much angst" is one comment I've overheard about this column, begun
some ten years ago, and which made its recent shift from the Guardian to
it true?" I obsessed, going over my work that I have privately
thought of as my weekly Trinidad diary?
was there so much material slitting, dissecting this tiny society of 1.2
million people? Why go on about illiteracy, poverty, HIV/Aids,
self-serving politicians? I admit it. It's tiresome even to me.
pieces on the landscape, on Carnival, on the vexing question of how men
and women relate, do offer some relief. But couldn't my work be pure
entertainment? Billion-dollar industries--film, music, dance-have been
fashioned out of the human impulse towards a spectacle, towards escape
from squalour, boredom.
all this is an absorbing place. There is material here. Perhaps there is
something in that myth of the foreigner who, having been fed this fish
(the cascadura) by his local lover, is compelled by its magic to return to
these islands. The pattern in people who come here on short business trips
from Europe, Asia, America, Africa, India, wherever, is similar.
ex-pats from the West, here on plush one- two-or three-year contracts,
begin by shuddering with distaste at the lack of bookshops, the barren
intellectual life, the ignorance of wines, classical theatre, art,
literature, language. They moan at the sameness of the landscape, at the
smallness, insularity of the islands, the globally disconnected people
(always the circuit of Carnival, Christmas, Cricket, a whirlpool of
the months go by there are subtle changes. They feel the freedom of
rubbing mud and paint in someone's face at dawn. Their eyes adapt to the
endless green and begin seeing varied shades and textures in plants and
trees. When they hike through rainforests brilliantly coloured butterflies
brush past them, they pick their way across paths strewn with mangoes,
guavas, splitting with ripeness. They notice subtleties, poui at Easter,
dry dust at Carnival, dark, breezy evenings in December.
come to expect spectacles appearing like mirages from a distant past.
may come across a crush of animated people in East Indian kurtas throwing
coloured water on one another. Or glimpse a circle of Baptists dressed in
starched white petticoats knee deep in water. Or watch the rhythmic
movement of a band of men and women with ruddy Spanish complexions and
Amerindian eyes, perhaps playing instruments, singing parang.
rush across the road, long grasses sway in the city, people still parade
around the Savannah.
is an assault on the senses. Where to look first? How to make sense of it?
How did this Creole-sounding word, mamaguy-flatter-get here? How did that
Bhojpuri word dulhar -get here?
has the power? The red, the black, the brown? Who is who? In the process
of puzzling over the hodge-podge of this country they find they can't stay
go home. It's predictable there; too stable, perhaps. They come back.
long to stay. Many do. They leave again, wanting "a bigger
life". They return. For good. If they can't stay, they leave
heartbroken. It's the most unusual love story.
they were trying to figure out the pieces of the puzzle, these islands
wrap themselves around them.
for Trinis living abroad no number of prestige jobs, schools or homes, no
Eiffel Tower, or St Paul's Cathedral or 20-lane highway can make up for
home. Yes, this is a compelling country all right.
in the hundreds of columns I have written there was angst. Blame a kind of
youthful idealism in the earlier pieces. When you are convinced that you
can change the world.
years later, you know better. Maybe you can make a dent here and there.
The lines blur; black and white zigzags into grey. There are fewer
absolutes. You don't leap up to respond to every real or perceived slight.
don't demonise a man for making a sexist remark. Races will be separate at
some level. Capitalism has grown, the horns of globalisation are
stretching the rich and poor further apart, but that system is preferable
people will always remain poor, ignorant, and left out. But I fret because
the essentials remain the same. The rosy smoke of the spectacle never
obfuscates reality for those of us who have made it our vocation to
observe, dissect and be the watchdogs for the voiceless. That's my defence
saddest change is that in the earlier years I believed these islands had
possibilities - the human, natural, cultural resources to achieve the kind
of prosperity and peace we find enviable in some countries in the West.
were spurred on to write, to point out injustices, because we were, with
our oil money, with Caricom, with our proximity to trading blocs, with our
education, going somewhere. Despite the fact that we were (and are) a
toddler society we had tremendous potential.
would get there as soon as our politicians got over the novelty of playing
with treasury money, (spending it, stealing it, squandering it) like it
was Monopoly, as soon as we recognised we are a tiny country of (let's
face it) displaced people (for whom there is no going back), as soon as we
recognised that we needed to be less dependent on oil.
that didn't happen. Instead, we began to hack ourselves to bits, from our
bowels out. We began by making the fatal mistake of neglecting education,
with a system where teachers are minimally educated and paid, and schools
the result that over 600,000 people can only read headlines and signs, and
300,000 people can't read at all. Now take illiterate young people (and
our schools are churning out thousands more each year) and make them
jobless. Now take some 400,000 people and make them so poor they live
below the poverty line.
to this bilious brew "make-work" programmes where these
unemployed, barely literate people are shoved into a corrupt system of
patronage, not for a year or two, mind you, but tragically for
generations, passing down the tradition of standing around with a cutlass
in their hands staring at the hot sun, waiting for the day to be done.
in more poison with our dread health institutions. Where the HIV/Aids
epidemic lets rip, and a government too coy to begin a much-needed massive
nationwide awareness campaign against the scourge, which will eventually
kill many of our most productive people.
in a political system that no longer works, the menace of crime and
kidnapping (which is linked to the illiteracy, poverty and the fact that
crime has developed into a high tech business). Make us a major drugs
transshipment point, a country manned by a corrupt and lethargic police
service and voila, "possibility" changes to
is angst and there is despair. And that's what you see now. Vision 2020 is
a burlesque masquerade in the face of all this. As the years amble on,
instead of "possibility", of being a vibrant secure country, we
sadly say, "well at least we are not like Jamaica (we're getting
there) or like Guyana (going there too) or like Haiti (give it time, with
the brain drain)."
another ten years I expect I will be saying "at least there is no
famine here, like Zimbabwe." Progress to "at least there is more
democracy here than Pakistan. At least there is no genocide, like Rwanda.
At least there are no terrorists attacks, like America." Until the
oil dries up in 60 or 70 years from now and there really is no hope when
we'll say "at least we were once a country of possibility- back in
the days when the cascadura still worked its magic and reality wasn't
swallowed by the spectacle."