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Category: Trinidad Society 23 Jan 11

Dear Dr Tim Gopeesingh, Honourable Minister of Education: The playwright Bernard Shaw believed in “sugaring the pill”, making the bitter, palatable. So here is some sugar in the pill in the form of a circulating internet joke. “An Englishman dies and to his disappointment discovers that he has been sent to hell. To his astonishment, hell is divided up according to country and he can choose which one he wants to go to. He decides to avoid English hell so he won’t meet up with the likes of Harold Shipman. Convicted mass murderer. He passes by German hell and asks the custodian there what hell in Germany entails. The custodian says well...first we put you in the electric chair for an hour, then we put you to lie on a bed of nails and then the German devil comes along and whips you for the rest of the day!


He then passes by American hell and Russian hell only to discover that they are boring. At that point he notices a long line of people outside of Trini hell. He joins the line but bursting with curiosity he jumps the line and goes to the top and asks the custodian what is different about Trini hell that everyone wants to get in. The Custodian replies “Nuttin”—for one hour we put you in the electric chair and then the next hour you have to lie on the bed of nails and for the rest of the day the Trini devil comes and whips you.  HOWEVER, for some reason an hour could pass and whoever supposed to plug in the  electric chair forget to plug it in. That has happened to a few people. Then we ordered and paid for the nails for the bed but up to now they haven’t been delivered and whoever supposed to be sorting that out gone on vacation.


Not protesting

Then to top it off the Trini devil is a civil servant so when he is not protesting for an increase in wages he just comes to work, signs the register, say he has a quick errand to run and then we don’t see him for the rest of the day! This is our bitter pill which comes in the form of endless questions. Why, despite our oil money has Barbados shot up to “first world status” in every area while we remain embarrassingly underdeveloped? Why can a 17 year-old shoot a woman and child at point blank and feel nothing? Why do people in the service industry, in shops, restaurants, security services look uncomprehending when asked to serve? 


Why does everyone disregard everyone else’s time? Why does anybody’s word mean nothing? Why does almost everyone interviewed on the streets or for TV speak so badly, with such a limited vocabulary? Why are monuments built to honour only calypsonians, and streets and planes and boulevards named after sportsmen and beauty queens and never anyone remotely related to intellectual pursuits? Why do most school children look blank when you ask them about Derek Walcott, VS Naipaul, Sir Ellis Clarke, CLR James? Why do so few people read? Why do we put up with, and subsidise substandard amateurish noise masquerading as culture? Why is “please,” “thank you” and “sorry” seen as weakness? Why do we live in jail, behind bars and electric fences while murderers, rapists, bandits roam free? Why are 4,000 schoolchildren “missing in action?” Where are they? Why do girls get pregnant at 14 and15? Why are we the murder capital of the region? Why why why? It’s not the poverty. Paula Lucie Smith, the founder of the NGO, ALTA (Adult Literacy Tutors Association) told me last week. It’s the illiteracy. 


Raised the alarm

Last week, you personally raised the alarm. There are 4,000 students missing in action. Paula did the math supported by a UWI study. With 23 per cent of our population unable to read or write, (250,000 people) and 32 per cent only able to read the bare minimum (some 320,000 people) and thousands of schoolchildren emerging illiterate every year from our primary schools, some 570,000 of us have been silenced, and form the inchoate, inarticulate masses of dependent helplessness and rage we are used to seeing on the news every night, defending criminal sons, wanting a ten days, unable to reason, drowning in a blank tropical hell.


Paula needs financial and other support. The problem is too huge for a single NGO. You are the man who can do that for us. I hope you will, email or call Paula this week, ( ) who by daily interaction with thousands of adult literacy students over the years, holds many of the answers to the questions we all ask every day. Illiteracy from a failed school system has dehumanized half of our population. ALTA’s tutors humanize them again, sparking intelligence and possibility in human faces. If you rubbish this report, or even the fact that it was supported by a UWI survey, perhaps you will believe an independent international report (PERLS) which, out of 45 countries surveyed rates Trinidad and Tobago all the way down as number 39, way beneath Europe, North America, and side by side with troubled nations such as Iran.


So sir, tackle our sad, illiterate, angry, blank masses first, and you will see how everything else will fall into place. I close with a quote from a student from Paula Lucie Smiths’ classes providing the only comprehensive structured, literacy programmes in T&T held in 60 centres, run by volunteers throughout the country. “I thought there was no hope for me. I thought I would never learn how to read. There is no place for me in the heart of society. Then one day a friend introduced me to ALTA, and a whole new life again.” Paula’s website:


Honourable Minister, I know you are a man who gets things done, and fast. Trust me on this. Call Paula. Just give her five minutes. You, and we the people of this country have nothing to lose and everything to gain. 


Yours sincerely,



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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur