Lessons from my grandmother

My mother hard at work
Work my mother for ya children
My mother hard at work
Work my mother for ya children
My daddy he’s down
Way over, far over
Working out the cultivation
Come in with food Daddy

Come in daddy come

Come with food come

And if we should live up in the hills

Man in the Hills, Burning Spear


She used to press three grains of corn into my little hand.  I can still feel the contours like permanent imprints on my palms, that unlike my grandmother’s do not grow weary and calloused from washing other people’s clothes but from spending too many hours trying to fashion thoughts into words.
And I would take the three grains and put them carefully, reverentially into a little hole my grandmother dug with a brown-handled rusty spade. Her instructions were sparse.  She expected you to know what to do. My grandmother who had wrestled poverty and a society that chose not to see her all her life had no patience with not knowing.
My grandmother who was poto l’eglise  and hardcore PNM too besides, studiously ignored the advice of the messiah of the time Eric Williams who I hear, advised that massa day was done and that people should put down their hoes and shovels.
My grandmother who weaved magic food spells out of little.  Who no matter where she lived, always planted something.
My grandmother was no economist or environmentalist.  She was a barely literate, little piece of a woman who spoke kwéyol with my mother’s friends from Guadeloupe and St. Lucia with an effortless eloquence.
My grandmother knew the value of being able to feed yourself.
Long before Vandana Shiva described what it is to be an ecofeminist, my grandmother demanded from the women in her family a certain level of dignity, a certain amount of determination, a certain straightness of the back and independence of spirit.
My mother studied books. Plenty books to not end up washing clothes like her mother.   Books to a fault.  My mother learned from her mother the art of taking nothing and creating a feast.
I stood in the yard when I was small between two these two super women.  Watching corn grow and sorrel and peas.  My mother with her photographic memory slit Mr. Cock’s neck and dumped him in a boiling pot of water.  My grandmother expected nothing less.  She raised no wilting flowers.
My grandmother who was poto l’eglise gave us bush baths with plants of which I can only remember the smells. Strong smells, to frighten away negative forces. She never explained why and we never asked.
My grandmother who never made it past fourth standard knew the difference between tulsi and wonder of the world.  Which bush was good for what.
I stand in my own yard now.  Watching hard little green tomatoes grown deep green into red. I pick a little bit of fever grass for tea.  I think my grandmother would be unimpressed.  My life is easy, obscenely easy. Neither chick nor child and I can’t find time to plant more. I, who should know better.  I fear I am a disappointment to her years of struggle.
I think about what she would make of that new KFC ad. The one with the mother whose child is inconsolable until she reaches for a piece of fried chicken.  I think about what she would make of bad behaved ministers and prime ministers who refer to themselves in the third person.
My grandmother would have steupsed at their folly. She would have said they must be suffering from I never thought.  She would have set her mouth in that resolute Santa Cruz way and said common sense ent too common.
My grandmother might have sworn in kwéyol even as she fingered the beads of her rosary.  Because women like her knew the value of work, hard work, back breaking work so that the next generation doesn’t have to suffer the same indignities.  But women like her  also knew the value of taking in front.
Of being able to heal yourself, and the value of every top being able to spin on their own bottom.  She, who loved to play with words might have said that neither super farm nor Super Pharm is the answer.
If you can’t feed yourself how you expect to live?
I want to remember what my grandmother taught me, but the noise of economists and politicians and advertisers gets in the way.  As if hard times never existed in Trinidad. As if people weren’t deliberately discouraged from self-sufficiency to feed our greedy food import bill.
We used to stand in the yard, my grandmother and my sisters and my mother and watch what we had planted.  Watch it grow and reap the fruits of our collective labour. And it was good.
My grandmother taught me there are many ways a woman can be fertile and fruitful.

Running out of words

At the end of daybreak, this town sprawled-flat, toppled from
its common sense, inert, winded under its geometric weight of
an eternally renewed cross, indocile to its fate, mute, vexed
no matter what, incapable of growing with the juice of this
earth, self-conscious, clipped, reduced, in breach of fauna
and flora.
Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, Aimé Cesaire

When you run out of words do you scream silently in a corner, like a woman waiting for the next bout of licks from a man she once loved?
When the hope that used to make your skin tingle dries up do you wonder where it went or resolve to go on without it?
When you run out of words do you keep writing anyway, because if you don’t write you die?
Even if there are voices all around you that say that your voice is not valid. Your words unmoving. Your reason non-existent.
Do you still keep talking anyway, in the hope that one day it might make sense somewhere, somehow.
Do you wish you could cut yourself so that people can see that you bleed. Do you ignore their anger or let it seep into your veins and make you wallow in their doubts that are not yours.
When the mask you didn’t know you wore begins to slip, do you keep on anyway, not wanting to stop, in case your heart did too.
Running out of words and running out of time. Running into walls that you yourself have erected to protect you from real and imagined terrors.
When you run out of words do you respect the silence or do you tear at it in a rage, spewing nothing but a pained and garbled noise.
When you can’t think of what to say to make it better. Or make it different. Or just to make it seem like there is something there other than a big hole.
When you run out of words do you lose your patience like a mother who is tired of repeating the same instructions to her children? Do you lash out until they understand? Don’t stop beating until you feel like you anger is sated.
Do you stab and stab and stab away at the flesh of your loved one, when you run out of words.
Watch the word count. Rising and falling and then stagnating at four hundred. Four hundred words that are supposed to represent the whole of who you are. Keep going. Get distracted. Wonder where the words have gone. Wonder if you’ve run out of things to say. Witty things and bitter things and funny things and hopeless things. There is nothing more to say now. You run out of words to fall on deaf ears or ears that turn off their hearings aids when you try to speak.
You have no words to express your disappointment at your failure. You have no words to say how shocked you are that no matter what you say, this is the way things are. This is a done deal. This is our history and we must re-live it forever. This is what women need to keep them in line. This is not the time or place for us to stop and think and find our own way.
You have no words to mutter to yourself, no prayers or mantras that make it better.
You are out of words and it is time to pack up your tongue, put away your brain, succumb to the emptiness and the silence. To accept the noisy empty vessels. To know that the Red House is somewhere that jackasses bray because they must. And the rest just wait for cues. To point and laugh. Or hold their heads and bawl. Never to find their words.
Never to articulate their frustration.
When you run out words you have two choices.
Be like everyone else and become terrified of the sound of your voice.
Or resolve to change your language altogether.

Bus head in de Gayelle

Silly me

I made an attempt at responding to a comment made over at Mediawatch, an interesting initiative from anonymous media observers commenting on the state of the media in Trinidad. Well, who tell me do dat! It’s turned into:

“It is often said that you know someone by their writings, but sometimes some writers manage to give their readers the perception they want them to have of them. That proved true in Attillah’s biting response to what I am sure would be a concern to many.”

and
“Is attilah’s mask falling off? I used to read her columns. Won’t be anymore. Her interview style is not great to say the least. I watch gayelle all the time. Their programming is great for the most part. Her show is the weak link.
CLJ”

This is by far, some of the best hate mail I’ve received in a while! I wait with baited breath to see how long they’ll be sending in their comments…Still I wish we could get on with the business of discussing the direction of media in the country instead of focusing on who has a right to be on tv. But as I said in my last email to the media watch people, this is the way we do things here and i guess we like it so…

here’s the part of the conversation that wasn’t published, for unknown reasons by Media Watch.  But then again the person who writes the blog has chosen an interesting nom de plume – Martine Dennis – and i am at pains to believe that a well known BBC World anchor of Sudanese ancestry gives two shakes of a rat’s arse about the state of Trinidad’s media:

Hi Martine
I don’t have a problem with you using my comments, but I’m concerned about the editing bit! I will probably also post this conversation to my own blog. this is giving me a chance to clarify my thoughts on things, so thanks! (sorry, this is long because I’m a writer…)
I don’t think that we should confuse technical problems with content issues. even the so-called great stations have problems. every night there is some kind of problem with the teleprompter on CNC3, the CG screen they use for the Jaye Q show is constantly blinking in and out. just imagine what it would be like if they too were attempting to do all day programming!
we have always had a lowest common denominator approach to broadcasting in t&t and unfortunately this becomes even more painfully obvious when you try to run all day programming.
i have limited knowledge of the tech stuff so I want to address some of the concerns you have about content.
Firstly, I get very nervous when people start talking about ‘vernacular’, because linguists will tell you that what we speak is a Trinidad English or Tobago English. Let’s remember that standard English is itself a dialect of the Old English language developed by the Anglo Saxons and that less than 20 per cent of the population of the British isles speaks standard English – the Welsh and the Scots and the Irish speak varieties of English that up to a couple years ago you would not have heard on mainstream BBC news…
Oh and BBC in Britain is a public broadcaster with no commercial commitments to distract from the main mission, which is to ‘inform, educate and entertain’. Its internal broadcasting is funded by a levy paid by everyone who owns a television. This has been in place since 1949. the BBC now has a budget of a few billion pounds and a staff of thousands. Paying for a TV licence means that everyone who has a TV has an investment in what is being presented to them. It also means I believe, that the BBC has been able to develop a very distinct sense of English television and radio (but this was also aided by long established literary and thespian traditions) – which is why British humour and audio-visual representations are so radically different to what you get on American television. basic things like the soap operas which are popular there are soap operas like East Enders, coronation street, that tell the stories of regular working and middle class people as opposed to the more fantasy based lifestyles of the rich and famous type soaps that have characterised American television. But I digress…
TE is a structurally distinct creole that happens to use a Standard English lexicon, but is syntactically a callaloo of French, Asian and West African languages that reflect the diverse ingredients that went into its creation. why should we deny this? standard English is the language of power in Trinidad, and as such you will not hear Trinidad English being used in the news, for example. I do not agree with your analysis that all of the programming of Gayelle is in ‘vernacular’…Magella on a morning I know speaks SE and does not show her belly at all!! Marcia uses SE sans ‘green verbs’ (unlike many in the news -print and electronic-who wouldn’t know how to get a subject and verb to agree if their lives depended on it and this is because of a problem known as hyper correction because they were never taught English as a language distinct to the one they spoke but were still told that the way they spoke was ‘bad’), as does Reagan on Dreevay, as does Paolo on Skews – which is undoubtedly one of the most important shows we have ever had on television in Trinidad. The only shows that have a majority of TE are Snacks, Rosie, Sunset Strip. Macajuel Time has been on re-runs since the unfortunate passing of Jason Daly who also delivered his show mostly in SE with the occasional use, like myself and many other Trinbagonians, Trinidad English for emphasis because this is our natural first language of communication. I dare to argue that if television is a means of communication then it needs to be done in a language that can be understood by the audience. there are great examples of this in haiti with radio stations using kréyol as opposed to the language of power French to communicate things to their listening audience that they simply would not have absorbed or identified with had it been delivered in French.
on the question of niches…different people watch TV at different times of the day. i think you are making an incorrect assumption that only people over 40 are interested in local programming. dreevay is geared towards a younger audience, as is new voices, whereas Marcia’s style of delivery would appeal to a 35 and over crowd and Verna St. Rose is another audience again.
i believe that gayelle’s niche is a trinbagonian who is bored of being fed American bullshit. as far as I know Gayelle is a community television station -your street as your community, your town as your community, your country as your community, the region as your community, the human race – ever expanding circles. This ethos is based on a grassroots media model (a la indymedia or adbusters) a politics that is people centred and driven – this is my understanding based on my own politics and based on the work I have been doing going into communities with New Voices. It is a politics of inclusion, in an industry where everyone else practices a politics of exclusion (for example i have friends who have been threatened with dismissal from TV6 for having natural hair).
Unfortunately this society is mired in several things including an obscene classism, and an obsession with seeming modern while abandoning everything that makes us unique. I personally don’t want to watch every show and see an imitation Katie Couric, or Jon Stewart or Jerry Springer. But I also don’t want to become an exoticized ‘empress’ skinning my teeth and performing for the camera. Gayelle has had four years with very limited resources, contending in a market that does not see the value of having local programming all day every day. I don’t think the mission needs to be refined at all, but definitely the execution needs a lot of work. And money!! It is also a question as I think George Lamming has said of decolonizing our palates. This applies as much to our food choices as our taste in televsion. And I also feel impatient, but I’m trying hard every day to do something about it. Too many people are gunning for it to fail. I am trying to fight the good fight and prove that we can in fact value ourselves and invest in ourselves to see ourselves inside our own TV.
best

Attillah

Smelter Coming

Why don’t you weep
When I hurt you
Why don’t you weep
When I cut you
You don’t bleed
And the anger builds up inside
Brazen (Weep), Skunk Anansie
Equipment for smelter coming, Papa Patos says.   Whether you like it or not, it’s coming.
Plenty ports on the south western peninsula to take away the drugs.  Build plenty pretty schools that look like holding centres for refugees.  No windows, no wide open spaces for children to see the sea outside.  Teach your children to be prisoners in buildings, that work is for indoors and nowhere else.  Take them away from any connection to outside.
Never mind in some countries you can’t build schools without natural light.   No windows, just walls, pretty walls.  No way to drink in the fact that they live on an island.  To notice, as Nobel Laureate John Agard has pointed out, that their peninsula is shrinking.
Electric lights blind douens but we lose our children in concrete jungles everyday.
Equipment for smelter coming and plenty ports and industrial estates on a shrinking peninsula.  To keep out the drugs but not the sea from reclaiming what is hers.
To keep out the drugs but not the sense of not owning this land that the sea will reclaim, one day, congotay.
Plenty in store for the south western peninsula to keep out the drugs.  Switch one white powder for another.  That is the way, indeed.
Put smelter in your pipe and smoke it, pipe that carbon dioxide deep deep down into your lungs.  It’s good for you.  Because you can eat the food your devaluing dollar will get you.  Dig the green plants out of the earth, replace them with concrete ones.  They will  bear strange and bitter fruit, but we will get used to the taste.
And when you get sick, at least you’ll be able to afford like the ministers and the opposition members, to go away and get good treatment.
Smelter equipment coming and communities want to be happy that at least now young men might not be so listless.  If they get a trade and a good work they might turn their lives around, start to mind their children, stop smoking and liming and going down the main to buy guns and drugs to feed the habits of nice rich kids in town.
Because it’s no scene that BP is laying off twenty per cent of staff.  No cause for alarm that we are building and building and burning gas and money.
Because if push come to shove we can always eat all the concrete.
Equipment for smelter coming, even as a fireworks company never thought that exploding fireworks indoors was a health and safety disaster waiting to happen.
Equipment for smelter coming, along with plenty desalination plants.  Because it’s much better to use energy to purify water than it is to just leave the trees on the Northern Range to grow and therefore protect our groundwater resources.
Everything makes sense in this nonsense town.
No more gas subsidy but equipment for smelter coming.  Super farms but Caroni is dead. Trucks being looted for food, but people will eat smelter.  Trucks being looted for food – this is normal.  Because all poor people are thieves, except when you need them to put you in power.
As normal as a priest casting out a man like a malevolent spirit.  As normal as stepping over human filth in the city streets.
As normal as using a laptop in parliament.
As normal as racial slurs on the radio and everybody vying for the enviable title of being the most oppressed group in the nation.
Equipment for smelter coming.  Deals done in my name that I do not approve.  Deals done in my name that I do not want.
We shall overcome.   Remixed for the time.  Equipment for smelter coming.  We shall be overcome.

Cocoa in the Rain

Them belly full but we hungry.
A hungry mob is a angry mob.
A rain a fall but the dirt it tuff
A pot a cook but the food nuh nuff.

Forget your troubles and dance.
Forget your sorrow and dance.
Forget your sickness and dance.
Forget your weakness and dance.

Cost of living get so high,
Rich and poor, they start a cry.
Now the weak must get strong.
They say, “Oh, what a tribulation.”

Them Belly Full, Robert Nesta Marley

I couldn’t even bring myself to take a picture of her.  An old woman digging in a dustbin.  It’s not like it’s something I haven’t seen before.  It’s not such an uncommon sight in Trinidad. Sweet T&T where people are robbing food trucks now.  A part of me wants to go back to the days when people were robbing jewels and sneakers and completely inconsequential things that only pointed to how manic this society makes you if you don’t look like you belong.
My Trini class consciousness and obsession with not looking poor tells me this is a terrible thing, digging in dustbins.  But is it a shame for those digging in the bins or to the people who have thrown away food that they could have shared with others?
I myself in other places and times have feasted with activist friends on the spoils of what they call ‘skip diving’ that is, looking in the rubbish bins, particularly those outside supermarkets and bakeries where they throw out perfectly good food.  Fruit and vegetables and bread and cheese. And some proprietors are kind enough to separate the good stuff from the bad stuff so skip divers don’t have to deal with rodents and other nasties.  We baulk at those who make a brisk trade in the La Basse because everything is rubbish and filth is not something that us nice clean people want to think about it, although it is well known that it’s the people with more who have more to waste.
But I suppose the fact that a whole section of our society lives on what we throw away is a good indication that we are achieving that most desirable developed nation status.
She was digging in a garbage receptacle under the street sign saying La Fantaisie in St. Ann’s. Down the at the end of La Fantaisie I can just make out the Trinidad and Tobago coat of arms gleaming blood red on the gates of the palace.
It occurs to me that it’s ten kinds of ironic that this woman could possibly be digging through what Papa Patos has thrown away. I wondered why she chose this particular garbage bin. Maybe she thought Papa Patos’ waste would yield some higher quality food than what was on offer downtown.
I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture of her. I couldn’t reach into my bag and pull out my extra set of eyes, a bourgeois indulgence that I am at pains to live without.  It would have been too much.  She looked up at me for a minute, she was bent over double, arms immersed in the garbage, that didn’t have that hot, stink smell that usually accompanies garbage sites.
Still Papa Patos says we shall overcome.  My grandmother in all her barely literate wisdom used to warn, when you have cocoa in the sun you must look for rain.  I never had to look for rain because my great grandfather sold much of his Santa Cruz land to old man Stollmeyer for less than a fraction of what it is probably worth now.  So I, like so many others who call ourselves Trini own no piece of land from which to chase fruit thieves.  I know no days of wandering in bush that is mine, of watching the sky and knowing how to tell the rain is coming simply from the smell of the wind.
I remember my grandmother when I see this woman digging in the dustbin under a sign saying La Fantaisie.  And I hear Papa Patos getting all hot and sweaty about increasing domestic food production after years of destroying agricultural land to build highways and houses.   Now that the rain has come down, he is making a mad dash to save the cocoa.
Now that people are robbing flour trucks and soon you’ll only be able to eat a doubles in one of those designer restaurants he’s talking about overcoming when we should never have reached here in the first place.
The man in the palace in La Fantaisie says this too shall pass. This waste and this want and this nothingness in the midst of so much abundance.   This guava season when we have cut down all the guava trees.

Why Wednesday

Why in 2008 are there still so many power outages in Trinidad?

Why do I have to work in an office that is 16 degrees Celsius?

Why can’t I find someone to go  to dinner with every now and then?

Why can’t I find my favourite black shirt?

Why can’t I keep a pair of socks together for more than a month?

Why is Basdeo Panday such an arsehole and why do we continue to tolerate him?

Why did my iPod die?

Why does the death of my iPod make me so sad?

Why is it that every time I clean up the kitchen, dirty dishes appear in the sink ten seconds later?