When you enter the final dungeon in Elmina Castle the stench is unbearable, as is the noise of millions of ancestors who died in agony or made their final journey out of Africa there. I felt like my head would explode so Eintou gave me guinea pepper and white rum to stabilize my Ori. The doorways are so very narrow, the final insult for those who survive the horrendous conditions to make the crossing is that you have to bend, practically crawl into the last dungeon. Even me with my less than fat self, had to hunch my shoulders in and turn a little sideways to get through the Door of No Return. The sea roared. Yemoja wailing across centuries. Through my tears I notice how much Elmina looks like Manzanilla.
Peter yuh doh know
The pressure I undergo
From these mad man and woman
Ah feel the full weight of dey hand
They make they oppress law
They never care about the poor
Peter these people had they day
Well now is time for Stalin to play.
—Bun Dem, Black Stalin
I am a little girl again standing at a bus stop in England waiting to go to school. Studying the display of Sindy dolls in the Woolworth’s window. And then dry so, without warning, like cobo falling dead out of the sky, an old woman walks up and punches me in the face. No warning. No shouted threats. Just an old mad white woman coming up to me at a bus stop and punching me in the face.
I have no frame of reference for such violence. My tears are not from pain but from shock and confusion at what I could possibly have done for an old woman to come up and punch me in the face. My sisters are beside themselves and when I get to school with a bloody nose my classmates form a protective shield around me and share their fish fingers at lunch time. Even the hateful Claire Sommers doesn’t call me chocolate factory worker that day.
By the time I get home my mother is pacing like a caged lioness. Somebody is going to die. My nose isn’t bleeding and there is only a little split on my lip, but she inspects me like I’ve been at war. A police officer is at the door soon. She talks for a while, trying to calm my mother who is in angry hysterics.
She explains that this is what happens when you cut back on welfare. Old mad women are turned out of homes. Old mad women who have probably seen two black people in their lives, get nervous and disoriented and violent. This is what happens when you have iron breasts that don’t know what is nurturing. She said there is no such thing as society and society died. But people didn’t die and some of them roamed the streets like zombies lashing out at anybody who happened to be too close.
My nose healed up—she didn’t hit me hard enough to cause permanent damage—and after a while I wasn’t terrified to death of standing at the bus stop. But it hadn’t occurred to me how much that moment still affected me until I was walking in a stush part of London one night last summer and clutched my bag cowering as an old white woman walked swiftly up behind me.
She looked at me with such absolute confusion, as if she couldn’t imagine what I, an almost six foot, wild-haired black woman could possibly have to fear. Thatcher’s England still echoes now. In the policies of this new Con Dem government, in the naked neo-liberalism and war-mongering of Tony the Phony. In the bulldozed housing estates and the bedroom tax. In the bounding and unbridled and unregulated behaviour of banks and the expectation that taxpayers will bail them out.
There’s no love lost between me and Mistress Margaret. She of iron will and unwavering principles. Breasts of iron do not belong to women who are interested in building a future for their children. She is no role model to me and I’d rather not have female leaders if that is what they do.
Still, I can’t bring myself to go to a party to celebrate her death. I am relieved that I know better and I am not from a place that makes old people invisible and because of her terrible example of what it is to be human, I appreciate the people around me who are more in touch with their humanity.
Thatcherisms ripple across the globe. Thatcherisms multiply like mosquitoes in a foetid pond of global capitalism. And the London Stock Exchange and the business district are what my activist friend from India calls a Paradise for Parasites built on a solid foundation of slavery money. I think of her dying in the comfort of the Ritz hotel. I wonder what happened to that lonely, frightened old woman who punched me in the face. If she died alone and cold.
I can’t vex with the cobo for falling out of the sky on the day that Margaret Thatcher died. As if the cobo themselves could not bear the possibility of picking the flesh from those iron bones. I don’t believe in Hell but if I did Mistress Margaret would be in it, spending a million lifetimes to account for all her sins. And maybe then she might weep real tears and rust a hole through her iron breasts and maybe then her heart might hurt for all the pain she caused.
First published in the Trinidad Guardian April 13, 2013
Gone are them days
When we loved each other
Gone are them times
When we were together
No more smiling face
No more warm embrace
In my home I’m like a stranger.
—Gone are the Days, Lord Shorty
The silence in this part of town is dreadful at this hour. It is about 8 pm on Emancipation Day and at the bottom of George Street only haunted souls seek refuge in the shadow of buildings that look as broken as they do. The mother in her wisdom decides that my nephews, who have had a spectacular day filled with dancing, drumming for Aunty Kamla and generally just being their fabulous selves, need a first dose of another kind of reality. So we are going downtown to distribute food. I remember my days of doing this too. When the mother would make us pack baskets of food and take for children in the various homes around the country, especially during the holidays. We would sing and perform for children who had no mothers. Or absent ones. And mostly I remember something like jealousy for all the children who would be clamouring just for her hugs. The lesson I imagine we were supposed to learn is that we should never take for granted the blessings that we had. Even though we didn’t always get what we wanted, she insisted that we recognise that we were fortunate to have food and shelter and a good education and, most importantly, people who loved us.
The promise of better for the future is in this next generation, the children of my sisters. Who have so much, despite not having those contemporary trappings of affluence that parents are now bending over backwards to be able to afford for their children. For me as the number one auntie it is important that I help them hold on to their childhood for as long as possible. Insist that they enjoy life before they become too cynical. That they cultivate a desire for learning new things and be their best selves all the time. They are surrounded with so much love that maybe in a few years when they are surly teenagers they will accuse us like we accused our mother and her contemporaries of smothering us in their covering of love and almost manic protection. We take great pains to protect them from the big, cruel world. They live a sheltered life, where everyone loves them. They live a charmed life, where there is always enough, there is always someone who has an answer.
But every now and again it’s good to give them a good dose of reality. To remind them to be thankful for what they have. In case in the arrogance of youth they come to think that they are still entitled to things that they do not work for. Do not give thanks for. Do not recognise that someone else has to sacrifice to ensure that they have. It is a much steeper learning curve than I could have imagined. They are stunned by what they see. In these hours when they are home eating, or watching TV, or getting up to every imaginable mischief. And you might see vagrants in the day. But at night the spirits that walk the streets of our capital are a testimony to how many lonely souls inhabit this place. Earlier in the day we passed all these streets, kept moving to the sound of drums and the shuffle of our feet marching in time, picking up the polyrhythms, jumping with relief that we are still free. Like my father says, his mother could never even say the word enslavement, calling it instead “that thing” to describe what her mother had just narrowly escaped. Terrified that the colonial powers might change their minds and bring the shackles and the whips back. And I wonder what she would say now, of these shadows of men stretching out their hands to take this small offering of food from my niece and nephews on a big Emancipation Day when just hours ago we were dancing, happy to be free.
A tiny sliver of a man is pushing his cart up George Street. We slow down and my niece asks him if he wants something to eat. His hesitation lasts for a couple seconds, like he is trying to remember a time when he wasn’t having to accept a mystery box of food from young strangers. He says thanks as my niece hands over the box. And we move on. Not wanting to look back at the size of the load on his cart and where he finds the strength through his hunger to push the cart up the street. Further up the road we slow down again. There is a young man sitting on the pavement, and when Kayode asks him if he wants some food he puts his fingers in his ears and pulls his knees up to his chest. And Miles Davis is wailing out of the car’s speakers like a siren calling for some higher power, even as distant police sirens punctuate the long silences. Soon the boxes run out and when this happens the car is surrounded by three or four pairs of eyes, staring at us in a combination of distress and accusation. The children are bewildered by the outstretched hands that will get nothing from them this night. Kayode is apologetic and I am nervous that we are isolated on a street with desperate people. Who may or may not be in touch with their humanity.
Shanya has a tremor in her voice and for a moment I fear that this is too much of a baptism of fire for them. Yes they know that there is poverty in the world and people who have nothing. But that is for other places. In this land of plenty it is hard to believe that there is anyone who has nothing. Either by choice or by circumstance or by crack habit.
And I say to her that it is not for us to feel sorry for them, but to bring into sharp relief how fortunate we are to have the things we do. The miracle of plenty that is considered to be nothing. I think about the guava tree that gives a daily present of over 30 perfect, worm-free guavas. Forcing me to question why we describe hard times as guava season and not the season of possibility. And to compound this I go online and discover that the lowly guava is good for high blood pressure and good for your skin and good for fighting cancer. And it’s not just about food. Food is easy to find, here. I imagine that what we throw away daily is enough to feed those who we scorn for digging in dustbins, without realising that we are the depraved ones for throwing out good food. The real tragedy is people who have no one to love them. I can hardly imagine how long it’s been since anyone has reassured them, you are real. You are important. You are loved. Even those people who have not made it to the streets. Even the boys hardly living to be men are dying for someone to hold them. And tell them they are loved. They are human. They mean something to someone. If you don’t have this then food and money and life mean nothing. That is why it is so easy for them to take it. To give it up. This is what makes life worth living. This is what makes freedom something worth fighting for. This is how we find our humanity. In giving a bit of our excess love and light and joy to people who may have forgotten what that is like.
Last Saturday at the UNESCO offices in St. Clair I watched the mother for the ten millionth time, mesmerize a group of young people with her stories. I guess I took her story-telling skills for granted, like I take my mango trees and guava tree and zaboca tree for granted. It’s there, right. It is expected.
The truth is that not everybody has a mother like Eintou. It’s a matter of privilege really, to grow up in a house where you are routinely, almost ritualistically informed about who you are. I watch these young people their eyes opening wide at the information being offered to them. There are immediately noticeable changes.
This is the kind of work that we used to do in at risk schools in Morvant and Laventille. Schools that are allegedly the breeding grounds of future (and some present) criminals. The work of cultural transformation is no joke. It’s been proven for years
These programmes were stopped by the new Minister of Education Dr. Tim Gopeesingh, pending a review of so-called extra-curricular activities at all schools across the country. At the launch of a new book on Leroi Clarke last week at NALIS, Dr. Gopeesingh claimed that he was willing to work with people like Eintou to transform the education system. I hope he calls soon. I really do. In light of recent developments – Movie Towne, Flugtag, Vybz Kartel – all of which I suppose have their purpose, I hope that cultural workers and community activists get a chance to do the work they need to do.
The forty or so young people who are involved in How Anansi Bring the Drum are a lucky bunch. They get to learn history that is not part of their curriculum. They get to learn cultural forms that are not part of their curriculum. And they get to interact with Eintou who, and I’m not even being biased here, is a real national treasure.
It is an awful sound. Guttural and raw. A teenaged boy sobbing. It is the worst sound and it twists my insides and I am fighting back tears. Not for the boy these boys are weeping for. I did not know Zac Olumegbon. Or more correctly, I do not remember him. He was the little brother of my little sister’s best friend. She had the most serious face, I remember. I always wondered why children here always looked so serious. Like they had the world of worries. Perhaps they do, living in this corner of Babylondon.
And if I have run away from Trinidad hoping to escape the endless statistics of little black boys killing each other for honour, to regain their misplaced manhood, I have run to the wrong place.
Brixton, despite the gentrification and the nice gastro pubs and the belligerent foxes, is one of those London places where crime happens. I don’t see the Eastern European whores in the park anymore and outside the Library they’ve made it all shiny and new. But there are still old homeless people and young drugged up people and sad drunk people of all ages. They do not go away despite the shiny new surfaces.
The sight of crying children is unbearable. I guess because I take such a pragmatic view of death. It happens. It is natural. Zac’s life as one of the speaker’s says, has been stolen. Like a chain from someone’s neck. Like the childhood of all these young people who have to say goodbye to a boy who has not yet lived.
They stabbed him. Children stabbed him. Children like him. What can they possibly know of life to warrant killing a 15 year old. What could they possibly be so sure of that they can take another life?
I look at the faces of my sisters’ friends. They are young and old at the same time. Too much living too soon. I cherish my own sheltered childhood. That I got to doubt myself and make believe and wish and dream and never once wonder if someone was going to deny me the chance to make mistakes.
My fought back tears are not for Zac. They are rather for his friends and family. Hundreds of them. Gathered in grief on this bleakest of summer days. There are long silences punctuated only by half stifled sobs and sniffles.
The police stay a respectable distance. No profiling now. No microwaving of leftover sus laws.
A young man read/raps Psalm 37 in the rhythm and truth of his Sath Landin twang. The cheeky boys from the bus hold each other and cry silently, and then wipe the tears away as if they are angry with their leaking eyes.
My fought back tears are for them. For their anger and grief. For his mother and his sister and my sisters and all the young women here who will have to find a way to keep loving these men who are at war with themselves.
What war the Pastor asks. What war can they fight when they own nothing? What post code, what block belongs to them? What property do they own when they live in state provided housing, are second generation immigrants? Where do they belong? Not even to themselves.
These children cry and my mother instinct moans helplessly. There is no consoling for this kind of grief. You can’t stick a dummy in the mouth of a generation that is becoming accustomed to burying their own.
I leave before it is finished. Leave his mother reading the mountain of tributes. Leave behind Zac Olumegbon, who was the little brother of my little sisters friend. They hope he has not died in vain. All these people who have come to weep for him. They hope no more will have to shed tears like this again. Still, sirens wail in the distance, louder than Zac’s mother, louder than the thud of a boy fainting from grief, louder than the shaky voices of his school friends crying out to Christ for mercy. On this bleak summer day.
Been doing a lot of backing up and adding and deleting tonight. Listening to favourite songs and some songs I haven’t listened to in ages. Brings back really wonderful memories of my life and times, trodding through creation, meeting some wonderful people and maintaining ties with some lovely old friends. Some songs I can’t listen to anymore because they are so full of memories…some of them bring back a time when life was less complicated. But I am thankful for them all. I guess I’m documenting them in the unfortunate event that I forget how much these pieces of music and the times and the places and the people mean to me.
Billie Jean – Michael Jackson Early 1980′s George Lamming was staying at our house, working on something or another. My sister had just got a copy of the Thriller album and we set about playing it over and over. Uncle George declares to our great shock and horror ‘Who is this Jackson person?’ So of course we had to put on a whole concert for him, including Didi doing the moonwalk across the living room. At the end of the song, Uncle George declares ‘This is a funny sort of house’.
Inglan is a Bitch – Linton Kwesi Johnson – 1987 London The mother took me to an LKJ concert in London somewhere. I don’t remember the details because I slept through most of it, but at some point in the night I remember waking up to see this little black guy prancing around the stage singing in the roughest, loveliest voice I’ve ever heard ‘Hinglan is a beeetch’. Been in love with him ever since.
Everybody Wants to Rule the World – Tears for Fears – 1986 Watford. I was standing at the bus stop outside Woolworths with my sisters on the way to school. I was standing there minding my own business when this woman comes up and punches me in the face. Dry so!! Buss my lip and everyting. Not pleasant. This is the song that was playing on the radio when the Babylon came to question me about the woman after school.
Natty Dread – Bob Marley and the Wailers May 2000 Kingston. Went down to Trench Town to do some volunteer work at a community centre. They didn’t cater for the vegetarians so we wandered across the street looking for a vendor. Happened to wander straight into the yard where Bob used to live with his mother and Bunny Wailer. We sat in the shade of giant ganja trees and reasoned with rasta elders who gave us fruits and coconut water to eat. Bliss!
He Loves Me – Jill Scott – Winter 2003 England – Road Trip to Stone Henge with my very good sister friends Tonni, Tamara, BinghiNya and Gab. Nya was driving us to Bath and then she started to sing this song. I am so very thankful to have these womyn in my life!!
Here and Now- Andre Tanker – Winter 2003, China. I didn’t find out that Andre died a whole three days after… That day Tonni and I took a trip to the sea off Qinhuangdao. It was cold and the water grey. But it was good to be by the sea and I was glad to have a moment to whisper my goodbyes into the waves.
Fools Die – Peter Tosh- New Years Day 2004 London. Passed out at Skateboard Pete’s New Years Party, woke up at 6 am and this is the song Svenn was playing. A melancholy way to start a bizarre year that I was very glad to see the end of!
Shanti Om – Lord Shorty – Jouvay 2004 Trinidad We were just coming out of the Savannah. I think Shel Shok was the DJ. The sun was just coming up and they drop this song! Ooooh gouud…I was never so happy to be home as in that moment. By Ash Wednesday I was cured of that, though.
Natural Roots – Jah Shaka – Summer 2004 Me and Empress Jo in Finsbury Park at an all day Dub festival. The house in Turnpike Lane with the Hairy Fairies and food and reasonings and energy balls and falling asleep standing up in all night Jah Shaka dances in the Rocket in Holloway. The N29! D&G ginger beers and the best 24 hour snack shop in Trafalgar Square. Primrose Hill and vegan Thai buffet paradise for stoners. Sundays in Spitalfields market. Cheesy reggae Saturday nights in Camden! And that lovely Ethiopian bredrin, Yohannes was his name?
Water No Get Enemy – Fela Anikulapo Kuti – Autumn 2004 London – Svenn used to play this song at least twice a day. I don’t know why it became such an anthem for us, given that we were living in the middle of Chelsea with Ralph Lauren as our corner store, ha! Walking down to King’s Road we would spontaneously start singing the song together. Our merriment was frequently cut short by a burst of running to catch the Number 19.
One Day – Mungal featuring 3 Canal – New Years Day 2005 London – Me, Kassie and Nya talking about all our hopes and dreams and fears on the brink of a new day.
Zion – Maximus Dan – Summer 2005 – I was living in Zürich and getting rather fat. So every morning I would go for a run in a vineyard near the lake. It was mostly uphill and I would never really think I could make it. But just as I got to the top of the hill this song would come on and I would practically fly down the hill towards home, smiling maniacally with my hair flapping about in the breeze. Needless to say the neighbours stared at me like I just landed from another planet….
Anisiedad – Daisy Voisin Christmas 2005 Trinidad. I hadn’t been home since my grandmother died in 2003. The mother was in the kitchen making black cake and then this song came on and it made me think of my Ida and the fact that she was the original black cakist. That I would never again have the pleasure of her boofs, her smiles, her sarcasm, her pakchoi and rice! I hadn’t had a chance to cry for her in almost two years of travelling, working, loving, moving again, running away and trying to figure out where home was. But then Daisy came on and I got a full appreciation of all that I was missing and all that I had missed.
Live Good – Burning Spear- Carnival 2006 Chatham …the first time I went down to Chatham and met the women of the community and was so impressed by the concern and commitment that I was motivated to get involved in their struggle against Alcoa. When the meeting was finished we ate with them and then Samantha, the 8 year old daughter of our hosts, took my hand and walked with me around her yard. She pointed out all the different trees: mango, pomerac, zaboca, fig. And then she looked me in the eye and said ‘if Alcoa comes I not going to have this anymore’. Part of the reason I never went back to Switzerland…
Ee wa Obakoso – Ella Andall – Summer 2007 Iceland – We were driving up to Husavik right at the northernmost point of Iceland. At about 1 am it was still light and my anarchist friends decided that that was a good time to go check out a crater. It was so windy and cold I ran all the way. Got to the top out of breath with the wind howling in my ears and the crater’s gravel crunching under my hiking boots. I don’t know if I was crying because I was so cold or because I was so overwhelmed to be where I was for the reason that I was there. I had never felt so far from home and yet so close to myself. The wind blew my tears away and then everything got very still.
Naturally – Slow Train – Rainy Season 2008, Trinidad. Me and Kassie, joined by Jacob on a road trip to Toco. We practically wore a hole into that cd replaying that song speeding through the north coast.
Even After All- Finley Quaye- Many Many Nights 2008 The Republic. After party cleaning up. Svenn bepping on the day bed. Sheli listening to every note. Keshav singing and washing dishes. Makeda cooking, again. Me playing ten last songs. Daddy O recounting Amel’s birth. Lemongrass and ginger tea, chocolate tea and pongkin choka. Enamel cups and loud laughter.
Okay I’m going to stop there before this gets too cheesy….
It’s almost 1300hrs on New Year’s Eve and I am dithering with various things, while I steel myself for a mad dash to the shop around the corner for black eye peas.
Outside is the kind of cold that is unrelenting even through several formidable layers. Or at least I imagine it is so. In truth I haven’t left the house since Monday, prefering to watch from within the safety of double glazing the London winter go from mild one weekend to nasty the following.
I am considering what misfortunes may befall me if I don’t get my black eye peas on. In spite of my distance from Trinidad and from the mother I woke up this morning knowing that this task had to be completed by the end of today.
Black eye peas being symbols of prosperity we brought a sense of with us through the Middle Passage and beyond. They are also the favourite food of the Orishas who offer protection to the community. It is no accident that old people long time in Trinidad would ring in the New Year standing at crossroads and it was essential for you to eat black eye peas and rice. What led them to know to do this I don’t know. It’s as if Eshu himself, guardian of crossroads, trickster of great repute planted the seed in their heads.
Staying in us like ancestral memory. Like my father’s mother who died when I was two, who I dream every now and then; who dreamt me before I was born with her dead mother in yard of a house in Lucas Street in Grenada that I still haven’t seen.
I can’t say what prompted me to get up this morning with a desire to eat black eye peas. Like I can’t say what prompts my father to speak to me now of things he has never spoken of before. Of his life as a boy, of his father and mother and his childhood friends. Of Maurice Bishop’s father and how he felt the first time he held the pages of a historical record in Grenada documenting all of his ancestors who had been hanged for taking part in Fédon’s slave rebellion in 1795.
It is an interesting note on which to end this year. Going back in order to go forward, knowing what went to know what comes next. I can’t say I am sorry to see the end of this year. I enjoyed it enough to be thankful for all the lessons it taught me. Few tears for big disappointments, many smiles for major joys. For mango dawns and nights of fleeting bliss like pan carried on the breeze that give your dreams sweet rumbling soundtracks. For unsaid words and unspoken prayers for missing ones and found ones and lost friends and found enemies. For music and dancing and jouvay and emails from nephews. For grandmothers who come back to remind me of what is true and valuable. For a mother who brings you messages in dreams full of yellow green rivers. And a father who speaks in rumbling verse.
I laugh at all Eshu’s tricks. I imagine that the lesson the universe is trying to teach me is never ever ever lose your sense of humour. Even when the joke is on you.
But joke is joke, I have black eye peas and rice to cook.
Happy new year.
It’s Sunday evening and because it’s raining I decide to fight my way through nineteen hundred unread email messages. To lighten the load I’m listening to Don Drummond, like I sometimes do when I’m feeling nostalgic for Kingston and my adventurous youth there. Suddenly the mother bursts into the room. Where you get that song? That’s not the original!! I’m like what, lady?
She insists that African Beat is not an original, and I mildly protest but this woman has a sickeningly amazing memory.
The mother recalls paying their neighbour the slightly more affluent teacher her few pennies for him to play the radio loud enough for her to hear, because her own mother couldn’t afford a radio. This is 1954 so she is less than ten years old at the time. I Google it and I discover that it was a German composer called Bert Kaempfert who did the original Afrikaan Beat which was then re-done ska style by the brilliant and short lived Kingston genius Drummond.
Anyway I get busy and soon I’ve downloaded the Kaempfert. The mother is covered in goosebumps and close to tears. She hasn’t heard this song in fifty or so years and she remembers every nuance of the music. She then starts recalling other songs she hasn’t heard in years. And soon I’m downloading like mad Les Baxter’s Poor People of Paris and Edith Piaf and the mother is waxing nostalgic for easier times, poorer times, family times in Santa Cruz.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that a lot of the music I enjoy now was introduced to me when I was small. Sundays were blast out the sound system days and the mother played everything from Beethoven to Ralph Macdonald to Buddy Miles. When I spent time with the male parental unit he was big on the jazz tip and Lucky Dube and of course Beethoven (he once called me long distance to tell me that he was reading a book that said that the old Ludwig died in the middle of a storm – at the moment of his death he raised himself off the bed and shook his clenched fist at the thundering heavens. ‘Dat is Shango self!’ was the father’s comment).
Anyway, it felt good to be able to provide such a service, given that the mother is an unapologetic techno peasant, it was like magic for her watching me find a piece of her history. But I am also struck by how much about this woman that I’ve known all my life I still don’t know
And also how much of my life now that I take for granted.
So Ashé Ogun for the internet. It’s trickier than Anansi but it’s always possible to learn something.
I’ve been spending the weekend with the mother, on account of her recent self-inflicted while cooking knife adventures. Last night, after the pain killers kicked in she turned up the music. This being the only time of the year that she’s not blasting jazz, she put on one of those restored but still scratchy sounding albums of ‘no teet’ parang. The nephs were there too, dancing around the living room with her, thoroughly enjoying her high spirits, the first time for the week. It’s also a reassurance for them that there will in fact be black cake, sweetbread and sundry other sweetnesses. Usually I’m quite cynical about Christmas, but for some reason I’m enjoying this year’s preparations.