I was the only “coloured” (yes that term
is still awkwardly used in the UK. What does it mean? Aren’t we all
colours of human?) person in the workshop of 12 writers in a creative
writing course. It was our first class. As an icebreaker, or perhaps as
some form of interesting psychological exercise, we each had to write
the following things down on a piece of paper: “My name is…I live in…I
was born in…When I was 15 years old something momentous happened to me.”
We had to pass that sheet on to the
person next to us, who would fill it out from our perspective based on
their first impressions of us. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at
my classmate’s first impression of me, based on the fact that I wrote
that I live in Trinidad.
She wrote something like this: “When I
was 15 years old, something momentous happened to me. I fell in love.
Every morning, the boy I had a crush on passed by my mother’s vegetable
stall pushing the cart carrying the coconuts he plucked off trees
(plucked!). One day he invited me to his mother’s wooden house on the
beach and he made me a fruit juice with pineapple.”
The person writing this wasn’t stupid.
She was a Cambridge graduate. She was well travelled. She once went to
Jamaica. So you get my drift. This is still the view of the Caribbean.
One-dimensional; limited. I found myself then in the rare position of
defending Trinidad. I explained to the class that we were an urbane,
well-travelled, sophisticated people. I started to say that we had a
high literacy level and instead said we were very talented (I can’t lie
about the 400,000 functionally illiterate).
I started saying we were a very well-run
country but remembered that we are among the most murderous countries in
the world, and said instead that we are tolerant.
I said we had good healthcare but left
out the fact that we are among the fattest countries in the world, with
among the highest rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease in
One thing we are not is uninteresting. I
mean, just listen to that parang song, I want a piece of pork for my
Christmas. It immediately infuses anticipation, makes us think of cool
nights that require cosy pajamas, the blanket of quick sunsets over
Christmas lights, of merry-making, of pastelles and red dresses.
Take Chinee Parang, such racist lyrics
would raise hell anywhere. Not Trinidad, because it is sung and taken in
the jolly spirit of a large-hearted, tolerant population.
There is always something interesting
happening on our little island—a man starving for a record number of
days saying it’s for a highway, and, even while dying, too scared to say
its for transparency (who gets the most dollars from the highway and
There is a heritage church that may have
been saved at the 11th hour from property developers; there is yet
another brutal murder and kidnapping of a family.
I knew even while I did my halting
defence of sweet T&T, to the class that kept mixing up Trinidad with
Jamaica, that we are special. But I also know in some ways we deserve
scant respect from the world.
Standing in a line in a heaving
Starbucks, which was moving like magic in London, watching the lightning
movements of the attendants, I thought, this could never happen in
Why, despite all our charm, can we not
become an exceptional state? I remembered yet again the seven deadly
sins of our culture named by the late Senator Angela Cropper at a
lecture in UWI in 2007:
Sin One: Materialism. “This is leading
us to being disconnected from our physical place and from one another.”
Sin Two: Individualism. “Each person for
herself; ‘me’ at the expense of the ‘other,’ breakdown of the authority
and stability of family, school, community; and scant regard for the
value of those relationships for creating and sustaining the social
Sin Three: Civic complacency. “We do
have that capacity to rise up as a body politic and let our voice be
heard, and to rescue ourselves from our five-yearly caricature of
democracy, but we don’t bestir ourselves to do so.”
Sin Four: Violence. “Violence has been a
long-standing aspect of political, family and gender relations in the
Caribbean but it is now becoming the routine means for dealing with even
Sin Five: Corruption. “We take pride in
finding loopholes or getting around regulations, or evading the law. The
long-standing perception of the ‘Trickidadian’ by our Caribbean
compatriots is not without some basis. ‘No damn dog bark,’ ‘All ah we
tief,’ ‘Politics has its own morality.’ These statements have become
Sin Six: Half-a--edness. “And then there
is the Caribbean tendency to do only as little as would get us by; to go
for cosmetic rather than fundamental change.”
Sin Seven: Nihilism. “The above facets
accumulate towards an absence of feelings, of value for non-material
aspects of life and relationships; a disregard for moral principles; and
absence of soul.”
We haven’t forgotten
you, Angela. We will take back our soul, T&T. We will be more than a
cliché of lost islands.