Post 248.

La Diablesse sat on a fallen branch in a dappled part of a forest and wondered if she was lonely.

She loved the forest. The air was alive with birdsong, both solos and chorus. The tree leaves were always dancing with her as she hummed. The wind was her best friend, sometimes breathing quietly at her side while she slept, rushing about as they played hide and seek, howling at some injustice and even murmuring in a corner when they fought and had not yet made up. The sky bathed her like a scrubby child or a soft woman or breakable crystal. The animals, snakes and insects kept watch over her; an army on which she had only to call for protection.

La Diablesse knew she was beautiful. Treading carefully over roots and rocks, she walked naked, knelt by shallow pools that mirrored the sky, and saw her brown skin reflect all the beauty and life growing around her. She could speak all the languages of her companions. Through all of time, this was her home. She wanted for nothing. She felt deeply at peace.

One full moon night, there was a horrific killing in her forest. A man dragged a woman through the bushes and threw her against some dark, mossy rocks. There was one gunshot. The man spit and left, stumbling and casting his weight about without coordination.

La Diablesse had crept up to the woman, wondered whether it was the deep insight of her third eye which the man wished to blow away, and shuddered as the pores on her skin, from her foot to her scalp, grew cold as if overtaken by a sickly fever.

She surveyed the woman’s long white dress and the wide-brimmed white hat still gripped in one hand, and began to tug them away from her, pulling at the rim, then buttons, then skirt. She held up the dress and the moon shone through, so it appeared ghostly and alive, like a second skin that could lessen the cold she felt down to her bones. Shaking, she picked up the woman’s fallen shoe and put it on.

Many moons later, she again heard slow and deliberate footsteps, and turned quickly to hide within the folds of a large silk cotton tree trunk. A man was coming closer. He had not seen her, for the focus of his rifle was on a young deer that had only just grown to resemble its mother. Over his shoulder were iguanas, torturously tied but alive. The shot ricocheted off every held breath in the clearing. Birds screamed. The wind started to softly weep.

La Diablesse watched the man’s boots as they crushed decaying leaves, raising the scent of death. She saw him lean over the fallen deer, but unable to stomach its cold killing, she quietly crawled away, anger clawing her insides. She started to tremble just as she had when she bent over the woman and her hands crumpled the dress wrapped around her as she tried to contain her rage. She was a woman who now knew the terror of such unjust death. Who this man was did not matter. He could not do this and live.

For the first time, she began to head out of the forest, following the man, slowed by the unevenness of her legs. She reached the edge of the road and stood tall, the hat tilted against the sinking glare of the sun, the dress dancing around her. The wind sidled up to the man and whispered. He twisted and squinted into darkening forest. La Diablesse waved. She stepped back. He came closer. She moved back and the dress trailed.

The man never returned to the road. Neither did dozens of others, until these men became like grotesque companions, obsessed, then lost, then mad, then dead, with their eyes open in fear. Maybe it was a satisfying revenge in the beginning, but it soon became a feverish habit and, not long after, a terrifying fate.

Once an unknown emotion, now beautiful La Diablesse always felt lonely. Reminding her of her charm, and her wrath, the wind took her hand and ushered her to the edge of the road.

 

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Post 247.

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Seen from the air, Guyana’s forested beauty is epic. The plane’s shadow buzzed over the treetops like a gnat, insignificant in afternoon sun and in comparison to such wondrously vast tree cover.

In between, bare red rock or white sand pockmarked the surface where old forest had been razed. Mining, quarrying or logging is making some rich in the present while leaving children in the future without this inheritance, for all your generation has to give is this one precious planet.

Such wounds seem small from the plane window, but are matters of life and death, of community traditions and contemporary rights, for Indigenous women continuing to resist in Guyana even as I write.

The taxi driver couldn’t figure out where all Guyana’s money went, for a country with gold, diamonds and timber should be the wealthiest in the Caribbean. ‘It don’t make sense’, he told me.

Not in Trinidad either where our resources made some rich while leaving the place poor: hospitals dirty, public transportation insufficient, prisons over-crowded, landfills unregulated, families violent and schools failing a third of the youth.

Given deals struck with Exxon and other companies, will Guyana’s oil just pass through the country like a dose of salts? If only others could learn the Trinidad lesson that wealth makes you shallow, wasteful, corrupt and consumerist as a nation; changes values so that the main ethic becomes private gain; and erodes attention and commitment to public responsibility, public utilities and public space.

As we drove, I tried to reconcile a Guyana I knew as a teenager when my mother joined Caricom.  At the same time back then, I moved to Barbados to start secondary school at Queen’s College, leaving Trinidad to become, first, a nowherian and, later, a regionalist.

It’s as a regionalist I listened to Christopher Ram, after a television interview in a neglected studio building, talk about his time in the Grenada Revolution and the hurt he still carries at its death.

It’s hard to imagine a generation from across the Caribbean traveled to Grenada to contribute to one island state’s aspiration to get independence right. It’s difficult to identify how much that aspiration was crushed and never quite returned. From Jamaica to Guyana, you can meet people who know what the fire of hope feels like and who carry the failures of that political experiment like the loss of a loved one, in their mind’s eye when they look into distance.

Arriving in Georgetown, there were areas I didn’t recognize. ‘We get modern’, said the driver, ‘we almost like foreign’.  There are better-lit highways, burgeoning suburbs, big cars, money laundering and ostentatious religious buildings. At best, the poor people, who remain the majority, struggling with VAT and joblessness, can hope to one day inherit the earth, but not tomorrow, next year or the next decade.

Such a dream deferred isn’t good enough. So, it’s important to cast our lot with those who remain indefatigable, rather than defeated, often women, often feminists.

One of them is Vanda Radzik, who drew the University of Guyana and the Women and Gender Equality Commission together to launch the collection, ‘Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought’, which I edited with Lisa Outar, a Guyanese born feminist scholar.

I first met Vanda thirty years ago, as I became aware of the anti-violence, ecological sustainability and economic empowerment work of the Guyanese women’s movement. Today, I’m simply and inadequately, like that small plane over such vast terrain, carrying these women’s legacy, trying to always remember and learn from their dream for a different future.

Similarly, the book collection’s premise is that Indo-Caribbean feminist thought requires us to look back as part of gathering our resources for the work ahead. The ways we imagine alternatives to all forms of oppression are richer when they draw on multi-ethnic, woman-centred, solidarity-based legacies of indentureship. This is the real wealth that arrival bequeathed.

The book is being launched in Guyana this week, and on Tuesday at 6pm, in UWI’s Law Faculty Auditorium, in Trinidad. All are welcome, for all these complex and tenuous threads, from Guyana to Trinidad to Grenada to elsewhere, some of which you may be gently holding over all these decades, are woven together there.

Post 246.

Have you heard of the ‘precariat’? This term names the experience of employment or under-employment for many, and maybe for you also, in the next decade.

The precariat comprises those who are salaried, but working in conditions of extreme insecurity. Workers on one month or three month contracts, whose year-long contracted jobs with benefits have been reduced to six or nine-months without benefits, those working longer hours for the same pay, in jobs not guaranteed to be funded another year. Such people could be any of us, working in government offices or as a newspaper columnist or in the university. No chance of loans or a mortgage; uncertainty regarding whether you can pay school costs, health bills or rent; fear of whistle-blowing corruption, mismanagement or ineptitude; undercut collective bargaining power; and demoralization follow.

Think of all the workers on the breadline since fossil revenues fell away, the impact on families, and the absolute futility of underfunded social services unable to respond. From this, expect an oncoming rise of drug and human trafficking, gun crimes, gang and intimate partner violence, and religious fundamentalism as gutted governments find nations increasingly ungovernable.

But, here, the precariat is lucky because they haven’t been laid off, just underpaid and without job security. They’ve joined those already making ends meet in the informal economy, in daily-paid jobs, in home-based work, or in the poor conditions of the retail sector – where women predominate. It’s worse for the young, and worst of all for young women, despite their greater investment in education. We have yet to see whether managers and bosses will fight for fair salaries for their staff or bow to a logic that exploits those earning the least with pride that they are, at least, still salaried. It’s a loss-loss scenario and fails the standard of a human-centred economy, for people with stability are much more likely to show vision, investment and leadership in their jobs and community.

And, we can’t legitimately throw entrepreneurial language at these folks, though such tiefhead is all the rage. Entrepreneurship or self-employment has a long, proud history in the region, as farmers, market vendors, seamstresses, bakers, broom-makers, designers, music producers and others will tell you, but it comes without health or maternity benefits, clear work hours, legal protections, and a strong social safety net, and results in lower lifetime savings.

Cadres of stable jobs, particularly in institutions, are necessary, as insecure workers find it hard to think or live beyond the present and their own bottom line – a major problem in our national culture already. Such precarity is what would have been considered exploitation in better times, but what you better be grateful for today. Although, the truth is, the rise of precarious work gives rise to a precarious society.

Yet, keep these in mind.

Globally, while the incomes of poor and middle-class have risen incrementally (though precarity is reversing this), the incomes of the wealthiest have risen exponentially under neoliberal capitalism (a term which you should get off Facebook and go google). The problem isn’t one of lack of money globally or in Trinidad and Tobago.

It’s that wealth is concentrated or wielded rather than equitably or responsibly distributed, particularly to workers of all kinds. In 2002, our budget was almost 50 billion less than today, yet our population is only marginally larger. Waste, corruption and irresponsible elites have left us in this state. We must learn to follow every dollar. For, workers pay the price.

Third, though corporations, investment and equity firms, and banks, rather than governments, rule the global political economy, the state has huge responsibility for managing this moment, through its education, prison reform, border protection, gender, environmental, agricultural, public transport and other policies.

Better governmental management for greater public good is totally possible as anyone familiar with dozens of unimplemented and common sense recommendations made over the past thirty years knows. Every kind of worker must hold political elites accountable for state failures and suffering that follows.

New movements must thus emerge, for this growing group of workers can organize for greater collective power and decision-making over this increasingly insecure and unequal economy.

Welcome to the precariat for whom the struggle is present and real.

 

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Post 245.

Are you personally responsible for climate change? The brutish and short answer is ‘yes’.

The question that follows, and is asked by David Hughes in his book, ‘Energy Without Conscience’, is: ‘Why don’t you care enough to reduce your contribution to CO2 emissions through your role as a waged or profiteering cog in the oil and gas industry or through your ceaseless and carefree consumption of its products?’ After all, devastation is about to wreck the planet and future generations of all species, and barely anyone from West Moorings to Moruga seems bothered.

The latter question is more of a mouthful and Hughes tries to answer it in the book. He suggests that, from the expendable bodies of plantation labour to the later turn to fossil fuels, use of energy developed without a conscience or accountability in Trinidad. This created a society comfortable with its own complicity and lack of conscience today.

Hughes points to other sources of culpability. He highlights the kinds of maps and graphs petro-geologists use to think about oil resources and reserves, to deny possibility of peak oil (for unknown oil resources are simply not yet known or technologically accessible), and to argue that carbon sequestration is a solution rather than ultimately reducing both production and consumption.

In his view, petro-geology, governance and economics have melded into an overlapping impetus for business as usual, even while venturing into renewable resources like sun, wind and wave energy, in order to keep the global energy industry and its influence going.

For him, carbon sequestration is a mystification of the problem because too much carbon, which at this point is any at all, will continue to spew to the skies, its effects spilling everywhere, while more is generated from fossil fuels being taken from the earth in a genocidal and circular flow of effect back to our lives.

Interestingly, as small tropical islanders (including Tobago) subject to rising sea levels, intensified hurricanes, hotter temperatures and drought, we (in Trinidad) seem either clueless or in denial about the production of our own twin-island republic’s demise.  Depicting Trinidadians as irresponsible and backward, Hughes main concern is to point a judging finger.

He does so even at environmental activists whom he stereotypes as narrowly concerned with an obsolete, place-based pollution politics, rather than with planetary air conservation. Weirdly, for an anthropologist, he missed an opportunity to truly document concerns about climate change and fossil fuel dependence across the country. He didn’t have a clue, for example, that Hazel Brown sought to apply for a license to run the first solar-powered radio station decades ago.

We lament our climate change victimhood as a Small Island Developing State, but are actually a proud perpetrator, he accuses. Rightly so. The fact that, by global standards, Trinidad produces a miniscule impact on climate change is irrelevant at this time for every molecule now counts. What matters is that per capita, each individual in this nation produces among the highest amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere. We run cars and air conditions like gas is cheap. We use and dispose of plastics and agricultural fertilizers like excessive petrochemical use is our divine right.

It’s like God isn’t just a Trini. He’s a Trini petro-capitalist seer-man, all knowing and above morality. We all model ourselves in this image, to differing degrees depending on our levels of wealth and poverty, our will to get ‘off the grid’, recycle and lower our carbon footprint, or our inability to even think ourselves out of this pre-apocalyptic matrix. Plus, if we didn’t get the fossil fuels out of the ground, someone else will.

Surrounded by ecologically unaccountable goliaths such as BP and BG, and the US as an increasing energy exporter (and suppressor of social movements which pursue alternatives), it’s a source of pride when we roll with the big boys like we are little gods too.

Public planning for sustainability (like bicycle paths or heat-reducing building construction) be damned. Thus, instead of treating them as sacred and to be used sparingly, we are enchanted with petrochemicals in the most immoral of ways: wastefully.

It’s time to act with carbon conscience. It’s not too late to care enough to take responsibility.

*Energy without Conscience: Oil, Climate Change, and Complicity isn’t the kind of anthropology of oil in Trinidad that I would write – the tone is condescending and the ethnography is thin – but it’s the only anthropological study of oil in Trinidad that I know, its historical tracing of an energy economy is creative and insightful, and its beautiful turns of phrase as well as its unapologetic mirror and challenge to Trinidadians make it definitely worth a read.

Post 244.

Back to school.

Ziya’s teachers have started suggesting that I invest more in her focus on school work and a routine of revision. She’ll need this in order to not experience Junior 1, next year, as an overwhelming leap in demands, pressure and material to be covered.

The girl is dreamy, drifting away from whatever she is assigned to doodle on her notebook pages, wanting to fall asleep on afternoons, more interested in chatting, drawing and play, and sometimes outright inattentive. So, I’m appreciative of her teachers’ insights and advice.

I’m also committed to developing her motivation and concentration, and guiding her to write more quickly and neatly, and take more initiative to complete homework. I’d like her to feel confident and capable of tackling learning and responsibility challenges, and to begin to develop the habits and skills to do so.

Another part of me is protective of her dreaminess and distraction. I think dreaminess and imagination are wonders and rights of childhood. I think her brain transitions to doodling when she gets bored, and that school shouldn’t consist of years of mostly boredom, which it was for the majority of us. Children get bored because of how they are taught so the challenge to adapt is for us, not them.

Does homework systematically nurture children’s creativity, courage, caring or love for learning, especially when it often consists of tired and frustrated parents buffing up tired and frustrated children? I’m unconvinced that ‘alternative’ assignments that require parents to search the internet or spend nights helping to put together projects really present displays of independent effort. I’d rather Zi spend her evenings drumming or dancing than doing more writing at this stage. I think we should go to the river or waterfalls every weekend rather than sacrifice them for revision. And, I think these sentiments are appropriate for the mother of a child just six years old.

I have many reasons for these priorities. First, I’d like Zi to learn to love learning more than I’m concerned with how much content she learns. I spent twenty-eight years in school and did my best learning when I loved my subjects, and that didn’t start to happen until university.

Second, I think that children grow into school practices at different rates and our homogenizing system misses this fact of childhood development. Maybe at six she doesn’t care about school for more than half of the allotted time for a subject, maybe some teaching styles are sheer tedium, maybe she won’t begin to reach her peak or potential for another couple of years. None of that speaks to her capacity for self-determination in adult life, but it could compromise that defining moment of childhood, SEA, which unfortunately establishes the overarching rationale for parents’ schooling decisions.

Third, I teach university students. Many come afraid of experimenting or getting things wrong, asking for example essays rather than trying to find their own voice, wanting instructions for every step of assignments rather than figuring it out, terrified or passive about communicating confusions or critiques with lecturers, pessimistic rather than utopian, disengaged from social transformation rather than demanding it, expecting good grades for mediocre work, and unclear about their responsibility to improve not only their lives, but the world. Marley called it ‘head-decay-shun’. Our courses have to pull out passion, political will, purpose, creativity, empowerment and a sense of care and humanity. It’s in the students already, just hardly still prioritized. When rewarded, I’ve seen so many of them spark.

I’m also most likely to hire young women and men who bring unusual ideas and angles, who aim beyond the status quo, can devise solutions and strategies, and are ethical, fearless and self-motivated. Passed tests matter, but not really. I’d rather a hunger for new experiences, lessons and opportunities to contribute.

As a mother, I see Ziya starting a schooling path that many have gone through, and survived just fine, some better than others. As an educator and employer, I also see the end results and its myriad costs.

Come Monday, when school starts back, I’ll still be wondering how to negotiate my own learning philosophy with that of the system of which we are also a part.

Post 243.

Once upon a time, a goddess walked along a bare road. She gazed ahead, wondering where the road led. Seeing its divergent paths, she reflected on which she would take and what would result from those unplanned directions. With each step, she watched the sun also walk overhead, its light streaming in changing yellow shades.

At the first fork in the road, the goddess paused and looked in every direction. Everywhere was bare. She decided to follow the sun. She chose one of the paths and, feeling confident, walked on. As soon as she stepped on this side, bright yellow flowers sprang up at the fork in the road and continued to blossom alongside every step she made. The goddess felt buoyant that her decision produced such light and reassuring beauty. She picked one of the yellow flowers and, twirling it in her fingers, kept walking.

She reached another fork in the road and, relying on her first decision, chose the same direction. At once, red flowers rose high on each side of her feet as she continued to walk. ‘How strange,’ she thought, ‘What does this mean?’ She missed the yellow flowers that had been her companions, but was determined to accept this other deeply hued landscape arising from her decision. She pulled a red flower from the others, adding it to the yellow one she held tightly.

And, so it continued. At the next choice of path, she began to wonder if her decisions were the right ones. Might the other road have led to differently coloured flowers? Contemplating what might have been, she began to grow sad, wondering at what was lost, for each neglected direction remained desolate and bare. Blue flowers began to carpet each side of the road as she slowly moved ahead. They seemed to reflect the depth of the evening sky. She stopped to pick one blue flower, for it reminded her of a story of a magical woman who lost her immeasurable and flaming power when her beating red heart was stolen, leaving her empty, shivering and blue.

At the next choice, the goddess stopped walking and stood on the spot indecisively. Now unsure of the way, she took the turn in the road that led to a new direction, immediately regretting she had not taken the other, not because she imagined it was more right, but because each of her decisions carried such stark effects. Deeply purple flowers began to spring. She drew a purple flower from the ground and, as light faded, looked with her own magical heart at the colours collected in her hand.

She turned around and gazed at the paths she had chosen and was amazed to see that the roads she had walked had entirely disappeared. All that was left was a vast cover of flowers matched, like a puzzle, by swathes of dry and lifeless land. She made a step in the direction she thought she came from and the flowers at her feet immediately turned black. She shuddered and drew her foot back before trying to retrace each step turned the rest to dust.

She breathed. She could see her choices and their consequences, but knew there was no way back to choose alternate paths. Bringing the flowers close to her lips, she blew on their petals. They scattered in every direction. Happiness, confidence, indecision, sadness and regret swept with them across the land, blossoming along even the desolate and neglected paths in a chaos of colour and emotion. Night fell, and in the blackness, unable to see the turn ahead or the path back, the goddess vanished into starry dust.

Now that morning has broken, be aware that every beautiful flower you see and every one that turns black and then to dust, was born from her steps along this road, and their limits and possibilities.

In our own time, these many coloured earthly flowers are all that are left of this goddess’ life-force, footprints and feelings. Looking at them, any of us may better understand that we make the best decisions we can, only discover what blooms after we choose, and must continue to resolutely walk until we, too, disappear into stardust.

 

 

Post 242.

When you are in a gathering with women leaders from Akawaio, Garifuna, Kalinago, Lokono Arawak, Machushi, Maho, Mopan Maya, Q’eqchi Maya, Wapichan and Warrau First Peoples, it’s best to simply listen.

These women, some of them among the few women chiefs in the region’s Indigenous People’s communities, represent those who have belonged to the land and who the land has belonged to for many thousands of years. Most striking in their stories is their struggle against lack of recognition of such belonging.

Listen to women like Faye Fredericks, who is Wapichan and from what is now known as Guyana, and who has been passionately fighting mining and logging’s shocking destruction of the very forest her ancestors and community have drawn their sustenance and cosmologies from as long as they remember.

Next time you think approvingly of Guyana’s economic model, ask yourself how we can so ignore her evidence and her community’s right to fish from rivers which haven’t been poisoned. Ask yourself if such ‘necropolitics’, or wielding of political and social power to determine life and death, is truly ‘development’.

Listen to women, like Christina Coc, who is a spokesperson for the Mayan Leaders’ Alliance from what is now known as Belize, who has been battling the Belizean state for more than a decade to get back rights to land that was once theirs. The Alliance achieved an historic victory in 2015, affirming the right of 39 Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya indigenous communities of southern Belize to the lands that they have historically used and occupied. The MLA website states, “This historic legal affirmation – which states that traditional land rights constitute property, equal in legitimacy to any other form of property under Belizean law – is the first indigenous peoples land rights victory in the Caribbean region”.

As I listened, I reflected on how much the Westminster model, and the notions of leadership, property and rights it has protected, has failed our region. I kept wondering why not support these struggles and these women who are on the absolute frontline of defending rivers, forests, alternative forms of farming and exchange, and shared approaches to land.

Might Ziya’s life be better if she could still swim in Santa Cruz’s many rivers as children could at the turn of independence? Might her life be better under Indigenous systems of governance which value nature, and not just as a ‘resource’ but a source of life, and provide greater respect for communal land? Might the trails of the Northern Range be better protected if in the hands of First Peoples, as Tracy Assing dreams, rather than subject to the Ministry of Forestry?

These Indigenous women are engaged in absolutely contemporary political movements, against the states to which we declare loyalty, in battles in which we are entangled while pretending innocence about what outcome would be truly and historically just. They also struggle against corporate unsustainable practices and even banks that profit from their place in the region while providing no room for developmental loans unless communities allow themselves to be divided by the collateral of private property.

We must deepen our practices of recognition and inclusion, and welcome alternatives to our colonial inheritance. Think of Anacaona, a Taino chief or Cacica, who ruled the island of Kiskeya, now known as the Dominican Republic and Haiti. In 1503, during a meeting of eighty caciques, including Anacaona, the Spanish Governor ordered the meeting house to be set on fire to burn them alive, similar to what centuries later occurred to Rigoberta Menchu’s father and Indigenous Mayans in Guatemala in 1980. Cacica Anacaona was arrested and accused of conspiracy for resisting occupation, and sexual concubinage as an escape, and was executed. She was only twenty-nine years old.

In March 2016, Honduran environmentalist Berta Caceres, a leader with the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras, was assassinated for her defiance to mining and logging concessions, and proposed dams. Miriam Miranda Chamorro has taken over her work, moving in and out of hiding for her own safety.

These battles were being waged five hundred years ago as they are being waged today. It’s time we listen and stand with these women on the right side of history.

Stories and interviews with Indigenous Caribbean women, on their struggles and leadership, are on the IGDS Youtube page. Click, watch, and share them with our region’s citizens, students and children.