Post 267.

Rebuild A Home

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I got nuff respect for sustained contribution and commitment beyond a news cycle, for it shows when care is real. So, I was deeply humbled to hear of the Rebuild A Home project, aimed to re-establish the stability of houses, schools and communities in Antigua, Dominica, Barbuda, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands.

It gave me hope that we could do more than express horror at others’ fate and offer help briefly, but ultimately far too ineffectually. Remember, just a few months ago, hurricanes Irma and Maria wreaked over three billion dollars in damage, and mangled life chances in ways only the heartbreak of individual stories can convey.

I kept hearing Rudder in my head while the project’s organisers spoke. Rudder is rallying round lovely cricket, but those lyrics are like oxygen in your lungs when you want to sing and shout and bawl about “these tiny theatres of conflict and confusion/Better known as the isles of the West Indies”. Centuries repeatedly show we can only collectively survive if we support one another, rather than be at “somebody’s mercy”, whether colonial ruler, local politician or donor agency.

The Rebuild A Home project is spearheaded by the Living Water Community’s Mercy Foundation, and its team is a range of corporate supporters, including the Global Business Leadership Forum, the Joint Chambers of Commerce, Digicel, Beacon, Shell and BP. There are international allies such as Qnary and Align Entertainment Group, which are heading international social media campaigning and fundraising. And, there’s Build Change, which has to lead construction of hurricane-resistant homes during our brief dry season.

Corporate Caribbean stepping up and in where governments don’t or can’t will be absolutely key in our precarious future. More than anything else, post-independence governments across the region have shown more failures than successes, unless pressed to do better by ordinary people, business influence or aid conditionalities.

With dire circumstances seemingly everywhere at once, from Yemen to Venezuela, the lesson to take into this initiative is that the West Indies cannot wait on aid. Instead, anyone with a connection to the Caribbean, whether through literature, music, ancestry or blessed baptism in our blue sea, has to live by the philosophy of love for our region. Then and now, we are a unique crucible in which the histories of far flung continents have been enduringly forged together. This has been our strength and our vulnerability, and up to this second we are being presented with the opportunity to choose.

You can choose to sponsor a home or make a donation to help meet a $10 million USD project goal. You can donate $1 or $100, the equivalent of one fete ticket or as much as one mas costume. Or, you can get your mas band and fete promoter to donate for every ticket or purchase, turning your disposable consumer dollars into a boundless solidarity economy.

The project’s website and fundraising platform, www.rebuildourhomes.com, reports that, among other ongoing volunteer actions, 35 containers were shipped to affected islands, a warehouse was constructed to store supplies, and vehicles were sent to help with distribution. The plan ahead is to rebuild a minimum of 200 homes and start constructing schools. From within my crease, I’m also thinking about contributing post-disaster healing methodologies developed especially for Caribbean children.

Rudder’s pen seems to say it all: “Little keys can open mighty doors”.

As always, there is more if we want to move from adaptation to mitigation, which ultimately we must. The burning of fossil fuels, CO2 increase and climate change is the number one spiraling threat to the Caribbean. Small as we are, we have to be brave enough to think and act big so that long-term transformation and not just immediate, though necessary, donation and service is our true power.

If each of us is guided by our conscience, we can find some way to help turn trauma to resilience, “now and forever”.

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Post 222.

Neither Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland nor modern day zombie flicks come close to the creatures that leap out from fantasy and hell as they take over bodies, turn ordinary neighbours into mythical forms and gorge on human life to reincarnate year after year, on sticks, in paint, within wire, emerging from embryonic, easily unnoticed rooms, defying us to acknowledge what we usually fail to see.

Moms morph into deformed folk like Erzulie the La Diablesse, with her cloven hoof, horns and complex sweeping spirit. Old men turn bat or Jab, like Carnival has full moon power, casting an overpowering spell, despite people’s poverty or pain. Young bredren oil down, revealing true selves in Devil blue and black skins, daubing each other with love, despite familiarity with anger.

In this magical place, even a bookish sort of child need only glance around to gather and store imaginative resources, meanwhile learning to be patient, to look carefully, to draw value from what others dismiss. While for most, traditional mas seems repetitious or cliché, I’ve found characters within traditional mas communities provoke a greater sense of humanity, deeper connection to land, and humbling appreciation for the beauty that people insist on making from their experiences of negation and oppression, near starvation and intimacy with horror. It’s these netherworld creations twisting through her home place that I want Ziya to learn to notice.

For little ones like her, Tuesday night’s Kings and Queens competition required sitting through many crossings of the stage that didn’t seize her sense of the truly inventive, but more importantly, there were those that did. I took her to see Peter Minshall’s King, ‘The Dying Swan – Ras Nijinsky in Drag as Pavlova’, for her to see how the stick legs of moko jumbies, instead of being hidden, might be seductively sculpted, as if on tip toe, and held in ballet shoes. Jha-Whan Thomas danced like a steelpan that plays classical scores in ways their composers never saw coming, in a way I understand as uniquely ‘Made in Trinidad and Tobago’. There is all this for her to know.

Such possibility is always present.  I wanted Zi to observe how vision means seeing the taken for granted anew. And, there are visionaries to learn from right here, making orchestras of whipped rope made from plant leaves, overturning devils’ horns to point at onlookers, perfecting thirty-foot-high mas that really does dance.

With Carnival upon us, with attention on bikinis and beads, and hot bodies, iced rum and deafening soca, my gaze as anthropologist, educator and mother is on the best of traditional mas, including the gigantic sculptures that embody their makers’ highest aspirations. Contemporary and breathing, these all provide lessons in art, design, family, memory and history, making Carnival a museum without walls, where artifacts handed down over generations are chipping down the road, stepping like sailors or rhyming like robbers, rather than encased in glass or hanging lifeless and still.

This handing down is a reminder that, beyond the materials assembled, Carnival makes people, who we often overlook, visible. And that is one of its truths. It matters that, this year, young Lionel Jagessar Junior and his partner Kareena Badall, both made it to the finals, as another generation making multiple crossings, not just on stage, for a band that has brought Indian mas to San Fernando for more than 35 years. It matters that a generation that comes after Zi might therefore still have access to their mas camps as an alternate space, if only under a shed, for education, stories, creating characters and representing moments in history, which no one has to fly out to reach.

All I can say for certainty is that, in this place that makes wonderland from damnation, as Ziya develops a sense of dreaming for herself, from Carnival dragons to rainforest guardians, her earliest inspirations won’t only come from mere books on a shelf.

Post 194.

As I’ve been thinking about Indianness in the Caribbean, I’ve been particularly struck by the representation of Indian men in our history, in scholarship and in novels by Indian women.

These representations have prioritised necessary honesty about male violence and domination in family life. Yet, they also overwhelmingly engage national stereotypes of Indian men’s patriarchal backwardness.

I’ve been left looking for narratives and analyses that track an alternative story, one of an emancipatory tradition in Indian communities and families, and in Indian men’s ways of articulating masculinity.

I first began to wonder about this when reading my students’ essays in my course on Men and Masculinities in the Caribbean. For this assignment, students had to interview their fathers or grandfathers about how gender, or ideas and power associated with manhood, has shaped their understanding and experience of fatherhood.

A decade ago, there were far more stories about their grandmothers’ and mothers’ experiences of violence, rural hardship, self-sacrifice and fear, and their grandfathers’ or fathers’ alcoholism, emotional unavailability and investment in a sexual division of labour that eschewed shared responsibility for care of and in the home.

This year, far more essays than ever before wrote about fathers’ care, nurturing, housework, commitment to be different from men a generation or two earlier; support for their daughters’ independence and empowerment, and more equitable co-operation with their mothers. I noticed that shift particularly among Indo-Trinidadian students’ essays, which had long provided insight into generations of their families’ gender negotiations. What are the changes to Indian masculinity that we may not be noticing? The fathers who astound by quietly and lovingly accepting their lesbian daughters’ choices and partners, the ones who surreptitiously see their daughters and their children when even their mother has stopped speaking to them for marrying the wrong kind of man, the ones who’d rather their daughters be well-educated and single than pressured to marry, the ones whose children felt they could talk to them about anything.

Was this new or had I become more familiar with one side of the history of Indian masculinity and fatherhood? The one that Indian women had to challenge, manoeuvre, survive and even escape? Although definitely real since migration here, it’s the other side that I began to also want to trace.

This is the story of fathers, even indentured labourers, who sent their girl children to school from the late 1800s. I had always valued the fact that my great grandmother went to school as a child in Princes Town, just after the turn of the century, but had not ever considered it as only one example of Indian men’s progressive approach to their daughters’ education. This led to women like Stella Abidh, born in 1903, becoming the first Indo-Trinidadian woman medical doctor in 1936. It was her father, Clarence Abidh, a trade unionist, school master and County Council Representative of Couva in the 1920s, who insisted that she could travel to Canada to study to be a doctor not a nurse. Place his encouragement against both her grandmother’s wish to see her marry a suitable boy at 16 or, the head of the Presbyterian Church, Reverend Scrimgeour’s view that, “I would not send my daughter to study medicine, because Indian girls are morally weak and would not be able to stand those pressures.”

And, there’s the long progressive tradition in local Ahmaddiya practice of Islam, one which has critiqued imposition of hijab, encouraged Muslim women’s public speaking from the 1930s, challenged taboos that disallowed menstruating women from bodily embrace of the Qur’an, and considered women breadwinners, not only wives.

Decades of Caribbean feminist scholarship has argued that Indian women were never just oppressed, docile, passive dependents, but were active makers and movers of their own desires and histories, whatever the expectations of men, family, religion and state.

Though I never fully noticed, that scholarship also documents men’s support for women’s rights and equality, how their gendered beliefs changed over their lifetimes and how they easily accommodated changes desired by girl children.

Now, I’m thinking, if I wrote a book on Indo-Caribbean feminist trajectories through study of Indian men’s histories, what could I tell about their myriad investments in women’s freedom?