Post 254. 


Wednesday afternoon found me playing a game.

Every two years, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at Cave Hill hosts a summer Institute in Gender and Development. This is their twelfth session, and participants from Dominica, Jamaica, Bahamas, St. Lucia, Barbados, Belize, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Cuba, Guyana, Antigua and Grenada were there. More than two dozen people of all ages, ethnicities and sexualities in one of those special opportunities to come together as Caribbean people. 

I’ve been playing this game for twelve years. Called ‘Steppin Up’, it’s a feminist-movement building game focused on consciousness-raising, strategy-sharing and solidarity-building. The board is the size of the room, made with masking tape. Each square offers scenarios in which groups must choose options, sometimes thus moving forward or back, and understanding more about the complexities of addressing issues from child sexual abuse, fair trade and youth leadership to working across religious boundaries. 

Regardless of your organization or issue, the Caribbean terrain is beset by all these challenges.

The goal is to provide players with an experience they can reflect on, for plenty people, especially with activist commitments and aspirations, talk good politics without reflecting on how they actually engage others, make decisions, and assess their movement’s strategic gains and losses.

Someone always starts off asking how to win. After playing, I ask them for the answer. They realise it’s not a race and that frame prevents them from creating collaborations or working across divides when possible. Also, what’s gained if you rush ahead to complete the content, but miss the group dynamics that mean people feel silenced, trivialized or disrespected along the way?

I set no rules and, later, players realise how many they conservatively set themselves. Nothing stops them from challenging everything they have been taught about competition, and how much it alienates us from each other and ourselves. Yet, they rarely make the radical decision to collaborate across groups although that could transform their entire experience of the game.

Players reproduce competition, hierarchy, and goal-oriented rather than people-oriented decision-making because of Caribbean schooling, which continues to work for some individuals, but not for the region. 

We just don’t provide enough lessons of collaboration, attention to emotion within and across our collectivities, rewards for rethinking alienating rules, and strategies for enabling all, rather than just those who come first, to ‘win’. That deficit shows up in our capacity to ultimately create equity, justice and social inclusion.

Many spoke about the joy of a methodology that prioritized participation, decision-making, group-learning, activity, self-reflection and fun. It’s unsettling to think about how much less they would have learned had I opted for readings plus a chalk and talk approach.

Draw down from this lesson to our children whose age makes learning through activity, self-reflection, challenge and collaboration the most appropriate model. Add those children who are especially least likely to get the most from desk-bound, chalk and talk approaches, whether in relation to math or creative writing. Think of how many up and coming Caribbean young people we set up to fall two steps back.
I see the risks for Ziya too. She’s not yet clicked into desk work and becomes dreamier in the face of stressful schooling, though she loves learning through activities, discussions, play and books. 
At home, I get my news from reading, Stone gets his from TV. As it is, he knows much more than I do from the volume of news and commentaries he watches. Imagine if it was newspapers or nothing. That’s our schools. We enforce one way of teaching and testing, rather than the necessity of multiple routes.

Imagine even students who ace high stakes assessments may end up in their third choice of school and feel like failures because of a slew of layered hierarchies and inequalities. Surely, this result says more about our inadequacies than our children, about our commitment to the exam over equity, justice and social inclusion.

When a region of adults still wishes to learn through methods, including games, that validate how well-rounded, socially-conscious Caribbean people grow, we should step up and account for the real politics of our pedagogy, what works and should stay, and what fails and must go.

Post 227.

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

Trinidad experienced mass African enslavement for a much shorter time, much later and in smaller numbers than Barbados, Jamaica and Haiti. Largely the population of enslaved Africans expanded after 1793 when both white and mixed planters, from the French West Indies, settled in Trinidad, bringing Africans with them as part of their property. Many of these planters were frightened by the attacks on slavery being waged in Haiti, then called Saint Domingue.

Their fright was justified. Haiti’s struggle to free its almost half a million enslaved Africans was inspiration for emancipation struggles throughout the region, including in Trinidad. Saint Domingue produced shocking prosperity for plantation owners and for the French empire, more than anywhere else in the Caribbean. Torture, terror, rape and genocide produced such wealth. This is why revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ famous speech, for Liberty or Death, defined the hopes and dreams of the once enslaved. On January 1, 1804, Haiti declared independence as a black republic, the first country to do so and to abolish slavery.

I try to connect this powerful place in world-making with the streets of downtown Port au Prince, lined by vendors and market women, making a life like the black survivors of Marley’s music, amidst dust, and in places, rubble and garbage. It’s hard to acknowledge Haiti’s impoverishment while trying to shed all the stereotypes we’ve inherited of its desperate poverty, but we must.

Haiti’s hardships aren’t incidental to its anti-colonial or contemporary story. They are absolutely central. In 1825, France forced it to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French ex-slaveholders. Even with the amount of reparations reduced in 1838, Haiti didn’t pay off its debt until 1947. The 20th century of US occupation and domination required resistance to another era of disempowerment for which the full story is hardly acknowledged or told.

Yet, obviously Port au Prince is only one small representation of a whole country, and if I raise my eyes to the majestic green mountains encircling the city, it’s clear that Haitian realities are also full of forms of dignity and beauty. These are what we should make an effort to see. In Vodun spiritual symbols, reminding us that a people’s art articulates the genesis of their freedom. In community relationships, ever-present entrepreneurship, food provision, literature, scholarship and uniformed school children.

It’s strange to gather here, as an Indo-Trinidadian amidst a panorama of others from the region, and to realize that we of the contemporary Caribbean, particularly descendants of enslaved Africans, are indeed the hope and dream of departed ancestors who imagined another world and who made it possible with their labour and blood.

Reading about Haiti was educational, but it took stepping on this ground for me to connect to the caution to never forget. This is the history that should define us as a region. Walk away from these words remembering the name Anacaona. At 29 years old, she was a Taino chief, or cacica, around 1500 in Haiti when the Spanish executed her by hanging for resisting subjugation. She refused to exchange concubinage for clemency. Walk away remembering the names Victoria Montou, Sanite Belair and Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniere. Sanite Belair was a sergeant in the army of Toussaint L’Ouverture, and refused to wear a blindfold at her execution. Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniere, also a soldier during the Haitian Revolution, fought in traditional men’s garments. Cécile Fatiman was a Haitian Vodon spiritual leader who presided over a ceremony at Bois Caïman, which is one of the sparking points of the Haitian Revolution.

I too, as Maya Angelou writes, live what was once a hope and dream. I thank Haiti’s people for reminding me that like other Caribbean citizens today, history has given me great responsibility.

We in the region, regardless of our ethnicity or nationality, owe a debt to Haiti, one that we should repay by protecting and pursuing an egalitarianism that still doesn’t exist, whether among genders, sexualities or classes, or whether between our small states and global corporate power, or whether between we ex-colonies and the IMF. In 1804, declaring sovereignty meant ending slavery. What would such a declaration mean and require of us today?

 

 

Post 226.

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There’s that Sunday afternoon spent folding still-warm children’s clothes when the next piece you lift and shake out is so small in your hands that you know it is now outgrown. It’s a moment hard to even mention to others, it seems so insignificant, so inevitable and so ordinary. This isn’t the first time you’ve changed the sizes that fill the drawers. The just-born sleepers were soon replaced, the onesies were eventually considered too tight, the two year old’s T-shirts became too short. All began to look like they had shrunk when really a small, warm body had lengthened and filled.

Maybe you stopped and looked deep into your memory then, just as now. Maybe you crushed those clothes to your nose, closing your eyes and breathing in their smell, just as now. Maybe you suddenly heard a clock chime the passing of weeks or months or years, but it’s hard to remember if those moments held your breath as much as this one. Now, you are standing by yourself, surrounded by bright yellow humidity, your hands holding the crumpled clothes as if you could stop the reverberations of that chime from disappearing.

All you can think about is how we measure time by seconds and minutes, by light and dark, by rotations of the earth and the moon. These are discussions easy to have with others, for they are established through scientific, public and impersonal measures. What you mention to only a few are the little marks on the inside of the wooden cupboard door that record changes in height with whatever marker was available, sometimes red, blue or purple. There was such excitement about those recordings. Big efforts to stand tall with heels against the frame, wide eyes looking up as if to see if the mark had to move places before its even made. Pride and display at the smallest of changes and everyone agreeing on the relationship between those calculations and pure joy.

What you’ve probably not shared with anyone at all are the moments when the clothes in the basket, just bigger than the size of your hand or the length of your forearm, signal the dusk of one age and the dawn of another. One pink and black, long-sleeved pajama feeling like sweetest sorrow materialized, for all the times it was worn were precious, but not so much as when you experience them as fleeting, as you do now.

Right then, all you can think about is how you quietly measure time by centimeters, socks that migrated to the dolls’ dress up box, vocabulary changes, capacities like braiding hair or tying shoelaces, and clothes grown too small. What a curious clock, with these strange indicators, whose chime brings you back to the present only to cause you to slip away to the past precisely because you are aware you have reached a once only-imagined future.

Caught between the magical and mundane, you are even a little self-conscious that someone might come in and look at you sideways, for standing mid-way in the room, bizarrely cupping a tiny cotton outfit to your face, like an oxygen mask. Even if you explained, they might not understand, agree with or honour your symbols for changing seasons and for shifts that don’t affect anything as important as commodity prices, though they still you in your step, renewing your sense of priorities.

This is every day, every week parenting. Nothing extraordinary or special. Yet, I know I’m not alone. I know children whose mothers saved a lock of their baby hair, who forty years later can unfold their first baby clothes.

There must be others like me, who have stood amidst clean laundry, wondering where the years went, with something in hand more beloved than expected because of how fast those years have flown.

I know there are others, caught up with jobs, deadlines, extra-curricular activities, chores, meetings and concerns about the state and economy, who also realise that it’s the meanings we hardly quantify or discuss in newspaper Op Eds that can appear in fading shafts of afternoon light as what really matters. Those warm clothes, warmly and lovingly held, no longer found where they used to be.

Post 225.

There’s a painting by young artist, Danielle Boodoo-Fortune, which I recently bought for Ziya. It’s Zi’s first painting, meant to provide a utopian image of her childhood and the memories I’m seeking to create at this time. The painting is set in a dense, colourful and magical garden. Both the sun and the moon seem simultaneously present, and above the lush undergrowth, a forest in the background appears to meld into the sky.

There are two central figures. A little girl with a big afro and wide eyes looking around and, behind her, a woman with long, straight hair gazing directly out of the painting as if warning others that they are being just as carefully watched. Unless your intentions bring care and safety, better to stay afar. Birds sit on their hands, and both figures have small tree branches growing from their heads, beginning to sprout leaves.

Almost unnoticeable, these branches are the curious detail that draws me in most. It’s hard to tell where the natural environment ends and begins, and the human bodies are not entirely separate, but also part of this environment, just as we all are.

Our bodies are deeply interconnected with the ecosystems in which we live, and perhaps if we thought more like trees, we would be more aware of water conservation, biodiversity, returning nutrients to soil, sustaining wildlife survival, adapting to seasonal patterns, and living for preservation for seven generations, rather than through our current modes of harm.

Every chance I get to escape, I try to spend in some quiet intimacy with our islands’ forests and rivers. And, now five years old, Zi is beginning to walk rivers and reach waterfalls with me. I can’t think of a more important site for establishing identity, relationship, aspirations and belonging.

I’d like Zi to go to university, but some part of me would know she found the right path if she was able to live by ideals of permaculture that treasure reproducing forests, food, friendships and family. She could entirely eschew the materialism that keeps us in an outmoded economic model and exhausts us over the course of a long rat race. We work to survive, but seem to have forgotten what we are living for.

Marking both Corpus Cristi and Indian arrival in 1845 should return us to the soil here in this place in which we are leaving our footprints over time. Zi’s planting her first small garden of lettuce and seasonings, in a recycled cardboard box that can decompose somewhere in our garden, adding carbon to the nitrogen we will layer on the soil from kitchen vegetable cuttings.

For me, coming into adulthood as an Indo-Caribbean woman is about protecting a little dougla daughter from harm, exiting the hierarchies, prejudices and structures that alienate us more than connect us, and teaching my sacred girl how to survive and thrive. I can’t think of another more important lesson that Indian women brought with them on those ships. All this while, we’ve been working out how to make an authentic life for ourselves, and if not ourselves for our children, with greater freedom, knowledge, meaning, wellbeing and peace.

I spent the last few days talking with mainly women from around the region about gender and ecological justice, and their inseparability. When debt leaves little fiscal space, what are our options for solidarity economies, and other approaches that transform our economic and ecological vulnerabilities, drawing on our environmental, cultural, historical and gendered kinds of resilience?

Given that the environmental crisis is the absolutely most important issue of our children’s generation, these are the real questions for which we should be seeking collective answers. All big answers start with small steps, and there is art to remind Zi of the simple, profound significance of learning through quiet, thoughtful observation how to become one with the trees. As a mothering worker marking another year of life this weekend, and seeking wisdom for the new year ahead, this is where our footprints and memories will be.

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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 231.

On Wednesday, SALISES at UWI held a forum on participatory governance. With the opening line, “Let’s do this together” replacing the usual national sentiment of “Who we go put?”, the intention was to explore the best way to get state accountability, responsiveness and inclusion. Maximum leadership can screw with your constitution, institutions and political directorate for several generations, and this discussion wouldn’t be dogging us today had Williams himself been more democratic and less tolerant of corruption.

The audience suggested pushing for the right of referendum, indeed making it so through a referendum. A network of citizens was formed to create an alternative, people-driven ‘Green Paper’ on Local Government Reform based on the idea that neither had the government process adequately referenced past reform reports nor adequately involved another round of true consultation. The Constitutional Reform Forum has been at this for about 15 years. Still, no point getting mad and marching in the streets, said Michael Harris, the only lasting revolutionary accomplishments are ones that entrench institutional change.

The pervading atmosphere was one of intellectual-elite cynicism about positive developments within officialdom. Indeed, speaker Reginald Dumas noted that he received no response to his offers to advise current bureaucrats and permanent secretaries about what public service professionalism required.

In the past few years, anyone watching Caribbean countries at international negotiations would have seen Foreign Affairs officials championing their own bias, for example against reproductive rights, rather than international conventions which determined the official position. And, if a PS decides homophobia will never be challenged in policy, with no accountability to civil society, the status quo shall be so.

On the other hand, there was passion, driven by painful love for this place and its people. Kirk Waithe, Head of Fixin’ T and T argued that we have failed to demand the government we deserve, reproduce white collar crime and petty corruption to oil the workings of the business community, and have created an environment where you can justify earning $34 million for nothing, because of a technicality, and walk around as brazen as Adolphus Daniell, while small time ganja smokers turn hardened criminals in jail.

He’s right of course. You want change, target the mismanagement, payments and losses happening by the millions, and force disclosure of information.

Remember how Bhoe Tewarie fought the JCC over development of Invader’s Bay, arguing that the state had a right to withhold legal opinion from the nation, despite representing ‘we the people’, and paying for those opinions with our money. Remember it took the Freedom of Information Act to publicise Marlene McDonald’s ongoings, because the PM was willing to overlook what he knew we had not yet proved. Remember how those vacuous ‘Happiness’ campaigns netted Ross Advertising 20 mil. in 2014 alone, although in 2012 and 2013, there was no provision for such expenditure in the company’s corporate communications budget.

Every lost dollar becomes a missing hospital bed, a potholed road or an under-equipped school, while somebody either becomes or can now command ‘Benz Punany’.

As a feminist advocating for issues which will not get mass support in protests, letters or votes in any near decade, all this talk of local government reform and referenda seems necessary, but far removed. Kamla Persad-Bissessar resorted to referendum talk, though human rights should not be determined by a popularity contest. In Bahamas’ referendum in 2002, citizens voted against giving women’s spouses the same right to citizenship as men’s spouses. This was changed by legislators, finally, last month.

We need institutional and constitutional change, and to be corruption watchdogs. Even parliamentary Joint Select Committees need more teeth, observed Ashaki Scott. Yet, we also need to challenge the invisibility or illegitimacy of some issues, or a hierarchy amongst them.

‘Women’s issues’ are citizenship issues central to any politics of inclusion, and their effects filter through the economy, politics and family. LGBT issues are not special interest issues once you understand how constructions of gender and sexuality harm all our lives. To ‘do this together’ is first about widespread justice in village councils, religious communities, health centers and police stations, for  all who, as Lloyd Best describes, wish to become proprietors of our landscape and governors of the dew.

 

Sunday night. Monday morning

Post 223.

For Jouvay, I was Death playing mas in Trinidad. Roaming the road, sharp silver scythe in hand, culling those closest to the ground, and knowing neither law nor sin.

I was also Woman, entangled in a long skirt, made of shredded, black garbage bag, for those used and discarded, refused, their pains mere abandoned detritus in the wake of killings. Carrying death’s scythe as a sign of its shadow overhead, like a cross to bear.

Such is the schizophrenia of living in Trinidad and Tobago. Grieving amidst violence, with more than one murder a day, and historically-familiar rhythms of dark-night mourning, where women birth the lives that death takes away.

Lest we forget. Three boys in particular were on my mind. Jodal Ramnath, Denelson Smith, and Mark Richards. Jodal, six years old, killed within minutes of the New Year by gunmen shooting with high-powered rifles from the roof of a nearby school. Real life midnight robbers, missing poetic license. Then, judged by a population which hypocritically ropes off pretty mas for those with money, as if little Jodal’s photos of dressing up in gold, like a King costume, excused the coast guard, the police, the political parties, the shotters and the drug men from their responsibility to prevent harm to our children.

Later, Denelson Smith and Mark Richards killed in their school uniform by devils who come out for pay. Imps terrifying the young, with neighbourhood crossroads like judging points with scores counted and winners declared.

As Death continues to stalk through region and town, in now year-round fetes with dames, tiefs and dark souls in glittering clothes, Justice seems to have taken to an armchair, like many others watching the macabre dance on TV.

For the insight it offers, post-Carnival, I want to hail out Jouvay’s mirror to darkest ourselves, and its metaphor for restless hope for a new day. For, when else could I or anyone else express freedom and pain, in public, in the dead of night, while passing the walled yard of sacred graves, wondering if it is still possible to save ourselves, heart beating hard at how, for some, it is already too late.

Jouvay’s mas and masking traditions often get eclipsed by the ‘pretty mas’ of Monday and Tuesday. Beyond standard images of muddied revelers, Jouvay’s mas, which is as political as it is personal, as transgressive as it is stylish, is least likely to make it into Carnival magazines, for grim commitment to mixing anger with splendor isn’t easy to package, sell or consume. Yet, here one can find stories of iron meeting iron, hardship meeting creativity, contradictory realities meeting the next step with no easy resolution ahead.

This was evident in 3 Canal’s band, Blk.Jab.Nation, where it was clear that many played a mas they individually imagined. Amongst women, there were hand painted masks, translucent cloths top-knotted and then slung over women’s faces, and mesh veils sewn, like brides’ own, to hang from men’s bowler hats, in a runway of women’s masking on parade. To see masking re-emerge is to witness a counterpoint to the contemporary focus on cosmetics for Carnival. As more and more women get their makeup professionally done, masking becomes more important to see and be seen on terms that the male gaze cannot easily penetrate, or get access to without consent.

Among women were also those bare-chested and covered in black paint. One woman in nothing but a regular panty, defiantly taking back the night in a world where women’s sexual safety relies on them covering their bodies in fear and shame, where consent means too little without an end to all sexual vulnerability and violence.

Lest we forget, there is history and richness of masquerade in Jouvay that prettiness cannot encapsulate. This haute couture ruins an aesthetic of colourful sequins, opting instead for a different language with which we can work out what it means to be brown and black bodies negotiating darkness, womanhood, motherhood, beauty and community in pursuit of our humanity.

Crick. Crack. Having played its mas, may Death now tire and offer respite, leaving Woman, already entangled with too many aching memories and stories, to tend to her days of unaccustomed strife.

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