Entry 356.

Christmas is such an important cultural ritual. Daniel Miller, my old PhD supervisor, describes Christmas as the most global and local of festivals at the same time. It’s materialistic, but also unapologetically about family and kinship. It enables us to keep up with the newest and latest in modern products on the internet and TV and, yet, is celebrated for its distinctly historical customs.

Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago is also an unapologetically nationalistic moment for affirming that, despite corruption, inefficiency and inequality, “Trini Christmas is the best”.

If you’ve had a hard year, struggle to figure out your next step each morning and sometimes wonder at the point of life, there’s a sense of belonging that this season can provide across ethnicity, religion and geography. But, can we also see the effects of economic tightening on changing social practices of tradition, home and family?

There were probably 15 000 workers retrenched in the last four years, and it doesn’t seem possible that they have been fully reabsorbed into the legal labour market. Many were factory and refinery workers. Others were public servants and even tertiary educators.

In addition, there’s an entire tier in the public service on short-term contracts of a month or three months, with no wage security. There is also a broad informal economy affected by these lay-offs, such as those in catering or hair dressing. Only so many of these could be surviving as small-scale entrepreneurs.

Yet, the malls and grocery stores were full of shoppers. Where is all the money coming from? How are so women and men managing a time of year that relies on having money to spend?

Would these under-employed or unemployed women and men be looked after by family with more stable income, and invited to their homes this Christmas as costs for food and drink are absorbed by those with more, as part of the spirit of giving?

Would those with more time and less money help out more with preparations such as cooking and cleaning of the house, putting in greater labour as their contribution to collective sharing? Do neighbours still expect to be able to drop by for drink, and has this become more important as human connection bridges hardship at these times?

Giving toys to poor children has long been an act of generosity by a wide range of organisations and individuals. Have the numbers of these children increased? What are the shifts felt by our youngest, whose parents may be working more jobs or longer hours to earn the same income, and for whom this has become a time of anxiety and management of their self-presentation for when they return to school in January?

As social as Christmas is, it’s also deeply economic, and can tell us much about families’ adjustment to new realities. Still, keep in mind that these realities are cyclical, and another generation will remember us being here before.

Miller’s research on Christmas was conducted in the 1980s, and presents a curious mirror to now, given the downturn that characterized the early part of that decade. The Trinidad Mirror of December 13, 1988 begins, “Do you remember the time when you couldn’t get that Christmas feeling unless your home was well stocked with Europe’s best whisky, cognac, brandy and wines, not forgetting the apples and grapes that lent some colour to the joyous occasion?” The Christmas Day Sunday Guardian supplement contrasted the year to an earlier boom period when, ““It was a straight case of who could outdo who . . . who could have the bigger staff party; who could buy the more expensive gifts.”

As nostalgic as Christmas is, we are unlikely to return to our elders’ coping strategies with greater poverty.  Miller quotes Angela Pidduck,  in the Trinidad Express, 19 Dec. 1990, describing how her “grandmother pulled out the old hand sewing-machine, she cut the curtains and Morris chair cushion covers, we the children (boys and girls) took turns turning the handle . …But there was warmth, sharing and love.

Warmth, sharing and love will carry us through the day and its demands, just as it has carried the country through the financial struggles of our energy-dependent economy.

As you eat, drink, unwrap gifts and admire new curtains, painted walls and polished floors, know that many had to make difficult and creative decisions to connect to a tradition that excludes as much as it creates belonging, and is expressed by care as much as by money in a recession year.

 

Post 247.

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 1.03.41 PM.png

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.