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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 22 Jul 98

Report on the forum: ‘National Festivals: Ethnic Fragmentation or National Development.’


Driving through the still of Port-of-Spain one night after a lecture at the Port-of-Spain library, something odd occurred to me: This has to be among the most civilised countries in the world.


The lecturers: Firstly: Where else in the world would a person of indeterminate ethnicity and religion, like Burton Sankeralli exist. His first name sounds Christian. A double barrel Hindu/Muslim surname was never more appropriate as Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan make nuclear bombs just in case the other side strikes..  Sankar: Hindu (probably originally Shankar,) and Ali (a Qur’anic name).


Secondly: Ravi-ji, who says elaborate Namaste’s or Sita-Rams regardless of the company he is in, is always dressed in traditional kurta-pyjamas and whose knowledge of Hindi and the scriptures probably far outweighs that of the average Indian from India was a key speaker at an “African” event. Some of his 150-year-old traditions are so carefully preserved that they are rarely observed even in Mother India. But hear that twang. Trinidadian. He is a staunch Hindu but his presence at this African Emancipation podium demonstrated that his religion has not made him blind to the legitimacy and authenticity of other cultures and religions.


Thirdly: Kafra Kambon: His is the hardest job. He proudly carries an African name, wears African looking clothes. He is a leader of a lost African tribe, which, after being branded, like cattle, stripped of culture and language, is still trying to “catch itself” and pick up the pieces of an identity.


The topic (in my words): What do festivals mean in this country which has variously been called calalloo, rainbow, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, melting pot, to the point that people have stopped listening. They spoke for 40 minutes each. They were honest, persuasive, brave, analytical, and most importantly they were not boring, sanctimonious or predictable. In the interest of clarity and cohesion I have culled the contents of their talks.


Burton Sankeralli: The concept of holidays is fascist since it was handed down by the State. Under Eric Williams, this country’s first Prime Minister, the State failed to recognise the diverse nature of society. Due to this divisions have been suppressed under the surface of one love and calalloo country. Each group has its own cultural and religious space, for instance, the Africans have Carnival; the Indians, Divali; Muslims Eid; Christians, Easter and Christmas. Almost all festivals are linked to race. We have failed to create a truly national festival day, or musical or art form without an ethnic agenda. As a result public holidays are just another zone of contention. We need to have a shared festival to celebrate us as nationals of this country regardless of our race and religion. This festival or space has to emerge naturally and should not imposed upon us by the State.


Ravi Ji: The British Empire brought together two old world civilisations, the Ameridians and their own. Their alternatives were: a) genocide of the existing group; b) conversion; c) hegemony. Our Euro-centric colonisers, were not able to silence former slaves and indentured labourers with the “tyranny of their calendars”, hence the rise of Baptists, Hindu, Muslim, and other fringe religions and festivals. “Man needs festivals, and if he doesn’t have one, he will create it, to provide him with a womb, a space of his own.” The ethnic divide is no longer as sharp as it used to be. Many Indo-Trinidadians participate in Carnival, and Christian festivals. Similarly festivals such as Eid and Divali are now becoming more national as people of all races don Indian national costumes, and light deyas. Festivals can be either public or very private. In a society such as ours with diverse ethnic and religious origins it is a basic human right to be able to conduct rituals and festivals in privacy. Orissa groups perform very private ceremonies, as do Baptists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims. Private spaces should be perceived as an asset, rather than a threat to “nation building”.


Kafra Kambon: Most festivals and holidays are linked to religion rather than ethnicity. The State, journalists, and society is uncomfortable with ethnic issues For example, in 1985 Emancipation Day was recognised as a holiday. Ten years later Africans were about to lose it since the question of an Indian Arrival Day came up and Government deliberated on having neither. Winnie Mandela provoked self righteous anger with her statement about black not being part of the rainbow. The idea of a “rainbow” society is a myth. The “rainbow” idea is comforting only because eliminates differences by pretending they don’t exist. Festivals force us to re-examine that myth since we all react differently to different festivals. Festivals force us as a nation to deal with our ethnic differences. Emancipation Day for instance, questions the Euro-Christian norm, is a reminder of the cruel practice of slavery. Despite the fact that Emancipation Day is a vital recognition of our history it is still a battle to celebrate it. It is gaining credibility but slowly. We get caught up in our own battles and fail to see each other, engage one another beyond the surface.


Indians and Africans alike have faced the tyranny of the calendar. Indians however had some remembered culture to fall back on, but because Africans didn’t have a strong sense of self they are in danger of being swept along into this myth of “rainbow” culture. 1833 ended chattel slavery. 1970 challenged European centred view of society. Indians built on 1970 but many Africans were beaten back. Many Africans who rise in the eyes of society want to become invisible. They don’t want to be seen as blacks first. They don’t financially or socially support organisations such as the Emancipation Support Committee which forces them to see that their skin is black, and remember their history. This creates self hate. Africans throughout the diaspora have to rebuild their shattered sense of being. They are functioning below their potential because they face a crisis of identity which was destroyed by slavery. Instead of denying our differences under the screen of the “rainbow” society we have to learn to manage them. Only when we freely express our heritage, will we be able to have mutual respect and develop as a people. Festivals such as Emancipation Day will help us to do that.


That sums up the lecture. A silent horror, a quiet epidemic. In private gatherings people who group themselves according to their race, class religion or financial circumstances the rainbow lies shattered in shards. Indians pat themselves on the back and say “look how far we’ve come, and that’s because we’ve stuck to Indian values.” Africans claim without them there wouldn’t be a Trinidad culture and don’t trust anybody else. “French Creoles” or those of European strut about with smug faces, an inherited rather than deserved sense of superiority.


To make things more complicated our differences don’t end there. Apart from this race thing, there is the class thing, and the education thing and the politics thing and the jobs for the boys thing, and high colour and low colour, and poor and rich and those who exploit differences, playing “white”, “black”, “Indian” or “Rainbow”, UNC, and PNM to suit their ends. The shattered “rainbow” is scattered like so many bits of glass.


A tiny twin state where virtually all races and cultures of the world, old and new rub shoulders must inevitably give rise to neurosis, and paranoia. To survive amongst so many essentially different people, most of us develop multiple personalities, public and private, and like chameleons, switch them around according to the company we keep.


Even those who claim to be rooted with remembered cultures and values from China, Lebanon, India, Europe, have to come to terms firstly with the fact that they are not there, but here, in the New World, secondly (and this might be the more painful fact to face) they no longer have a place in their country of origin. We are essentially a nation of displaced people, thrown together in a hodge podge way, and even if the fact of rainbow country is a myth, it is an essential glue until we all secure a strong sense of identity as individuals, and communities.


As a people we’ve been on the same metaphorical boat, and fought to keep our dignity and so far, we’ve done it without persecuting one another, bearing testimony to the fact that this hugely diverse but tiny country is among the most civilised in the world, and can show mighty old continents a thing or two about getting along together.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur