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.

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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).

Women 350 – Climate Action in Trinidad!

We are a collective of women of Trinidad and Tobago.
We are gathering to add our voices to the international call.
Trinidad and Tobago is a wealthy small island developing nation rich in oil and natural gas. But we are also seeing the damaging effects of aggressive industrialisation on our islands.
This is an opportunity for women’s voices to be heard.
Our event centres around a smoke ceremony from the most forgotten voice of indigenous women of Trinidad and Tobago.
We are asking all women to come to the Queen’s Park Savannah wearing white. We are asking men to come and lend their voices in support at 3.50 p.m.
We will make the 350 with our bodies, in this way, we all take responsibility for making 350 a reality.
We all have a part to play and Saturday is a call to arms for women from all communities to begin to be conscious of climate change and how it will affect the lives of all islanders.

Love and Baigan – A Maticoor Meditation

Republic Maticoor

When Gab, my sistren from the year nought jokingly suggested that I organize and host her maticoor at the Republic a month ago it didn’t seem so odd. 

Given that I am a post modern Orisa/Rasta ecofeminist and Gab is a Rapso feminist activist, former Miss Mastana Bahar and her family is actually Muslim Indian via Afghanistan. AND she was getting married to an African man in Christian ceremony.

I engaged in the process the same way I engage in any kind of celebration, with wild abandon and excitement.

This was not to be a regular maticoor by any stretch of our imaginations.  It was less than rites but more than tradition.  But that is the Trinidad experience — creating new interpretations of old things, making culture relevant  and current and alive and vital.  

 It didn’t matter that I’m not Indian or Hindu or a family member.

In our reasonings about what we wanted the maticoor to be, Gab and I agreed that to call it a maticoor was to take the name with its local cultural and social significance specifically to women and make it our own.  

As women confronting this Trinidad landscape, claiming space, expressing views, thoughts, dreams, desires we know the restrictions on this freedom.  The maticoor then becomes that last chance for us to come together and surround our sister friend with all our light, all our hope and all our admonishing that this mouth called marriage doesn’t swallow her up, consume her so totally that she no longer is the person we knew.  A better stronger person perhaps. Because what is love if it doesn’t give you the energy to be an amplified version of yourself?

On the day of the maticoor I ended up in a shop in San Juan market with the mother.  I bought some coconut oil and wicks for the deyas I planned for Gab’s circle of light.  I stood there talking with the female shop owner, asking her about the various puja items on sale.  We chatted for a long time too about the similarities between Hindu rites and practices and Ifa/Orisa rites and practices.  About the late Orisa priest Baba Sam who often said his prayers in Sanskrit, of Ravi Ji who I call Uncle.

An Indian man,  a Jehovah’s Witness tried to engage me and the mother in a conversation about Christianity and why the Bible is the only truth.  There was a lot of snorting and steupsing from us at this point.  A few shoppers stopped their shopping to hear how the conversation was going.  Anyway to cut a long story short, the mother shouted at the man ‘Conversion is the worst crime perpetrated against people like us.  A lot of Indian people had to convert to Christianity, change their names and their way of life to keep their jobs, to send their children to school.  Orisa people used to have to run from police for playing their drums.  Pay respect to your ancestors who sacrificed so much for you to be here!’

In our circle later that night, after Burton had sung his ribald maticoor songs and then orikis to Orisa goddesses Yemoja, Osun and Oya and of course Sparrow’s Maharajin and we sat watching our mehendi’d hands dry, we all dressed as our personal sheroes – I am Phoolan Devi, in a circle of Parvati, Gaia, Winnie Mandela, Artemis, Athena, Yemoja, Osun… 

I spare a thought for the Jehovah Witness man who must still be scratching his head over the encounter with me and the mother.  I spare a thought for his version of the story which can only ever be one way.  That his worldview is limited by his belief system that says there is only one truth.  

We gather there in that circle giving Gab our love and advice.  The melongene comes out and we collapse into giggles.  Love and baigan are things that we all know. Experiences that we all share.  We give our best ideas and advice.

Trini men are special enough for us to try to figure out how to love them and demand that they love us in ways that are affirming, empowering, enlightening.

In a place and time when we presume women are disempowered, whether by marriage, religion or just the goddamn competing patriarchies that battle for women’s bodies and minds in this country, the maticoor then is a space of power for women where they can celebrate themselves, their femininity, sexuality freely.

 The maticoor is a moment of woman obeah.  To remind us of our power and how to use it.  That setting of a stage where the bride knows that the women have her back.  

Trinidad is such a subtle, nuanced place.  It’s easy to get it wrong. It’s easy to think that race divides us, which it does in bizarre ways.  That we succumb to the politics of nigger and coolie paranoia, which we do in the worst of times.  No mistake, there are a lot of people in Trinidad for whom that is a reality.  There are a lot of people in Trinidad who fully and committedly engage in the politics of resentment.  Who use difference as a dividing line.  

But it is never that simple.  So it is up to us who have had this upbringing that is all of the above: Indian and African and western and Baptist and Amitabh Bachchan on a Sunday afternoon and Viv Richards and pan to develop the capactity to deal with our cultural schizophrenia rather than try to disentangle it and try to construct some singular identity.  That’s not just impossible, it’s impossibly boring.

Maybe it is up to the women to lead the way to this easier understanding of this country’s complexities.  To an acceptance of how we mix and mingle and our sharp edges become softened by a constant rubbing against the Other. Until the other is yourself and you are the other.  And maybe a dougla maticoor is not the answer to all our problems.

 But surely love and baigan are key ingredients in any effort to bring us all a little closer.

Macoing but not seeing

Giving your heart and soul to vanity, yeah
Makes your life filled with pain and misery
While life goes on everyone’s got to stand strong
You can’t surrender

—Sitting and Watching, Dennis Brown

Ceaseless chatter ricochets around these islands. Chatter about everything but mostly about nothing.  In this nation of talkers, big talkers, robber talkers, too-too talkers, no one can seem to find anything sensible to say. Reading the newspapers becomes a chore, but mostly a bore. Nightly newscasts send you to sleep.  It is then that you have to conclude that Trinidad is annoyingly small. Small to the point of causing claustrophobia. Small to the point where if one person sneezes the whole country catches a cold, gives it a name, laughs about it. One thing bothers me. And it is how come in a country of macos, gossips, mamaguy and mauvais langue is it possible for the people who took a little girl to be so hard to find?

How come children still manage to disappear? In a nation of macos, where people seem to derive so much pleasure from minding other people’s business, they can’t find children who go missing. But perhaps it is because of our highly developed macoing skills that some of us have developed the capacity to hide, to disguise ourselves as whatever is acceptable at the moment. To be horners or paedophiles or in public office and unapologetically commit fraud. Perhaps these people are the real heroes of Trinidad. Those who have escaped our scrutiny as we obsess with inanities. Trinidad is so small that we can’t find criminals. We can’t find missing children. We can’t find a functional government or a serious opposition. We concoct whole stories about a container full of missing children. 

The funny thing about Trinidad is how everybody always has a tanty, some friend, their neighbour outside brother-in-law friend, who knows somebody who was passing through when it happened. Yet no one has a tanty, uncle or nennen that saw when they took Leah away from her school. In broad daylight. Yet no one gives any attention to talk that work is going on up in St Ann’s for containers in which they will house Port-of-Spain’s homeless so that all the Government’s Summit of the Americas guests won’t see our human eyesores. We would rather believe modern folklore about yawning metal mouths eating our children than take note of the soucouyants in the Red House.

Trinidad is so small enough for us to not have a problem with the culture of talking without actually saying anything. We are all about the navel gazing, the status updates, the endless barrage of Trinis on scenes, smiling with a drink in their hands. So obsessed with keeping up with what is happening, with staying connected, plugged in, hooked up that people have forgotten how to communicate. How to warn each other of danger. How to grieve when there is loss. How to look out for our neighbour’s children and expect that they will return the favour. We have dumbed down macoing, like everything else that perhaps was ever good about ourselves. I would like to believe that there was perhaps a time when macoing was a good thing. When we sought each other’s interests and protected each other from real and imagined fears.

Now that our walls are too high to see over, we peer into each other’s lives in other ways but know less. We go to fete not to fete but to see and be seen. We maco, not to look out for each other, but to pass judgment, to have something for discussion. Except when it matters. When it really matters suddenly our maco senses are dulled. In the same way that we don’t want to take responsibility for all the children who are in front of us begging for help and attention and love, we dismiss the things that we really should be macoing. No one is macoing NEC’s presumptuous soil testing for a port for which they have no Certificate of Environmental Clearance.

No one is macoing what is going on in our schools that are breeding grounds for boredom, underachievement and criminality.  No one is minding our collective business, where our money is going. How much money they’re really spending on the summit and what possible benefits it will yield us, aside from being a government wank all over our Treasury. It must be that some of us are okay with children disappearing or with the Treasury being pillaged. It must be that we are willing to not see the things that we do. That sometimes we fight our maco gene. We deny it just when it is needed the most. In this tiny little country of watchers, no one seems capable of seeing clearly.

Dear Rihanna

Pardon the intrusion in your personal affairs. I expect you are used to it, by now.

Your love life isn’t my business. In truth I didn’t care to know the details of your life at all until I heard about what Chris Brown did to you.

And I don’t know if my words will have any effect on you, but I feel like I have to say it. Not just for you, but for myself and for all the young women out there who are your fans, who enjoy the entertainment you have chosen to share with us.

I talk to young people about it. People who are more into you than I could ever be (not because I’m old, but because pop music is annoying).

The fellars say you beg for that please. They say you feel you too nice. That clearly you needed some perspective. 

This is not an unfamiliar point of view. I am not shocked by their statements. 

Some of the girls agree. They say you must have done something to deserve to get your face buss. I’ve seen pictures of your injuries. I’ve heard about the bite marks. The fact that you were so bruised you couldn’t go to the Grammies. 

And I wonder what you could possibly have done to warrant that kind of violence.

The scary thing is that we are so comfortable with violence that your fans can get over Chris Brown’s behaviour. They say, small ting. Everybody has to get licks some time.

This is a country where we make a lot of excuses for men’s violence against women. This is a country where little girls can be abducted, raped, killed and then you hear people call in to radio stations and condemn them for being too ‘fresh’.

This scares me, Rihanna. Especially since women like you are role models. The epitome of this bizarre construct called modern woman. You, the post feminist self-determined Barbie, who have money, a top career, men the world over who practically worship you and thighs to make the rest of us women die of jealousy. You who are all these things can’t possibly accept such behaviour from a man.

I fear that the news of your return to your abuser sets a bad precedent to all the Caribbean girls becoming women who admire you, your rise to fame, your spectacular claiming of Hollywood. You, a regular Bajan girl that could be any regular other girl from any regular other island.

I fear that this is incident was not the first. And that because of all the shame, scrutiny and publicity that it generated, the next time he punches you in the face, you’ll probably be a lot less willing to report it.

For your sake though, your fans will learn an important point. That it’s not just the women who are economically disadvantaged who get beaten up by the men who allegedly love them.

It’s not just women who are poor or unattractive or hard up for a man that get their faces bashed in for them, so that they can feel grateful that they have a man at all.

I am fortunate to say that I have no idea of the acute embarrassment and hurt you must feel.

I am fortunate to say that no man ever put God out of his thoughts to raise his hand to hit me. My fear is that I am part of a minority of women. That there are more women out there who have experienced some kind of physical abuse at the hands of someone who allegedly loves them.

A sister friend says too she went back to an abusive man. Because she loved him and hoped that love could conquer his anger.

We have this way of thinking that doesn’t always take reason into consideration, because we think we’re in love. We would rather take the occasional licks than lonely nights or trying to find someone else to love us.

And I look around at my other sister friends who are agonizing in relationships with men who either don’t deserve them or are still trying to figure out if they are men for real, and I wonder about love and power and sex and if we will ever figure out how to balance them all. 

If women like you can negotiate around and past the problem of abuse and add your voices and your strength and your ideas to women who don’t have the resources or the confidence in their own voices to break themselves out of cycles of violence.

In love and solidarity

Flag Woman of Class

When yuh see she get that fever
Is plenty trouble
Whether youse a saint or sinner
You bound to wiggle
Aiya yai ayai ayai
—Flag Woman, Lord Kitchenertwflag2

I am standing in the middle of the street. Where the roads make a perfect cross. Marking the spot where I clear a path for Phase II Pan Groove to enter the Savannah. This is a piece of madness that is exceptional even for me. I am neither dancer nor sexy in that heavy T bumper kind of way nor do I possess any recognizable aura of Matador woman.

It is 15 or so minutes since I first held the flag. It is a red satiny one with zig zag letters, announcing the name of the band that I grew up listening to, committing whole arrangements to memory. I never wanted to learn to play but instead to drown myself inside music that is the sweetest pain. It has all happened rather fast. I go from hoping to get a bligh on the track, purely for documentary purposes to clearing a path for the band through the thousands of pan lovers gathered in this sacred space. It’s too late to turn back now.

To flake out or let the doubts that have been shouting at me all day lead me back home, chastened by the prospect of all those people judging my non-existent flag-waving skills. I am standing at the crossroads of fear and insanity trying to make a rational decision about the way to go. The regular flag man has a wild look in his eyes. He is concerned about my path-clearing skills. He shows me once. And then again. I am confused. He shows me again and I think I might have it. We start up the track. I hold the flag high over my head, my long arms coming to good use for once and all those months of warrior salutations finally paying off.

The flag is red, green and gold now. The flap of it in the light breeze is all that I can hear, as if my mind has managed to turn down the volume in the Savannah. I am clearing a path smooth and wide. People read the flag. They decide to stay a little longer. Linger on the track to hear the Panorama champs. Sister-friends hover close by. Offering water and words of encouragement. They still can’t believe that I am going to do this. In a way neither do I.

The truth is, this whole flag woman thing started off as a Facebook status update joke that spiralled wildly out of my own control. My inner jammette is at rest as I walk up the track. All day on Sunday I have been paralysed by various fears. Fears that I have neither the skill nor the gumption to do it. Fears that I will confuse liberation with objectification and end up with some convoluted radical feminist crisis of conscience that will spoil the whole damn thing. Really though, I am most scared that I will fall off the stage, drop the flag or the flag will get wrapped around itself and I won’t be able to get it flying again.

We press on, up the track, the moon full and daring me to keep going. The stage comes into view. NCC officials urge us forward. Next thing you know, I am walking onto the stage. The lights from the hills wink reassuringly. I was born to do this. The mother is somewhere in the audience. I smile as I remember how she likes to relate to me that I walked long after I was supposed to. But when I did, the first place I got lost was in the Savannah at Panorama time. The Boy gives me five and I am glad for the last bit of energy we exchange through our palms.

They are begging supporters to come off the stage. My inner jammette is preening, chipping, rolling up and out of me and I am not sure whether it is still me, me self there or some other woman. Someone surer of herself and her body. Someone more beautiful and poised and graceful. I use my flag-woman influence to push the crowds back. They smile and agree. The lights come up and Boogsie rings out a magic drum timing on the racks. I am pointer woman and path clearer. I am water and light and pure flag woman energy. Sure and strong and so happy to be in this magic moment.