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Category: Reflections 01 Jan 12


This Christmas, when I broke the strap of my sandals on an elevator in the mall and went limping along to the cobblers where a dour woman said (between chewing her lunch) she didn’t know when it would be done, I remembered the old man in the Himalayas in Simla two Decembers ago when I felt snow seep through my old walking shoes. The cobbler, bent from his craft, I doubted he could stand up again. In five minutes while I took in the cold mountain air, my shoes were fixed. He said that they would last me for a few weeks but that I needed to replace the leather to get it fixed properly. I looked into his dark tent and terrible poverty. A ragged blanket, the dying embers of a shrunken charred pot. He asked me for ten rupees. I gave him ten times that. His eyes widened, then narrowed. He said firmly but not unkindly, “I don’t want anything I’ve not earned.”

I said, “But I want to give it to you. You did such a good job with my shoes.” His 15-year-old grandson stepped in. “No Ma’am. That’s our price. Baba will get upset if you insist.” I just stood there for an instant not sure whether I was more in awe of the Himalayas or the bent old man and his grandson speaking with the same voice. For years and years we have all been asking the same questions repeatedly. Because like you, like us all, I am fed up of the studies, the foreign experts, the talk shows, the criminologists, businessmen, the government ministers, asking over and over again, “Why?”

Why is our service so bad compared to a tiny country like Barbados? Why are our people so unreliable? Why is the crime so high? Why is the work ethic so poor? Why are our women having children for four different men? Why are our sons carrying guns at 12 and our girls having children at 15? Why haven’t we diversified? Why don’t we read more and wine less? Why, if we, tiny wealthy islands dripping with oil money are we even mistakenly compared to Beirut in terms of our brutality, our everyday murders?
Before I met the cobbler and his grandson I thought I had the answer for our dream. It was literacy. Literacy, I believed with evangelical fervour, would cure us, restore our humanity.

Thousands restored with literacy would emerge from the fog, complete their sentences, fulfil their potential, and create a work ethic. Our rule of law would bring swift justice on everything speeding to murder. Our renaissance would come with building codes, speed limits, environmental laws, recycling, business, industry, art, writing, theatre, agriculture, the return of our brightest professionals, a university funnelling ideas, into our society. I fantasised about using a whole column to repeat the plea sent to me by Paula Lucie Smith, a founder of the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (ALTA). In the new year, for just $500, sponsor a student to learn to read. Change a life with the ALTA (624-2582). I wanted to repeat this as many times as it would fit on this page. But no one is listening. And those who care, can’t read it. If I said yet again, “up to 400,000 of us can only read signs” no one would take notice.

The bile emerging from blogs screams out an impoverished spirit no less than Granny Quilla or the man who burned down a house and family over a fight over food, or the six murders over Christmas. Daily bloggers show they “care” about T&T by calling one another names. They shovel dirt around. They curse Manning and malign Kamla. They blame Colm and damn Panday. But they don’t say why. They are damn vex. What ideologies do these parties stand for? Are they socialist, conservative, liberal? Do they believe in liberalisation? Which one is protectionist, and which one pushing for private enterprise? Is one warring with the other over education, health, infrastructure, pubic debt? Where are the lines drawn?

The supporters of parties called one another “ass,” “dumb jerk,” “idiot” “bootlickers.” They accuse one another of being “ah PNM” and “ah UNC” and “ah COP” What distinguishes them one from one other? Nobody knows. I thought it was illiteracy that sunk us: The thousands of teens who emerge without math and English every year. But I was wrong. The brutish and illiterate among us are victims and symptomatic of something much more menacing.

This island with oil money pouring out of our ears, and the highest rate of murder in a non warring country—how did we get here? Is it the fault of the little boys, some young as 12 who leave school unable to read and walk straight into the arms of our gangs? Maybe. The fault of fathers who are not fathers but saga boys who drop their seed with their pants, never to be seen again? Maybe. Is it the fault of mothers so ignorant, so absent they encourage their teenage girls to have children with the big boys in the community? Maybe. Is it the fault of a “chutney/soca/carnival/wine/ jam mentality? Maybe. But everyone needs to dance. And can the problem be our brutal history of slavery, and indentureship which stripped our people of language history, displaced us geographically and left us culturally blank and broken? Maybe. But we have slowly built up a collective identity, a dialect with a perfect pitch. What then?

The dream is a country where we feel safe walking, and driving on our streets—where people and dogs are not similarly minced on the roads, and similarly dismissed as a regular casualty of living here. In real countries especially ones as tiny as ours, you don’t have six murders in one weekend, and more death by driving per capita than possibly any country in the region. In countries that aren’t Banana Republics you don’t have among the highest rate of preventable diseases, heart, high blood pressure-strokes, increasing obesity, its attendant diabetes, in the world. The dream isn’t happening.

But it can. It can happen, if, like Barbados we pump huge amounts into education and tourism, or like Cuba, into health, or like Canada, huge amounts into public radio and television to educate our people on health, or like the Bahamas became a financial capital of the region or like developed countries with sports and music academies where people learn the discipline of the game, the literacy of the music. It isn’t happening because there are many ways to be poor. You can be poor and kill a man for a pair of shoes. Or you can be poor like the old man and live with an ingrained integrity that gives colour to your soul, and dignity to your life.

The poverty of spirit has been for decades ever since we gained our independence. It has been the legacy of those at the top. It started with the most brilliant premier we have had, Dr Eric Williams who could have created a utopia but ruined it with his “Massa day done” and made a broken people dependent and devoid of enterprise. Then the faceless men and women (they know who they are) robbed our people of their rightful patrimony. It was the faceless men in suits who took over. In suits behind grand board rooms, closed doors, brokered deal, ruthlessly stripped our hills for “development,” overlooked building codes, shoved plans for roads, schools, hospitals, buses aside, security, law and order aside, and instead, in a thousand ways, with hubris, political patronage, ploughed their way through our treasury.


These men with the power to build a brand new world, stripped of their own humanity, have instead created a wasteland. When they see a poor person they see only someone who isn’t as they themselves are. When they hear the illiteracy ringing through the land in the form of struggling half swallowed words it barely registers. They have swaggered and razed their gasoline fire through the land, businessmen, politicians, “investors” and contractors. When a man is found dead on the street (speeding) they see it as an inconvenience. When they see stories of a generation of citizens succumbing to preventable diseases it’s a thing apart. They wrenched apart power from its soul mate, responsibility, leaving an entire nation mourning, angry, and impoverished in spirit. This year, I wish for our sweet T&T which I love dearly, a restoration of that spirit.

Happy New Year, T&T.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur