Letter to Senators from the Citizens Assembly

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Dear Senators,

We write to inform you that an Assembly of Citizens drawn from a number of civil society organisations has joined the call for a halt to the parliamentary debate on the Constitution Amendment Bill, 2014.
The Assembly, which was held under the auspices of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies on Sunday 24 August, 2014, wishes to alert you to the fact that the proposed amendment to the Constitution has been brought before you without input from the public. This is in direct contradiction to the Prime Minister’s pledge of engaging “a system of participatory democracy” as the basis of the Commission’s work. Specifically, we point you to her statement on the occasion of the launch of the Commission on March 02, 2013:

“We believe that the Constitution should reflect the collective will of the citizens of this country.We have learnt from the failings of some previous attempts at reform, which did not truly take into account the concerns of the most important stakeholders in this country, the people.We recognize that change must come from the people.We therefore are not adopting a “top-down” approach. Instead, through the consultation process, the views and expression of the people will be considered and will then become the basis upon which a draft document is prepared. “
We draw your attention to the fact that the proposal of a run-off vote as contained in the Bill before you, was not the subject of any public discussion before being tabled in the Parliament. We therefore urge you to exercise your judgment and authority to ensure that this omission is properly repaired before the Bill is taken to the vote.
We feel certain that you have a clear understanding of the difference between what is legal and what is right in the context of a representative Democracy. As custodians of the public interest, we urge you to utilize your Constitutional power and responsibility to ensure that this amendment to the Constitution, which is being brought to you unprotected by the requirement for a special majority vote, does not move past the Senate without the benefit of broad public consultation in line with the mandate given to the Constitution Reform Commission.

In trust

Winston Riley
Chairman

Saturdays, Thankfulness and a Story for Rhea

Saturday night found me, despite my considerable lack of grace and coordination, I found myself sweaty and dancing at the Hindu Prachar Kendra post Ramdilla festivites. There is a way that dancing with children makes you feel alive and I was thankful for that moment of freedom.

On the way out, I confessed to Ravi Ji in the way that you can only confess to people to whom your mother may have complained in the not so distant past about your waywardness that I feel like I’m just not doing enough.  The children of this generation for whom so much was sacrificed, so much danger dodged, so many battles fought, we’re just not doing enough.

So in wise uncle mode, Ravi ji tells this story as told to him by his aja.   There was a man from a village who was very well known.  One day the man is riding through the village on his donkey and then for some reason the donkey takes off at a pace down the road.  The village pundit sees the well known, well loved, well respected man pelting down the road holding on for dear life and shouts after him something like ‘Jagdeo Maharaj whey yuh goin!’ and mr jagdeo responds ‘doh aks me, aks de donkey!’

I started writing this before I knew that Rhea Mungal had done the inconceivable and decided that she was ready to leave us.

But the moral of Ravi Ji’s aja’s story is, sometimes all we can do is hold on, even when life gets a little crazy and unpredictable.

Every story has a point.  Every tragedy has a lesson.  Every community has a Rhea Mungal.  But each of these you have to find and nurture and understand and pass on.

Mrs. Ashby used to say back in the days on the frontline in Chatham, a stupid man is bad enough, but a stupid woman mus dead.  Well right now I real vex because Rhea Mungal was by no means a stupid woman.  Yet we have to contend with a lot of stupid blasted men in this country everyday.  That is why Rhea fought. That is why Rhea did what she did.

I am thankful for Rhea holding on to this jackass called activism.  She held on and fought hard not just in her own community but for all kinds of movements, here and beyond. I am thankful because she found ways to laugh and keep fighting and keep hoping and holding on despite and in spite of.  I am thankful because she was one of those relentlessly amazing Trinidad women who hold on despite the sexism, despite the belittling, despite her commitments to family, despite her own personal struggles.  I am thankful  for all the women like Rhea who will never get to sit on a state board. Who will never get a national award. Who will never have a street in their name.  Who do the work the men will never do and then some.  Who are afraid of nothing but their own dissatisfaction.

I was writing this originally for Rhonda.  And then I checked my email and saw a message that Rhea Mungal had just died.

Now I am writing this for me.  And for everyone else who is worried about holding on for the wild jackass ride.

Hold on a little longer. Please.  If not for yourself, for Rhea.  For the women who hold on to nothing but ideas.

Hold on for all the Rheas who hold this country together.  Without them we would have nothing but jackasses running about.

Attillah’s adventures in Manningland.

I got the call on Christmas Eve in the afternoon.  From a sweet voiced young woman with a Christian first name and an Indian Muslim surname.  She said she was calling from the Prime Minister’s Residence to invite me to their New Year’s Day party.  I tried not to burst out laughing. I tried not to drop the phone from its tenuous hold between my ear and shoulder.

It takes the whole week for me to recover from the initial shock. I mean, let’s face it. Me and Papa Patos eh no kinah friends.  I mean, 2009 was the year of the professionl protestor. I’ve never made it a secret how I feel about Manning and the PNM regime.  We’ve pretty much traded insults indirectly for a long time. I consider that this may be an olive branch.  Or a guava whip admonishment. Or an attempt to buy my favour with rum, roti and Brian Macfarlane’s tacky designs.

I ring them back a couple days before to make sure that it was actually me the meant to invite.  The nice voiced young woman reassures me that yes it’s definitely me and that PM and Madame are personally responsible for the list.

Papa yo.

Anyway.

I decide to go.  Curiousity always getting the better of me.  I want to see what happens when I venture down the rabbit hole.

So yesterday afternoon I get dressed and take a leisurely stroll down St. Ann’s main road and in less than ten minutes I’m at La Fantaisie.  And this is the first sign that I’m the biggest freak in the party.  There’s no actual pedestrian entrance.  So I have to go back through to the car park entrance to be searched.  They don’t quite understand that I’ve walked. They keep asking me if I remember where I parked my car.   The security guard asks the man ahead of me in the line if he has a weapon.  Then he waves me through, without looking at his list.

Down the rabbit hole I go.

I spot the Mannings as soon as I get to the tents packed with what looks like a PNM convention.  I head in the opposite direction, trying not to look too bemused.  Everyone is looking at me like I just landed from another planet. I imagine that it’s because I’m wearing a pink sari and purple rubber slippers (in defiance of dress code) and to complete the hippy effect … sprigs of bougainvilla in my hair. People are whispering as I walk past. I have a smile I’ve practiced for moments like this. I wave a lot.  I scan the room for other least likely to have been invited candidates.  I find two and cling to them for dear life.

I sip on coconut water from my corner behind a jar of red gardenias.  Where are all the other dissidents and rabble rousers?  I guess they must be too Indian.  Come to think of it, I haven’t seen this many well dressed black people in one place in Trinidad since, well.  Never.  But then again I’m not part of the accepted black elite so I don’t usually get invited to these sorts of things.

More coconut water.   A few more people I recognise.  I still have no idea what I’m doing here.  Talk about cockroach in fowl party!

There are piles of meat everywhere. Vegetarian options are salad, curry potato and pelau. I pile some salad on a plate and hope for the best.  Silly me, they also have doubles!! The line is so short I’m suspicious, but I’m also loath get doubles juice all over my hot pink sari.

I’m definitely feeling like I’m at a mad tea party.
Especially when the night’s entertainment begins and Malick Folk Performers dance around the room singing Hello! Africa…followed by some blinged out light skinned girls dancing to Jai Ho.  Then they chip around the tent. Indian and African-ish dancers, an Indian belly dancer,  a Chinese dog.  Tassa and steel pan engage in a discordant sound clash.  It is cacophonic. Still, the black elite are having spirited conversations about Carnival and of course Beyoncé tickets.

And then Divine Echoes take centre stage and as Patos sings along to the Chinese love song I am no longer holding back my giggles.

Later in the bathroom as I try to take a picture of myself, against the rules, an older Indian woman comes up to. “I love what you’re wearing,”she gushes.

“I almost wore one like that.”  She doesn’t call it by its name.  As if sari is a bad word.  She has chosen instead the ugliest jersey material animal print contraption I have ever had the misfortune of seeing.  She says in her defense, that she thought ‘one of those’ would have been too cumbersome.  But I wear it so well.  She says she doesn’t even know how to tie one.

I point out to her that in India some women wear saris to do just about everything and that we in the west have to get rid of this notion that ‘ethnic’ wear is somehow more difficult than skinny jeans.  In truth a lot of women with ‘ethnic’ figures should never ever ever wear skinny jeans.

I somehow end up backstage. The stage that cost a few extra million.

I fight the urge to grab the mike from Wendell Constantine and start shouting ‘no smelter!’ at the crowd. I do the math and figure that the security would tackle me to the ground faster than  the Pope’s Swiss Guard.    The dressing rooms are nicer than the ones at Queen’s Hall.  Everything is so shiny and new.

I also get a chance to maco the palace. The place is monstrous in the darkness with the still full moon now rising over the St. Ann’s hills.  I am glad I came to see what is inside these walls.  Being inside makes me feel even more of an outsider in this PNM black elite universe.

It’s time to go.  As we beat a hasty retreat from the madness, we realise that Patos and Madame are at the exit thanking everyone for coming.

He takes my hand. I hold it.  Firm and deliberate. I look him in the eye but he is looking somewhere over my right shoulder.  He says thank you for coming, before moving on to the next person. To whom he says ‘oh this one I recognise!’

I feign shock and distress.  ‘You don’t recognise me?!’ Come now Patos. I know I’m on a list.

Then he says ‘ah yes of course. I recognise you now.’

I laugh. He laughs. Hazel laughs.

Dimples all round.

I escape La Fantaisie.  I wonder if it was real. If every skin teeth is really a smile. Or a baring of fangs.

Women 350 – Statement on International Day of Climate Action

October 24, 2009 Port of Spain, Trinidad.   We are concerned citizens of Trinidad & Tobago and Caribbean.
We are the mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, lovers, wives, and workers.
Our countries are blessed with natural resources. Yet we are pursuing a model of development that is destroying our most important resource and our people.
Everywhere around the world today, people are joining forces to lend their voices to an important cause. We join them now.
Climate change is here. Climate change is now. In other parts of the world people on small islands are already being affected by climate change.
You don’t have to go to the south Pacific. Just take a drive down to Icacos and see for yourself the evidence of rising sea levels.
It does not have to be this way. We have the power to make a change now. We must make the change now. We cannot abandon future generations.
We appeal to our fellow citizens to take responsibility for your actions.
We call on you to understand what climate change is and how it affects you.
We call on you to adjust your lifestyle to reduce your carbon footprint.
We call on you to plant more of your own food and to eat less meat.
We call on you to demand stronger environmental legislation.
We call on you to hold our leaders accountable to all the international conventions they sign that rarely get enforced in national legislation.
We call on you to demand genuine development not this tidal wave of social and environmental destruction crashing down on our nations.
Our countries cry out and are being damaged by the scourge of crime.
But we remain silent on the crimes against the environment. These are crimes against ourselves and our children.
Our leaders give us confusing messages. Our leaders say they care about climate change and are concerned about the environment. It is a care that we have yet to see manifest in policies, in planning, in education, and action.
We want to remind elected leaders that you are there in service of the people. It is not the other way around. We appeal to you to stop dancing to the tune of technocrats and move with the rhythm of the people.
We appeal to you to embrace a genuine vision of development, one that gives us cleaner air, one that protects our ecological security, and one that encourages businesses and employment opportunities that enhance rather than destroy our resources.
Today on the International Day for Climate Action we take a stand. Today we let our voices be heard.
Let our voices be a call to action and let the action be as loud and as clear as collective as our voices.

LET ACTION BEGIN WITH A COMMITMEBNT OF ALL WORLD LEADERS TO CONTROLING AND REDUCING CARBON EMISSIONS TO THE RECOMMENDED 350 parts per million which is the safe upper limit for CARBON DIOXIDE IN THE ATMOSPHERE.
Please wear white and join us as we take public action on Climate Change at 3.50 p.m. in Queen’s Park Savannah (opposite Whitehall).

The day they came

Ah say we forge from the fire

And together we aspire

Just to take this damn ting higher

In this quest we never fail

Never falter never tire

Never sacrifice yuh freedom

Fire fire in yuh wire

 

We free

We free

No no nobody cah hold we

We Free, 3 Canal

They came for us. To teach us a lesson. That in this land of mimic men we never deviate from the regularly scheduled programme of lies, damn lies and skin teet. They came because they assumed we didn’t know the law. That we wouldn’t know that the UNC government repealed the law banning the playing of drums in public in 2002.

They came because they understand that when people start to agitate culturally, when the drummers and the dancers and the singers and the painters start to get blasted vex, then they have a problem. They came because they are afraid that their mask is falling. Cracking under the pressure of their endless fake smiling. Cracking like their Beetham wall of shame that now has earned them international media attention. They came because they don’t realise that the more you deny people a voice is the more they will find reasons to shout.

They came because they believe the hype that Trinis are docile. Trinis don’t like confrontation. They came for Michael because in this country young black men should be on street corners holding their testicles. They can’t compute a young man passionate about the environment. Because idleness is putting up a poster to ask questions about their Summit wastage and this is a far worse disservice to the society than advertising a short pants party.
They came for Auntie Verna because she looks like she should be a government supporter. Because women her age must stay home and mind their grandchildren. Stay home and pray and cook and watch television.

And then beat their breasts and wonder why the country is the way it is. They came for Wendell and Roger because artists must sing and dance only when instructed to. Because artists are not required to have a social conscience or a connection to the people. They came for Norris because farmers must mind their business and not consider that food security is a national concern. They came for Shivonne because good Indian girls must stay home and keep quiet. Must not have opinions.

There were children there. Children playing drums. Children being children. Children that could be mine. They came for them too. To send a message to the next generation that social activism is not acceptable. That having an emotional investment in your country is not an option. That resistance is futile, although everything about this place screams defiance. Everything about this place shouts loud that somebody was willing to sacrifice and put their life on the line so that we could prosper.

They came because they thought we would be so awed by their guns and their tear gas canisters that we would retreat. They came for you too. To remind you who is boss. To show you that your voice means nothing. Your life even less. They came to warn you not to get any ideas. To kill your fighting spirit just as you need it more than ever. They came to aim at your dreams. To trample your children under their government boots. They came because they know you are dissatisfied and disgruntled and disappointed with the way they are running the country. 

I look them in the eye when they come for me. They are more afraid of us than we of them. They know they are wrong. They came for us because they follow orders. I shout at them because I don’t know what else to do. They are my neighbours and brothers and liming pardners. They are the people I stand in line for doubles with. That I support the West Indies cricket team with. That I weep for dead children with. Shivonne makes one of them cry. His eyes fill with water. His eyes shine with shame and pain from behind the plastic shield.

They dress back because they know that this battle is not a righteous one. They dress back because, regardless of automatic weapons and tear gas, they have no protection against their own intense sadness and pain at the state of this place. There is no difference between us and them. There is no line that separates their pain from ours. They come for us but cannot complete their mission. And it is the people who teach them a lesson. That in this place sometimes the people win. And power is not about weapons and they haven’t made a gun yet to kill ideas.

Farewell to a Fighter

Comes a time
when you’re drifting
Comes a time
when you settle down
Comes a light
Feeling’s lifting
Lift that baby
right up off the ground.

Oh, this old world
keeps spinning round
It’s a wonder tall trees
ain’t layin’ down
There comes a time.
Comes a Time, Neil Young

I was standing on the Shore of Peace feeling not very peaceful.
Watching the family of Grace Dolsingh prepare her body for cremation, the air heavy with the scent of flowers and camphor and death.
Grace Dolsingh, who I knew only as a vibrant, committed elder of her community who decided that she didn’t want a smelter in her back yard.
Grace Dolsingh who was at every meeting, every protest, articulating in a way that only sweet grandmothers can articulate their concern for future generations.
Watching huge grey clouds gather in the Gulf of Paria refusing to burst like all the sorrow I feel for home that doesn’t want to pour down my cheeks.
Watching other families put their loved ones to rest.
There are several cremations taking place on the Shore of Peace and it is such a tief head that these people were walking the earth a few days before.
I dislike funerals as much as the next human running from coming to terms with mortality.
I dislike even more when there is a possibility that death could have been avoided.  I resent it when death turns up unexpectedly, uninvited.  Death is inevitable but an unnecessarily prevalent reality in the lives of too many Trinbagonians these days.
Because I do think that some people know when it’s their time to ride out.  To leave aside this place and return to the big void or heaven or the vast nothingness of non-existence.
I don’t know if Grace Dolsingh was ready to go.  And I as I stood on the Shore of Peace talking with her family and friends, they say that they didn’t expect her to die.
This being modern times, civilized times when we exceed our expectations and make it to developed nation status ahead of our dear politicians projections, you would think that we would have the technology or the medical know how to ensure that people survive mild heart attacks.
But when Grace Dolsingh was taken to the Point Fortin Hospital and made to sit on a chair for 25 hours after having a heart attack, clearly someone was playing a sick little underdeveloped joke.
At the Point Fortin Hospital just up the road from those monuments to our industrialized economy, I hear women are still having babies on the floors.
At the Point Fortin Hospital, still devoid, after a century of commercial oil production, of a burns unit, maybe the doctors say prayers to God who is a Trini that we don’t have any real disasters.
I was standing on the Shore of Peace trying to come to terms with Grace’s death.  As if death is something you can come to terms with, when you’re sad and angry and powerless.
Watching the pundit’s assistant hit a flat brass plate with a tiny hammer.
Wondering about karma and reincarnation.  Wondering if politicians who can afford to send themselves away from treatment, when they eventually die, do they come back as their constituents that they show so much contempt?
Do they come back to live under the infernal roar of a gas flare with nothing but faith and mango trees to keep them sane.
No answers come in the constant drone of amplified prayers.  My eyes smart from the smoke and the camphor and the reality of my mortality.
I know from the hundreds of people who are turn out to say a final goodbye to Grace Dolsingh that she lived a good life.
I wonder if politicians hope for such noble endings.  Or do they, like young gangsters simply put aside plenty money so that they can afford an expensive suit and a blinged out coffin.
Signs of a life opulently lived, with no evidence of the terror inflicted on the lives of so many families.
Her face has a kind of peace that suggests a pleasant dream, which is what I imagine death to be.
I find that I have no tears for Grace Dolsingh or for myself.  But I hope that when my time comes, later rather than sooner, I am able to give as good an account of myself to my peers, my community, loved ones and country.
And not only for karma’s sake, I find that I want to keep fighting.

RIP Grace Dolsingh

Funeral pyre of Grace Dolsingh, anti-smelter activist

Went down south this weekend for the cremation of an old soldier from Cedros, Grace Dolsingh. It was a sad weekend for lots of various reasons but I feel like I’ll emerge from this fog of sadness stronger, lighter and more focused on my life and what I have to do.

Check out pics and post over at my much neglected Rights Action Group blog. At least I’m blogging there again….