Beat It like a Good Friday Bobolee


A community betrayed is a community undone. It is a neverending story of the human condition played out in Trinidad and Tobago’s own often brutal history, at endless moments when communities have made attempts to stand against injustice. In the absence of armed struggle, right to recall, effective or enforced environmental laws, and other forms of justice for communities, we laugh through our anger and frustration — and beat a bobolee instead.

Like so many other cultural forms in Trinidad and Tobago, the Good Friday bobolee — usually made of simple household materials — is a piece of performance art that goes much deeper than its ragged clothes. A bobolee is a public shaming of those who think that title, position, or social status are any protection from the wrath of the people.

Read the original article in the Current Issue of Caribbean Beat here:

Letter to Senators from the Citizens Assembly


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

A letter to President Goodluck Jonathan

I went down to Nigeria House this morning. No official protest, just me and my friend of more years than I care to count and her daughter, all of 16 and a half months of Nina awesomeness. We stood there with our little placards just the three of us, people passing by looking at us in that special way that is reserved for crazy people who think that standing up at the side of the road in the cold is a good idea.
Eventually we tried to give them the letter. They sent us from one entrance to the next until finally one man came out and told us that he isn’t authorised to receive letters for the President and that we should send it via Registered Mail. So it’s been sent registered mail and it will also be sent to this email address provided by the Nigerian High Commission in Trinidad 

Dear Sir
We are concerned mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters of various nationalities. We are writing to you to express our deep concern on the disappearance of the 234 school girls in Chibok, Borno.
We are writing to ask that you treat the issue of the missing girls with a bit more urgency.
The history of Nigeria, the ethnic, political and social realities that gave rise to this tragic situation are all areas in which we have limited knowledge. It does not help that we continue to get distorted versions of these stories from international media sources, that neither understand nor care to explain these contemporary and historical problems, nor how colonial powers were and continue to be involved in the instability of countries all over the global south.
Our concerns are for girl children around the world. We cannot imagine our lives without the girls who surround us.
We imagine that if our own children were to go missing we would want the world to come to a standstill and help us find them. We stand in solidarity with the families of the missing girls and ask that you use everything in your power to return them to their rightful place.
We also ask that as the leader of the largest democracy in Africa you consider why so often women’s bodies become the battlefields upon which wars are fought. And why young women continue to be scarred by battles that do not not concern them. We echo the concerns of the relatives of these young women, the future of Nigeria, the world.
We echo their concerns because we too are surrounded by young women who are under threat in different, but similar ways. This is not a problem that involves a small town in Nigeria, this involves all girls everywhere.
We hope that you feel neither shame nor pride in calling on the help and support of those who have the concerns of these girls at heart.
The real shame would be for them to live scarred lives or worse for their innocent blood to be on your hands.

This time next week, I’ll be in the midst of the bacchanal that is Jouvay. Jouvay is truth in a way that nothing else can be.
So as I get my heart and mind ready for this week, I’m reflecting on my Jouvay truths. My love for Trinidad and Carnival and art.

What Caricom did next….

It is especially repugnant that the ruling ignores the 2005 judgement made by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) that the Dominican Republic adapt its immigration laws and practices in accordance with the provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights. The ruling also violates the Dominican Republic’s international human rights obligations. Furthermore, the ruling has created an environment where, with the abrogation of rights that flow from citizenship, arbitrariness can flourish as illustrated by recent media reports of the forced deportation to Haiti of persons claiming to be Dominican and with no linguistic or familial ties to that country.

 – Caricom Statement on Dominican Republic’s citizenship ruling.

Last night I attended an impromptu audience with Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves who was in Trinidad for the Heads of Government Meeting at which they finally made their statement condemning the shocking and racist court ruling in the Dominican Republic against Haitian descended Dominicans.

The meeting was hosted by Jouvay Ayiti – a Trinidad based collective dedicated to addressing the question of Haiti through what Rawle Gibbons described last night as the ‘mechanism of mas’.

Jouvay – the opening of Carnival celebrated in several islands across the Caribbean- has always been a point of protest and social commentary in Trinidad.

So the choice to use mas as a means of confronting our past, present and future engagement with Haiti is not only valid it is vital.

Jouvay Ayiti first responded to the DR question on November 6, with a mas action in Port of Spain. This was followed up with a petition sent to Caricom.

Meanwhile it’s taken over two months for a statement to come from Caricom and it is largely, I am inclined to believe after last night’s audience with the SVG PM, due to his agitations. He even joked about the similarity in the language of the Caricom’s statement and the letters he sent to the DR’s  on October 11 and another on November 11 (neither of which has received a response to date).

As Angelique V Nixon points out in her article on Groundation Grenada, Haitians are also regularly discriminated against and deported from the Bahamas.

The Bahamas — somewhat like the DR’s new ruling — also denies rights to the children of migrants, the difference being that children of migrants do have access to birth citizenship rights, which they have to apply for at 18. However, this process can take years, especially if one does not have access to legal assistance. Unlike the DR, Haitian Bahamians do have the right to stay in the country until they turn 18. However, many Haitian Bahamians remain stateless after 18 because of the difficulty in securing their status. On top of the legal challenges that Haitians and Haitian Bahamians deal with, they are socially stigmatized — from slurs and stereotypes to poor treatment at public clinics and hospitals, Haitian people bear much blame for a variety of social ills in Bahamian society. When times are rough, tourism is down, crime is on the rise, or people get laid off, Haitians are the scapegoats for everyone’s troubles and strapped resources. This resonates eerily with what has happened in the Dominican Republic, and I offer this comparison to remind us of the vulnerable position in which many Haitian migrants find themselves — not only in the DR but also elsewhere in the region.

Gonsalves openly stated last night that he disagreed with Caricom’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ approach. He read the two strongly worded letters he sent to Medina and also the letter he sent to Venezuela’s  Maduro, calling on him to consider suspending them from the Petrocaribe agreement.

So aside from threats of suspension from Cariforum and CELAC, the Petrocaribe issue is probably going to be a defining factor in the outcome of this regional embarrassment.

Money talks, after all.

And in as much as I am glad that Caricom has finally found  voice and interest enough to make a statement (Norman Girvan in introducing Gonsalves last night said it was the first time he could feel proud of the Community) I’m still concerned about issues of free movement in the Caribbean. 

Since the issuing of this statement, the planned talks between Haitiian President Michel Martelly and a high profile team of officials from the Dominican Republic have fallen through.

So what comes next? Aside from the threat of sanctions and diplomatic snubbing how are we really going to start to address institutional and other types of racism in the Caribbean between nations?

It brings me again back to my concerns with regards to the reparations issue – what is Caricom’s policy position on the complexities of our ethnic and racial interactions?

How are we engaging with these complexities at the level of education, at the level of policy, at the level of government initiatives?


Because let’s face it, the reason for our lack of action on Haiti is the fact that in 1804 a bunch of enslaved Africans had the audacity to fight against the French, win and then declare themselves a Republic.

And the question of blackness and/or African ancestry is still a point of shame for far too many Caribbean people of African descent, despite the fact that we have given the world some of the leading luminaries of Pan Africanism (Henry Sylvestre Williams, Marcus Garvey, CLR James, George Padmore, to name a few). And of course one of the major issues plaguing our relationship with Haiti is the continued fear and loathing of African spiritual traditions

One of Gonsalves’ closing observations was the virtual non-existence of any critical thought or action coming from the University of the West Indies.  This is something that has bothered me for years. I’m watching and waiting but I’m not terribly hopeful.

Gonsalves started his speech talking about his days as a student at the University of the West Indies Mona campus when he organised the protest against the banning of the late great Walter Rodney who dared go into the ghettoes of Kingston to ground with his brothers. 

45 years later the issues we are afraid to confront are similar if not exactly the same.  

Today is the 30th Anniversary of Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop being placed under house arrest.


On October 14th 1983, the Bernard Coard led faction of the New Jewel Movement placed Prime Minister Maurice Bishop under house arrest because he had refused their calls for joint leadership of the NJM.

In an Extraordinary Meeting of the Central Committee of September 16 a joint leadership between Bishop and Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard was first formally proposed.

Central Committee member Liam James proposed Coard a joint leader, saying that Bishop lacked ‘a Leninist level of organisation and discipline.. ideological clarity.. [and] brilliance in strategy and tactics’.  

On September 25th, 1983 the faction further advanced the idea of the NJM being transformed into a formal Marxist-Leninist Party.

Word of Bishop’s arrest caused massive protests.

What unfolded in the following days was a horror that we are still coming to terms with.


Look out for more posts this week on Grenada and the Revolution.

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.