Christmas isn’t Christmas without
presents. Seventeen of my immediate family bought presents for everyone
else. My husband donned a Santa suit, went ‘ho ho ho’ and gave out
presents until the floor was covered in wrapping paper and things after
things, some of which would be cherished, some a disappointment shoved
in the back of a storeroom, some given away.
We would treat the children with extra
presents to fend off possible disappointment, but each year the bar was
raised. It was becoming a burden on the older people who had to lug bags
in the crush of Christmas shopping. Two years ago, I looked under our
Christmas tree. It was piled high and wide with presents. I felt a
little sick, then obscene. Gradually it dawned on me that my discomfort
was the culmination of years of being exposed to the raw innards of
Trinidad as a journalist.
I remembered the stories I covered and
the stories that never made the news. My mind swam around the years. I
thought of Shaka and Jamal, two boys from the orphanage who came home
with me one Christmas for the holidays. I think of their orphanage where
my husband dressed up as Santa. The children barely looked at the toys
provided by the Rotary Club.
Instead they crowded around us and the
other Rotarians, eager to be hugged, to be loved. The orphanage allowed
us to take two children home. Their father was in jail, their mother on
drugs. They nestled against me, four and six-year-olds, in bed and
hugged me tight, jostling with my toddlers to be close to me as I read
to them. They clung to my knees as I went off to work saying “Mummy,
don’t go.” I think of the sadness of taking Shaka to a mall one
afternoon and hearing him say he wants to “rob up” a woman driving a
fancy car. It may have been too late for him at six.
I couldn’t keep them. I don’t know where
they are now. I don’t know if they are now the nameless “criminals.” In
1993 there were the children who lived in the car park, whose names
weren’t even registered as citizens, who’d never been to school. I put
them in the safe hands of a Rotary Club who found them a home and
enrolled them in school. A few years later, there was the story I did in
the Beetham with the babies with distended stomachs from malnutrition,
and the mothers forced into prostitution.
There was the visit to Couva where
children had never seen a toothbrush, whose families were still reeling
from the closure of Caroni 1975 Ltd. The pay-off created alcoholics.
Girl children were unprotected from their own fathers. In 2009 there was
the social worker who led me through the 13 forgotten villages in the
north east of Trinidad. The air limp with nothingness and lethargy.
There are no proper schools or teachers
to rouse the children out of their stupor. Mothers are absent hustling a
work in Port-of-Spain. So the children watch porn with grown men, and
the teens, so bored with stunted minds, play with their own bodies, and
go into the forest to “do things” with donkeys.
Last year, there was the visit to Vitas
House hospice, a voluntary organisation that takes care of terminally
ill cancer patients. Dr Jacqueline Sabga, who runs the hospice, has been
begging the Ministry of Health for palliative care drugs to alleviate
I went this year to Laventille with the
founder of the Children’s Arc, Simone de la Bastide. I saw a preschool
built with Simone’s herculean fund-raising skills and compassionate
heart. I also witnessed groups of girls, some still in their teens, idly
They had multiple children from multiple
men and were still in their late teens and early 20s. Their teeth were
yellowed from cigarette smoke and broken by men. One pregnant girl had
penguin eyes from the latest licks she got from her boyfriend. They
barely answered me when I asked them if they could go back to school,
retrain, and get jobs. It was all too much already. Better to sidle
through life in a fog.
There were the young boys, in the same
area, pushing drugs, in and out of jail, familiar with bullets. They
don’t expect to live past 25. Recently in London, I spoke to an NHS
(National Health Service) social worker. She told me that as part of
their postnatal care visit at every home, they look out for young
mothers as they do for babies. They involve fathers. The result is that
teenaged mothers without direction often decide to become nurses or
social workers themselves. They follow the first positive person in
their life. They will bring up their children responsibly. A bad cycle
will be broken.
I think now of all
the hampers being handed out for Christmas, the millions to the churches
and beg, please, this year, for Christmas, pay our teachers properly,
train social workers, break the cycle of poverty and crime. Toys will
lie broken in a drain, and if the parents of a child are in prison or in
drugs or bullet riddled there is no one to take them to church.
Christmas isn’t Christmas without hope.