Post 306.

I called Miss Pinky to ask how she was and this time she wasn’t in tears. Her washing machine was lost after floods last year, and with help she recovered. This year, the new one was lost, along with her fridge and stove. Next door, her children and grandchildren “lost everything”, a phrase that is now so common across the country, despite remaining so surreal.

Compassion, care and help will be needed for months, for whole communities have been devastated, whole areas of small enterprise and home-based businesses lost, and thousands left traumatized.

I thought of Miss Pinky because she’s retired. Though she worked as a cleaner for decades at UWI, from just this month, she’s no longer here. As the university collected its list of staff and students affected, I thought about senior citizens and their additional vulnerabilities, their health complications, their economic insecurity and how much they will have to rely on their children for their recovery, if their children are able to provide.

When I called, Miss Pinky was using a hair dryer to try to dry out and fix her stove. She was by friends because her doctor advised her against staying surrounded by water where she could get an infection. They had been provided with food. I wondered at her resilient positivity, at her shock, at the fact that she was focusing on the immediate, rather than the full flood of tears that was she was absorbing after such a setback.

There’s a lot to say about the immediate crisis intervention, but we should also focus our attention on the state’s coordination of a longer social response. People have to leave their damaged possessions in their yards as proof of their suffering, but this only furthers their sense of trauma and inability to move on with recovery as they wait for local government representatives to arrive.

If your documents are destroyed or lost, you can go to Richmond St. to have them re-issued, but this should be coordinated through the regional corporations so that you are not waiting for state officials to come to your house at the same time as having to go to the health centre to get antibiotics or anything else needed while finding someone to take you to PoS as your muddied vehicle is no longer working and then waiting there amidst hundreds of others with the same plight all while managing despair and PTSD without a counselor in sight.

Does every house need to keep its destroyed appliances? State officials know which neighbhourhoods and streets were flooded, already know the maximum amount that will be disbursed per household, and are keenly aware that this is barely enough to get a start, and only then because citizens everywhere are stepping in to help.

Any future disaster management plan must have the post-disaster recovery far better coordinated, with all state services available in one community location, whether the school shelters or regional corporations or police stations that are unaffected.

There’s something to keep in mind too: the situation for all our sister and brother citizens in a few months’ time when its Christmas and Carnival, and the media has moved on. Will we be able to track the effect of the flooding on children’s scores at SEA and in end of year tests? Was there a Ministry of Education plan for how to support those children in coping and thriving between now and then?

Do we know how women and men’s recovery will be affected by being in a female-headed household or a two-parent family or in an extended family with elderly or ailing parents or with disabled children? Or, among households that survived on home-based businesses, and who are now without both a place to live and a livelihood?

It’s so important for us to always understand that social context – income level, family type, source of income, disability, age, gender, experience of household violence – influences how people recover, their experience accessing social services and their approach to trauma.

Amidst the apocalyptic and heartbreaking destruction are people’s different and unequal capacities to recover. This is not a ‘national security’ issue, it’s an issue of coordination and sensitivity in post-disaster service provision. It is as necessary as life vests, ropes and rafts in police stations for the next time. And, there will be a next time.

Disaster recovery efforts should have planned for this, and for grandmothers like Miss Pinky who are living by the grace of God until the next such rain.   O

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Post 305.

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Standing ankle deep in the gentle waters of Point Sable beach, with miles of thick mangrove behind, all of Trinidad’s west coast curving ahead and families of pelicans soaring between, it’s hard to imagine that the fish in the Gulf of Paria are so poisoned, by oil spills and the toxins used in clean up, that they are not safe for consumption.

Indeed, dead fish and birds lie all along the shore. These are examples of how Petrotrin has devastated one of the island’s main fish nesting and catching grounds with multiple leaks of hundreds of thousands of barrels, with about two hundred pipelines with slow leaks which are unlikely to ever be fixed, and with chemicals that disperse the oil, but have toxic effects lasting years.

I saw the marks left by oil on the old jetty nearby. I met a fisherman who won’t eat the fish, but who can’t find another livelihood, and so is prepared to return to the Gulf after four years so that he can survive.

Fishing as traditionally practiced is a noble industry. Fishermen go out with their nets and exercise the kind of individual entrepreneurial spirit that state managers are now cajoling out of ordinary people, as if it isn’t how we have survived all along.

The footprint of working class fishing communities is relatively small compared to the trawlers and fishing boats of big companies or even boat owners who are minor millionaires, and it is the small man and small woman and small children in these families who will be worst affected by both the decline of the fishing industry and the poisoning of our marine environments. Dead fish mean, one day, dead people, for we are not immune to pollution in our air, land or seas, nor its impact on any part of the food chain.

I was walking the beach with Lisa Premchand, a young woman once working on seismic surveys, with a graduate degree in environmental management, for whom it one day clicked. She joined Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, an organization which has been working on issues from mangrove protection to squatters’ rights to marine pollution for decades.

I admire them because I admire citizens who take risks to protect our ecology, which includes humans, for we are part of nature, from corporate irresponsibility and state-managed harm. For the record, I have more time for FFOS than its critics, if those critics themselves are not stepping in to do better.

Lisa realized that the global data suggests that seismic surveys also kill fish, driving them away for years, and she turned her sights instead to learning how to legally defend nature and its inhabitants.

Listening her talk about the governments’ plan to build a highway mere feet from the Aripo Savannah, which is the only ecosystem of its kind in Trinidad with species found nowhere else in the world, makes you appreciate citizen investment and sacrifice to resist the unholy trinity of private contractors, state planners and the EMA, none of whom care about the rest of us as much as one young woman with her boots on.

I identified with her. Twenty years ago, I was helping hand out fliers to protect the mangroves from plans for Movietowne. Those mangroves and the biodiversity they contained took millennia to form and had a vastly complex relationship to the entire western coast, to migratory species, and to marine life and its food systems. For our entertainment, they’re now gone.

The ones on Point Sable beach will themselves be destroyed for a dry dock facility being built, using Chinese loans, in collaboration with a company, CHEC, globally considered corrupt. Bangladesh won’t let them in the door. The PM said there were 2700 direct jobs to be had, but Caribbean maritime industry lobbyists put this “bright new dawn” for La Brea at between 600 and 1200.

We don’t yet know the final cost to the nation for this facility, though it’s expected to push GDP up by 2.4%. How fisher folk and fishing traditions will endure, no one knows.

Standing ankle deep with Lisa, in this nesting ground for scarlet ibis for thousands of years, all I could think is that we understand money, but not wealth.

As I said goodbye to the 900 acres which will forever be turned into or contained by concrete, in another irreversible industry footprint, all I could think is that we cannot eat the money. Already, we should no longer eat the fish.

 

Post 298.

While children play over these holidays, school is on many mothers’ minds. You see these mothers, going extra distance to find the store that sells books at a cheaper price, double-checking stationary lists against the contents of their purse, and carrying heavy plastic bags of school supplies while pulling one or two children along by the wrist in thick High Street or Chaguanas main road heat.

I was in a bookstore, buying just-deceased Vidia Naipaul’s great novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, a big, big book by any measure and one that forever defined my life-long obsession with having a house of my own. It is the essential Trinidadian ambition, shared by everyone from the wealthy oil families of South to the squatter next door.

Like Mr. Biswas, I was combing the country looking for affordable housing materials, discovering commitments such as rates, interest, repairs and debt at the same pace, and the risks and costs of it all, from hollow bricks to pitch pine beams to tiny leaks in roofing.

I was thinking, like Naipaul, of what could be hidden, by bookcase, glass cabinet or curtains, what could be accommodated until Ziya’s whole life was comfortably ordered and her memories made coherent by this odd-shaped house in Santa Cruz.

At the same time, as I stood in line to pay, I was thinking of motherhood, listening to a woman portion out her life story with the young assistant helping her tick off items for purchase. For every ruler, eraser, copybook and text, there was that time she had to tell the children this and how she had to manage to make ends meet then, and how hard it does be throughout.

When all was added up, she decisively handed over a thick fold of blue money, like the CEO of a company that for another year weathered rain, robbery and recession. I thought I knew exactly that feeling and how I’d seen it on other mothers’ faces in bookstores and in between aisles with school shoes. Most important, I knew that not one soul really knows what you go through when those responsibilities fall unfairly and ultimately on you.

One woman, a survivor of her partner’s violence, went to the credit union every year with her book list and its itemized amounts to borrow money. Others hold on for their sou sou hand just at this time. Everywhere, mothers’ are planning and calculating, scraping and saving in time for September, like unheralded characters in a great Trinidadian barrack yard novel.

Indeed, in the 1970s, the Housewives’ Association of Trinidad and Tobago started a school book exchange, first in Hazel Brown’s house, later in the ONR’s office on Albion St. and, finally, in East Side Plaza precisely for these reasons.

Hazel herself, who was taking care of ten children, would sort all their books by subject, see what could be handed down, and then call up everyone to see what others had and what could be exchanged.

As she told me, at one point, the book exchange was taken up by some schools and parents would bring their used books and their book lists and exchange what they needed, buying at a fraction of the original cost.

HATT began to make a small profit, in what we would now call social entrepreneurship, by buying at 25% and selling at 50% of the store price. In Albion Street, women would iron the dog ears flat, make sure books were in good condition and could be sold at an affordable price, and that the right editions were the ones available.

It meant that children were told not to mark up their textbooks or simply throw them away. A stigma associated with second-hand books was pressed back, giving mothers and families collective solutions to their challenges making ends meet while preparing for the new term, and giving what they already had in their hands greater dollar value.

As I walked out of the bookstore with Mr. Biswas’ dream of a house in my hand and hope to manage the expenses of both renovations and the new school year on my mind, I thought of the mother in the store, taking her school supplies home, and how Naipaul became a writer because his family valued books.

I thought of HATT and how women can help each other fulfill hard-earned dreams, and I thought of Mr. Biswas and the list of compromises his family continually navigated in the hope that their circumstances would one day improve.

Post 295.

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“If people truly catch the spirit,” Ziya reasoned, “then it means that gods are real and, if gods are real, then magic is real because gods are basically magic”.

She may not have had the right words, but so went her seven-year-old murmuring on Saturday as we headed home from the annual Heritage Masquerade Festival hosted by the Omo Oduduwa Institute.

Two hours earlier, we were driving into the winding roads of Petit Curucaye in San Juan as light rain hovered on the hilltops. I was thinking about my own atheism and, yet, the importance of valuing the pantheon of possibilities by which your neighbours make spiritual sense of the world.

Drumming had already begun when we arrived and we sat listening to the depth of refrains remembering Zion and calling on the Egungun, who are regarded in Yoruba tradition as a manifestation of the spirits of ancestors.

There was so much I couldn’t explain to Zi. We both know far too little about Ifa/Orisha practices, and what they can teach about spirituality, and communion among the ancestral, divine and earthly.

It really does require an invitation, or mutual openness, to grasp the significance of different colours, of deities and the designs on shrines, of invocations with white rum and water, and blessings asked for and given with ash, smoke and fire.

Most humbling was seeing the combination of Black Indian masquerade, specifically born out of Trinidad’s Carnival, with Yoruba practice, which survived the crossing of slave ships, and is ancestor to Carnival itself.  Black Indian masquerade, like Ifa/Orisha beliefs, especially combines African traditions with reverence for those who came before on this land.

Indian mas, whether Red or Black or Fancy, traces its lineage from Indigenous People’s beliefs, designs, and ancestors from across the hemisphere. It invokes them in the practice of Carnival mas making, and as a warrior mas that is reverently worn, shaping self and life not just for two days, but throughout the year.

We think that Indian masquerade makers are simply Africans or Indians, or Orisha or Hindu, or wire benders or electricians, but even when not wearing this masquerade, its spirit walks in their shoes.

This is the thing about Trinidad carnival. Spirituality is not just about the main religions we can identify. Blue Devil, Jab Jab and Indian mas are equally spiritual, where medicinal plants and moon phases matter, where ancestors are called upon regardless of their race, and where sounds, calls, chants and dances are sacred, handed-down languages.

As the small procession made our way down the hill, led by two Egungun wrapped in red and yellow cloth with wooden mask faces, we stopped on the Santa Cruz Old Road at the La Venezuela statue of an Amerindian man.

There at the junction, water was poured in all four directions to acknowledge the universe and all its elements, the Indigenous presence in Santa Cruz, the river that was once honoured as both life and as escape from colonial authorities, and the contribution of African rites to recognizing the land and all our people as now, here, together in shared survival.

The procession gathered by a small Spanish-style, concrete gazebo further in. It wakes you up to remember that there are a thousand places sacred to First Peoples, which could change how we ethically move through this space if only we continued to honour them as sacred today. It’s easy to forget that we walk on the bones of those from the past.

At both spots, spiritual manifestation highlighted the momentous resonance of the moment. Zi stood observant of a worldview she was witnessing for the first time, deep with questions about gods, ancestors, cultural traditions and reality, and turning to a child’s framework about magic. Hopefully, such wonder is only a beginning.

From attending church with her grandparents, Zi has become more familiar with Christianity. I took a world religions approach to school so, last year, Zi was in Hindu classes and, next year, she’ll be in Muslim ones. I felt she should understand different belief systems, be able to connect with Trinidad and Tobago’s diversity, and decide for herself what role theology, or the study of God, plays in her life.

In my rear view mirror, I could see her murmuring as her mind worked through what such a new experience meant. Above our heads, the hovering rain finally began to descend.

 

Post 292.

Imagine your little one in a pre-school graduation. The room is decorated with sparkly “congratulations” signs and balloons. The children are fresh-faced and lovely.

Reading Rainbow Preschool from San Fernando has been doing this for 23 years. Ziya had a school celebration when she moved on, but it wasn’t Americanized, as is fashionable now, with gowns and caps and all.

Here, at my first time attending a formal ‘graduation’ of this kind, there weren’t any gowns, just lacy white dresses, socks and shoes for girls, and little boys in crisp white shirts, black pants and black ties. It was classic Caribbean propriety for children, the kind that makes respectable grandparents feel all is still right with the world.

I was there as a guest speaker, following in the footsteps of school principals Patricia Ramgoolam and Dr. Michael Dowlath, politicians such as Razia Ahmed and Gillian Lucky, and past Mayor Gerald Ferreira.

Sitting to my left was Reverend Joy Abdul-Mohan, who not only spoke at the first graduation, but who suggested the school motto: Do the best…to be the best.

On my right was boxing world champion Ria Ramnarine. Her story of pursuing martial arts as a young girl, despite family wishes, is legendary. In an excellent skit, little Ria pretended to knock out her opponent in the cutest way imaginable, with the whole room of parents beaming with pride and laughter. Later, her biography was recited while she received her gold belt.

One scene depicted a courthouse where lawyer Kamla Persad Bissessar, dressed in yellow, and Justice Paula Mae-Weekes, in robes, disciplined bad driver ‘Motilal Baboolal’. In other scenes, Shanntol Ince, paraolympic swimmer, and Jean Pierre, acted out their winning athletics, receiving awards while tiny presenters described their achievements.

For the past two years, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) has helped organize a march for International Women’s Day. Scene Three was this march for women’s rights, gender equality and an end to violence against women. There were about eight children who all received placards handed out by a teacher, encouraging their learning about protest for peace and justice.

The first march took place exactly sixty years ago in San Fernando. I knew that we were continuing its legacy, but I didn’t believe I’d ever see feminist struggles taught in pre-school. Tears kind of came to my eyes.

On stage, Reverend Joy and two IGDS faculty, Professor Rhoda Reddock and myself, were interviewed by, of course, little Akash Samaroo and Khamal Georges.

The children’s lines consisted of actual text from the press. The little girl, whose costuming made her look uncannily like me, recited March 2018 data on one in three women experiencing violence in their lifetime. She provided accurate analysis, focusing on gender and economic inequality and failure of services.

On stage, little Joy was dressed in her make-believe priest’s collar. Humorously, Reverend Joy herself looked exactly the same. I was won over by the idea of a preschool graduation all at once, if this is what they would be.

Children portrayed beauty queens, and iconic singers such as Daisy Voisin, Drupatee Ramgoonai and Calypso Rose. Impressively, ignoring homophobia, Michelle Lee Ahye was also honoured and adorably displayed by a girl with braids, and a flag for a cape, highlighting that women’s achievements really can most matter.

In my talk, I celebrated five other women whose steps we should also follow.

First, Anacoana. Haitian Taino queen and mother who fought the Spanish to her death. She was only 29 years old. Second, Queen Nanny of the Maroons, an Asante who escaped plantation slavery and is considered to have freed another thousand enslaved Africans in colonial Jamaica. Third, Claudia Jones, born in Belmont, the mother of Notting Hill Carnival, and so influential in the international Communist Party that she’s buried to immediately left of Karl Marx, Communism’s founder.

Fourth, Dr. Stella Abidh, the first Indo-Trinidadian woman to become a doctor despite Presbyterian clergy’s protestations against women’s advanced education. Her father was a unionist and County Council representative who supported her dream. Fifth, Ruth Seukeran, former San Fernando Councilor and political organizer whom few know was one of the speakers at the first international women’s day march, oranised by Christina Lewis and the Caribbean Women’s National Assembly, in 1958.

Pre-school education is more powerful than I credited, and the ideas more progressive than I’d ever hoped. Sparkly congratulations to pre-schools who put such love and commitment to making not only children and parents, but path-breaking women, honoured and proud.

Post 280.

I sat three rows from Theresa May when, as part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, she apologized for Britain’s role in criminalizing same-sex conduct in former colonies. “I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country,” she said, “They were wrong then and they are wrong now.”

Apologies by Britain should come hard and fast, for colonialism itself, the slave trade, inconceivably vast economic extraction and impoverishment, antidemocratic laws kept in place by a ‘savings clause’, and more.

This apology should not be diminished, for it results from courageous and sustained global South struggle, across at least thirty-six countries. Nonetheless, as Justice Rampersad pointed out in his April 12th decision, changing discriminatory laws is a matter for emancipatory Caribbean jurisprudence. We didn’t need the British empire’s ‘benevolent’ mission of colonising and civilising. We don’t need a 21st century version of civilising now.

On the same stage that morning, Jamaica’s PM Andrew Holness spoke, quite brilliantly, highlighting what sustainability, prosperity, inclusiveness and security mean from a Caribbean perspective in which equity and accountability among nations count.

In an earlier response on having gays in his Cabinet, Holness said, “I think that the first step is that the State protect the human rights of every citizen, regardless of sexual orientation or inclination”.  This was a major shift in public position from Bruce Golding’s infamous “not in my Cabinet” statement, and highlights increasing openings for equitable and accountable Caribbean leadership.

Here at home, President Weekes herself has said, “I think in terms of the State and the law all citizens and all persons under the protection of our jurisdiction should have equal treatment whatever their gender, whatever their sexual orientation, whatever their race we need to have absolute equality across the board in terms of State obligations and constitutional rights”.

Having been involved in LBGTI rights advocacy since about 2005, I didn’t expect to hear such public declarations in my lifetime. I have a beautiful memory of CAISO’s 2010 campaign, conceptualized in many ways by Colin Robinson’s politics of claiming belonging to a nation of ‘many bodies’, and the dual flying of national and rainbow flags high in the air at massive UNC rallies.

It wasn’t an easy space, and the PNM campaign trail would have been significantly worse, for those were the infamous ‘big C’ days, but to publicly declare equal citizenship involved great courage. There are forgotten foot soldiers, among many, who have moved popular culture forward over the last decade.

I thought about all this in relation to Guardian’s front-page expose on Michelle Lee-Ahye. There’s much to disparage about ‘rescuing’ someone from social media smearing, and doing this using her partner’s photos, in a still homophobic society and without consent. There’s much to say about the problems of prying into the private lives of women in public life though that’s long been debunked as illegitimate, irrelevant and sexist.

However, more important, was the public backlash to the newspaper, rather than Lee-Ahye’s choices. Many were clear that her sexuality was a non-story, and were outraged it would be headlined, supposedly and misguidedly for her protection. Being a woman-loving woman, or any woman who has sex outside of heterosexual marriage, might be a basis for idle gossip, but it doesn’t tarnish her achievement of gold nor does it reduce her right to privacy. That this could be expressed as a widely held view was an unintended, progressive outcome of that story.

In 2005, I couldn’t predict all this. Advocacy felt exhausting and ongoing without any progress. Even seeing hundreds proudly, joyfully gathering with rainbow flags over these past weeks was unimaginable as late as 2010.

Hope has been reborn in me. Yet, the evictions and firings of LBGTI citizens following Justice Rampersad’s decision signal continued need to tirelessly press back against continued vulnerability, believing that together we can actually aspire and achieve.

Post 279.

An attuned ear hears a shackle when it falls. It’s a surreal sound, when an instrument of inhumanity hits the ground broken, clanging with its iron weight of history. Instinctively listen for the heart-piercing exultations of emotion that echo out powerfully. Also be stopped still by a black hole of quiet horror that you may yet again hear that shackle clink close around a human body.

If the pores on your skin raised, as did mine when I heard Justice Devindra Rampersad’s judgment on Thursday, it’s because I never anticipated that a shackle’s fall could sound and feel like the force of a supernova when it collapses, its vibration sheer disintegrating your heart, leaving you in breathless tremors and shaking tears.

The boldness of the judgment and the interval of freedom it created for the first time in hundreds of years, like a slash in colonial space-time continuum, can’t be anything but celebrated.

There are thousands of bodies in the nation which had been existing in fear, shame and silence and which, for the first time, felt included, protected and free. It is like the future time-traveled and arrived to rock the vibrational field of the present, in a way so many citizens dared to dream, but despaired they wouldn’t live to see.

Justice Rampersad’s judgment in Jones v TT ruled that Sections 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offences Act, which criminalize buggery, or acts of anal sex, and same-sex genital touching, are unconstitutional. He held that the “savings clause”, which retains the legality of colonial law despite our republican status, doesn’t apply. This is because, in 1986, the Sexual Offences Act was repealed and “replaced”, thus creating new, post-1976 law.

Also new law was created with the unprecedented extension of penalties for buggery from 5 years to 25 years and creation of a new prohibition, titled “serious indecency”, and explicitly meant to criminalise lesbianism for the first time (by legislating that only men could have sexual access to women). In other words, this is new law, not simply a re-enactment and continuity from 1925.

Second, he argued that even if the savings clause could hold, its intention was to continue and preserve protections of citizens’ rights in the move from colonial subjection to independent nationhood, not deny rights, discriminate or victimize. In this case, relying on the savings clause as justification goes against its spirit.

Additionally, he agreed that Jason Jones’ right to privacy was denied, observing that such privacy had not been conceptualized in early colonial law, but was now an accepted ideal. Use of the savings clause to deny that right again defies its intention.

Regarding the Act itself, its violation of Sections 4 and 5 of the constitution were already acknowledged by parliament in 1986. It is possible to infringe upon individuals’ constitutional rights, under Section 13 of the constitution, but the burden is on the parliament to fully justify its necessity, which it has not done. Passage of legislation by 3/5 majority, however procedurally legitimate, isn’t enough.  Religious or majority view and public opinion isn’t enough. Political expediency is far short of enough in the face of signed international conventions and global and liberalizing standards of dignity, decency, equality and human rights. Claiming parliamentary prerogative isn’t enough, or might be enough in Britain where no constitution exists so parliamentary law is highest authority, but not in Trinidad and Tobago where the constitution should be supreme.

In other words, Jah bless our republican status and the possibilities for future-facing Caribbean jurisprudence. Why rely on British law when we have our own constitution? Why still carry habits of prisoners when we are freed from such imprisonment?

Without the savings clause as a defense, the 1986 Act was always unconstitutional and unjustified, and unreasonably and arbitrarily denied rights to privacy, family, intimacy and equality to all citizens and couples. Its legitimacy was founded on its own fiction and presumptions, like the emperor with no clothes.

To write that race, colour, gender, age or sexual orientation is not all that encompasses a person’s soul nor their value to society or themselves is to wield something other than the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. This is the ultimate dream of Caribbean emancipation.

For this to occur in real life and in our generation is overwhelmingly beautiful, and feels cosmically huge. On appeal, we hope the disturbing metallic edge of manacles, re-clasped on those who call for our love, is not something we have to hear. To them, do not turn a deaf ear.