Post 504.

A PUBLIC health approach to crime continues to float about without a clear anchor. At this point, we can only pray that security experts understand the intersections between gender and sexuality, and gangs, murders and the illegal economy.

While we must stem gun availability, we can’t ignore boys’ incentives to join gangs and choose “shooter” for a profession. This is not a problem that can be solved through sports or vocational training while leaving violence as a source of masculine status intact.

Responses should also be informed by how and why women become involved in criminal networks from spaces and in ways in which they exercise limited power. Regardless of how gangster women may be, these networks are ultimately and entirely male dominated.

Similarly, as community leaders, women play the role of community peacemakers, but their power is limited in comparison to national and transnational networks of crime. When men are spraying bullets, how does this exacerbate women’s relative powerlessness? As part of a public health approach, is addressing such gender inequality considered necessary?

The public should also note the Government’s failure to approve school curricula that improve awareness and prevention of gender-based violence among youth. The reason for such irresponsibility is rooted in gender and sexuality.

The State is choosing to leave children without information that can reduce societal violence to satisfy (primarily Christian) religious groups resistant to the health and family life curricula, which they wrongly believe promotes sexual activity and gender diversity. Gender and sexuality are hardly incidental to the responses the Government chooses, and a public health approach must recognise these connections.

Regarding murders, women are also impacted in gendered ways. For example, in terms of being killed by partners and ex-partners. Patrice Aaron, 30 years old and mother to two young children, was bludgeoned and strangled after months of physical abuse. She was killed on her daughter’s birthday, February 14. Her ex-partner, Simon Cova, 42, was charged for her murder.

Gabrielle Raphael, who just turned 25, was found in the Savannah on May 8. She had grown up without her mother and was herself mother to five children of different fathers, all under seven years old. She was unemployed because she suffered from seizures. Express reported that “she had been taken ‘advantage of’ since the age of 18.” This too is a story of gendered vulnerability.

Aneesa Vicky Ali, 33 years old, was last seen liming at a bar before she was found battered in a forest after being missing since March 29. No charges have been reported in the press. The fact that you can be alive today and dead tomorrow without explanation has women across the country terrified in a way that men simply don’t live with day to day.

Women are also being killed as part of long-standing disputes in which they are the target or collateral damage. On May 10, Asha Angelica George, 30, mother to two adolescent girls, was shot to death along with her partner Devon Drayton. Her 12-year-old daughter survived wounds to her head. Asha’s father shot and killed her mother in 1999, her partner G5 was shot dead at her home in 2018 and her house set on fire.

Family violence was part of her short life history, perhaps explaining her later trajectory, and the gendered vulnerabilities in her girls’ motherless future.

Similarly, Aneesa Ramkissoon, 26, was assassinated while kneeling in front of her three children, all under six years old. She was the target in a complex clash that has taken the lives of others, including a teenage boy.

Candace Griffith, 41, was killed at a birthday party on April 17. A 15-year-old girl was also shot in the leg, one woman was shot in the head and another, a grandmother, was shot in the mouth. None was an intended target. On April 10, Elizabeth Watson was killed when masked men in tactical uniforms shot at a house where she was liming, also hitting another woman.

Six-year-old Kylie Maloney was killed when men in camouflage shot at her house on January 8. Kenfentse Simmons, 30, and Aaron London, 25, were charged. On April 18 Kernella Saunders, 35, was killed by a stray bullet while at home. Another woman, 27 years old, identified as “Lashay” in the press, was also shot to death. The target, Lashay’s partner, escaped. Innocent girls and women are collateral damage of men’s fighting in such ways.

As we mourn Gabrielle Raphael, it’s necessary we remember, crime and violence are always gendered.

Post 496.

INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day (IWD), now being commemorated for more than a hundred years, celebrates the contributions of women and feminists to social progress. It acknowledges the issues of gender and sexuality and the political and economic struggles that still define the lives of women and girls. It affirms continued solidarity with the advancement of women’s rights.

It is a call to energise the anger, joy and hope of collective movements seeking an end to patriarchal beliefs and systems as they intersect other hierarchies, inequities, exclusions and organised forms of violence, including the violence of war and against the earth.

In short, IWD includes commemoration, celebration, revitalisation, recognition and solidarity, whether with our sisters fighting religious fundamentalism in Iran, or with indigenous women fighting for Amazonian ecosystems and their traditional ways of life, or with mothers navigating survival of their families in dangerous sea crossings from Syria to Europe or Venezuela to Trinidad.

It’s a day to also express solidarity with transwomen. Transwomen are not born female but come to identify as women at some point in their lives. They are a minority among the world’s girls and women, and face specific difficulties. These include lack of acceptance by others who mobilise stereotypes that present transwomen in terms of perversion, threat and fear, and who focus on the biological, reproductive, life cycle or social differences between transwomen and women who were born female.

Why emphasise this today? When a group understands what it means to be excluded, stereotyped and even demonised, as Caribbean women have been for centuries since colonisation, there’s greater responsibility to compassionately ensure that others live without such harm.

Second, feminist struggle fundamentally targets a binary division of sex, gender and sexuality that patriarchy, and its henchmen of homophobia, sexism, violence and the sexual division of labour, keep in place. This binary constructs us all into two sexes – male and female, two genders – feminine and masculine, and two sexualities – heterosexual and non-heterosexual.

In Western society, this binary has always reproduced women’s subordination, defining how women can appear, behave and exercise power, what labour they perform, who they can love, and how much violence (and its constant threat) they must endure. Transwomen, just like women in historical feminist struggles, are resisting that binary. We must fight side by side.

Being born female doesn’t give women a right to exclude transwomen from the category “woman”. There are many kinds of women with different biological and social experiences. As well, ultimately, all women are made, not born, for we all must shape ourselves into acceptable representations of our sex or pay the costs.

Some who were born biologically female may not even wish to identify as women, but as non-binary people or as men. Those who are female and appear feminine from birth will have specific experiences of inequality and vulnerability because of their sex and gender. Others who become female or feminine at other life stages will have their own experiences. All exist. All are valid. They don’t threaten each other.

Transwomen are another manifestation of womanhood, with all its contradictions, challenges and complexities. In different contexts, many kinds of women were or are not considered real women – those who are disabled, childless, migrant, poor, black, indigenous, lesbian, jamette, masculine-appearing, in “male” jobs, big or considered fat, with too much body or facial hair, with mental illness, without a menstrual cycle or labouring as a sex worker.

This history, these contexts and the sometimes difficult conversations that are happening globally about what it means to be a woman could take a 12-week UWI course just to explain, so don’t rush to opinion if you have more to learn about debates and activism that are hugely nuanced and, ultimately, rooted in justice.

If someone identifies as a woman, even if you don’t think they should, just respect that. It’s not your journey. If someone doesn’t identify as a woman, even if you think they should, just respect that. It isn’t your journey. If someone isn’t the kind of woman we are expected to be, that too isn’t your journey.

Your journey is to create a better world where women (and people) are safe, equal, free and loved, where being female or feminine is not a source of vulnerability, exclusion or inequity, and where we transition from judging the coherence of others’ sex, gender or sexuality.

Champion the journey each woman is on to become who she is meant to be. Such loving embrace is one way to commemorate IWD.

Post 494.

AS THE voices of Freetown Collective and Mical Teja echo from the hills and reverberate across the country, there are hardly better words to describe the moment.

After two years without Carnival, there is a florescence of joy and creativity like when dawn pierces a long and unnatural dark, splitting an entire horizon with a radiance that awakens. To paraphrase familiar wisdom, weeping may endure for the night, but joy cometh J’Ouvert morning.

We are a population that experienced the longest lockdown in the region, and we all know someone wracked by the alienation, despair, grief and loss that Covid-19 wrought.

Today, we are survivors, letting our beloved dead rise from where our bodies have held them close, for they were miracles formed of Earth who could guide like the stars.

Wandering our earthly heaven now, no doubt wary of spectres the likes of Picton, Chacon and Abercromby, are ancestors who will be looking and listening, judging and urging as we cast our mortal burdens on the streets of cities, villages and towns. They too are ghostly vibrations, given shape among us by the wind, shimmering heat and Sahara dust.

Blaxx, Mighty Shadow, Black Stalin, Brother Resistance, Anil Bheem, Singing Francine, Singing Sandra, Bomber and Explainer. Prof Gordon Rohlehr, who made calypso music his lifelong companion. Bless them, every one.

Lionel Jagessar senior, whose spirit will be watching his legacy brought to town for the first time. Studying his final drawings come to life, may he nod with fatherly approval. Ameen. Amen. Om Shanti. Bless us, every one.

We survivors, emerging on the other side of the pandemic’s portal with all our squabbles, imperfections, doubts and hungers smoking blue-black like still-burning debris, are close enough to Carnival Monday and Tuesday to feel its gravitational pull. It’s a pull toward pleasure for its own sake and to occupy a brief spectacular version of ourselves.

Honest people working hard trying to make sense in a world gone mad, sings Freetown. Sometimes, those assigned to toil scrape together the privilege of ascendance through something, anything, to feel good. For them, with all its human and costumed beauty, with all that it offers to escape morning headlines, killing sprees and cost-of-living tribulations, mas has come again.

In fetes, panyards and concerts, people are together singing by the hundreds and thousands. Hearts and arms open, and giving performers their own lyrics back to them on stage. A crowd of strangers, of every different creed and race, but who share a love that has them raising their voices in the air. Surely, such pure vibration and sheer magic is also how we give praise.

Music is lifting people and flooding bodies of all kinds with an energy and release that is visceral enough to feel. It’s taking away people’s pain, after so much of it these past years. It’s also a unifying power come down, one that we missed having in our midst. We are reminded why how we vote hasn’t divided us more. It’s because of how we party.

Not everyone has to love mas in our multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. Nor does everyone have to understand why and how it matters to some, why and how it can be art, why and how it can feel like freedom, or why and when it matters.

We don’t all worship in the same way. We don’t all heal the same. We don’t all love the same. There are those who, judgmentally, only see the “immoral, lewd or offensive” in Carnival, often from afar, but mas is a getaway spirit that comes on its own terms, again and again. Just so, unapologetic and unafraid.

Here, in the home we traverse with so much fear, the atmosphere of daily life like bitter aloes, where we feel so let down and so taken for granted, mas has arrived to fill some of what people need.

In our imperfect republic, inequalities, exclusions, mismanagement, lies and poverty of the imagination remain, like ropes that separate. Ash Wednesday will return us to smoke and mirrors at media briefings, and money wasted by the millions, never to be distributed as it should be. This death of joy, this killing of togetherness, this attack on our future is more immoral than bottoms in the road and more scandalous than a free woman.

On Monday, ‘foreday morning will find me playing St Peter, waiting at heaven’s gate. All who must get send to burn in the fires of hell. Mas has come again. Santimanitay.

Post 493.

ON SUNDAY the Express’s front-page photo featured Renella Alfred, who comes from the famous Alfred family from Couva, playing jab jab. The caption described her as the Whip Princess, sticking out her coloured tongue as part of her portrayal. However, this banal description failed to convey what Renella was bringing to town through her mas, which is her invocation of the Hindu goddess Mother Kali.

This is easy to miss unless you are thinking about Indianness in the Caribbean, and how it is being practised beyond the Sanskritisation of Hindu life as authorised by religious texts and authorities. It speaks to how Indian women in Trinidad and Tobago take up mas in ways that breathe life into post-indenture feminist legacies.

When Indians arrived in the Caribbean, they brought an eclectic range of cultural and religious practices, and a pantheon of goddesses whose spiritual power confronted European patriarchal belief systems, where God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and disciples were conceived of as male. African religious traditions with, for example, a pantheon of female orishas such as Yemaya, Oshun and Oya, similarly offered an alternative cosmology of feminine divinity and energy.

Stereotypically, Hinduism and Carnival are cast as oppositional. One is associated with purity and the other with sin. However, mas making among Indians in TT tells a different story of mas being played to express a sense of spirituality, reverence for ancestry, devotion to discipline and respect for aesthetic forms of connection.

Among traditional mas makers, mas is a deeply sacred moral universe full of ritual, which is not opposed to being Indian or Hindu. In fact, mas making in the lives of Indo-Caribbeans weaves together all of these, brilliantly and creatively defining the afterlife of indenture, and redefining creolisation.

For Hindus who understand how village youth can play the sacred roles of Ram and Sita for Ramleela, mas becomes another stage for a leela (or play) about an epic journey and experience of exile, morality as it confronts the demonic, gender and sexual tensions, and legacies of Indian presence in the Caribbean.

The concept of “post-indenture feminist legacies” refers to the spiritual and cultural traditions, artefacts, myths, symbols and imagined possibilities brought from India in jahaji and jahajin bundles (creolised as “georgie bundle”) which, today, are being drawn on by women – and not just Indian women – to express feminine power and feminisms.

As Lisa Outar and I describe in the edited collection, Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought, such woman-centred world-making articulates “a feminist praxis where Indian gendered experiences in the Caribbean are not marginal, while being understood in ways centred in a politics of solidarity across ethnicity, class, gender, sexualities, and nation” (2016, 2). Praxis describes more than action. It means action, portrayal or performance grounded in considered thought and reflection.

It is a profoundly philosophical contribution and, in the Caribbean, we don’t just do philosophy through lyrics and music. We do it through the sacred, and the clashing and combining of belief systems or cosmologies; through gender and sexuality, which has long been defined by struggle against authorities that demarcate the good, holy and respectable from the polluting, profane and improper; and through embodiment, or the pleasures of how we assert our right to exist, and affirm the value and joy of our sovereign selves, with our bodies.

The photo also showed her wearing a “nath” or nose ring with a chain connected to her hair. The nath is associated with bridehood and childbirth, and goddess Parvati, but also with Parvati’s incarnations as goddess Durga, a warrior goddess, and goddess Kali, who emerges from within Durga to destroy the demonic with her dance of destruction. The nath is also a symbol of Indian femininity, hardly seen outside of weddings and Divali, or in mas.

By naming herself the “Whip Princess,” Renella has elevated her royal status in mas “lore” as above that of secular law, challenging the State’s monopoly over violence. She is also defying male religious prerogative over when and how she can be Indian, woman and Hindu. Finally, she is douglarising Carnival, continuing an Indian presence that shaped sokah itself.

All that I have described and more is in Renella Alfred’s sacred invocation of Mother Kali in Carnival. Such combining is important because many of our ancestors were brought to be violently exploited and dehumanised in what was meant to be a labour and conversion camp. Yet, in such mas is also our painstaking crafting of a society of beautiful, powerful, equal and free human beings.

Post 484.

ENDING VIOLENCE against women and girls is the aim of the annual campaign 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, from November 25-December 10.

Today, I focus on how violence drives girls’ adolescent unions and reproduces violence in girls’ lives.

Adolescent unions are common, with at least one in three adolescents in Trinidad (28.4 per cent) becoming sexually active between 13 and 17 years old (38.8 per cent in Tobago). Of this group, more than half first had sexual intercourse before the age of 14.

As reported by the 2017 Global School-based Student Health Survey, there was a much higher incidence of sex among boys than girls.

However, 25-36 per cent of women whose first sexual experience occurred before age 15 (12 per cent of total respondents in the 2018 Women’s Health Survey) were more likely to report having been forced into this act than women whose age of first sexual experience was 15 years or older. Early sexual initiation for girls is too often violent and non-consensual.

Besides normal adolescent sexual curiosity and desire, family violence is one of the drivers of such early unions. Growing up in a home with violence between parents, against mothers or against children leads girls to seek escape and feelings of safety in others, or to consider later violence in their own lives to be normal. Addressing the vulnerabilities associated with adolescent sexuality requires ending domestic violence, which causes intergenerational dysfunction and trauma.

Girls also search to have unmet needs for love, care, encouragement and attention met through early unions. Their unmet needs may be economic and include food, shelter, school fees, transport costs, clothes and phone top-up.

Low-income girls also develop complex coping strategies as they grow in insecure neighbourhoods dominated by men in gangs. Girls recognise that they are attractive to older men because they seem easier to control. Such power imbalance is eroticised, becoming part of what men seek.

This makes poor girls especially vulnerable to predatory adult men whose dominance and income can seem reassuring, though these relationships can become controlling, threatening and violent.

Marriage and union data suggest that one in ten girls enter unions before 18 years old. Among women who reported at least one experience of physical violence in their lifetime, it was prevalent among 47 per cent of those who were married or lived with a partner before 18, versus 28 per cent of those in a union at 19 years old or older.

Current partner violence – meaning happening within 12 months of the 2017 WHS data collection – was one in ten for those in a union at 18 or younger, versus one in 20 for those whose first union was 19 or older. Early unions correlate with higher levels of intimate-partner violence in girls’ lives. This is why we must teach girls (and boys) about gender-based violence through health and family life education in schools.

Programmes that focus on abstinence and virginity in sexual health education miss the fact that experiencing child sexual abuse also leads girls to early unions. In TT, one in five women reports experiencing sexual abuse before the age of 18. Further, one in four women who were first married or cohabiting with a male partner by the age of 18 or younger also experienced sexual abuse before she was 18. Child sexual abuse is a driver of and correlates with adolescent unions.

Early unions are themselves considered a form of gender-based violence because they increase risks of partner violence, unplanned pregnancy, school dropout, burdensome care responsibilities, economic dependence and poverty. Whether visiting, transactional or cohabitational, they can (and do) harmfully affect girls’ human rights, equality, development, well-being and independence.

Given the data and established risks, it’s also a form of state violence (rather than morality) to deny sexual and reproductive health-rights information, resources and services to adolescents without parental consent.

The family, which should be a primary protective institution, was widely and consistently flagged as a driver of early unions, and uncomfortable with protective approaches that include comprehensive sexuality education. Transforming social norms that reproduce fear, shame and denial about the realities of violence in adolescent girls’ lives is therefore key. Significant work is needed with men and boys to reduce male sexual entitlement, and predation and rape of girls. Men in families have roles to play too.

Adolescent unions are both driven by violence and increased risk of violence against girls. Making the connection between adolescent sexuality and violence against girls and women is necessary.

Post 482.

WITH murders on the rise, we need to focus on efforts at peace-building that have been effective across the region.

Gut reaction is for heavier policing and securitisation. Yet more manpower, firepower and armed patrols, and better surveillance and detection toward convictions, can only go so far.

Any real strategy has to both protect the population and solve the problem, which also requires addressing root causes.

I’ve opened with the word peace-building rather than crime-fighting because those efforts that address risk of violence are as important as those that respond to violent outcomes.

Interventions must be different and specific at the points of risk, outbreak, escalation, recurrence and continuation of violent crime. The reasons why violence occurs may be different from why it escalates, and the goal is to move backward from increasing killings to fewer moments of outbreak and less risk.

This is the only way to create a pathway from violence back to peace.

Understanding this level of detail as necessary protects the population from believing quick-fix announcements that score political points, but gloss over details, evidence and impact.

The conditions for youth risk created by traumas at home from family violence are often connected to socio-economic precarity and poor school outcomes, and escalated through access to weapons, gangs and legal and illegal sources of income.

Let’s be clear that we are discussing male youth, and that any assessment of causes needs also to challenge dominant ideals of manhood that value violence as a source of identity and status.

Opportunities for positive self-expression and community cohesion, and a sense of having some power in the world, are well-known responses.

There are also the basics: skills training and certification; apprenticeship and internship opportunities which provide a stipend while providing experience; and programmes that involve the whole family, targeting parents as well as providing resources for food, transport and schooling.

Often, this is the work of community organisations, operating on a shoestring and mostly women’s labour. They are the very fabric of peace-building, not efforts at its edges.

For example, the Cashew Gardens Community Council has described the success of reaching children through an environmental programme which gives them “a feel for what is going on in the planet and a push to work harder for a better world,” as well as through a homework centre, which “has improved their behaviour and communication and so the disputes are not there.”

This peace-building pathway treats opportunity for leadership and a sense of community as key.

Keeping children in school through homework centres has other benefits. As the National Commission on Crime Prevention pointed out for St Vincent and the Grenadines, getting children back into schools means that criminals don’t have children to hide guns in their backpacks or to tell them when police are coming or doing searches. Gangs, they found, make more mistakes when children are all in school and can’t be used.

A risk-aware pathway also provides safe spaces and safe adult relationships for youth.

As a National Council of Women worker in St Vincent and the Grenadines put it, “Children come here on a morning…for a hug and for me to tell them that I love them. A young man once told me in 18 years, they never told him that they love him.”

A member of the Caribbean Ambassadors and the Cadets in St Vincent and the Grenadines similarly reported, “Sometimes it is showing them love and appreciation…so our home becomes an extended family.”

Community Police in Belize echoed this, saying, “Gangs bring in the children by making them feel their needs are being taken care of.”

However dysfunctional and mixed with toxicity, subordination, discipline and fear, gangs are where boys “feel a lot of love.”

An official in Probation and Child Protection spoke about how the TTPS addresses this: “You cannot look at the crime the child is committing, you have to look at the risk factors they have faced. They are children,” and staff have to be trained to show them respect, and “not deal with fire with fire.”

Children also need school-based trauma reduction to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from community violence, seeing dead bodies, witnessing family killed, and hearing gunshots at night.

In Jamaica, Fight for Peace trains people in communities in psychological first aid to supplement gaps in social services provision.

It sounds naïve, but more love is what at-risk boys need. I feel people’s terror, but want us to remember it’s always and ultimately about building peace.

Post 480.

“THERE ARE no millionaires where we come from,” sings local band Freetown Collecive, describing those who have grown up as the have-nots “in the middle of corrupted people.”

The hook names a raw truth about this place, which is its inequality, its contempt and its rampant complicity. We should hear these lyrics amidst the song’s beautiful melody, because there are many millionaires, many of them enriched by bloated state contracts, some of them in the House of Parliament, driving million-dollar cars, making decisions for the rest of us.

Whatever wage increase they accept, I want to express my solidarity with public servants and unionised workers, teachers and nurses, who have demanded more. The increase will not match inflation, making them poorer today than in 2013. There will be no millionaires among them.

These are two women-dominated areas of labour, meaning we can expect women working full-time jobs, possibly as main or single earners in their families, to be poorer than they were ten years ago.

These are also two of the most valuable jobs in our society. The first because they care for our children, who are our most precious resource, and the second because they care for us and our loved ones when aged and ill. That they earn less and have fewer benefits than politicians must feel as if they are on the front line in a class war.

The disconnect between political elites and the masses resounds, echoing off headlines, and it cannot be drowned out by shouting about how people are ungrateful. Those who have held power, which is primarily but not only the PNM, are responsible for hundreds of billions of dollars wasted, stolen, unaccounted for, misspent and frittered away. Colm Imbert himself spent $200,000 on confetti to open a bypass, such was his self-congratulatory spending at our expense, and so it has gone for decades.

We are told to tighten our belts today because of “unresponsibility,” poor decision-making, failed promises and quid pro quo. Not a soul who has read the newspapers in the last 60 years can disagree. This is why people are angry.

Were things different, citizens would understand the buffeting impact of the pandemic, the war over Ukraine and a global downturn. They would understand banding our belly, together, if it felt as if there were less division and less disconnect, more respect and more shared sacrifice.

People rightly felt insult was added to injury when told we use too much gas because we get up late on mornings and choose to drive at expensive times. This from politicians who can cut through traffic with a privilege that ordinary commuters do not enjoy. This from decision-makers who rule against flexible working arrangements, as if nothing was learned from two years of the pandemic. Imagine millionaire lawyers-turned-MPs talking of coal pots. Is there a single bike lane in Trinidad? It seems too farcical to be real.

What country are our governors living in? Is it the same one where food prices have soared? Is it the same one with hours of traffic to get to and from Port of Spain? Is it the one where unemployment and labour precarity are increasing with no end in sight?

I hear ministers talking about how much is spent on welfare, scholarships, transportation, training programmes and medicine. I agree. There’s massive social protection that helps many, but these are not gifts. In a wealthy economy, where we have no excuse for poverty, these are social rights, ensuring the democratisation of what we have gained.

With all that we have earned as a mere million-plus people, we should all have been millionaires, not grateful for a few hundred dollars of disability grant or a wage increase that dissolves at the cash register. Where has all the money gone?

It’s as if those ruling are living in a world where ordinary people are considered pampered, spoilt, wasteful, greedy and lazy; always dreaming a lot of dream. This from those who have taken no pay cuts in solidarity with workers. From those who can seek healthcare abroad. From those parking up in their Porsches and Benz. From those who can afford cheese.

Freetown Collective continues, “Bills due and meh pocket still feeble. Bread woulda make but the flour full of weevil. Hungry to kill, belly thin like a needle.”

These are lyrics of daily worry and rising crises. They speak to a reality that is making people poorer. They explain widespread public sentiment. Millionaires should not respond with such contempt.

Post 476.

HOPE SPRINGS eternal, but hopeless floods the nation. It’s a hard time to think about celebrating independence when it feels like we are becoming worse off than we were. We have frittered the dreams we held at independence. 

Is there anyone who feels hopeful about the years between now and our 75th anniversary? 

We produce brilliant athletes, creatives, professionals, inventors and activists, and committed and caring communities that surround them. They keep our sense of possibility alive, reminding us that we can be both small and great, and that our best selves set a world standard. 

However, we must also be honest. Beyond the symbols of nationalism that make us feel proud today, whether military parades, marching bands, congratulatory speeches or fireworks, what is our stake in making TT a place where people want to live tomorrow?

I think of celebration of our independence only partly as commemoration of the greatness of these past decades. I think of it also, and more importantly, as the baton we are handing on, from one generation to the next, and the inheritance we have protected over our years as custodians. 

I think of the nation as a garden that we tend for those also in our care and for those to whom we will one day give this living, breathing complex ecosystem. I think of commemorations as a grounding and a reasoning, when we ask ourselves what we are doing with this responsibility. 

I’m sceptical of pomp and ceremony, even as I recognise the effort that goes into it and its value. One mother, driving a taxi, told me that she insists her children, from ages eight to 24, line the streets of Port of Spain to watch the parade each year, to be awed by the impressive glint of sun off uniform buttons and the horns and symbols that vibrate her children’s chests, shaking loose a little tight-throated emotion. For her, it’s a chance to teach pride in their country. 

It’s understandable, for there are not many such moments or places that make visible and beautiful the idea of independent nationhood. I was glad for her that there are such displays, noting that they become moments of tying love for family with love for country, when both may otherwise be wearying and hard. 

I’m not that kind of nationalist. It’s not about lack of pride, it’s about concern at the way that nationhood gets mixed up with state power, and love for country becomes mixed up with loyalty to state authority. 

On an anniversary of independence, we mark transition from being a colony. We also mark decades of self-rule. We present how we see ourselves now. We breathe into a vision for who we want to be and what we still must achieve. 

We must also ask ourselves about exclusions, and what our independent status means to those without equal access to the freedoms and protections of the very citizenship we are celebrating, such as LGBTI communities. We must ask ourselves about inequities, and what independent status means to neglected rural communities where flooding results from near-abandonment by the very state being celebrated today. 

We must ask ourselves about fear at a time when citizens are in terror both in and outside their homes, because of failures and corruption that connect politics to ports, to police. Institutions are how a state touches the lives of its nation of people, and are how they most experience its rules and their rights. 

We string up flags, as a state does to mark its birth, but working institutions would bring more daily pride and reciprocity, making citizens less likely to undermine the bureaucracies that alienate them, making government much more of, by, with and for its people. 

Reasoning even further, isn’t it time we see the nation as more than its people, but also as its land and sea, its mangroves and coral reefs, its wildlife and its migratory species? Haven’t we moved beyond becoming modern “hell or high water” on obsolete terms, based on closed-door agreements with foreign capital? On our 60th anniversary, what do we consider worth most protecting for the next 60 years? 

Like slowly receding waters ready to rise again, the country is rippling with despair. We can celebrate our small greatness and our best examples of brilliance, and come together in pride, but we need hope to spring from the places of exclusion, inequality, alienation and threat, for the rewards of self-governance to spring eternal, precious and shared.

Post 474.

ON SUNDAY, I was pleased to see Dr Rowley’s post on his Facebook page saying, “I am available for a public discussion on caring and respect for women.”

Given worsening economic contraction and social insecurity since 2015 and in the wake of the pandemic, such public discussion with the prime minister listening to unaddressed women’s issues is urgent and necessary.

Publicly-paid workers are making important claims in relation to higher costs of living. The economy may not be able to sustain salary increases, but the poor state of the economy, export and more is the Government’s responsibility, not just because of decades of poor economic planning, but also because of how bureaucratically difficult it is to do business in TT.

Every week, economists write about the necessity for diversification, analysts highlight how much money is lost to procurement corruption, people bemoan the low priority given to agriculture, and nothing seems to change.

Other oil-rich countries are sitting on a generation’s worth of savings in their heritage and stabilisation funds. We are not.

It’s politically macho to hit back at the unions and easy to demonise them as greedy or self-serving at a time when tens of thousands have lost their incomes, but this is exactly when and why governments should be held accountable by workers, when and why we should not lose sight of the macro-level.

Those with lower incomes and increasing scarcity must now bear the burden of a state creaking along on rusty wheels, with the PM at the helm for the past seven years and the PNM in power for the majority of this history.

To that end, I want to remind the PM, who is senior to the Finance Minister, of calls by the women’s movement for gender-responsive budgeting. Parliamentarians have been trained, as have those in the Ministry of Finance, but the minister himself seems to have no clue or care about why such a fiscal approach is essential and why other countries have adopted it already.

Again, this is an example of how the macro is failing the society, and how solutions are recommended and ignored.

Regarding labour issues, there’s also a category of public servants whose working conditions may be invisible to others. These are employees on short-term contracts of anywhere between one and six months; professionals with experience and qualifications, but no job security.

Historically, women entered the public service because it offered stable employment which was good for raising stable families. Now, there is an entire tier of mostly women who cannot access vacation leave, sick leave or maternity leave, nor loans for a car or house. Precarious labour conditions are everywhere.

In terms of women, the PM must be aware of the long struggle by domestic workers to have ILO Convention 189 on decent work ratified so that unionised domestic workers can take their disputes to the Industrial Court.

This is another group of mostly women whose cry could be heard and whose legitimate call to be fully recognised as workers could be met by a government that had care and respect for women, including those who are working-class, labouring in the informal sector, and probably working in ministers’ own homes.

The State’s approach to understanding and addressing women has historically been welfarist, with women being seen as a beneficiary (or burden) on the State, rather than as economically contributing citizens, whether through their unequal responsibility for care of children, the ill and the elderly (which is not counted in GDP) or through their productive contribution to national income.

It’s like casting women as a vulnerable group. Women are not themselves vulnerable; the social, political, economic and gendered organisation of the society puts them at greater risk of violence and poverty.

Similarly, women don’t want to be protected, they want rights, equity, non-violence and freedom. The solution is not more cash transfers nor the ambiguity of more “respect.” The issues are more complex, and require meeting women’s movement recommendations, and state commitments and responsibilities.

To this day, there is no Cabinet-approved National Policy on Gender so we can’t hold the State accountable to its own policy for advancing women’s rights and gender equality.

Women would welcome being part of the PM’s suggested public discussion. We continue to need improvements to laws and policies (and their implementation), fiscal planning, and social protection.

Meanwhile, care and respect require acknowledgement that the PM vs Michael Annisette muscle-flexing ironically leaves women unheard, like a stereotypical trophy in a battle between men.

Post 473.

THE LEAD-UP to our 60th year of independence is excellent timing for a reignited conversation about decolonising our landscape of statues, streets and parks. 

This is a decades-old discussion whose fire has been kept alive by global reparations research and advocacy, changes made in India and Myanmar, student protests from South Africa to Bristol, Black Lives Matter movements, Caribbean historians and African and indigenous organisations. 

As always, what is happening in TT is interwoven with complex global currents, including a Latin American emphasis on decoloniality which has influenced thinking over the past two decades. 

This is different from postcoloniality, where black and brown men (and a minority of women) filled the roles and institutions previously held and dominated by white men, but kept the legacy of colonisation intact in newly independent nations. 

By contrast, to be decolonial is to question everything about the postcolonial world from the perspectives of the marginalised and oppressed, those least remembered or valued, those seeking to right historical wrongs, and those who radically challenged social order as it was forcibly established over hundreds of years. 

It is to champion care, freedom, justice and solidarity over mere continuity, whether in relation to law, governance, schooling, gender or sexuality. With these values in mind, everything about ourselves, our landscape and our institutions is up for renewed self-determination. 

It’s an amazing time to be a young person, unintimidated by the entrenched authority of dead white men and their beliefs, ideas and actions. It reminds us that independence was not only a historical moment, something that happened and is over, but a continuous and collective act of forging a nation from an unapologetic love for liberty, as its meaning evolves over time.

In our little local teacup, of course, we are whipping up a storm. Some are against any change, some for changing everything. Some argue for naming only new things, leaving in place the old. Some don’t think cultural change is as important as addressing our social, economic and infrastructural failings. Some worry about ethnic and gender bias, technical challenges of changing postal addresses, risks of state lip service and creation of communal disunity.

Some argue that changing names denies history. Rather, is an act that acknowledges history, and the colonials and plantation owners through whom we still locate ourselves. It is also an opportunity to name those, such as our ancestors, who were often in resistance to these men, but whose names have disappeared from our geography, schoolbooks and memories. 

We could replace street names entirely or leave them but instal plaques that provide the truth of violence, exploitation or inequity endured, so that we are reminded at every step of our resistance, creativity and survival. 

The first is a far more radical gesture of national self-making. It replaces those symbols, like scars of harm, with those of our homegrown movers and makers of history. It could transform TT for future generations. 

The second option is a conservative compromise. In a postcolony, public space is a living, breathing arena for teaching about the past. Here, mas is a theatre of the streets. Similarly, we don’t need a European-museum approach to history. The places where the past was made, where we walk every day, can make us more conscious of our past, present and future dreams, the isms and atrocities fought, and freedoms hard won. 

Removing statues such as that of Columbus can powerfully show indigenous people that we now condemn a man whose invasion of the Americas led to the genocide and dispossession of millions of their foremothers and forefathers. It should remind us that our nation was built on occupied indigenous land, and we are inheritors of such domination. 

Alternatively, leaving such statues in place, but toppled, reframed or defaced for all to see, shows those figures are no longer held in high regard. Still others have suggested creating an area where such statues could be located and the story of their displacement told, instead erecting an indigenous woman where Columbus once stood or replacing Picton’s street names with Luisa Calderon’s. 

There’s value in different options and possibilities. We therefore need thoughtfulness and an ability to listen, willingness to change our minds, skills in building consensus, and a path away from quick and dismissive opinion. 

Liberty and loving are messy, but are ours to choose in this deliberation. More than about statues and street names, on the cusp of independence, let’s not mistake this chance to forge our shared beliefs as a nation.