Azonto Lessons

There is a pause when the lights go at 1 a.m. and the fan stops whirring. Until the generator shudders to life and the air returns to the room, the fan whirring reassuringly over your head again. In that pause you hear the world of other sounds that exist outside the electric drone. A neighbour’s child, the thunder of a storm making its way across the night, the dying moments of an evangelical service, a lone dog barking in the distance, insects whose names you do not know. The sounds of nighttime Accra are so familiar that in those seconds when I wake up in the sudden and unbearable stillness I get confused about where I am.

There are many moments of confusion during my time in Ghana. It is déjà vu for something I have not yet seen.

Excerpt from Azonto Lessons, a piece I wrote for this month’s issue of Caribbean Beat.

Read the full piece here

Put the Mask back in the Mas

Notting Hill Carnival in 2013 Brianna McCarthy Maker + Mender mask.

Notting Hill Carnival in 2013 Brianna McCarthy Maker + Mender mask.

One jouvay morning in Port of Spain a couple years ago, an Egun priest told me that the ancestors were upset because we were playing mas with our faces uncovered. This year for Jouvay I covered my face and at Notting Hill Carnival yesterday I made the transition back to a mask.

I had the pleasure of wearing a piece of art made by Brianna McCarthy, one of Trinidad’s most exciting young mixed media artists.

The politics of beauty in Trinidad is problematic at best. Look at any band launching event and notice that black women, dark skinned Indian or African women are virtually non-existent.

I am really excited about the ways that Brianna’s work confronts this.

Her website says:
‘Her work takes on the intricacies and dynamics of representing Afro-Caribbean women who are portrayed as being strong, long-suffering, exoticised and picturesque beings against a backdrop of poverty, hardship, abuse and/or scorn. McCarthy’s constructions and representations revolt against and subvert the stereotypical trends of representing the black body.’  

Once upon a time Carnival was a space for women to claim power. These days I can’t tell if Carnival is a space of power or – given the size of the costumes, the expense of the make up and increase in gym membership from October to February – a space where women are forced to seek approval under the gaze of a society that is male and judgemental. 

So the mask is part of that confrontation that needs to take place.  I loved the fear, awe, intrigue, attraction that the mask caused. Men begged me to take it off, children cried, old people smiled and bowed.

Culture should never be fossilized fragments. It should always evolve to serve the needs of the people who practice it. 

But we always need rituals. And performance as ritual – we’ve lost that from our Carnival with the loss of the mask.

And that is what I loved most about about wearing Brianna’s mask – it was a very contemporary take on a very ancient practice of masking – for the purpose of healing, for the purpose of transformation, for the purpose of liberation.

It’s a key part of the obeah that is Carnival and it occurred to me yesterday that half of the reason why the Carnival has lost its power is because of the removal of the mask.

From Home to Home

lookbeyond

Ah went away
Ah leave and ah forward home
Ah forward to stay
Ah must see mih way
—Forward Home, Andre Tanker

You know that move? The one when the pressure from the drumming gets to be too much. When you feeling like your spirit might separate from your body. You ketch the power of the rhythm and it’s like your spine can no longer keep your body upright. You are water and fire and moving air. You are one in a crowd heaving like jouvay morning when you on that Savannah stage and the sun coming up over your Laventille hills.

Your knees buckle and you dip. Your arms end up on top your head—you can feel all your chakras open and the kundalini rising like smoke from some sacred fire burning inside you. Your feet do steps you never knew you knew. Your bottom is a republic.

I am outside the palace of the Asantehene in Kumasi dancing with a couple hundred other people I have never seen before. It is the day before the funeral of someone I do not know. I was passing by and heard the music and the combination of a riddim section and sweet brass was too much to resist. It’s a telling moment in this my first visit to Africa. I submit to a bigger force that has drawn me here. I submit to what Africa has done to consolidate itself not just in a vague way in my imagination but in the front of my mind.

I’ve seen a few different Africas in the past three weeks. I’ve seen the Africa you see on television. The one they want us to believe is the only one that exists. I’ve seen the Africa that made me want to plead with the gods of personal hygiene and promise to never take indoor plumbing for granted again.

I’ve seen the Africa of my imagination. The one that looks like home. That feels like I belong here. That I blend into and don’t feel like an outsider. And people who don’t question why a little black girl like me should be interested in the things that I am interested in. I have seen more Christian churches than I can count. And the fear on the face of the woman who accompanies me to witness a roadside ceremony that marks the death of a powerful traditional priest.

I have seen the kind of wealth that would make my uptown London friends feel like paupers. And discovered another level of pan-Africanism that we forgot that out little T&T that has given the world. Speak the names George Padmore and Henry Sylvester Williams and CLR James and Kwame Ture in some quarters and the air starts to vibrate with the memory of the contributions.

I have met Ghanaians who want to know what scenes Trinis really on. They want to know how come the T&T Government acted so shady in signing the gas deal that eventually went to the Chinese. They want to know if Trinis don’t want to deal with Africans, if they really believe the fiction that black people not good at business.

They want to know if we know that it is because their past President Gerry Rawlings came to Trinidad for Emancipation that the Door of No Return at Cape Coast castle was reopened and that every year people come from all over the diaspora to walk through that door.

Ghanaians pick at their wounds too. We talk politics into the wee hours. E-mailgate rubs up against a court hearing on irregularities in their recently held general election. We laugh on the outside at the colossal stupidity of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. But weep on the inside. At how we are still confronting the same post-colonial monsters.

We commiserate with the African Americans who have only recently discovered what we have known for 50 years—that because your leader looks like you it doesn’t mean that he or she has your best interests at heart.

I wish I could bring a few people from T&T to meet all the little black boys and girls I was hanging out with. The highly educated ones. The ones who do not feel the need to apologise for their blackness or don’t feel like you curse their mother if you call them African. Who understand that being sure of who you are isn’t a threat to anyone else’s identity. In fact, your surety puts you in a better position to contribute to forward movement.

When I regain control of my body and the music is just an echo, my spirit is dancing still. To the music of possibility. I wash off the last remnants of doubt on that same coast where my ancestors were taken away in ships. I left home to come home. And they welcomed me like I had never left. When I leave home to go back home, I hope the welcome will be as warm.

eintouandmecoast

Dancing for Dawn

There I go again, talking about the only thing I love more than starch mangoes…

The glorious morning has come, and I don’t know if to laugh or cry. Because I’ll have to wait another 364 days to feel this way again. J’Ouvert is what happens when someone opens the prison gates. J’Ouvert is the moment of truth in lives of endless fiction.

Check out the full piece in this month’s issue of Caribbean Beat Magazine.

On becoming a Stickfighter.

Just finished another stickfight lesson and am still in awe at the focus and discipline necessary to protect your head. One hand is stronger than the other so I’m working on having the same kind of response time with my left hand as with my right. But apparently because I’m an ‘ambi winer’ I should get the hang of it soon. The thing that’s struck me about learning stick is that flag waving is a complimentary artform. I find the movements are similar, as are the intentions. A flag woman is a thing of great beauty and abandon but also a dread warrior on whom an entire band is dependent for direction. The style I am learning is from Moruga – pretty stick’ they call it. In other words you get so distracted by the beauty of the dancing you don’t see when the bois coming to buss your head. It’s maths and physics and core strength and left/brain right brain coordination. It is also letting go and giving into to what the drum tells you do do with your body and let it speak a language you never thought you knew. Serious Ogun tings. The warrior in me is awakening.

On becoming a stickfighter

Had my first kalinda training session with the Bois Academy on Sunday. Really steep learning curve, given that I’ve always considered myself a pacifist and the least graceful person on the planet. But demystifying this martial tradition from the point of view of a player of stick for me is crucial as is the grounding that taking part in something so physical gives you. My shoulders still hurt and my left little finger is cramped from the terror I felt gripping that bois to protect my head, but here are the two most important things I learned:

1. Stickfighting is a beautifully deadly art that requires technical skill and a heightened consciousness of yourself in your body.

2. I am not a pacifist.

A dose of Reality

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.

The bruised one

Sometimes it seems that the going is just too rough

And things go wrong no matter what I do

Now and then it seems that life is just too much

But you’ve got the love I need to see me through

When food is gone you are my daily meal

When friends are gone I know my saviour’s love is real

Your love is real

You’ve Got the Love – Florence and the Machine

Starch for breakfast again. This one was a little worse for wear. Apparently it had a hard fall and was the proud owner of two big bruises. No big thing. I’m not a picker of mangoes really, I like to see what the tree gives me on a morning and I am thankful for any offerings or none at all. But I’m not averse to chasing off those wasteful kiskidees that pick a few morsels and then leave a lovely mango to be fly food. You could learn a lot about life from eating a mango for breakfast. For the obvious reasons of health, yes. And a starch is just a really delicious way to eat the sun. A mango is a thing of beauty, even, or maybe especially, when it is bruised. A mango is a prayer and a mango is also the answer. So you ask for wholeness and you get fragments that need to be put together. You ask for perfection and you get a bruised mango.

But if you cut out the bruise, pull the skin past the wound on the skin there is sweetness under there.
Waiting for you to find it. Asking not to be ignored because of a couple of bruises. On Tuesday night I ended up at a nightclub in the ridiculous hours of the morning when people who have real jobs should be asleep.  But up in this club where women rule, women who are beautiful and comfortable in their bodies in a way I know that I have too much middle class self-consciousness to ever be. Women with baby stretch marks and bodies that bear marks of their far from easy lives. They are powerful in this space, they own it like I can only ever own my words.   They make men hold their heads, even the nice uptown ones who know they can’t handle so much Shakti. And I don’t know if they think this is all the power that they have but in this moment that doesn’t matter and the beauty of simple is overwhelming. Mangoes with bruises these women are. Unashamed of the licks they get from life. They wear their bruises because these are a reality of life in this country. Where women are bruised and have to struggle to hold on to a sense of themselves, find the sweetness still underneath the bruise.

They dance for all the young ones who never make it. Who are home minding fatherless babies. Who take their lives because they confuse love with acceptance. Whose lives are taken away by men who confuse love with possession. They dance to remember that they are alive in a society that kills them every day simply by making them invisible. More and more the West is telling women they have to be some version of perfect. Thanks to pornography, thanks to the fashion industry, thanks to abnormalities that are now cultural norms, women are being convinced even more these days that something is wrong with their bodies. That they need to be bruise-free and blemish-free and wrinkle-free and cellulite-free and doll-like and perfect. The skin bruises are airbrushed away but the desire for approval from everyone else becomes that kind of cancerous engagement with self-loathing and terror at imperfection.

Part of coming to terms with yourself is acknowledging your imperfections, being thankful for the flaws and finding a way to use them to your advantage. A lifelong engagement to last many mango seasons until one day you are as okay with your bruises as you are with the ones on your breakfast starch. You know that every scar is a sign that you are alive. That you live in spite of wind and stones and wasteful kiskidees that peck at you for a few morsels then leave you to rot alone. These are things I discover from eating a mango in the morning. That even the bruised ones have their value. That even the bruised ones are sweet and beautiful and good for you. That a bruised mango is not a rotten apple. And that we need to find a way to understand that we are different and find ways to create our own ways to love ourselves and heal ourselves, to celebrate who we are, bruises and all.

I believe I can ride.

I mean, how did I go this long without this feeling? This flying feeling with the road just under, that is not like running but not like flying but not like anything else that makes sense. It’s Friday evening and after staring at a blank page for what seems like way longer than usual I still find myself struggling for things to say. The truth is that I’m still thinking about earlier in the day when I finally learned how to ride a bike. Scoff if you must, dear reader, if you’ve been doing wheelies all your life. But I know there are lots of other women out there who never learned to ride a bike and who think it’s too late for them now. And I can’t say that I’m not looking forward to the fabulous thighs I will now have thanks to cycling but really, cycling is a revolutionary kind of thing that more of us need to be doing, daily.

I can’t say that I’ve felt such a profound sense of achieving something since maybe I learned to walk or read, neither of which I really remember. I didn’t have much hope that it would happen. When you get to my ripe old age of thirty-something, you believe the hype that you’ve learned everything you’re going to learn and there’s not much left to do except fight a losing battle against gravity. And I’m not sure when it happened, maybe somewhere in-between me wanting to give up and wanting to cry because I suspect I am too stupid to train my body to balance on two wheels, but something shifted and whaps, next thing you know, I’m pedalling down the road and there is no hand on my back keeping me from veering into the pothole and I am doing this all by myself.

And when I stop trying to think myself into balance and start to feel it, it’s like the heavens open up and there are angels singing, but it’s actually the wind playing with the bells in my hair and I am not thinking anymore about pedalling and balance and brakes but just about enjoying the moment. I doubt myself about whether I should share this. Gushing all over the people’s newspaper about how anything is possible if you put your mind to it. But this is kind of the truth. Being a serious journalist is really starting to kill my buzz about learning to ride a bike and I wonder if I too have fallen into the morose media trap. It’s hard to be in the media and not like it very much. I find myself trying to avoid the news at all costs, too scared that the headlines will drag me back down into the general air of hopelessness that hangs over T&T along with the heat and the stench of unfulfilled dreams.

I start grasping for things to complain about: flaky labour movement or useless government? Pet peeves or nagging doubts? None of these things feel right today because I learned to ride a bike and I am terribly proud of myself and it’s my column and I’ll be happy if I want to dammit. Last weekend at Ganga Dhaaraa, Uncle Ravi Ji said to me that he sees me as a leader and I doubt myself enough to say in that typical Trini way, who, me? Not me, Papa. I don’t want that kind of headache. That kind of challenge. That kind of commitment. Like all good elders he is deliberately vague about what exactly he means. Good elders, like good cycling teachers, just give enough direction to help you come to the conclusion yourself. That leadership is not one thing all the time. That leaders are not the ones who talk the loudest or are the most charming.

Something about figuring out the riding thing helps me to make sense of so many other life things. How we hold ourselves back because of unfounded fears. How being a grown-up means forgetting to have a sense of wonder about everything. How getting big also means that you start to take yourself so seriously that you forget how to laugh and find innovative solutions to your problems. This is not a day for any of those things. I was so pleased I bought myself an overpriced mammy sapote. I’m so happy I taught myself how to use Final Cut bette. I’m so happy I start to feel like I can make a difference again, instead of just poking at the wounds and feeling powerless. I guess it’s all about perspective. You’ll never know unless you try it. Give yourself a chance. To be yourself and not being afraid to purge your life of the people who only ever want to remind you of your flaws, as if flaws always have to be tragic. The thought that stays with me after the initial thrill of my biking success is to lose the fear of letting yourself fly. And I wish we could all lose that fear, collectively. What amazing place this would be if we did.

Things I learned today while learning to ride a bike

Yeah so this about twenty years late, but better late than never, no? Well I figure if I really want to commit to this hippy life I should at least know how to ride a bike. This is a lot easier than it sounds, but to my surprise I didn’t suck as badly at it as I thought I would and I did manage to pedal a few times.  But it occurred to me as I wobbled along, picturing all the while that I was riding to Spitalfields Market (maybe this is why I was distracted and couldn’t steer straight) that life is a lot like learning to ride a bike. For the following reasons, in no particular order.

1. it hurts sometimes.

2. you need to find balance!

3. you will fall!

4. it really helps to have a boomsie (thank you, starch mango tree)

5. did I mention balance?

6. be patient with yourself, you will get it evenutally (I had a few Don Music moments)

7.  random men will think it’s okay to give you their (unsolicited) advice.

8. when you can’t make it up the hill, it’s always good to have a friend to push you, and steer you away from the potholes.

9. there are potholes and you seem to be attracted to them.

10. laughing helps.

11. everybody looks this stupid at least once in their lives.

12. brakes! don’t forget the brakes.

Anyway, my hands hurt from hours of over-zealous brake application so that’s about as much wisdom as I can impart for now.  all of which is to say that I’m glad that I got over my lameness and actually took the chance to try something new!