A dose of Reality

Gone are them days
When we loved each other
Gone are them times
When we were together
No more smiling face
No more warm embrace
In my home I’m like a stranger.

—Gone are the Days, Lord Shorty

The silence in this part of town is dreadful at this hour. It is about 8 pm on Emancipation Day and at the bottom of George Street only haunted souls seek refuge in the shadow of buildings that look as broken as they do. The mother in her wisdom decides that my nephews, who have had a spectacular day filled with dancing, drumming for Aunty Kamla and generally just being their fabulous selves, need a first dose of another kind of reality.  So we are going downtown to distribute food. I remember my days of doing this too. When the mother would make us pack baskets of food and take for children in the various homes around the country, especially during the holidays. We would sing and perform for children who had no mothers. Or absent ones. And mostly I remember something like jealousy for all the children who would be clamouring just for her hugs. The lesson I imagine we were supposed to learn is that we should never take for granted the blessings that we had. Even though we didn’t always get what we wanted, she insisted that we recognise that we were fortunate to have food and shelter and a good education and, most importantly, people who loved us.

The promise of better for the future is in this next generation, the children of my sisters. Who have so much, despite not having those contemporary trappings of affluence that parents are now bending over backwards to be able to afford for their children. For me as the number one auntie it is important that I help them hold on to their childhood for as long as possible. Insist that they enjoy life before they become too cynical. That they cultivate a desire for learning new things and be their best selves all the time. They are surrounded with so much love that maybe in a few years when they are surly teenagers they will accuse us like we accused our mother and her contemporaries of smothering us in their covering of love and almost manic protection. We take great pains to protect them from the big, cruel world. They live a sheltered life, where everyone loves them. They live a charmed life, where there is always enough, there is always someone who has an answer.

But every now and again it’s good to give them a good dose of reality. To remind them to be thankful for what they have. In case in the arrogance of youth they come to think that they are still entitled to things that they do not work for. Do not give thanks for. Do not recognise that someone else has to sacrifice to ensure that they have. It is a much steeper learning curve than I could have imagined. They are stunned by what they see. In these hours when they are home eating, or watching TV, or getting up to every imaginable mischief. And you might see vagrants in the day. But at night the spirits that walk the streets of our capital are a testimony to how many lonely souls inhabit this place. Earlier in the day we passed all these streets, kept moving to the sound of drums and the shuffle of our feet marching in time, picking up the polyrhythms, jumping with relief that we are still free. Like my father says, his mother could never even say the word enslavement, calling it instead “that thing” to describe what her mother had just narrowly escaped. Terrified that the colonial powers might change their minds and bring the shackles and the whips back. And I wonder what she would say now, of these shadows of men stretching out their hands to take this small offering of food from my niece and nephews on a big Emancipation Day when just hours ago we were dancing, happy to be free.

A tiny sliver of a man is pushing his cart up George Street. We slow down and my niece asks him if he wants something to eat. His hesitation lasts for a couple seconds, like he is trying to remember a time when he wasn’t having to accept a mystery box of food from young strangers. He says thanks as my niece hands over the box. And we move on. Not wanting to look back at the size of the load on his cart and where he finds the strength through his hunger to push the cart up the street. Further up the road we slow down again. There is a young man sitting on the pavement, and when Kayode asks him if he wants some food he puts his fingers in his ears and pulls his knees up to his chest. And Miles Davis is wailing out of the car’s speakers like a siren calling for some higher power, even as distant police sirens punctuate the long silences. Soon the boxes run out and when this happens the car is surrounded by three or four pairs of eyes, staring at us in a combination of distress and accusation. The children are bewildered by the outstretched hands that will get nothing from them this night. Kayode is apologetic and I am nervous that we are isolated on a street with desperate people. Who may or may not be in touch with their humanity.
Shanya has a tremor in her voice and for a moment I fear that this is too much of a baptism of fire for them. Yes they know that there is poverty in the world and people who have nothing. But that is for other places. In this land of plenty it is hard to believe that there is anyone who has nothing. Either by choice or by circumstance or by crack habit.

And I say to her that it is not for us to feel sorry for them, but to bring into sharp relief how fortunate we are to have the things we do. The miracle of plenty that is considered to be nothing. I think about the guava tree that gives a daily present of over 30 perfect, worm-free guavas. Forcing me to question why we describe hard times as guava season and not the season of possibility. And to compound this I go online and discover that the lowly guava is good for high blood pressure and good for your skin and good for fighting cancer. And it’s not just about food. Food is easy to find, here. I imagine that what we throw away daily is enough to feed those who we scorn for digging in dustbins, without realising that we are the depraved ones for throwing out good food. The real tragedy is people who have no one to love them. I can hardly imagine how long it’s been since anyone has reassured them, you are real. You are important. You are loved. Even those people who have not made it to the streets. Even the boys hardly living to be men are dying for someone to hold them. And tell them they are loved. They are human. They mean something to someone. If you don’t have this then food and money and life mean nothing. That is why it is so easy for them to take it. To give it up. This is what makes life worth living. This is what makes freedom something worth fighting for. This is how we find our humanity. In giving a bit of our excess love and light and joy to people who may have forgotten what that is like.

A Sunday evening reason to love the internet.

It’s Sunday evening and because it’s raining I decide to fight my way through nineteen hundred unread email messages. To lighten the load I’m listening to Don Drummond, like I sometimes do when I’m feeling nostalgic for Kingston and my adventurous youth there. Suddenly the mother bursts into the room. Where you get that song? That’s not the original!! I’m like what, lady?

She insists that African Beat is not an original, and I mildly protest but this woman has a sickeningly amazing memory.

The mother recalls paying their neighbour the slightly more affluent teacher her few pennies for him to play the radio loud enough for her to hear, because her own mother couldn’t afford a radio. This is 1954 so she is less than ten years old at the time. I Google it and I discover that it was a German composer called Bert Kaempfert who did the original Afrikaan Beat which was then re-done ska style by the brilliant and short lived Kingston genius Drummond.

Anyway I get busy and soon I’ve downloaded the Kaempfert. The mother is covered in goosebumps and close to tears. She hasn’t heard this song in fifty or so years and she remembers every nuance of the music. She then starts recalling other songs she hasn’t heard in years. And soon I’m downloading like mad Les Baxter’s Poor People of Paris and Edith Piaf and the mother is waxing nostalgic for easier times, poorer times, family times in Santa Cruz.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that a lot of the music I enjoy now was introduced to me when I was small. Sundays were blast out the sound system days and the mother played everything from Beethoven to Ralph Macdonald to Buddy Miles. When I spent time with the male parental unit he was big on the jazz tip and Lucky Dube and of course Beethoven (he once called me long distance to tell me that he was reading a book that said that the old Ludwig died in the middle of a storm – at the moment of his death he raised himself off the bed and shook his clenched fist at the thundering heavens. ‘Dat is Shango self!’ was the father’s comment).

Anyway, it felt good to be able to provide such a service, given that the mother is an unapologetic techno peasant, it was like magic for her watching me find a piece of her history. But I am also struck by how much about this woman that I’ve known all my life I still don’t know

And also how much of my life now that I take for granted.

So Ashé Ogun for the internet. It’s trickier than Anansi but it’s always possible to learn something.

Cocoa in the Rain

Them belly full but we hungry.
A hungry mob is a angry mob.
A rain a fall but the dirt it tuff
A pot a cook but the food nuh nuff.

Forget your troubles and dance.
Forget your sorrow and dance.
Forget your sickness and dance.
Forget your weakness and dance.

Cost of living get so high,
Rich and poor, they start a cry.
Now the weak must get strong.
They say, “Oh, what a tribulation.”

Them Belly Full, Robert Nesta Marley

I couldn’t even bring myself to take a picture of her.  An old woman digging in a dustbin.  It’s not like it’s something I haven’t seen before.  It’s not such an uncommon sight in Trinidad. Sweet T&T where people are robbing food trucks now.  A part of me wants to go back to the days when people were robbing jewels and sneakers and completely inconsequential things that only pointed to how manic this society makes you if you don’t look like you belong.
My Trini class consciousness and obsession with not looking poor tells me this is a terrible thing, digging in dustbins.  But is it a shame for those digging in the bins or to the people who have thrown away food that they could have shared with others?
I myself in other places and times have feasted with activist friends on the spoils of what they call ‘skip diving’ that is, looking in the rubbish bins, particularly those outside supermarkets and bakeries where they throw out perfectly good food.  Fruit and vegetables and bread and cheese. And some proprietors are kind enough to separate the good stuff from the bad stuff so skip divers don’t have to deal with rodents and other nasties.  We baulk at those who make a brisk trade in the La Basse because everything is rubbish and filth is not something that us nice clean people want to think about it, although it is well known that it’s the people with more who have more to waste.
But I suppose the fact that a whole section of our society lives on what we throw away is a good indication that we are achieving that most desirable developed nation status.
She was digging in a garbage receptacle under the street sign saying La Fantaisie in St. Ann’s. Down the at the end of La Fantaisie I can just make out the Trinidad and Tobago coat of arms gleaming blood red on the gates of the palace.
It occurs to me that it’s ten kinds of ironic that this woman could possibly be digging through what Papa Patos has thrown away. I wondered why she chose this particular garbage bin. Maybe she thought Papa Patos’ waste would yield some higher quality food than what was on offer downtown.
I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture of her. I couldn’t reach into my bag and pull out my extra set of eyes, a bourgeois indulgence that I am at pains to live without.  It would have been too much.  She looked up at me for a minute, she was bent over double, arms immersed in the garbage, that didn’t have that hot, stink smell that usually accompanies garbage sites.
Still Papa Patos says we shall overcome.  My grandmother in all her barely literate wisdom used to warn, when you have cocoa in the sun you must look for rain.  I never had to look for rain because my great grandfather sold much of his Santa Cruz land to old man Stollmeyer for less than a fraction of what it is probably worth now.  So I, like so many others who call ourselves Trini own no piece of land from which to chase fruit thieves.  I know no days of wandering in bush that is mine, of watching the sky and knowing how to tell the rain is coming simply from the smell of the wind.
I remember my grandmother when I see this woman digging in the dustbin under a sign saying La Fantaisie.  And I hear Papa Patos getting all hot and sweaty about increasing domestic food production after years of destroying agricultural land to build highways and houses.   Now that the rain has come down, he is making a mad dash to save the cocoa.
Now that people are robbing flour trucks and soon you’ll only be able to eat a doubles in one of those designer restaurants he’s talking about overcoming when we should never have reached here in the first place.
The man in the palace in La Fantaisie says this too shall pass. This waste and this want and this nothingness in the midst of so much abundance.   This guava season when we have cut down all the guava trees.

I never thought


Everybody run run run
Everybody scatter scatter
Some people lost some bread
Someone nearly die
Someone just die
Police dey come, army dey come
Confusion everywhere
Several minutes later
All done cool down, brother
Police done go away
Army done disappear
Dem leave sorrow, tears and blood
Dem regular trademark
Sorrow Tears and Blood, Fela Anikulapo Kuti

Wednesday afternoon on Charlotte Street.  I hear something that sounds like a gunshot and I try to convince myself that it isn’t.
No one else flinches on Charlotte Street.  No one looks around.  Everyone continues about their business – selling, buying, cussing, raving, tracking, playing music loud enough to make your insides vibrate.
So I convince myself that it isn’t a gunshot and continue about my business.
A few minutes later, I hear the news that there’s a crowd gathered around the corner and the police have just shot a man.
By the time I get to the scene of the crime, the shot man has been whisked away in a police van, but the people are still gathered around, the splashes of the man’s blood making three deep red stains in the concrete pavement, while the shell from the single bullet fired at the man lies in the drain.
People walk through the crowd, commuters and pedestrians walk through the man’s blood on the pavement hardly even noticing.  The one uniformed officer on the scene does little to stop them from tampering with a crime scene.  The bag of groceries the old man stole from the shop is also on the pavement, the straps of the black plastic bag flapping non-chalantly in the occasional afternoon breeze.
They coulda give him case.  The women say.  They didn’t have to shoot him.  An old man.  They keep repeating.  He was an old man.
The crowd analyses why an old man would be stealing groceries.  A bag of groceries.  This is what poor people come to in this country.
The police too fat to run down suspects.  How fast could an old man run anyway?  Others say the man was already handcuffed when they shot him.
A man tries to make a joke about the man being shot in his backside.  But for once, no one is in the mood for kicks.  A woman issues a long watery steups in the direction of the joker and he immediately falls silent.
A young woman, looking the Babylon in his eye declares that she won’t go to the police for nothing.
If your man beating you, she says, they will tell you is not their business.   I have to protect myself, but they quick to shoot an old man with a bag of groceries.
A youth man is shouting over all the other voices.  He shouts about police brutality.  About being effing fed up about this kind of treatment.  About what would happen in this country if people were to turn against the police.  The Babylon on the scene tries to quiet him down.  He walks off trying to cool his head.  He probably has firsthand experience of the consequences of his hot mouth and the police.  But he continues.  And his sentiments are echoed by an older woman.  Too much police brutality on poor people.  The people ask if the police are there to protect them or to kill them.
What we could do, what we could do?  People ask me when I ask them what they’re going to do about what is going on.  They know that it can’t continue like this.
The youth man points accusingly at the crowd.  And allyuh want to vote for PNM?  He is a rahtid.  Like so many more.  A woman takes offence.  This have nothing to do with the PNM.
The youth man continues to shout.   Is the PNM fault, oui.
The crowd grows.  More police turn up.  Half hour after the man was shot and a few people walked through the evidence they string up a caution tape.  They tell the media people that we’re sensationalizing an incident that really wasn’t that important.
Meanwhile, uptown away from bullets, vagrants, heat, noise and streets sagging under the weight of poverty, Minister of National Security Martin Joseph admits that he underestimated the amount of work he had to do.
He, like the rest us, must be suffering from I never thought. I never thought Trinidad could get like this.   And I never thought none of us would know what to do about it.

Firing not the answer

I and I know the truth of it all,
Cos we have smashed our heads ‘gainst that wall,
And now I seh we must create a scene,
We must recapture our culture
by any means.
Babylon Makes the Rules, Steel Pulse

It’s not what he said that was the travesty. In a country where children curse old people and men dehumanise women, you can’t really fault the goodly Mr Mungalsingh for saying what he had to say.

African people are doing the crime so therefore they don’t deserve to be alive. It’s not an original thought, and it’s not just shared by the Indians in this country who feel under siege.

One night a couple years ago an Afro-Trini man showed me an SMS joke of the day. It went something like: Question: what do you call a Laventille woman who has an abortion? Answer: crimestopper.

He watched me for a couple seconds, trying to assess what my reaction would be. Not too sure if I would burst out laughing or to knock him over. I don’t know why he thought I would find that even remotely funny. But we’ve become so desensitised to our own insensitivities that we think that everybody else is as callous.

I walked around stunned for a couple days trying to figure out a way to process that one.

So basically Harrypersad Mungalsingh took a joke and made it deadly serious. And he represents a completely legitimate voice in Trinidad.

Those who would see absolute sense in denying working class women of the reproductive rights. Those who have taken the trauma of living in a rotten headed state to new heights.

Those who are parlaysed by fear and self-loathing.

The answer is not to fire Harrypersad Mungalsingh.

He certainly was continuing a longstanding tradition of disrespect that has become a mainstay of our highest offices. People in power in this country can basically do or say whatever the France they want without fear of reproach.

So protestors can be drug lords and political leaders can offer to sleep with the devil for power.

I mean, imagine, if you can, if Sherman Mc Nicholls was a little natty head boy from Red Hill. Would he have the privilege to decide on which day he could turn up in court to give evidence.

He would have been down in Remand Yard eating sulphur filled hops bread before you could say contempt of court?

No, Aunty Kamla, Harrypersad Mungalsingh and his verbal diarrhoea are not the problem.

The problem is the one rule for the rich and another for the poor.

The problem is the huge valley that exists between the Indians who feel under siege and the Africans who are losing their children to gun violence.

The problem is that there is willing to take on the task of beginning to work through the barriers created by a century of cleverly crafted divisions.

The problem is not the African community but all the creole PNM-ites who think that political power is their birthright, even though it’s really not working to improve their conditions as human beings.

The problem is that sexual and reproductive health rights of women in the country as a whole are basically non-existent and sex is still tied up with somebody’s version of morals.

I think that Harrypersad Mungalsingh, together with a selection of black radio announcers need to be given some race and gender sensitivity training. And perhaps we could add Hedgwige Bereaux to that list after his pronouncement in a meeting in La Brea that “white” Trinis who are opposed to aluminium smelters don’t want black people to prosper.

Polticians say dumb things everyday. It’s as if when they enter office they get a big handbook of completely inappropriate things to say.

Or possibly they are the embarrassing product of what happens when you become so comfortable in our racism, in our bluntness and insensitivity that we can’t seem to be civil to each other any more.

That’s about as effective as putting little black boys in prison to get sodomised because they’re caught with a spliff.

To say that Harrypersad Mungalsingh is a racist is counter-productive. To axe him from Parliament even moreso.

I mean really, we should be glad that he managed to stay awake long enough to say anything at all.

The answer is not to fire Harrypersad Mungalsingh. To fire him is to absolve him of any responsibility for his actions.

And firing him doesn’t help us begin to answer the question of why he made those comments in the first place.