Post 456.

WHEN ZIYA was eight years old, she started a little class newsletter. Other classmates joined and divided responsibility for different sections focusing on news, weather and sports. In the few issues they worked on, the boys who were responsible for the sports news only wrote about men’s soccer and sports. This was in a year when Serena Williams and Simone Biles had proven to be some of the greatest athletes of all time. 

You need to tell them that their section must feature women as much as men, I said. She refused, preferring to avoid any conversation about it and to accept such invisibility, though she recognised that it was not right. 

I couldn’t blame her. First, ensuring equality wasn’t her responsibility, it was also the boys’. Second, appearing to demand that they equally include women’s sports, having to convince boys confident with privilege, and then dealing with possibly being trivialised was more than she was willing to take on. 

Third, no one else, not even the other girl in their little group, thought this youthful example of sexism or gender bias was an issue, so she would have been the one making something apparently innocent a big deal. She stayed silent, intimidated by the effort of saying something on her own and against an accepted norm.

Many women understand these hesitations. Many don’t want to take on the responsibility for creating gender equality because they are women. Many don’t want to have to convince other women or men who think that daily inequalities are acceptable or normal, and they stay silent even when activists call on them to act. They don’t want to be the one making something a big deal. Many feel it’s safer to negotiate their lives as best as they can, recognising that feminism isn’t popular or easy. 

I was sorry that Zi encountered that experience, one which repeats itself through our lives as women. It is such an inconsequential example, barely worth mentioning, but that’s exactly how inequality normalises privilege, exclusion, stereotypes and silences again and again, through the little injustices perpetuated and left unchallenged and unchanged.

When I think of gender equality, I think of a world in which girls no longer have any such experiences, in all their familiar complexity and momentous triviality. I want a world in which girls and women no longer have to fight for rights, freedoms, safety, legitimacy, recognition or power, whether in sports, workplaces, politics, university curricula, families, the media, religion or simply in public spaces. 

In this sense, “equality” isn’t about comparisons with men, trying to be like them or getting what they have, it is about fair access to and sharing of voice and visibility, inclusion and income, leadership and opportunity. It is also about fair sharing of power to decide what is normal in a just, peaceful, inclusive and caring world. 

In her little chat group of classmates this year, there’s been homophobic name-calling amongst the boys. I’ve had to explain to her that, at their age, some boys begin to wonder if they are gay and that using homosexuality as an insult is harmful and hurtful. I just ignore the boys, she says, again refusing to say something, though she reposted their group rules regarding being kind. 

You can see why feminists turned to laws and policies, which set state and organisational norms and rules, whether regarding discrimination, sexual harassment or violence, so that individual women themselves don’t have to champion what should be collectively agreed. 

That’s one of the reasons we celebrate women for International Women’s Day (IWD), precisely because as individuals, associations and movements, they have done so much championing, whether for justice, peace or sustainability. IWD is also a day to recognise that feminist struggles continue so that one day, girls can know what it’s like to never encounter sexism, homophobia, gender stereotyping, (having to be protected from) sexual abuse and the array of harms that result from gender inequality, even before their teens. It’s a day to strengthen courage and resolve. 

In Zi’s online experience, both boys and girls were silent about the homophobia by their primary school peers. I think about my daughter, being raised in a feminist family and by two moms, who is getting the message to stay quiet and avoid possible shame about her own reality. International Women’s Day is a moment to remind that this is the world we must change, for girls growing into womanhood, who shouldn’t be able to tell any of these stories.

Post 441.

ZI TURNED 11 on Monday so I’m entering the pleasures and perils of pre-teen life, and the parenting moments it brings. 

The magic of childhood still lingers, with its uncontrived excitement, effervescent emotions, bubbling energy and honest words from a still blossoming heart. A child in a room of adults still transforms it somehow into an opportunity for being kinder, and sharing in laughter and wonder. 

An 11-year-old appears so grown-up in one instance and then so playful in the next, baby qualities bouncing about, tumbling with growth spurts and hormone changes and features that seem to mature by the day. The pandemic brought that home in a way that long workdays would have eclipsed. It took me a year to make lemonade (or lime juice), as they say, for I realised how much of her growing up I was missing and how much more of me she needed. I learned a lot about mental health and how our brains differently develop and cope, and how easy it is to miss signs of what’s going on with our children’s cognitive, social-emotional and expressive lives amidst the manic rush between home, school, homework, dinner and bedtime on repeat every day. 

When the pandemic began, she was just nine, and a completely different child. We rightly focus on children who need schools to reopen to resume their education, improve their nutrition, provide access to a trusted adult, and create valuable peer socialisation. Zi flourished at home, freed from the stress of traffic, with time to sleep later on a morning and chance to be herself without pressures of bullying. It was a privileged opportunity to feel calmer and safer by us being so consistently together.

I got to know her anew, over lunchtimes and afternoon walks and middle-of-the-day hugs, recognising challenges she’s navigating which I hadn’t noticed and making new decisions about mothering for which I wouldn’t have ever given time. I changed my priorities and responsibilities, increasing my attention to care and cutting back on much else. It made me grow. 

There’s an older adolescence that has also appeared, and interest in an adult world that she and her friends are yet unprepared for. We spend a lot of effort censoring regular pop music for its language and hypersexuality, and these days a regular YouTube playlist is a minefield of problematic socialisation. We are constantly checking for the clean version of songs.

Videos that show up either feature women (or Lil Nas X) writhing nearly naked or, alternatively, depressed and angst-ridden white American music stars. There’s a lot of conversation to have with teens about sex and sexuality, what’s age appropriate, stereotyped and commodified, real and empowering, and what messages are being sold to children. 

Sexuality brings both power and pleasure as well as risk and danger, and girls are most vulnerable to harmful consequences of early sexualisation as teens. They also enter a stage when they become more conscious of their bodies, weight, hair and skin colour, and how their appearance relates to acceptance by peers. 

They are seeing cyclical ads convince women they need to have long eyelashes, and I’ve watched as Zi’s emerging sense of femininity is shaped by the creation of insecurities and the expectation of self-improvement through consumption. 

As the recent Facebook study also confirmed, social media adds to girls’ challenges with self-esteem and anxiety. When you talk to girls, you realise how much they don’t like about themselves or how unsure they are about growing breasts and the onset of menstruation, developing a sense of responsibility and perhaps a sense of shame about both, and how adolescence is both very much like yet so different from our own decades ago. 

We try to use words that emphasise being fit and strong, not thin, and the mental health necessity of time outside, rather than on a device.

Not yet in secondary school, we also started preparing Zi, less for SEA than for pubescent crushes, having friends and cousins of diverse sexualities, and recognising that friends may begin experimenting with identities that cross and redefine old boundaries of “he,” “she” and “they.” From here, it’s like teaching life skills as much as critical thinking ones, a strong sense of self as well as an open, non-prejudiced mind. 

It’s been a year of learning about the world through her eyes. 

Welcome to 11, Zi. May you show us how much still must be changed as we show you how to love who you are inside.

Post 434.

WITH ZI now in the throes of SEA preparation for March 2022, and with us managing all the anxiety which people critique every year, I’ve started thinking about secondary-school choices, what we know about gender and violence in secondary schools, and what would enable her to feel safest and least bullied. 

I’ve also been working on integrating gender-based violence awareness into the health and family life (HFLE) curriculum, and I am deeply aware of how much public advocacy is needed to counter resistance to teaching about gender and sexuality in adolescent lives. Caribbean research can valuably strengthen activist calls for acceptance, support and education that protects adolescents from vulnerability to discrimination, homophobia and sexual violence. 

Just last month, the Silver Lining Foundation (SLFTT) published its 2019 Bullying and Gender-Based Violence in Secondary Schools Report, with support from the European Union Delegation to TT and the Sexual Culture of Justice project. Whether as an activist or parent, there’s much that’s useful in its findings. 

The survey measured the types of bullying to which students are subjected and those they perpetrated, as well as students’ sense of personal safety, self-esteem and empowerment. A total of 2,284 surveys were collected from 42 secondary schools across TT. 

Most of the participating students were in third form and half were from nuclear families. Most identified as Christian, heterosexual and mixed-race (with about 33 per cent of Indian descent and 20 per cent of African descent). Boys and girls were fairly equally represented.

What emerged from this study is that violence perpetration is higher by boys and victimisation is higher among girls. Boys may also be victims and girls perpetrators, but the inequalities we are trying to transform are apparent by adolescence. 

Physical assaults, pushing and hitting were perpetrated and experienced more by boys than girls. Greater percentages of boys than girls reported being touched in private body areas without consent and receiving sexually explicit gestures, although boys also did most of the touching. 

Boys engaged in more teasing and name-calling than girls, based on others’ appearance, race, sexual orientation and religion, and were more often victims of such teasing on the basis of their abilities or inabilities. Boys were more likely to use cell phones and social media for teasing, name-calling and starting rumours, and engaged in ostracism of peers at higher rates than girls.

About two per cent of boys had forced someone to perform sex acts on them or others, and girls were more likely to be forced to perform sexual acts and to experience verbal abuse and insults if they turned down a sexual advance. Girls were slightly more likely to be targets of teasing because of their appearance, and the subject of name-calling and rumours through use of cellphones and social media, and were more often ostracised from social groups. 

Significantly, sexually explicit comments were made at a slightly higher rate online and on phones than in face-to-face contact. 

At least one in five students surveyed reported experiencing physical violence at school and just less than one in three resorted to hitting and pushing others. As well, nearly one in five students teased others because of how they dressed, looked or walked. 

While more than 90 per cent did not perpetrate or experience sexual violence, one in 20 students reported perpetrating sexual violence and one in ten experienced sexual violence. 

These issues are experienced by both girls and boys, though in highly gendered ways. Comprehensive sexuality education would help these students and create peer environments that nurture protection and prevention.

Good news is that homophobia is waning. Students who expressed same-sex desire, bisexuality and queer desire comprised about one-seventh of the surveyed population, but their reporting of these desires means shame and silence are being broken for another generation. 

The majority of students were aware of LBGTQ students at their school and the majority agreed that the LGBTQ people deserved to be treated with respect. Students with positive attitudes towards LGBTQ people were less likely to engage in bullying. 

Ahead of religious leaders, parents and politicians in Cabinet, 64 per cent of students noted the value of sex education for helping them feel prepared for sexual situations and reducing challenges regarding consent. 

As this report shows and as I’ll be writing about again, without comprehensive sexuality education, students rely on peers (46 per cent), media (45 per cent), or pornography (30.7 per cent) to answer questions. 

This kind of data is crucial to understanding how we can and why we should make our children feel safe in schools.i

Post 422.

AMIDST TWO of the deadliest months in our post-colonial history, I want to write about death. Or maybe loss. Or maybe remembering. Actually, I’m writing for those of us still here, parsing through our pasts and memories like a cupboard of old clothes, some reminding us of this time or that, some still fitting, some best given away. 

My dad died two years ago, before the shock of Covid-19 took hundreds of our loved ones, but I’m still thinking of him today. Trying to figure out what in that cupboard to keep and why, trying to feel my way through texture and colour, through what remains familiar and what I forgot was there. 

When someone dies, you make choices about what to recollect, what age to see her or him as, what age to see yourself. Some only want to see the good, others chafe at how much that negates their unresolved pain. Some hide truths, others are pinned at their crossroads, wondering what to do with knowledge they can’t escape. 

On the anniversary of his passing on June 6, I perused photos, trying to decide which spoke most to how I felt. I wasn’t so much enjoying seeing him in those images. It wasn’t nostalgia. In retrospect, I was sorting, feeling, resolving our relationship. My dad was a piercingly brilliant man, with an intense personality, and an enthusiastic sense of humour. He was a regionalist with a deep belief in justice. He liked cricket, dancing, plantain sandwiches, animals and the sea. I never once heard him put down women’s rights and he was pro-choice. He could be selflessly generous and kind. He had a starboy jaunt, and liked to sweet talk women. He was also destructive and difficult to love. 

When he was alive, I wished so many things were different. When he was gone, in a heartbeat, it was much the same. Now, I’m intrigued by these contradictions, and how we assemble discomfort and discord, love and loyalty, resemblance and connection into different combinations of coherence as those still living and gathering experience and acceptance. I wrestle with silences. Many of us do the same. 

At first, I used to think about his burial, which we thought was right. He wanted to be cremated, but we were concerned for his soul, and considered his visit to the family mosque in Chaguanas the day before he died to be decisive. I’d stand at the bedroom window, with my back to the Northern Range, looking south, thinking of all that Islamic tradition says about graves, and feel a raw mix of vindication, sadness and fear.

Over time, I’d think about the opportunities he missed or the moments he may have still wanted to see. The momentous trivialities and pride of birthdays and promotions. More tender was watching Ziya play the piano which he bought me nearly 40 years go. If I could have been his eyes, I think he would have appreciated looking through them then. 

In-between wandering backward through time, I’ve also felt freed from his chaos, like his sudden end was a gift, a light that lifted a long shadow. I dreamed him many times. Dreaming someone already departed is like a version of their afterlife. I missed him, but didn’t wish he was still alive. 

Two years on, I find myself retreating to when I was a child. Memories seem simpler then, naïve and full of adoration. Or perhaps there hadn’t been enough experience to undermine those emotions. Maybe it’s just that then I felt most loved. 

Still, the grown-up in us can be stubborn and I went back and forth between two photos, one from a still-chubby age when I would bound toward him, tall, beloved and larger than life, and one from a rare, enjoyable day which the two of us spent together as adults when I had already distanced myself from expectations. 

There’s a picture of him as a child which I looked at, without much feeling. Oddly though, it’s through understanding what my dad may have survived as a child that I have become forgiving. I’m older and he is gone. Yet, here we are, in my reckoning, both as children. 

Across the country, others are rummaging through cupboards with such sentimental treasures, some with greater acceptance than others, some with more they must heal. This journey has heaviness. Yet, sometimes, I am on his shoulders again, laughing beneath an endless sky. Relationships live on. I’m still saying goodbye.

Post 418.

IN OUR house, things feel different from the last lockdown. Zi appears antsy about being cooped up inside, and we are changing our routine to get her outside daily. She’s still coping well with online school, but the context is heavy, uncertain and surreal, and children across the world are expressing anxiety. I’ve pared down my ambitions. If I can get her through the pandemic with her mental health intact, I would have achieved the most important thing I can at this time.

I’ve also struggled with what feels like slowing down to about a fraction of my old capacity. Maybe, it’s a worn energy that wakes up with me. Days can feel overwhelming from the heightened stress without end. Maybe it’s just getting a year older over covid19; we have all changed a bit.

It’s also working at home, absent of colleagues, manufacturing an idea of an office by yourself in a room. With an office, there’s a clear separation from the space meant to be a refuge from the hectic exhaustion of the day. I’d walk into my department and the next ten hours would be pace. It’s hard to drum up that level of focus and momentum at home, all day, every day, in a space built around a gentler logic, and especially with children. When you leave them in school, you can lock off emotionally. If I did that at home, I’d be missing the call for greater care at this time, when families must collectively create a new mix of work-life balance.

I’ve thought a lot about what a longitudinal view of working from home reveals. Last year, in the first six months of lockdown, I operated like a machine, smoothly switching to remote teaching and zoom meetings combined with messaging and calls on multiple platforms.

I knew that work was intruding on a sphere that was for rest and relationships, for emotions and escape from the day. I knew it was a shift for Ziya, who suddenly had to contend with a mother who disappeared into her work life despite being there, requiring her to negotiate time with me when I was mostly behind a screen. This was new for her as I had long set boundaries on demands of the public sphere, putting in endless hours during the week so that the weekends could be properly ours. I told myself I had to value the work of reproduction and the private sphere, and setting such time aside was a feminist act of prioritising and valuing the labour of nurturing and love.

Then through the first lockdown, I worked at home as I had at work. Now, it’s clear that working from home may be a way of the future, but that it requires far more thoughtful realism. Family members don’t entirely obey boundaries, unless you close the door all day. Still, I’ve seen so many children interrupt zoom meetings and talk to their parents as if the screen hardly matters, because those meetings are happening in their space of home.

In my heart, I’ve thought more power to them. Family members interrupt because they need help or because they love that you are there or because they can’t grasp that you are home, but they should act like you are not. More power to them too.

At first, I thought I just wanted to work, now I think about how to not subordinate all that home life entails for all that this new imposition requires. Women are working earlier in the mornings and later at night to get the quiet they need. Even doing that, as I seemed less able to generate manic speed, I berated myself for being inefficient, delayed on e-mails and late on deliverables. I found myself more frequently apologising for not meeting my usual productivity.

It took time for me to realise that I wasn’t being less productive, I was actually doing much more. Not just more housework, which is well recognised as a consequence of covid19, but paying more attention to the relationships around me, the state of the wellbeing of those I love, and the emotional health of our household bubble.

Last year, we shifted for emergency reasons and find ourselves here again today, some of us still with jobs, many more of us unpaid or unemployed. At different points, we are making difficult decisions about managing labour and love over the long duration. A longitudinal view of such pandemic negotiations is a necessary public conversation.

Post 415.

SCHOOL started back this week. I watched Ziya on her first day, following the teacher on her computer, thinking her energy seemed like she had already had enough. I couldn’t blame her. It’s a pandemic and she’s been isolated at home, doing school by herself in our living room for 13 months. Her energy felt like it could start strong, but would surely run down. Looking on, I thought I need a strategy to get her through the next two and a half months of homework, assessments and scaling up of preparation for SEA next year. 

Her marks dropped last term, but so did her class average, and I wondered how to respond. Does quarrelling work? Does that actually motivate? Is there even a magic formula? Is it about more lessons? We went for the long talk about working hard to be proud of yourself, and developing good habits to do well. She’d been through a lot of changes in her family, and had gone through various stages of managing, and it would only be normal for everything to which she had to adapt to have had some impact. 

She was doing everything she should for school, but seemed disconnected from it, like she was attentive, but on automatic while there. Perhaps, not learning among other children left her less motivated. Perhaps it has been harder to separate her school-self from herself at home. I have adult students saying how much harder it is to study without UWI’s library to go to. I’m tired teaching students over a computer and I imagine her just as tired of learning from a screen all day. Perhaps, she is just ten and these are unusual circumstances and this is her best. 

As parents, we are all negotiating the balance between our children’s emotional and mental health, their individual strengths and challenges, and the demand to step up to what school exams still require. I’m thinking about the students writing SEA in two weeks, and the stress even their parents must be feeling. How much to push in a pandemic, and with what costs to our children? I’m thinking about how I’m functioning less well, without quite knowing why. I also think my university students are barely keeping up. 

Studies conducted over 2020 around the world suggest that the home confinement of children is associated with uncertainty, depression and anxiety resulting from disruption in their education, physical activities and opportunities for socialisation. Children are more bored and less engaged. We may miss the signs of covid19’s impact on them. In a Save the Children study of 1,127 students in Latin America and the Caribbean (Dominican Republic and El Salvador), four out of ten children indicated that they needed counselling.

Alternatively, I’ve also seen children Ziya’s age spend vastly more time on their devices, playing games for hours and unable to socialise without them. Now that children are on their computers, phones or tablets, with internet access, they are also on various apps much more, all of which are designed to keep them watching, checking, scrolling or playing. 

These devices have likely helped them to cope, but I think they are also rewiring their brains. This generation is the youngest to have such access ever in the world and, as the Social Dilemma on Netflix shows, there are costs. We cut Roblox after Zi wanted to spend time just to keep up with the children who were playing more hours than her, and socialising there as well. The less she played, the less she seemed to have in common, and all that required adjustment too. We purposely got her outside as much as possible, and off her screen, so that the cumulative impact of being in front a device all day could be reduced. 

A year ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, I proposed in this column that maybe we should opt out of trying to achieve as normal, recognising that children may be holding it together just as we are, but may just be going through the motions, connecting in and out, as it feels that my own students at university are similarly doing. I want to be sensitive to what is happening even as I want both my students and Zi to learn. I’m looking at her on the first day of school, and wondering about the best approach to both her marks and her mental health as well as her school motivation and social relationships over the rest of the term.

Post 411.

ALTHOUGH I am home with Ziya, there are days when she barely sees me. It’s hard to imagine as I make meals, wash dishes, sweep up her pencil and eraser shavings on evenings, supervise homework, and sort out ten-year-old difficulties. Yet it’s not quality time and I fear that this rare opportunity to be together, brought on by the pandemic, will soon pass, and I will have missed moments we could have had. As for so many parents, long hours of work and then exhaustion are like the flow of high tide, taking over time.

When you are not there, you don’t even know what you miss or what you should have been there for, and I think about the sacrifices Ziya makes for my life. I spend so much time preoccupied with violence or other issues, sometimes I can’t switch off early enough to give an hour for us, not to rush her through dinner or to bed, but to listen, counsel and give caring the priority it deserves. She appears quite independent, but needs me more than I may recognise. For those giving to their communities or contributing to social change, there are costs to their families that no one sees.

I had spent International Women’s Day focused on the facts of women’s lives, glad to engage the public in ways I hope helped to inform and inspire. IWD is such an important date for women; we commemorate the history of women’s struggle, the successes of their achievements, the world created through their labour, and the injustices still to transform.

It’s a day when my family shouldn’t expect me to be present, given its usual manic pace. However, events ran late and I missed the Walk Out for Women, an action organised in Port of Spain by Act for T and T, Conflict Women, Womantra, CAISO, Network of NGOs and other organisations to highlight calls for safer transport, a national plan to address gender-based violence, and greater emphasis on peace-building strategies to counter our increasingly violent society.

From the Caribbean Women’s National Assembly in 1958 to the Network of NGOs and CAFRA in the 1990s, each year, women carry the baton.

Whereas I would have rushed into town, everything slowed down. Instead of hustling up Zi as I usually do, I had time to hear her practise piano and see her delightedly play, fleeting gifts I would have otherwise missed. I chided myself that she’s my most important work because she’s a girl growing in a world in which gender equality does not exist.

Changing that world matters; raising a girl to navigate its harms and deceptions, emerge with confidence, and feel connection to her potential as much as to her feelings matters just as much. I suppose I’m better at the first than the second, though finding the right balance takes hourly intention and self-forgiveness. It was a reminder to value, not just public leadership work, but the loving labour of the private sphere, where gender socialisation can be challenged, where social norms are changed, where girls will find their greatest safety and be guided through to resilience.

At home instead of marching to Woodford Square, I found Zi in a home-made scrub extravaganza sourced through the internet. Her latest jar, a green concoction of sugar, salt, food colouring and essential oils, was filled with even greener glitter, the kind that washes down drains and rivers, and into the ocean, killing fish who think it’s food.

Parents can monitor viewing hours and block content, but won’t see every video their child watches. So we sat down and had a long conversation about the internet; how it presents dangers without providing warnings, how children don’t yet have the capacity to sort its good and bad messages, how it doesn’t show the potential harms and consequences of what others present, how adults will deliberately or irresponsibly mislead children, how content isn’t monitored for age appropriateness the way it used to be for television, how anyone can post anything, however fake or predatory, and how she shouldn’t believe or follow whatever she sees.

It was nearly an hour of serious reasoning with a little girl who thinks she knows what America is like from Youtube. It left her better able to protect herself from immensely perilous online and offline worlds she hasn’t begun to understand.

I fell asleep thinking about activism, mothering, costs and priorities. Another March 8 spent dreaming of a different world, and recognition of women’s rights and responsibilities.

Post 364.

Carnival is interwoven with our lives, but representations of it tend to focus on the public and performative. Our narratives also emphasize the big Carnival bands and big musical names. However, as we close this season, I’d like to reflect instead on the little stories we don’t see, particularly in relation to children and family.

On Carnival Friday, Ziya won her school Calypso Monarch competition with her entry, ‘Send Parents Back to School’.

The song was produced by her dad, Lyndon ‘Stonez’ Livingstone, who is a long time DJ and producer. Born into Trinidad and Tobago’s spoken word movement through Rapso in 1998, but having moved away from both poetry and performing as work and motherhood took over, I get a connection to the past through writing calypsos for Zi.

Though our marriage has moved on since the days when he would produce for me, when a DJ and a poet have a daughter, we get to nurture an intergenerational love and engagement with local culture. We also get to be better people and parents from having to come together each year to cooperate for her. Through the growing pains of creating new relationships and definitions of ourselves, it’s no small truth to say that calypso has helped to keep our sense of family together.

For a long time, we looked at our shy, cautious and hesitant child, and wondered if she would grow into her confidence. Now in her fifth year of a little school competition, and her second win, I was amazed to see a blossoming nine-year-old command her school stage; her stance powerful, her delivery strong and her performance bold.

She wanted the prize money, to buy Lego and mint gum, she had developed a sense of ambition and competition, and she was increasingly willing to take risks publicly. Other parents may have similar stories of Carnival’s opportunities for confidence-building, and may be able to say this about drama and sports, but it was calypso that did it for Zi.

There may be much to debate about the value and legacy of these last weeks, but this is one quiet and small story that Carnival has left with me. It’s like this around the country, in pan sides filled with youth, in family mas camps where children learn about the spiritedness of masquerade while still at the breast, in musical homes where young bards begin to follow in elders’ footsteps.

In each of these, there are not simply stories of fete and wine and rum. There are also real moments of separated parents sharing common commitment and joy; of little children learning about Carnival as hard work, shared effort and a labour of love; and the awkwardness of self-doubt blooming into new-found capacity to aspire and achieve.

As so many want for their children, we wanted Ziya to learn about what it means to speak up for her generation and to connect to others so that they can see their reality in what she advocates. We wanted her to see that a hook is a clear message which can signify an historical moment. We wanted her to know that the more she knew about her country is the more resonant her voice could be across time. We wanted her to know that social commentary had to be more than a lament, it had to capture imagination while being accessible to anyone willing to listen.

So, we kept the lyrics simple:

Children, what to say? Like Trinbago gone astray. Crime and violence is the rule. Send parents back to school!

Like adults forget all their learned. Set bad example with no concern. We fed up, fed up not being safe. Parents must learn how to behave.

So put on your uniform, shine your shoes. We giving tests and homework too. First class is basic civics, and revision until the country fix.

Ting a ling ling. School bell ring. Too much adults misbehaving. Ting a ling ling. School bell ring. Back to school every morning!

Tell Gary Griffith, we have a plan to fight criminals across the land, teach about the country we should have, put the future in parents’ school bag!

Children, what to say? Like Trinbago gone astray. Crime and violence is the rule. Send parents back to school!

As critics cross swords over what was wasted and gained, this is a story of Carnival’s possibilities for togetherness and growth.  As a grateful mother of a little girl, this is therefore also a small ode to kaiso.


Post 324.

IT WAS a brief, breath-held moment of unexpected confidence. As a mother, I felt as if I had managed to do something right. This rare feeling wasn’t dependent on her marks or good behaviour. It came as I watched her be brave as if that’s what she was born to do.

Ziya’s typically a little shy and hesitant, but Friday was her fourth calypso monarch competition at her primary school. We never understood how she agreed to go up on stage in the first place. The last thing she wanted was the awkwardness of public performance and attention, what she described as “too many people watching.”

We figured that, somehow, being the daughter of a DJ and a poet maybe had genetic influence. We thought that maybe growing up in a production studio made her edge a little closer to familiarity with music. There isn’t a clear answer, but she was up there when she was five years old expressing a self that seemed unusual for a girl who would still hide behind me when she met strangers. She stood on the school’s auditorium stage then; small, focused and fixed to the spot, remembering her lyrics.

We sent her up twice more, finding topics that filled a space for children in Carnival and focused on the little ups and downs of their lives. So, her first song, Mosquito, complete with a dance and drawing the interest of the Ministry of Health in their fight against dengue, was followed by a composition about losing her pot hound, Shak Shak, when she ran away one day.

True story: Shak Shak was found a week later far away in Las Cuevas, inexplicably distant from Santa Cruz, and well looked-after. She had, somehow, hopped a drop to the beach and the song found the humour in searching high and low, almost from Tobago to Toco, calling and calling. The chorus, “Where’s Shak Shak?,” got the whole audience to participate in solving this mystery.

Last year, we decided to start experimenting with soca, bringing calypso story-telling to pace and production which children could dance to. Have you ever noticed that there’s no music just for children at Carnival, their own soca genre that draws from the best of call-and-response refrains, and exuberant happiness? We began to aim to create that content.

Though Zi would alternately agree and refuse to compete, as shyness recalibrated with the push of coming second place, in the end she was there singing, Pencil Cases in the Air, a tune about packing your school bag. “Before the school bell rings, every morning check your things: erasers, sharpeners, rulers too, scissors, pencils and your glue,” she listed. Now in her third year, she was bouncing a bit more, tapping her foot on the stage’s wooden floor, but still contained like a child successfully performing what she had rehearsed, not yet able to leap into connecting with an audience.

This year, it’s like she grew up, as children so quickly do, one day more capable at a particular skill than they were before, as if the cumulative effort of years of parenting suddenly met with the right age for another step in life to be conquered.

Singing about the tribulations of having to learn times tables, we wrote lyrics for eight-year-olds, about the pressure of having to know the answer to two times eight, about revising for tests and being up late, and about it being true for every child that, “times tables coming for you.”

It isn’t often that you get to tell a story of Carnival as a space for growing up, whether for children singing, stilt-walking, playing pan or playing mas. On stage this year, she moved like an experienced performer, channelling the humour of Rose and Sparrow, the populism of Iwer and Machel, and the sweetness of Shadow’s horns.

I had never seen her this confident. One day, children grow into a lesson and get it perfect, maybe in English, math, music or sports. Then, if you are a mother who often doubts if she’s making the best decisions or one who quietly regrets her many mistakes, you exhale because such bravery was all you had hoped for, and you give thanks with wonder, rather than pride.

Although this is a story of Carnival, calypso and growing up, and of finally winning through many tries, such momentary magic of together getting it right is one with which parents anywhere in sweet T and T can perhaps identify.