go to bed because it was late. 

As we watched Harris’ victory speech, I was immensely relieved that there was an articulate, tough and well-raised woman speaking directly to children, regardless of their gender, whose words could be believed. I was gratified as a mother that they could have this memory at such an influential moment in their development as girls, whether Indian-descended or from the Caribbean, from the African diaspora in the Americas, or from migrant communities. 

Whenever a woman anywhere cracks a glass ceiling, it should be celebrated for that crevice has been opened up for others to join in breaking it. That there are still firsts for women today is astounding, but, in every country, there are still such old, resilient limits for girls and women to insistently crack. 

When that woman is also connected to the Global South – to both India and the Caribbean, when she understands contemporary immigrant experience – which so many of our migrating family members have lived, when she is able to speak knowingly about the systemic violence of US anti-blackness, and when she looks like she could be family to any of us – which is very Trinidadian, there’s a more intimate sense of connection to her achievement. 

Then, there was Harris’ message about standing on the shoulders of those that came before, and their struggle, determination, strength and vision. “Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before,” she said, while girls wearing rabbit-eared bandows and playing with party balloons, watched from our living room.

At the time when the internet sexualises adolescence more than ever before, when hypersexualised Netflix movies like “Cuties” show terrifying trends in how girls are being impacted globally, a mother could do with moments like this; with a powerful woman talking about climate justice and racial justice. At a time when US pop culture continues to overwhelm the region’s local content, an alternative message to girls that isn’t about beauty, brands or bling provides a much-needed respite.

From the experience of Obama, we know that the Biden-Harris term may be defined by less virulent forms of US imperialism, anti-immigrant policy-making, white supremist backlash, man-made climate destruction, and wealth concentration amidst impoverishment of working-class families, but these will not be ended by two centre-left individuals in four years. Though, as we have seen with PM Mia Mottley, there are possibilities to inspire and pivot the world toward more sensible and caring leadership, to mend some trauma, and to soften a public discourse which, so much like ours, has become mired in the inane and insulting. 

Women’s political leadership always secures a symbolic shift, but the substantive difference of the next four years will emerge through partisan negotiation, lobbyist pressure, and the strength of activist movements’ demands. It’s clear that the presidential campaign will be for Harris in 2024. Between now and then, Zi will enter adolescence and encounter inevitable disappointments, but may also learn to continue to choose hope, decency, science and truth.  

Post 396.

I’ve struggled with what to express other than haunting sadness at the killing of Tenil Cupid, and my condolences to her family and her children. I’ve wanted to write a column printed with blank space, where words would otherwise fill the page, to compel a pause, a moment of quiet, when we all still our steps, as we do for the national anthem, to remember that she was just 23 years old. We are a nation where young women are not safe, where they cannot love and choose to leave, and where men’s lethal violence produces generational trauma, pulling both boys and girls into its cycle.

I’ve struggled because statistics predict such pain and loss. All the recent studies of violence prevalence in the Caribbean, from Guyana to Jamaica to Grenada to TT, point to established risk factors in young Tenil Cupid’s life.

First, entering intimate relationships before 18 years old, particularly with much older male partners (who are legally sexual predators committing the crime of rape and child sexual abuse).

Second, motherhood and, especially, adolescent motherhood, for example, beginning at 15 years old and continuing through teenage years with multiple births.

Third, limited education, as well as relatively low school achievement of male partners.

Fourth, insufficient income and economic dependency on partners with low income, particularly when children must be fed and schooled. Keep in mind that young women under 24 have higher rates of unemployment than young men, suggesting complex power relations which they must negotiate to be secure and survive.

Fifth, the decision to end a relationship and to escape a male partner’s controlling behaviours and dominance. These behaviours are an absolute key red flag for femicide, whether the triggers are substance abuse or a new relationship or financial crisis and conflict.

There are hundreds each year who enter young womanhood in these circumstances, and additional experiences of child abuse and neglect. These are girls raised without sufficient information and support to make healthier decisions, and in circumstances that increase their vulnerability to much of what Tenil Cupid lived.

In the women’s movement, we worry whether women are being killed at younger ages, at the increase in such killing and at the state’s inadequate response in terms of having social welfare workers go to vulnerable homes in communities as they used to; appropriate psychosocial intervention for children at an age when it can still make a difference; and a serious national campaign against male predation as an accepted social norm.

As the Coalition Against Domestic Violence cautioned, after the murder of 29-year-old Reshma Kanchan, “we cannot run away from the intersecting relationship of domestic murders with gender inequality and harmful masculinities.”

That this intersection affects women everywhere was poignantly shown in Womantra’s Silent Silhouettes short documentary where murdered women and their children were shown in everyday places, their absence marked by the dark space and shape left by their missing bodies.

Conceptualised around 2006, by the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, to encourage us to emotionally connect to lost lives such as Tenil Cupid’s, these silhouettes also represent Jezelle Phillip Fournillier, Gabriella Dubarry, Naiee Singh, Trisha Ramsaran-Ramdass, Adanna Dick, Vera Golabie, Sherian Huggins, Joanna Diaz Sanchez, and Reshma Kanhan; all murdered by (mostly former) partners this year.

To better understand femicide prevention, the coalition has called for “comprehensive and multidisciplinary investigation into domestic murders” to assess the circumstances of both victim and perpetrator, whether a history of abuse was known to family and community, whether actions were taken to protect the victim, and whether any services were sought from state institutions. It also continues to recommend “school and out of school-based interventions, gender sensitive parenting programmes, and programmes engaging men including perpetrator/batterer interventions.”

The GBV Unit has responded, citing 220 arrests and 290 charges since January. However, convictions are beyond the unit’s ambit, and in TT are notoriously low, signalling how the judicial system slowly but surely reproduces impunity.

As Conflict Women urged this week, the Government must make “prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for covid19,” and men and citizens must “speak out, report and act against violence against women and girls,” perhaps saving another woman and her children from becoming statistics.

Meanwhile, at the end of this sentence, please stay with me for a moment of stillness, silence and sadness, for loss of words, for Tenil Cupid, just 23 years old, and taken too soon.

Post 395.

SEA results last week were an unwanted wake-up call. Until now, before Ziya started Junior 4, I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to school. She always did well enough, though there was room to improve. She was well behaved even if dreamy in class. She was always creative, curious, conversational and observant, and I was never worried. Mostly, I wanted her to be happy.

For me, childhood is a time for emotional, ethical and social development, for less homework and more play or extracurricular activities. I would have home-schooled if I could and dreamed of a school where learning was a joy, not experienced as pressure or terror. Having had mostly average marks until I began university, I also believed Zi would excel when she found her passion and was ready. You have to trust each child to grow in her or his own way. Children are not cogs in a machine.

I was clearly being naïve, and only just woke up to the reality of the SEA machine. One that sorts those kept in the system from those flung to the floor, however unfair its process or conclusion.

There’s so much to say about this exam, from children’s tears when they don’t get into their first choice school (as so many won’t), to the narrow testing of learning styles that will always limit our assessment of their intelligence, to the 20 per cent list built on a clique of religious or familial contacts, to the confusion of parents when similar exam marks result in very different school placements because these are shaped by convoluted and obscure metrics.

There were so many parents who had to convince disappointed children they were still smart and well-rounded, that they knew their work better than one exam on one day showed, and that there was still reason to be proud. It was a little heartbreaking to see children’s shame after trying so hard. I realised that to try to protect Zi from that, momentum begins now.

So enters the juggernaut of after-school lessons. Lessons teachers are booked already, two years before the exam. Many students will drop everything for lessons seven days a week in the months before. You can barely find any lessons teachers available if you wait until Junior 5. It’s like the system slowly pulls you in if you want to survive. That’s the reality I’m now preparing for, wondering how to do my job and make the much-needed revision time on afternoons, whether after-school activities will still be possible, and whether the decisions I’ll make will be the right ones.

We consider SEA to be an opportunity to learn resilience in anticipation of the difficulties of the real world, and a hard lesson in why and how to beat books. Months of practice tests won’t make students smarter, but they do set the foundation for future skills in writing exams. In some schools, teachers will provide extra lessons for their classes for free. Others, crossing inequalities of income, will search around for ones they can afford. Others will try on the basis of what our public education system provides, both its good and bad, its teachers who empower and those who insult, its schools with connectivity and those without. We will see the impact of this year of covid19 in SEA results as much as two years from now.

I’m writing this because I’m noting how my own teaching and learning philosophy is compelled to shift. There’s a technique to excelling in these life-shaping moments, and drilling and repetition is key. I don’t think this is what connects children to their own self-esteem or humanity, or see their place as stewards of our nation’s ecology. Some become unable to cope with the stress or get bawl up week after week for not hitting the marks they need.

The threat of failure casts a long shadow, though many do come through and thrive. Often, they arrive at university with fears of making mistakes or speaking out, and a need for detailed instructions rather than a capacity to work things out for themselves, and must develop a whole new skill set for self-directed learning, collaboration, and solution-focused thinking.

I’m also tracing the SEA story backward, like bread crumbs, two years before the highest marks make front page and students’ placement becomes public record. Amidst budget debates, if you talk to parents struggling with results as well as those beginning to gear up, concerns are really about their children’s lives.

Post 394.

To financially-strapped states, public-private partnerships (PPPs) appear as a growing solution for providing technology, financing, infrastructure and services. Global case studies suggest they are a Trojan horse.

Their interlock with Finance Minister Colm Imbert’s fiscal strategy should provoke public conversation about each potential partnership and its implications, and send us to sharpen our knowledge of the impact of PPPs elsewhere in the world.

Caribbean feminist Peggy Antrobus brought this to my attention just two weeks ago, pointing to research by the feminist network, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), and suggesting we needed to bring the Caribbean into an ongoing global critique. Post-budget, it seems even more urgent.

Wherever you turn in the global South, civil society has hesitations about PPPs. These are long-term contracts, underwritten by government guarantees, where the private sector builds and implements projects or services traditionally provided by the State, such as hospitals, schools, roads, water, sanitation and energy. In our budget, PPPs will be used in agriculture, housing, energy and San Fernando’s waterfront development, but this is just a beginning.

Globally, they are considered another step in consolidating the influence of the corporate sector on the development agenda, giving private interests both more access and brokering power than civil society, whether at the UN General Assembly or national levels. They are bluntly called a tool of corporate capture of public policy, which promises increased productivity, growth, employment, food security, environmental sustainability and inclusion, but which instead increases extractivism, land and infrastructure grabbing, and inequality.

There’s so much backlash that, in October 2017, 152 civil society organisations, trade unions and citizen organisations from 45 countries launched a campaign manifesto to demand a moratorium on “the aggressive promotion and incentivising of PPPs” over “traditional public borrowing to finance social and economic infrastructure and services.” The lesson is not to be sweet-talked into a long-term strategy we have insufficiently examined.

Surveying DAWN’s resources shows that PPPs are considered to cost governments, and thus citizens, more in the long run, because states underwrite risks, and costs rise. There are examples from Lesotho, the UK and Liberia. What’s called “off-balance sheet” accounting can hide true costs of PPPs from national accounts. PPPs have generally failed to address an increasing divide between rich and poor, and gender gaps, as exemplified by Tanzania and India. They are considered to increase risks of corruption and reduce public transparency.

As the global campaign manifesto describes, “PPP contracts are extremely complex. Negotiations are covered by commercial confidentiality, making it hard for civil society and parliamentarians to scrutinise them,” especially without procurement legislation in place. Also, “PPPs can limit the capacity of governments to enact new policies – for example strengthened environmental or social regulations – that might affect particular projects,” with examples from Australia, Brazil and the Philippines. Finally, they are considered to result in wrecking of habitats, displacement of communities and abuse of protesters. None of this would be surprising here and our planned mega-projects, including the port in Toco, could see exactly some of these outcomes.

Clauses can make governments compensate private interests for changes in laws that impact projects, even when they are meant to protect citizens. In another example, clauses could require governments to compensate the private sector for workers’ strikes, pressuring states to use security forces against workers even with legitimate demands. Even speaking from a better regulated political economy than our own, the European Court of Auditors 2018 report was entitled “Public Private Partnerships in the EU: Widespread shortcomings and limited benefits.”

With regard to gender equality, the African Women’s Development and Communication Network essentially says to mash brakes. First, data (including from the World Bank) doesn’t suggest that PPPs effectively address gender inequalities. Second, new or increased user fees of previously public services may increase, more greatly affecting women who, inevitably, predominate in the lowest paid sectors of the economy. Finally, as happened in Portugal, when governments have to pay the bill of failed PPP projects, “women are disproportionately impacted, either through increases in their unpaid work or cuts in their public sector employment.”

With what economists describe as little fiscal space, or what others describe as mauby pockets, we have to protect every dollar. It may seem like we are “maximising finance for development,” following World Bank mantra, but we have learned over decades of structural adjustment policies that liberalisation of economies can cost the most vulnerable in ways now familiar to us in the region. Be aware. At this time, we cannot be complacent.

Post 392.

The Children’s Authority’s press release on September 20 is a red flag regarding children’s increased vulnerability. Abuse rates were already high prior to covid19.

On January 29, the TTPS Child Protection Unit reported a 137 per cent increase in criminal acts against children, including a 45 per cent increase in violent offences such as cruelty, between 2017 and 2019, years when the economy slowed and unemployment soared.

Similarly, in its 2018/2019 report, the authority highlighted “an increased number of children lacking care and guardianship…and children in need of supervision…While for Trinidad, sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect continue to be the highest categories of reports of abuse, in Tobago, sexual abuse, neglect and children lacking care and protection were the highest categories of abuse received.”

The highest number of cases were reported during April-May and during October, with an average of 361 reports recorded per month.

Children 10-13 years, and children in the areas of San Juan/Laventille, Tunapuna/Piarco and Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo in Trinidad, and in the areas of St Andrew and St Patrick in Tobago, were at highest risk. In terms of reports, sexual abuse accounted for 23 per cent and neglect, 20 per cent, but note that ten per cent of children lacked care and guardianship and another seven per cent were in need of supervision.

Girls experienced significantly higher rates of sexual abuse than boys (34 per cent to ten per cent), and boys experienced slightly higher rates of neglect than girls (23 per cent to 17 per cent). Strangely, the authority doesn’t sex disaggregate perpetrator data, but, historically, sexual abuse of girls by uncles, cousins, fathers and other trusted men is a consistent risk. Girls are most vulnerable to abuse in the homes where they are now confined.

Children with special needs are always more vulnerable because they are more dependent, and less able to break silences about their conditions and experiences. Migrant children are a new category still insufficiently integrated into our social services, and at risk for sexual exploitation.

The numbers show children’s complex and stressful circumstances. Sexual abuse reports increase up to 16-17 years, but physical abuse reports decrease. Reports of children in need of supervision increase significantly at 14 years while reports of neglect go down after 13 years old.

Given that “children in need of supervision,” “lacking care and guardianship” and “neglect” comprise the most reports (except for children 14-17 where sexual abuse is the most reported form of abuse), it is not surprising that mothers account for 40 per cent of perpetrators, for they have unequal responsibility for child care and financial provision under more severe conditions of economic stress and poverty, both of which have increased as the economy contracted since 2015.

This brings me to this week’s press release. In it, the authority reminded parents to “ensure children are left in the care of trusted and responsible adults” and that “older children should not be given the responsibility to supervise younger ones.” This is hopeful, but nearly pointless to say when daycares and schools are closed, and many parents do not have the luxury of working from home.

Across the country and at different levels of employment, women’s jobs are at risk because they have no one to stay home and look after their children. Children are being left at home by themselves or with older children because parents have no better choice, not simply because they are irresponsible.

State decision-making always affects the most vulnerable, in this case economically insecure and single-parent households, and children. This occurs whether such policies intend to or not, and whether state officials acknowledge this impact or not. Covid19 public health decisions have increased children’s vulnerability to abuse. Gender-sensitive and child-sensitive decision-making would have required these very officials to forecast this likely scenario and build in a response.

Child abuse is not a virus, but it is a public health issue for it impacts thousands of children each year, harming their mental, emotional and possibly physical health, and literally reproducing such harm over a lifetime and even generations. We cannot finger-wag at parents who cannot cope with the effects of the economic, social and policy crisis created first by the crash of a petrostate and now by the pandemic.

What we need is a state that will spring into action to ensure options for children’s safety with the alacrity it responded to our risk to covid19, and with the sense of these as intersecting vulnerabilities. The authority highlighted an existing problem which will only worsen. Whose responsibility is it to prevent the rise in reports typical of October? I fear for our children.

Post 391.

As a young woman entering Caribbean feminism in the 1990s, I was inspired and guided by the Trinidad and Tobago chapter of the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA TT). I learned as much from listening and watching these sharp, wise and conscious Caribbean women as I did from university. They weren’t easy, but those rose coloured days are full of memories of seemingly-older women gnashing at oppressive relations just as much as sharing a laugh, perhaps as a survival strategy, over the foolishness of it all. 

They loved the ‘tea parties’ I found quaint, believed in the power of letters to the editor, were firm that women’s groups worth their salt were grounded in paid membership and active members, and held the broad aspiration of justice for women and men everywhere. 

Conversations included global struggles, labour struggles and women’s struggles. There were often cross-ethnic conversations with differences in experience and opinion, and they navigated a slew of strong personalities that didn’t always get along, often debated and even disagreed, but were highly protective of each other. I learned the basic decency of this feminist ethic of refusing to attack each other publicly the way that men do. I saw both their tensions and undercurrents, and commitment to collaboration through it all.  

From 2003 to 2016, Tara Ramoutar was National Representative of the TT chapter of CAFRA. This column honours her contribution to Caribbean feminist movement-building.  A small, sharply astute and fiery woman, I admired her quiet leadership, her quick movements and her ready laughter. 

Tara’s family grew cane, rice and garden vegetables. Her father would listen to parliamentary debates on the radio, and they would discuss everything from politics to sports. It highlights the paucity of stereotypes that insufficiently recognise how rural and agricultural Indian families nurtured children’s vociferousness and challenge to injustice, and supported Indian daughters’ participation in Black Power and labour movements in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Tara tells a story of a march from Paramount Building in San Fernando, in March 1974 around 10 o’clock. Instead of putting on her school uniform, she told her mother she was going to join the OWTU, ending up directly facing a barrage of policemen with shields, bayonets and tear gas, and getting home near night. Imagine secondary school girls choosing to march with workers, and parents accepting a daughter so outspoken against authority. 

In the 1970s, Tara began working with the Transport and Industrial Workers’ Union, and developed a consciousness of women workers’ struggles with low wages from local businesses and factories, from Bata to Neal and Massy car plant, Amalgamated Industries, and other companies long closed. Women were encouraged to become shop stewards, branch presidents, and treasurers in the union, building their sense of strength to end poverty, violence and inequity. Shaffira Hosein, past shop steward with the Bank and General Workers’ Union and CAFRA member, tells a similar story of the close networks among union and feminist movements.  

From there, Tara joined Concerned Women for Progress, formed by such women as Patricia Mohmmed, Pat Bynoe, Rhoda Reddock, Gaietry Pargass, Carol Gobin, Cathy Shepherd and Linda Rajpaul, which highlighted issues facing women farmers, and women’s health and reproductive rights, and which held the first forum on rape. With women like Cynthia Reddock, Tara helped to form the Consumer Protection Movement, focusing on concerns such as food prices, and helping to write its constitution. She was in the Cuba Friendship Association with Michael Als, James Millette, and Vincent Cabera. 

By the time CAFRA was founded in 1985, first coordinated by Rawwida Baksh, structural adjustment was crippling Caribbean industries, workers and women. Mentored by Cathy Shepherd at CAFRA TT, Tara went on to be the small-built Indian woman I saw at the helm throughout many of my early feminist years. 

In a 2014 interview on IGDS’ YouTube page, Tara called for us to continue conversation with each other directly, in the way that once strengthened and consolidated women’s groups and which, despite or perhaps because of social media, we need more than ever today. 

For her, CAFRA’s work is also to continue to build consciousness in women so they can chart their own course and never be afraid of anything.  

Women’s contribution to social movements is often forgotten, and many can’t name women like Tara, or anticipate histories and politics like hers. Her contribution is vivid in my memory, and remembering contributes to our multi-ethnic legacy. 

Tara Ramoutar, comrade and sister in struggle, please accept my heartfelt respect. 

Postscript.

Tara passed away on Saturday 19 September 2020. I was lucky to visit her, with with Rhoda Reddock, on Friday 11 September when she was sitting up, recognising us and chatting happily, with familiar brightness in her eyes. May she rest in peace.

In response to this column, Alissa Trotz sent me these two pieces from the In the Diaspora column. The first on another working-class, Indo-Caribbean woman, Basmattee “Desiree” Dharamlall, who crossed boundaries of all kinds in her life. And, the second on the revolutionary and healing promise of courtesy, a nearly forgotten skill in a time of social media, and one with which I’m sure a woman like Tara would agree.

Post 390.

It’s hard to imagine having a wonderful afternoon outdoors in the middle of covid19, but that’s exactly how we spent last Sunday at Samsara’s Nature Park in Rock Road, Penal.

Such light-hearted time is what many of us will need as the stress of staying in close quarters begins to wear on individuals and families used to going to mosque and church, or cooking by a river, or crowding Maracas on a Sunday. For us, the afternoon was so beautiful that cross-country adventure, as we were so used to, seemed to call.

When you enter, you first encounter a White Crested Black Polish chicken, with an outrageous crest of feathers like a humongous pouf of hair. You then meet a friendly and intelligent-looking monkey with soft fingers, we figured from home-made banana hand cream.

The open-air shed also houses dogs, blue, yellow and green parakeets, hungry pigs and geese, a quenk, rabbit and squirrel. Together, they are a noisy orchestra of exuberant life, and I imagine that as Samara expands so too will the space for this little animal dormitory.

Next are the blue and gold, and red and blue, macaws. I’ve never encountered so many in one place, several flying freely in a way that I’ve only seen in Nariva Swamp. They will take ochros or seeds from your hand, and are chattering incessantly, like opinionated villagers commenting on everyone who stops to comment on them.

An agouti or two is running about below, eating with their fingers like my nine-year-old at breakfast, and an albino peacock struts nearby. The majority of macaws and parrots are in large cages, but it’s the ones swooping low over your head as they fly across the park that are really magnificent.

Another cage holds various birds, from peacocks to parrots to ducks, each with personality. The cage is clearly a soap opera. We watched one small, serene-looking duck with a pink beak determinedly seek out others to peck, drawing cross squawks and flutters from chickens to parrots. Maybe it was boredom, maybe it was temperament, but we will be returning just to be amused by its shenanigans.

On the way back, we talked about our favourite parts of the visit. I loved holding the body of the boa constrictor, and feeling its vertebrae move under its smooth skin. Trinidad’s snakes are gorgeous, usually not dangerous and much misunderstood so it’s an important moment to change children’s fear of them.

Ziya enjoyed the horse rides on retired racehorses being sheltered at Samsara. On evenings, the horses roam free into the forest, returning on their own. Zi has an idea that you have to bow to a horse before stroking it, and every time she bowed, so did the horse, clearly looking for whatever on the ground she was drawing its attention to. She thought the horse was bowing back and, because of the fleeting magic of childhood, we didn’t tell her otherwise.

I also enjoyed petting the soft baby donkeys. I’ve always wanted a donkey. I think they have personality, and my family affirmed I was welcome to take one home and put it to sleep in the same corner of the house with the hippogriff I also want.

As Samara expands, we hope they can provide some swathes of green space, shaded by bamboo, where families can spread a blanket and picnic, distant enough from each other to relax outside of our four walls. It doesn’t only have to be about concrete seating and spots to cook. Covid19 has increased public need just to be outside with sky, trees and fresh air, and safely breathe.

Samara cares for a heart-warming array of animals, the majority of them rescues. Before covid19, the park was able to financially maintain their expenses, but since the pandemic, they have had to appeal to the public for donations and support. The animals seem so settled, the owners and staff are so friendly, the entrance fee is affordable, and the small surprisingly fast-swimming turtles are so fun to watch, it’s easy family joy. You can call 347-6734, 3800791 and 725-8225 to visit or donate, or visit Samsara’s Facebook page. No appointment necessary, just arrive in time before 5 pm close.

Now that we are in this second phase of quarantine, we’ve focused on how our family maintains steady mental health and continues to make happy memories. It’s a stressful time for children too, so find ways to remind them of laughter and magic. Bundle into a car and go.

Post 389.

I’m writing this on the first day of primary school, as I start the school year working and mothering from home. I started out the morning feeling like we were on top of the world’s crisis and able to ascend it like mountaineers on the Himalayas, and by midday was significantly humbled.

Even with practice from last term, and better ideas of how to organize Zi’s time and mine, it’s still demanding.

I now pack Zi a lunchkit so that I won’t be in the kitchen in the middle of work hours, and there’s a table in the living room with access to a computer and connectivity. It’s as enabling an arrangement as possible, which is why the stress I’m experiencing, despite all these privileges, is so important to acknowledge.

Losing my work space, and being unable to switch my mind fully to work, has unhinged my focus, productivity and ability to think. Half of my brain is minding child all day, and ten work hours are not as efficient, and yet are more tiring. I leave my desk earlier to spend more time with Zi because she needs more social interaction. She’s entering Junior 4, so her workload will increase, as will the time I’ll need to put to her homework and revision.

It’s been months since I wrote a column with the luxury of one uninterrupted hour, and so I get up earlier or stay up later to find some quiet. By December, my sentences may read like computer code.

Even with schedules carefully explained and daily chores outlined, one eye has to be on their roll-out. Did you drink enough of the water I packed? How much of the sandwich did you eat? I said to read for half an hour, wasn’t that just 15 minutes? This is how you did your chores? Without extracurricular activities, the hours stretch.

Unless children spend excess time on a device, time has to be filled. As every parent knows, too much quiet is highly suspect, suggesting some surreptitious activity, and little happens without parental supervision even while work simultaneously calls. Unless you are in a two-parent household, an unequal burden of care means hour-by-hour attention in two different directions. Even in two-parent households, many women will put in more care work, with impacts on their mental health, work capacity, other responsibilities and exhaustion.

Last term, Zi deeply missed time with other children, reminding me how much childhood is meant for social development, and outside physical play. I have to figure out how to manage our isolation, because this second time around will likely wear her down. Even if we create a bubble with a school friend, as parents looking out for our children’s well-being, how to ensure safety from risk?

And now that children over eight, in a private car with their parent, must be masked, even taking a drive has become claustrophobic.

All new realities with which children must discover how to cope. Beyond my walls are women who cannot work from home, and have nowhere to leave their children, with no plan from the State nor from employers. Working women with children with special needs. Women whose partners may be essential workers and who, therefore, cannot leave children with grandparents as they used to, because their family is now a risk. Women working from home, with more demanding child care responsibilities than mine, whose employers may not be understanding. Women without the quality of online teaching that Zi will get, who will have to work, care, teach, revise, and balance everyone’s needs at the same time. Women who are not working, whose children do not have internet and computer access, and those who may be living in violent conditions or with others whose behaviour is unsafe. For many of them, this was Day 1 too.

The majority of UWI students are women, and some of these mothers may be in my classes. As I prepare to teach, I’m thinking about Ziya’s context for learning, and adapting to theirs too. This term will be a daily learning experience of how to be more organised, care for families’ health, and stay sane.

I keep telling myself that none of us know how to do this well, or at all. It’s like regular parenting: mostly you improve because you’ve made mistakes.

On just Day 1 of this challenging school year, as a working mother, I’m recognising how much survival will require realistic expectations of ourselves and each other.

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