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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 21 May 00

The moon was full as we wound our way up to Laventille hill. We stopped several times for directions from clusters of round-faced youths and girls, chatting women, elderly men. “We’re looking for Rhonda Taylor - the mother of the boy who died from the drowning.” Instant acceptance: “You mean Carol.” They guided us up to her house on Picton Road.


The road turned into a narrow dirt track and we went bumping along higher up the hill and stopped short abruptly at the edge of a dead end that led to a ten-foot drop. It was quiet up there. Not a soul in sight. No house here. No song, or sob, mother or candle. No wake.


We got out of the car and our first instinct was to look up, and across at a sight that froze us with its beauty. Our gaze took in the panorama of thousands of city lights blinking like fireflies on the inky landscape of bush houses and trees, sloping down to the sea, now flowing with wavy lines of yellow moonlight and back up again, where the water met the bright navy sky. The trees rustled with a cool breeze, dappling the earth and walls, with their shapes and shadows cast by nightlights. It could have been the scene of a magical play or film except it wasn’t.


Badjohns and Guns


This was Laventille - best known by those who don’t know it at all, for badjohns and guns, viewed by the outsiders only through the harsh midday lenses of TV cameras, of angry shouting people, protesting over their ten day DEWD, URP, jobs, housing, roads or water.


When we looked down in the drop we spotted the small house and veranda where Jarelle Morris lived for the 13 years; where he babysat his two younger siblings; from where he would clamber up and down to school, to the grocery for milk for the baby, to the Picton reservoir for water to the next door neighbour or grandmother when his mother was working. And it was from around here that he and his little brother went with the neighbour’s son, Kevin Sylvester to the Picton Hill Reservoir. Who knows why? Because it was on the news and tugged at the boys’ curiosity, because it was hot, because they were bored, because boys will be boys?


The reservoir was invitingly open. No “danger” signs. No fence. Kevin jumps in to retrieve his jersey, or take a swim, and Jarelle, already small for his age jumps in unhesitatingly to help his friend and gets pulled under by his friend’s frantic drowning hands. Jarelle’s little brother runs all the way across the hill to his grandmothers for help. Too late. He never regained consciousness. Ten days later he died. The dirty water in the disused but still full reservoir had gotten everywhere - until finally it filled his heart.


We set off down the hill again looking for the wake. A woman holding the hands of a small girl child told us, “Rhonda by she mother”. The irony of it was hard to miss. This place with a badjohn reputation has a stunning view with blue-chip real estate value. Rhonda lives and lost her son in the cradle of a community where people walk fearlessly at night - women, girls, children, sweet-faced boys with no anger in their faces, are strolling, chatting, working, liming, haven’t stopped living outdoors after dark. And in the “posh” areas from St Claire to Glencoe, people have already barricaded themselves in, isolated themselves with burglarproof and alarms not just from passers by but one another.


We didn’t have to ask anymore. A winding street was lit on either side with hundreds of flambeaux fire flaming out of mauby, Carib, softdrink bottles. Laventille was mourning another son - the second in two weeks. We heard the drumming so close that it got mixed up with our heartbeats, and saw as we approached the house that it was a group of about 12 children - little palms beating drums for their friend - not quite understanding the enormity of what happened to him but like little men, paying tribute to him in the way they felt was right.


Rhonda greeted us, gaunt and glazed. She couldn’t eat, she said, because everytime she picked up a piece of bread she saw his face, couldn’t sleep because she and the baby and her son of five would curl up together.


Fragmented Families


Oh yes, the rules are different for the people of Laventille, all right. While her son was drowning she was working on a Sunday evening and people still mutter they should have known better. Rhonda who is too stunned to cry, who sounds confused saying one minute she couldn’t bear to go to the funeral, the next wondering how she was going to pay for it, the next wondering aloud whether she should just go see him in the funeral home, and then wondering if a boy on a slab in a freezer is her big son.


Rhonda wasn’t even given the courtesy of being told about his death first. She heard her Jarelle was dead on the radio when she had come home to rest, change and then go back to her vigil by her son’s bedside. No family with means would have put up with the indignity of running to the hospital to see their child being wheeled off to the mortuary.


We acknowledge openly that Laventille people can be aggressive, yes, they can be brutal, guns are stored here, men can go wild, but look at the brutish world they fight everyday in small and big ways. It is not quite said, but implied in the way things are always about Laventille, in that delicate but malicious stepping on egg shells way that there was carelessness on the part of the boys, on the part of the guardian.


To them I ask: how do you expect a community that has been subject to so much insidious contempt, neglect and stigma to have the resources to keep their sons safe and gainfully occupied? How can you help a people to help themselves without giving them the tools to do so? Why wasn’t the water of the reservoir drained if it was no longer in service? Why are some reservoirs around the area filled with faeces? Why are people using the reservoirs like a liming place, to play football and cricket? Where are the fences and the signs? Who baby-sits the babysitter’s children?


Single mother families rule here, fragmented families. But the women, more than anyone else in this country, understand that in the law of the jungle you have to survive first, think later. Children grow up fast here. They don’t have the luxury of being protected. But see the beauty in it. The integrity and courage of a small 12-year-old diving in to save a 16-year-old friend. They don’t pay lipservice to brotherhood here.


In this jungle, which you associate with brutality lives the sort of integrity you will never see in suburbia where cruelty is masked with the thick cosmetic cream of money and power. With the boy’s drowning we saw first hand that if you’re poor, without connections, how people with money and power have the power to shut you up and they do it all the time, everywhere. And then we wonder at the backlash. And cower from it.


As we wound down the hill I thought the human spirit triumphs even stronger here - not in fearful flickers - but orange and yellow flames rising high out of discarded bottles.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur