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.

Tight belts and Guava Season

Them belly full

But we hungry

A hungry man is an angry man

Rain a fall

But de dirt it tuff

Pot a cook

But de food nuh nuff

Dem Belly Full, Bob Marley

Should we tighten our belts or loosen them? Papa Patos claims the worst is over.

And like an obedient child I desperately want to believe him. I want to believe that sooner rather than later, it will be okay again. Presuming of course that it was ever okay. Presuming of course that politicians don’t just say whatever comes to their minds, because they can, because they feel like it, because they are so high on power that they can say what the hell they want and zaffeh us if we take them too seriously.

My belt remains tight. So tight I can feel it constricting my ribs. It’s the look now anyway. Tight belts. High on the waist. . At least the government is in style.

Even the men are wearing their pants tight. Tight’s alright, Papa Patos. We can deal with it.

The belt is tight. So tight it is strangling our resolve. Tiring us out. Collapsing our internal organs.

Our breath is shallow now. Don’t take in too much oxygen now. Your brain might start to think. Your brain might start to process all the BS.

Mariano Browne says loosen it but not too much. Just enough to pick up the ever so faint stench of lies, half truths, baked facts, massaged figures, manufactured outcomes.

The tight belts shouldn’t stop the fete. The tight belts don’t create a moment for quiet reflection from our leaders. They bray on regardless. Do not bother to disguise their lack of a plan. The tight belts are a fashion statement and little else.

In their tightened belts Trinis lime on the Avenue. The drinks flow like water. Belts are not too tight to take in alcohol. To drink down the bitter sweet inertia of spirits that demand their tribute on the streets in the early mornings.

One morning close to dawn I met a young man with a jaw wired shut from his kidnappers beatings. His belt is tightened to hold him together, to keep smiling in spite of a jaw full of titanium. To go on enjoying life in Trinidad without the fear of someone spilling his insides onto the bloodthirsty asphalt.

In their tightened belts policemen kill their women. Tobagonians murder tourists and the children from up the road curse their mothers as they stone my neighbour’s mango tree.

Tight belts. Tight thoughts. Tight minds that allow us no space to consider our humanity.

But whether the belt is tight or loose it is still the guava season of no guavas. When one zaboca could cost you more than the cost of a trip to the country to pick one from your grandmother’s tree.

It’s Mr. Zaboca and Madame Starch now. The tight belt makes us believe that we are not deserving of such luxuries on small tropical islands. No no. Fruit is a luxury and coconut water is the drink of the nouveau riche to chase their Johnny and chase away their fears of losing their affluence.

Tight belts shield us from a desire to taste ourselves. Tight belts give us a thirst for difference. To not be ourselves. To hold ourselves up to someone else’s standards.

So he says we can loosen them now. And we are so happy for the ease up that we still can’t see through the thinly veiled hysterics.

We are tired from the tightened belts. Malnourished in this intellectual wasteland. Starved of leadership.

But whether the belt is tight or loose we still have leaders who give us bizarre directives. Fill our minds with pipe dreams and platitudes. Make us do a dance of fortune in a time when there is so much misfortune stalking us that we must look like a paw paw tree covered with blight.

Those who have never known a loose belt smile wearily. Those who have suffered in good times and bad, know better than to believe any hype.

They know that tight or loose is the same old khaki pants.

Well Said, Papa Patos

On truth devoured
Silent play in the shadow of power
A spectacle monopolised
The cameras eyes on choice disguised
Was it cast for the mass who burn and toil?
Or for the vultures who thirst for blood and oil?
Yes a spectacle monopolised
They hold the reins, stole your eyes
All the fistagons the bullets and bombs
Who stuff the banks?
Who staff the party ranks?

—Guerrilla Radio,Rage Against the Machine

I never thought I would say this, but maybe Papa Patos is right. It irks me to admit it too. That I could agree with anything he says is enough to give me a headache and make me want to leave the country before zaboca season starts properly. The clip came on the radio early on Tuesday morning. A screeching voice that I didn’t immediately recognise as the big daddy himself. I guess I haven’t ever heard him sound so high-strung. It sounds like Papa Patos is finally getting antsy about just how many of the party faithful still love him and would turn out whether or not he sent a bus to pick them up and provided free pan, free rum and a rent-a-crowd appearance fee. The announcer cut through the audio clip to explain that the PM had been addressing party faithful the night before at Woodford Square when he said that he didn’t think the media were playing their role properly.

It’s not the first time that he’s expressed this sentiment. Let’s not forget the whole storming the radio station and getting the announcers suspended because he is a regular citizen who has a right to complain if something bothers him. Maybe he can’t help himself. It’s a time-honoured tradition in Trinidad now for Prime Ministers to have suspicion and contempt for the media. Papa Patos is right this time though. The media aren’t playing their role properly. If they were, people like him would never be able to hold on to power for as long as he has. The default response of course is to presume that anyone who expresses a thought that is not toeing the ruling party’s line must be working for the opposition. Because of course a citizen can’t possibly think in a way that is independent without someone else planting the seed of disagreement in his or her head.

That the media are populated by citizens who are nervous about crime, nervous about falling advertising revenues that pay their salaries is neither here nor there for Papa Patos. But it should mean the world for us. Because if the media can’t truly represent the concerns of the people of this nation, then what is the point of publishing newspapers, what is the point of producing a radio or television broadcast. If the media can’t quarrel with the Government the way that most citizens can only dream of having an opportunity to do, why are we here? Papa Patos is right. I mean, if the media really were doing their work, half of the bobol and bacchanal that people get away with in this country would be properly scrutinised. Indeed, if we had the vulvicular fortitude to really do our jobs we’d have him a little more than sweaty and hysterical in Woodford Square.

Unfortunately many of the people who work in the media are as paralysed by fear as the rest of the population. Or just generally uninterested in coming out of their comfort zones, investigating, questioning or challenging the stories they report on. The critical eye is virtually non-existent, and what is left in its place is some occasional whiny criticism. We are ill-equipped to find the facts, let alone challenge anyone with them. Whether it’s on the Merhair issue or the smelter issue as reporters we are missing the point and getting caught up with the smoke instead of the fire. Information is the only weapon necessary when you are fighting for freedom, and there is information that is missing from our collective national consciousness. However if Papa Patos thinks the role of the media is to be a glorified public relations outfit designed to make the mess that they make smell like roses I hope we continue to be abysmal failures. If the role of the media is to defend a nation with the truth, then we desperately need to start sharpening our tools.

A victory for justice

So now that we moving
Let we move in one accord
Is time we get closer
and give thanks and praise
O Lord
We are here to shine our light
Keep you fire burning bright
Never give up never give up never give up
It will be all right
Life is full of ups and downs
We are here to carry on
Never give up never give up never give up
Don’t stop No

—Never Give Up, 3Canal

Dear Justice

Dean-Armorer, to tell the truth I was afraid. I was terrified that you might have ruled in favour of the Government and the EMA. I couldn’t bear another disappointment from Trinidad that day. I couldn’t bear the heartbreak of knowing that injustice continues unchecked. Too many examples to call. Too many things that break my heart every day. I couldn’t bear the heartache, Madame Justice. I stood outside Woodford Square for a while. Watching the cameras, and activists. Wanting to be there with them. Wanting to give my energy to the gathering crowd. To go down with them fighting. And I don’t know if I am getting old and bitter or falling into the new fear that paralyses all Trinidadians/Tobagonians these days.

But I slinked away from my friends. From people with whom I have fought for three years. I didn’t know if I could hold it together if you ruled in favour of the Government. I didn’t know if my heart could take another dose of Trinidad tabanca. But in this yes man town, I am relieved that there is a woman willing to say no. In this yes man town you have managed to restore some small piece of faith. Some small beacon of light that shines with the possibility that, yes, the people can win sometimes. The people can see justice done sometimes. I don’t know if you fully understand what you’ve done for people like me. Who spend many days shouting at and berating friends and strangers to take responsibility for this place. To take some kind of emotional interest, to make some kind of investment in making it better.

We walk through this landscape feeling so disempowered. We stick our fingers in our wounds not knowing how to heal them. We are lost in a limbo of leaders who don’t know how to lead, preachers who don’t know the power of their words, children who have forgotten how to be children. We are so familiar with failure we don’t know how to win anymore. And what is worse is that we don’t know that we have the right to fight to win. I don’t know if you understand this is not just about the smelter. This is about everything that is wrong with T&T that we now have the opportunity to make right. This victory is for Amy and Sean and Akiel and Tecia and Richard. This victory is for denuded hills and depleted fish stocks. This victory is for every unsolved crime, every unkept campaign promise. It’s not just a victory for the people of the community.

What you have done has made it possible for our children to give us some respect. For them to look back 50 years from now and say, you know it was a good thing that happened on June 16, 2009. That day when someone stood up not just in defence of fragile environment, but for the people who depend on it too. Justice Dean-Armorer, I am not putting water in my mouth to tell you that I felt a great sense of relief wash over me on Tuesday afternoon. That I held back tears, three years worth of emotion. Three years worth of being on the wrong side of public opinion. Three years worth of being accused of being anti-development. This is not time for tears. Whether they are happy tears or not. And I know this is another beginning. I know that Papa Patos is not going to let go of his beloved gas-guzzling smelter, although you gave him the sweetest of meggies Tuesday afternoon.

I expect that he will be even more wrong and strong now. I expect that we who stand in defence of the environment and fair consultations between the Government and communities will become the new terrorists. But it is a relief to know that there are those who know and understand. Who feel and know and have logic on their side. I want to thank you not just as a tree hugger but as a woman, as a human, as an earthling. Thank you for understanding. Thank you for standing up for ordinary people. Thank you for seeing regular Trinidadians/Tobagonians as having valid voices. And for saying to the State and all its functionaries that the people are neither crazy nor stupid. And I hope that because of your landmark, groundbreaking, revolutionary judgment, future generations might not in turn judge us so harshly.

On the Outside

I go many places
I go business places
And I see, see, see
All the bad, bad, bad things
Dem dey do, do, do
Call corruption
And dey call nepotism
Inside promotions
And inside all business
I say I waka waka waka
I see, see, see
—Coffin for Head of State, Fela Anikulapo Kuti

Here we are, standing on the outside. Watching them dig out our insides. Outside of La Brea no one knows what is happening. No one knows the terror of big trucks on your roads at all hours. No one knows the trauma of living with sea breeze all your life and then having to install air-conditioning units because some man with book sense decided that it was a good idea to cut down 800 acres of land around you. Outside of Sobo, Square Deal, Union, Vance River, Vessigny no-one understands what the fight is about. No one grasps the social impact of an aluminium smelter. Not least of all the man whose decision it is to build it there. It takes one to know one, and he who is the most disconnected can identify the outsiders from a distance. He can smell them like the stench of melting aluminium.
Outside of Vessigny beach. Outside of this country’s development. Outside of a connection to the land. In this blind Vision 2020 we are all outsiders. We are all begging to be let in. For our voices to be heard. For our opinions to matter. We exist on the periphery. And the father of the nation builds a big tall wall around what is for him and those who support him. Leaving the rest of us on the outside. Only he knows who is worthy of belonging. Like a club bouncer he gets to say who gets inside and who stays outside. Who isn’t beautiful enough, who is too black. Stay outside and hope that one day the bouncer might decide to give you a bligh. That one day you might be good enough to get into the club where the nation’s resources are shared. Where scotch flows like the blood of little black boys on the outside. Where deals are made and broken like the backs of workers.
Outsider. I am an outsider. We are all outsiders. I wonder who is on the inside. Who has the right to be there. Is it the woman who is near hysterical when the Prime Minister speeds past her? Is it the woman who has voted for PNM all her life, who has supported Patrick Manning throughout his career, who declares with all the pain of the excluded—Patrick Manning hates black people? It is an easy conclusion to come to. Since the black people who look like him that put him on the inside are now the outsiders in their own land. The black people whose support he depends on might get jobs cutting grass on the outside of the Alutrint smelter. Four thousand have many years ahead of them to wait outside the health centre for their medical monitoring. And if they are found to have cancer from Papa Patos’ smelter’s toxic emissions will their health surcharge be able to cover their medical expenses?
Unfortunately they won’t be able to go outside of Trinidad to get medical care like the father of the nation. And the father of the nation in his dark glasses to protect his 2020 Vision from the glaring truth of protests by people who have voted for him knows who is the outsider. He knows the face and name of every child. Of every tantie, or every grandfather and youth man. Even as workers from other parts of the country are bussed in to give support to their smelter. Even as the Government goes into debt with the Government of China to build a smelter. Even as community leaders and village council members remain on the outside of their air-conditioned tents.
And the police can clear the roads for Papa Patos to pass but the protesters get blamed by a newspaper for causing the death of a child. He must know who is the outsider because he has created the distinction. He has given the parameters for insideness and outsideness. And if you don’t like it you could put it in your pipe and smoke it. The smoke of the smelter will infiltrate the insides of those the father of the nation calls outsiders.

De place gettin warm…

Every other morning for the past couple weeks, I’ve received calls from friends in La Brea about what is happening down there.  You would never be able to tell by watching the nightly news broadcasts, but hundreds of residents in that part of the country have been engaged in daily protests against Alutrint, the government owned aluminum smelter plant that they have recently begun construction of.

This morning things came to a head. My sistren called me to say that a police officer had just fired a shot, in the midst of women and children in Union Village.  He had to be quickly escorted out of the community, as this angered many of the residents who have been engaging in various non-violent protests since 800 acres of land were first cleared from around their village five years ago.

Tomorrow morning Prime Minister Patrick Manning is carded to turn the sod for the Alutrint power station.  Word is that attempts will be made to stamp out any sign of protest, from destroying their camp to arresting anyone seen to be making the Prime Minister look bad.  La Brea is a PNM stronghold, which is why the initial resistance to the smelter was able to be overshadowed by what seemed to be overwhelming support from the community.  But the promises of jobs have turned out to be, well, not exactly true and now even the people pro-smelter people are taking to the streets.  

The following statement is from those members of the communities who are standing firm against the building of the Alutrint smelter.

PRESS STATEMENT

JUNE 9, 2009
FROM ORGANISED CITIZENS OF SOBO, UNION, VANCE RIVER, VESSIGNY, AND SQUARE DEAL VILLAGES

We understand Mr. Manning is planning to come La Brea tomorrow to turn the sod for Alutrint’s power plant.

Protests involving the villages of Sobo, Vance River, Vessigny, and Union are growing. The citizens involved are against the building of the Alutrint Smelter. We now have the information that Alutrint has been hiding since February 2008 on the health risks of the smelter and the facts on such things as the loss of our beach that has been hidden from us since 2005.

Please note protests that started about two weeks ago were for jobs and fair relocation practices. However, our protest is by villagers being left to live near this smelter and we do not want it! The residents scheduled for relocation and the residents being left behind are standing together.

Those who want jobs in Alutrint have a separate platform. However, we sympathise with them as we have all been fooled that there would be safe jobs for our people. Instead we have hundreds of Chinese roaming about our backyards.

The representatives on many village councils and in the Parliament are representing Alutrint not us. They are trying to shove the smelter down our throat to silence us. This is why we are in the streets, we are representing ourselves.

Today the police discharged a firearm in the air in the midst of children in Union Village. Our protest is non-violent. We will not back down.

The State wants the people of Trinidad to believe that only a handful of residents of La Brea do not want the smelter. This is not true. For example, last week when C-news came to do a feature on La Brea they were only taken to La Brea Village where some persons told them they want the smelter. We waited for them but they never came to our villages. Please note the La Brea area consists of many villages. It is the some 4000 plus residents of Sobo, Vance River, Union, and Vessigny villages that have to be tested every two years for cancer. The residents of La Brea Village do not have to be tested. They cannot speak for us! We speak for ourselves. We do not accept this hurtful smelter.

The State is trying to create the impression that all is well and that the smelter is moving ahead at pace and is unstoppable. They want the people of Trinidad to believe we cannot stop it. This is not true. There is no plant on the ground yet. No plant will go on that ground.

We are calling on right minded citizens of Trinidad to support our call for justice and fairness. This is not just about the environment. We will continue our non-violent protests tomorrow and as long as it takes to safeguard our health and community.

Lambs to the Slaughter

What yuh see is just an illusion
Trapped in yuh worries
And your confusion
Your philosophy just a fusion
Of your illusion
Hallelujah Hallejuah
Jah gimme de strength
And I see right through yuh
Don’t think that I would submit
To the pressure
—Trials and Tribulations, Orange Sky
Sharpen your political cutlass he says. In a country where people kill each other for the slightest of slights. He is telling people to sharpen cutlasses. Political violence fill your city, yeah. Laugh and say ray as he sharpens his political cutlass to buss the throats of more of your children. To fight for political power endorsed and blessed by the Fat Arse Brigade. Blessed by mothers who have wept for their murdered sons. Wept for no water since they first voted for the PNM 50 years ago. He is sharpening his political cutlass on stones painted white by Cepep workers. Because every overlord needs peons to do his bidding, a willing and unenlightened mass easily entertained.
Sharpen your political cutlass he says. Sharpen it like the fangs of all the snakes in that there clump of balisier. Who, unlike the UNC who openly fights for power scraps, play the genteel games of a nouveau riche black elite digging out the eyes of their own. Not seeing the reflection of their grandmothers, and tanties, and great uncles. Those who worked hard and long and fought for their right to go to school and have a respectable civil servant work. Those who sold toolum and beat clothes on rocks for them to now become these insufferable stuffed-shirts who sneer at anything grassroots but are not averse to using them for political mileage. Like all the La Brea residents that Fitzgerald Henry used two years ago before he was MP of La Brea to support his pro-smelter rally outside Whitehall.
Back then when the political cutlass being used was the promise of jobs in their Alutrint smelter. Jobs that if anyone had read the Environmental Impact Assessment would have known didn’t actually exist. And now Fitzgerald Jeffrey speaks of being disappointed about the lack of jobs being offered to locals. Now it is not outsiders who block the streets of La Brea but the people who were promised the world for a smelter in their backyards. But they are sharpening. As people become more and more agitated, more nervous about job losses, more antsy about the recession that is bound to come in the wake of all this excess. They start to talk fighting talk. Planass talk. Chop-up talk. Political badjohnism fills your Parliament, yeah. As if this country were not violent enough. He encourages us to really turn on ourselves now. To really begin to feast on our own blood.
The father of the nation is “bloodthirsty” and he is cleverly calling out his army to do the work that will dirty his own hands too much. And you know that these are not idle threats from people who make deals that no-one in this whole nation of macos, picong masters and satirists has the cohones to question. The subtext of this call to arms is to ask the most important question on this force-ripe small island right now. And that is, which side of the cutlass do you stand? Are you the chopper or will you be chopped. Are you willing to dead stupid to prove a point? Or are you going to stand on the side of the wrong and strong. Like an area don he demands loyalty. Like a gangster defending his turf he gives his neighbours the most sinister of ultimatums. If you’re not for me then you must be against me. And I can’t guarantee you protection when things start to go haywire.
It is the hardest decision you will ever have to make. It is the difference between life that is livable and the one that you cannot even bear to imagine. Where the police see your mother and tell her that they’ve just seen you in town, just so that she knows they are monitoring your movements.
Where a seventy-something year-old man staging a placard protest outside President’s House gets threatened by police for exercising his constitutional rights.

Sharpen your political cutlass. Not to clear land to grow food. Not to clear a path to a nation of citizens who feel a sense of what or why this country is worth fighting for. Not to get rid of all the negative forces that lurk in our psyches. Not to create a new paradigm, a new vision, a sense of belonging. Nothing but endless violence. Nothing but endless bloodloss. He sharpens his political cutlass and we like willing lambs offer ourselves up to the slaughter.