Post 303.

A family can buy a sofa or a washing machine.

The sofa will benefit everyone, will be shared by all and will be in the collective interest. However, without a washing machine, the woman who has unequal responsibility for laundry will be laboring outside, with less time for sharing leisure with family, and unequal benefit from the sofa. Buying the washing machine will mean she has more time, and the whole family benefits from being together.

Of course, everyone could fairly share the household burden, but as life isn’t yet like that in Trinidad or Tobago, the financial decision both recognizes and addresses inequity, seeing its greater benefit to all. The sofa seemed like a development that could be equitably shared, but its wealth would not have been distributed that way.

Gender responsive budgeting, or GRB, brings exactly this lens to national budgets. It recognizes that women and men unequally experience development and wealth.

Globally, even women who work in the labour market put in more unpaid care labour than men on families, children, the elderly and the ill. This affects their career advancement, incomes, employment choices and expenditures. Women are also more vulnerable to a wide range of forms of violence, which affects how they experience transportation, and their needs from health and social services.

On average, in Trinidad and Tobago, women earn about $100 000 less than men each year, and they own significantly less property in their own name. Agricultural funding increased from $.054 billion to $.078 billion, but grants and programmes that rely on land ownership won’t be as accessible to women, even if they seem to benefit everyone.

This is because our beliefs and values about manhood and womanhood are not add-ons. They shape every aspect of our lives – from how we labour in our households to the decisions we make at home or in the Ministry of Finance to our work in the economy.

What are the implications of a budget that doesn’t recognize this?

Stimulating the construction sector, in which 80% of workers are men, puts wealth directly into men’s hands.

An apparently gender-neutral stimulus strategy could worsen women’s economic dependence on men, reduce their power in negotiating money and household decisions, and increase their vulnerability to violence.

A ‘game changing’ government should track the disbursement of such resources and their impact because money shapes gendered power relations. A GRB approach would transparently trace whether revenues and expenditures improved gender equality and justice, fail to do so, or make it worse.

No government ministry systematically tracks, from planning to implementation, whether every dollar is advancing equal benefit from public funds among women, men, girls and boys. Fuel subsidies are not sustainable, but responsible fiscal policy should anticipate how its social costs will land on man-woman relations, and children’s lives.

Allocations to the health sector dropped from $6.02 billion to $5.69 billion, and we have to see where was cut, but a balanced budget often transfers burdens for care of the sick to households and women, from having to stay with patients while they wait two days for a hospital bed to greater reliance on private tests for quicker diagnosis.

The Petrotrin lay-offs will cause extreme social dislocation and economic insecurity. Yet, the national strategic plan to end gender-based violence is still not approved or resourced by government. How will it ensure the Petrotrin refinery closure doesn’t worsen intimate partner violence and injury? Increased fines for child abuse are mere lip-service.

The maid and gardener jobs to be created by Sandals are globally considered stable, but low-income and dead-end, without opportunity for upskilling or advancement. Indeed, women still dominate in such low status work in the service sector, and this doesn’t change such labour market distribution.

In contrast to a gender-blind budget, and small spending targeted to women or men, GRB would ask:

What is the labour, health, mobility, security and equality situation of women, men, girls and boys? How will all budget proposals impact their specific and persistent vulnerabilities? What data will track and measure this impact? Are there any proposals which, from a GRB perspective, should be changed or accompanied by other necessary strategies? How can government be held accountable for proper implementation of this ‘better budgeting’ approach?

A Finance Minister should be able to explain his understanding of gender inequities in the national family, and how his budgetary decisions account for these. Just as it takes understanding of and commitment to gender justice to decide on a sofa or washing machine.

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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 223.

For the next two weeks, I’m enrolled in my first farming course. It’s more like a course in creating forests rather than farming, but the point is to harvest from rich biodiversity rather than destroy it in the name of food production. The goal “is to be a forager in one’s own ecosystem”.

This approach is known as permaculture, and its basically agriculture founded on observation of forests, and their ability to be self-sustaining. How do forests provide so many plant options without chemicals, what makes them able to conserve rivers and create rain? How can our backyards become micro forests, producing profusely, more than we ever suspected possible?

I first heard about permaculture in 2013 when I watched Erle Rahaman-Noronha’s inspiring TEDx Port of Spain talk, titled ‘Bringing Nature Home’. In one of the last slides, he showed the land he began to work on eighteen years ago, which had been handed over almost bare, down to grass. The next slide showed layers of trees, from the ground up and densely filling different areas of his land.

I knew then that this was something we should all know more about given the increasing rate of tree cover loss in our communities, the unsustainability of conventional agriculture, and the need to feed ourselves as well as the other life forms with whom we share the planet.

I’m taking the lessons from the course back to the garden where I live in the hope of making it less dependent on anything from outside, whether in relation to excess water-use, especially in dry season, or artificial fertilizer, because now I better understand how to make well-balanced compost. It’s such a simple idea, forests recycle everything in a loop, with tree roots and even migratory birds involved. What can they teach us about how to use what we have to both reduce waste and reap more?

I’ve learned that it’s not necessary to till your land, particularly in the tropics where topsoil is thin. Forests don’t till; we don’t have to either. What we can do, like forests, is layer green and brown plant material, recognizing that both nitrogen and carbon are necessary to soil rejuvenation. Just add water to your mulch, aerate and watch soil emerge.

Stripping soil bare is unnecessary and harmful. All you will do is dry out your topsoil from too much sun or allow it to be washed away by plenty rain, kill thousands of organisms which exist in that top layer and off the grasses and plants, and lead to an obvious need for chemicals to jump start crops. Everything that looks like ‘bush’ has some value that can be reused for mulching. Don’t burn the bush you do cut or watch your future topsoil go up in smoke.

See your garden in three dimensions from the ground up. Something like tumeric or yam is growing in the ground, something like peas can be trailed higher. Banana trees then fill the space under larger trees, like tamarind or flamboyant, which are known as nitrogen fixers. The idea is to create continuous yields, at different times and with different returns, including for the insects, animals, plants, water, air and land around you. At one point yam, at another point bananas, then, perhaps timber.

Save water and slow the flow of water across the land so that it can be absorbed into the ground along the way, rather than washing everything away with it. Whole hillsides are currently planted without any ‘swales’ or little indents and dams, and channels to direct water across rather than straight down slopes. All land naturally has points for water storage, ringed by some trees to hold up the soil. The natural course of water is to meander along uneven topography and to be in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots which promote absorption. We should observe if our agricultural methods reflect just this.

These lessons seem so obvious because, I guess, they were the old people’s way or the old forests’ way, before plantation-economy monocropping and modern, chemical-based agribusiness.

Watch Erle’s TEDx Talk. Grow food that doesn’t require cutting down forests. Instead choose farming invested in creating whole forests with sources of food.

Post 184.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post 171.

Amidst signs from Guave Road farmers showing government’s crop destruction in Chagaramas, banners from Tacarigua, increasingly intoxicated folk singing about Kamla drinking puncheon, and a cute Indian rasta with long dreads who danced spiritedly the entire way, last Friday found me in Port of Spain marching against corruption.

Amassing with unions can be pure joy for their unique sense of collectivity and reminder of popular strength. When else will exuberant songs and drums echoing through the street remind you that labour needs to hold the reins of power and that we might indeed overcome economic inequality and exploitation. Someday, someday.

As an anthropologist and activist, my instincts were to read all the handmade signs, walk within the energy of the unions represented, from contractors to oilfield and communication workers to UWI staff, and, as I was to speak on the platform later, give voice to protestors’ own ideas.

I especially tried to talk with women. One carried so much heavy determination to survive domestic violence and current unemployment that I couldn’t imagine how to begin to talk about politics. I could have connected her with a job, but despite having a computer, she didn’t have typing skills. Feeling her defeat, I could only think, may Jah provide the bread.

As I moved through the ranks, asking people how they would end corruption, many weren’t interested in talking, maybe because they wondered why an Indian like me, maybe ah UNC, was asking such questions. Such reticence wasn’t surprising. Dishonesty is the historical modus operandi of every party, yet this was opposition not national politics, personalizing corruption with a capitalized, yellow K.

Some women I spoke with lamented that race was holding back the country, but were clear that racism was worse now than ever before. One man said he’d end corruption by bunnin down Port of Spain. Most just said the solution was to vote out Kamla. I countered that PNM history tells us corruption isn’t because of this Prime Minister. Remember Tarouba Stadium? But, that mood wasn’t there amongst unionists, MSJ supporters, ILP members, PNM faithful, San Fernando workers wanting their back pay, and others wronged and disappointed by a Minshall-named ‘Mama of Mamaguy’.

A number of women told me that we can’t end corruption, we doh have no power. But then why march? On the platform, I hoped they heard me honour Caribbean women’s long tradition of resistance against oppressive systems which used sexual and other kinds of violence, including the law, to control their rights, bodies and fertility, paid women less than they paid men for the same work, and assigned them tasks worth less pay. This is why our great-grandmothers fought in their numbers, to give us this capacity we have today.

I didn’t expect marchers to bring up procurement legislation, political party financing reform, whistleblower protection, increasing police convictions for state fraud, reviewing operations of our tax department or strengthening the Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) process. Yet, it’s also clear that unions need to make such specific solutions household words as well as call workers to the streets. They need to show how corruption bankrupts the treasury, and undermines the quality of schools, roads and hospitals, leaving the poorest the most hungry.

My speech emphasized that communities must be connected to each other, not to political leaders, and disrupting any myth of Indian women’s docility, I was clear that Jack Warner doesn’t have the moral authority to be on any anti-corruption platform with me. I then left early for a date with my husband, to give enough time and thought also to marriage and family.

Post 168.

I was unapologetically proud when Kamla Persad-Bissessar became the country’s first woman Prime Minister. I loved her clean election campaign in comparison to the PNM’s labeling their opponents ‘skeletons’ and throwing insults for cheap political gain. I was completely excited that this astute politician could defeat lesser men and lead a complex coalition, unlike any other Caribbean leader before, and miles ahead of PNM’s go-it-alone politics. I’d watch Persad-Bissessar on TV and teach my daughter the name of the first Indian woman to crack that glass ceiling.

At one meeting, along with feminist grandmothers like Hazel Brown and Brenda Gopeesingh, I breastfed Ziya while the PM talked with us and I took notes. I wondered who before had breastfed while with a PM in a Cabinet meeting room, and of course Persad-Bissessar didn’t even blink, knowing that this is what women can do in boardrooms when grandmothers and mothers hold office.

I liked little decisions the People’s Partnership made, for example to ban hunting despite a myopic ‘no hunting, no vote’ campaign, to actually answer the parliamentary questions put to the government, and the initial choice to put the gender machinery in the ministry of planning. I took heat from all kinds of people because I was seen as too silent and too uncritical in Persad-Bissessar’s first years. It was because, perhaps naively, I had such hope.

Since then, I’ve found myself ending up and again on the side of citizens, led by other women, mothers and grandmothers, protesting through media and on the street. My hope has tumbled, knocked down by bad appointments, murky state spending, the homophobia of the Children’s Act, patron-clientelism, mishandled electoral changes, and reliance on PR and attacks.

In the PM’s showdown with Wayne Kublalsingh, popular sentiment that he is mere nuisance is on her side. Regardless, his death will leave no escape from unexpected kinds of regret. By first marching against the highway and then switching position once in power, the PM created the path that led to such reckoning. Her own supporters, or advisors with their own agendas who want her to fail, may spin around and say why not have chosen mediation, and why not just agree to properly done hydrology and cost-benefit analyses? What about compassion? As we grow more committed to accountability, which we will with each decade, the principles at stake here will grow less personalized to one man and become more publicly and historically clear.

I wish I could thank the PM for setting the standard for how development should best be done, through consensus rather than division. I wish I could ask her what her grandmother would advise. I wish I could congratulate her for ending this impasse as an informed, transformational leader would. After all, a patriot is one who wrestles for the Soul of her country. I wish that, as woman, she would roar at puppet master financiers. I wish her decisions meant no future struggle over the same issues, taking up time for committed, concerned citizens like you and me.

Being a woman is public and personal, for government sets the context for the intimate, for love spans ecology, neighbor and nation, justice and future, just as it does family. Knowing more than wishing is necessary, I wake up wondering which words and deeds can make the world right. These days I awake almost holding my breath, wondering how stories I’m telling are going to end. Knowing that every decision made for the country I love feels like a turning point, I wish the PM would inspire again the hope I felt in 2010.

 

Post 166.

I told myself that I’d be there to support Wayne Kublalsingh’s second hunger strike, even if I disagreed with it as a strategy, because you don’t leave soldiers to fight on battlefields alone.

You might disagree with their battle plan, wonder at their choices, get vex that they don’t follow your suggestions, and anticipate the victories as well as onslaught of wounds, but soldiers who decide to die fighting deserve more than dismissive derision.

I mean soldiers who put everything into the trenches of citizen organizing for more than a decade for no personal gain, and who have fought without guns, mudslinging or dogs of war for communities’ sustainable needs. Soldiers who ran out big polluter industries which would have gorged on our precious island resources, exported the profits, and left our children along the South-West peninsula mired in waste. I mean soldiers who won’t give up our rights to state accountability for any version of development, and who won’t let politicians conveniently and falsely make us choose.

While these soldiers step into the deep fog ahead, steeled by will, experience and principle, there is work for us to do.  This is my tenth column on the HRM since November 2012, every word as personal as it is political. I’ve often visited the handful of older folk, sitting peaceably outside the PM’s office for more than 200 days, forever imprinting in my mind that image of their little tent facing the façade of prime ministerial authority.  Listening to the women of the HRM marvel at never imagining quiet, rural mothers could challenge the PM, I’ve seen examples of empowerment for young Indian women.

I came of age under citizen soldiers like Sheila Soloman, Angela Cropper, Norman Girvan, Norris Deonarine, Rhea Mungal, Desmond Allum, Michael Als, and more. Their ghosts stalk our apathy. They remind that history is made by individuals handing on a sense of people power to another generation. They forewarn that some successes may only be an edging back of government secrecy and domination, some will take more than our lifetime to achieve.

Through these weeks, I’ve listened to people saying the ‘environmental movement’ should just give up on this as if giving up is what Caribbean people do, as if one tenth of our budget isn’t a public issue. I’ve listened to others divide south from north Trinidad as if a nation is best guided by the spin of divide and rule. I’ve seen million dollar government propaganda distract from the billion dollar questions.

Perhaps naively, I hoped that, against such a Goliath, we could win with our little slingshots of truth.  I’ve also listened to Sunity Maharaj sagely caution me that, if I think back to the Amerindians, to the long struggle since colonization, I’d also remember that crushing, arbitrary defeat after defeat is part of our legacy.

I could write about the dilemmas of choosing a primary school where teachers will not beat my child, and the worry of sitting in parent-teacher meetings hearing that her confidence doesn’t match her vocabulary, but I find myself more concerned with the complexity of power and its hidden curriculum, less likely to produce solidarity than indifference and cynicism.

Our work ahead is to decide what this moment will mean.  When mega projects cost us more than they should, ecologically, financially and socially, I ask myself what Ziya will think of the sides I took, and my own accountability.

May soldiers also help her learn how to educate, advocate and mobilize. In your own future dark time, Zi my love, may they still haunt those aiming at your dream.

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On Wednesday 22 October, I visited Wayne at home. Lying in his bed, looking hollow but radiant on Day 36, he pointed to a sketch he had done of three men – Martin Luther King, Walter Rodney and Martin Carter.

I had written this entry the night before, hoping to explain my own involvement, what I understand true soldiers to be, and why Wayne didn’t need to live on to lead another future struggle – for that is our responsibility. It was late when Express reporter Kim Boodram had called to say she had seen Wayne and was horrified at his state. I felt darkness like a weight pressing on my fingers, wrists, arms, shoulders and neck as I sat at my desk listening. I had not yet ended this entry and found an articulation of my emotions in Martin Carter’s

‘This is the dark time, my love’.

His brown beetles are soldiers who trample the slender grass, who produce oppression and fear. I thought of independence as the change to our own forces of authoritarianism and the guerrilla citizens who help us learn how to defend ourselves. I thought of the jumbie Wayne, now in human body, but perhaps moving to another form. I thought of how I carry the formidable commitment of civil society within me, like a pantheon, and my hope that Wayne’s spirit would also usher us ahead.When he showed me the drawing, I read this to him, glad that Carter’s truths continue to haunt us. The next day was a gathering to shed light on the darkness of governmental secrecy and domination. Light, not violence, is our weapon. 

Gabrielle Souldeya Hosein