Free education is not free. Though in principle all children in Trinidad and Tobago have access to free schooling, not all of them can afford to take up the offer. Government already provides free textbooks, breakfast, lunch, and tuition, you might note, and it is up to parents to provide the other necessities for attending school. Yet, it’s not always easy for parents to do so. As a parent myself I can tell you the cost of outfitting a child for school is high, even with all the above provided free. Each child has to have a book bag, for one. Textbooks might be free but stationery isn’t, and you might cast your own mind back to your days in uniform to remember what it was like to forget a copybook at home, or to not have a copybook at all. Even apart from other things like uniforms and shoes, there are also personal hygiene requirements like deodorant, soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush, without which a child would be embarrassed to sit in class or might even be put out of class in some situations.
Recognising this, a group of young people has sought to help some Caribbean children seize free education. Melissa Enmore and Michelle Kandasammy have come up with The Backpack Project, a non-profit that aims to provide assistance to needy children by giving them a backpack full of stationery and personal care supplies once a year.
“The Backpack Project believes that education is a basic human right, not a privilege, and that health is a key factor determining the success of a child’s development,” the Project says in its Mission Statement. “The organisation will encourage the pursuit of formal education amongst underprivileged children in the Caribbean by providing basic school supplies and foster a healthy learning environment by providing personal supplies to backpack recipients. The Backpack Project hopes to leverage the resources of its sponsors, donors, volunteers and other stakeholders in a collaborative manner to further its objective of universal childhood education in the Caribbean.”
I find it personally heartening that the Project has not only been able to do its work in Guyana (where Enmore and Kandasammy are from) and Trinidad (where Kandasammy lives), but also extend it to Haiti and the Philippines in two special programmes. The Project sends filled backpacks to students, shipping them in a barrel where necessary. The students, aged five to 18, are identified by educators and through individual requests, and must agree to have their school careers tracked as long as they participate in the Project. So far the Project has given over 100 backpacks to Trinidadian and Guyanese students since it was formed. With the help of the public, they can give more.
The Backpack Project is in the middle of a collection drive, which ends August 18. Members of the public can give either cash or kind: sponsor a filled backpack, which costs about $515, or donate the items needed to fill one. (Cash donors can also give part of the cost of a filled backpack.) The Project still needs for this year: 60 pens, 40 pencil cases, 24 drawing books, 25 bottles of shampoo, 25 bottles of conditioner, 60 notebooks, brown paper, 50 tubes of toothpaste, and 50 toothbrushes.
Kandasammy said in the organisation’s December 2011 newsletter, “Nothing quite prepares you for the joy on the children’s faces when they see the bags with their names on [them]. The warm unexpected hugs received from the students of Rose Hill RC took me by surprise. After briefly talking to the students about their classes and their goals for the year… I walked out of Rose Hill RC more determined than ever that we must fulfil our promise to continue to sponsor all of our kids and to expand our programme.”
In this region so fraught with inequity, poverty and poor governance, it is easy to throw one’s hands up and surrender to the apathy of selfishness, doing for oneself and ignoring others’ problems. It is much harder to engage with those problems, to sit and consider how one can actually make a difference in the world in which we live, and particularly the country we inhabit. It is refreshing to encounter people who try to change things for the better. The Backpack Project is one ogranisation of a group of young people who are doing just that. Join them.
To give to The Backpack Project, a registered not-for-profit company, go to: www.backpackproject.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call Michelle Kandasammy at 781-4034 or Karelle Clark at 497-4847.
[This appeared in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian as my column for July 10, 2012.]
There’s a debate raging on the Internet about the conflict between work and mothering. The debate itself certainly isn’t a new one, but in the last month it has coalesced around a long article published in July in the US magazine The Atlantic. In the article, headlined “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” its author Anne-Marie Slaughter examines the dilemma of powerful, educated women who struggle to balance their careers with the demands of parenting. Slaughter is a Princeton professor and former director of policy planning for the US State Department. She is also the mother of two adolescent boys. She writes about working long hours and keeping up a demanding travel schedule while trying to be a good parent:
“[T]he minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be […]. I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.”
She concedes that many other women who have less education, less powerful jobs, or less supportive partners (indeed, sometimes no partners) also have it hard, and questioned the feminist myth that women can “have it all”—ie, career and family at the same time. She adds that if this is to change there must be shifts in women’s access to positions of power, changes in the way we think about careers (do we really have to go to an office every day to advance in a career?), and changes to the structure of families so that more men play an active role in parenting.
It is the last part of the equation that I want to engage with here. When I worked as a newspaper reporter, covering night assignments, working weekends, I was generally too busy with work to spend time with my first daughter. Thank God I had the support of friends and relatives, but there were still too many evenings when my daughter was left in school until sunset because that was when I finished work. She suffered while my career thrived.
Women today take it for granted that they can be educated and have high-level jobs outside the home. These gains have been hard-won. (And there is still much to fight for: pay gaps between men and women persist and, as our recent Cabinet reshuffle has proven, just because there are educated, competent women available doesn’t mean that they will get put into those positions of power that exist.) However, I maintain that instead of giving women a choice between being working at home as wife and mother and being in the paid workforce, feminism has made it seem that women have an obligation to do both. As Slaughter points out, women who choose to do the former despite being equipped to do the latter are often looked at with scorn and condescension, as if they were inadequate or betraying the women’s movement. This has to change. Until there is a mass of men willing to wash dishes and wipe away tears, shuttle children to and from school and football practice, supervise homework and comb hair, working women will continue to do this double duty and they and their families will suffer for it. Of course women should be encouraged to work outside the home if they want to; but there must be a corresponding push for men to work within the home or we risk leaving our children without nurturing and support. Children must have parents. They need people who will see to their physical and emotional wellbeing, not from afar but right there in the home with them. Parenting by telephone cannot be a satisfactory alternative. Until there are enough men willing to do this “women’s work” of parenting, women will always have to choose.
Women must be involved in making and implementing policy at all levels, or we squander half our human resource and ignore the different solutions women might bring. But men have found out the hard way the cost of working 12-hour days: poor health, early death, and lack of engagement with their families. Asking women to blindly step into men’s shoes without changing these patterns is foolish and will ultimately benefit no one.
[This article was first published in the Trinidad Guardian on July 3, 2012. You can find it here.]
New video by the band Buffalo and Back. Trini indie rock… rocks!
One of my heroes is the architect Colin Laird. If you are a Trini and don’t know who that is, 1) be ashamed, be very ashamed, and 2) look him up.
Colin Laird is an architect who designed some of the great public spaces in our country, including the Brian Lara Promenade, the National Library, and the old Queen’s Hall. People under 30 might not know what that means but think about the great big elegant National Library. Think about how gorgeous it is, and how easy it is to lime on the galleries around it. Think about the Promenade, a stretch of paved and landscaped coolness right in the middle of the city. It’s urbane and fancy but it’s also completely Trini–and you can tell because the minute it opened people colonised it and made it a liming spot right away.
Anyway, all this is to say there’s an exhibition of his work and designs opening at the National Museum on Thursday June 28 2012. It runs till July 16. You should go.
Verna St Rose-Greaves wasn’t the biggest loser in Friday’s Cabinet reshuffle; we were. Fired from the post of Minister of Gender, Youth and Child Development, Verna’s only sin was that she was too committed to serving this country according to her conscience, by seeking to protect our women and children. Instead of being lauded for this, Verna was thrown under the bus by the PP government. Given the choice between the Christian/conservative vote and the smooth introduction of the Gender Policy Verna championed, the PP government chose the votes, going against what its leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar had seemed to stand for before she became Prime Minister.
I say without apology that this makes Verna a political martyr to the cowardice of the PP government and its failure to stand for what it seemed to believe in before it formed the government. There are those who feel Verna was fired because of the Cheryl Miller episode. In March Millar was taken from her desk in Verna’s ministry and committed to the mental hospital against Miller’s will. It’s possible this is what led to Verna’s firing. However, it’s more likely that the government saw too many protests against the Gender Policy, and the imaginary LGBT marriage lobby. (Surely it’s imaginary, since most LGBT organisations in the country haven’t said a peep about gay marriage, and have only asked for equal human rights for LGBT folk.) Verna, being Verna, stood up for what she believed in and presented a Gender Policy that wouldn’t embarrass her as a longstanding women’s activist. Would that the PP government had the same courage.
I am not Verna St Rose-Greaves’ friend, but I have interviewed her many times in my capacity as a reporter. She was always a straightforward, blunt advocate for the people she served as a social worker; and she was passionate and well informed about women’s and children’s rights and the wrongs done to them. In fact, Verna was the go-to interview on any such topic, because she was one of a very few public servants who would risk defying the public servant ban on talking to the media. She might have looked mad to play “warner woman”, complete with bell, during the Summit of the Americas in 2009 in Port-of-Spain, but I agreed with her choice to protest the then-government’s holding of an expensive international summit and spending millions of dollars to spruce up the parts of the country the delegates would see while our women and children were being murdered and suffering egregious poverty. Jada Loutoo reported in the Newsday at the time, “After leaving her post on Wrightson Road, St Rose-Greaves […] walked down to the fountain at the Summit Village on the Port-of-Spain Waterfront promenade, where she was accosted by security officers who took away her bell […] and called for backup.”
Now it’s 2012 and once again Verna’s bell has been taken away. She has been whisked out of government back into the shadows where her cries for justice and equality will be easier to ignore. She told the Guardian in an interview published Sunday, “I was offered an ambassadorial position in Costa Rica, which I chose not to take because I didn’t come into government to go to Costa Rica… The one thing that I am sure of, my voice will not be silenced. Death will have to silence me.”
As Ataklan sang, “I’d rather be a shadow in the dark than a big fool in spotlight.”
Years ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who was once a politician. I told him I felt politicians were the lowest of the low, opportunists who had only entered the field for what power and wealth they could gain. I cited the infamous declaration by Desmond Cartey—“All ah we thief”—as proof that in this country people enter politics to line their pockets and the pockets of their friends and families. My friend corrected me: far from being the slimiest occupation, politics was among the highest callings an individual could follow. Being a politician was an opportunity for service to one’s country and one’s fellow man, he said. What could be nobler than that?
But the take-away lesson of Verna’s firing is that conscience and integrity have no place in T&T politics. When you enter the government, leave your conscience at home. Verna’s firing is a loss for the country because it spells out in bold, clear letters to service-minded individuals, “Don’t go into politics.”
This column appears in today’s Trinidad Guardian.
I haven’t posted here for some months, being more active on my Facebook profile page–which is now public and accepts subscribers, by the way–and my Facebook author page, which you’ll find links to on this blog. I’ve also started back my column in the Trinidad Guardian, and it runs every Tuesday.
Anyway, the reason I’m here posting this today is that my column in today’s Trinidad Guardian was supposed to be formatted in a certain way and it isn’t. The lack of formatting makes it incredibly difficult to read and I am sure it will make no sense whatsoever to whoever reads it there. That’s why I’m here, to repost the column with the correct formatting. I also want to share it far and wide because it’s about child sexual abuse and we can never say too much on that topic.
Break the silence
[Trigger warning: This column contains descriptions of child sexual abuse.]
Most of the alleged sexual abuse victims of US football coach and father figure Jerry Sandusky remained silent during and after the abuse. Most victims of child sexual abuse do.
Unlike Alleged Victim Nine in the Sandusky trial, many of the victims of child sexual abuse never scream for help. Instead, you might hear:
Go away. Nothing’s wrong. Leave me alone. I hate you. I want to kiss you there. I want to sit in your lap and play with your body. I want to show you something. I want to see yours. I hate everything. My belly hurts. My head hurts. I can’t sleep. I have a rash that I scratch till it bleeds. Nothing’s wrong. Go away.
This case, now being tried in the Philadelphia courts, is sickening. Eight men have testified that Sandusky, while a top coach at the powerful Pennsylvania State University football team, handpicked boys as young as eight to be his special friends. They claim he identified troubled boys from a youth charity he founded, the Second Mile, and seduced them with affection and attention, showered them with gifts and took them on extraordinary outings. Some of them testified to a Grand Jury in December last year that he made them feel like part of his family, and that he told them he loved them. To any child, these are powerful inducements. Would every child take this poisoned candy? No. But some would.
We in Trinidad and Tobago might imagine the Sandusky story is some alien thing, and that this could never happen here. We would be very wrong. There is child sexual abuse happening in this country at this very moment. Somewhere not far from you there is a boy or girl being seduced by someone he or she trusts, seduced with cake and money and weed and PS3’s, and love, or the facsimile of it. This seeming love is the thing that draws child victims in and shuts them up. Because the one who is seducing them seems to care, sometimes more than their own parents and siblings. These monsters will give hugs and back rubs and listening ears. They will know just what a child wants and give it unstintingly. And then they will take what they want.
It’s only fair. I gave you this. You give me that.
Why do children stay silent about sexual abuse? Why don’t more of them scream and run away to report it to the police or a parent, a teacher or a pastor? Apart from the fact that in many cases it is these very authority figures who are themselves the abusers, victims often feel an overwhelming sense of love for the abuser, and feel complicit in the abuse.
You knew it was wrong, but you did it anyway. You let it happen. If you tell, everyone will think it’s your fault. And what would happen to your special friend, the one person who treats you like you’re precious? He or she would get in trouble. Do you want to be the one who tears apart the family? Do you want him or her to lose his or her job over you? Shame on you.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about the Sandusky trial is not the men’s stories of being sexually fondled and raped as ten- and twelve-year-old boys, but that so many adults actually saw it with their own eyes, yet did nothing. It is not the victims’ silence that is the most horrifying part, but the silence of their community. The Grand Jury testimony gives stories of people who walked in on Sandusky lying on top of boys, showering with them, having oral sex with them, raping them. Some reported what they had seen to a superior, and those superiors did not do what the law mandated: report it to the police, investigate and take measures to protect the boys who may have been molested. (In one case, a mother did report it to the police, who subsequently dropped the investigation.)
If a child you know says a respected adult is making him or her uncomfortable, what is your first impulse? Is it to ask questions, or to brush the child aside? Do you listen to the silence, or compound it with your own? Whatever the outcome of the Sandusky trial let us take one thing away from the horrendous story: Break the Silence.
For more information about the UWI St Augustine IGDS campaign Break the Silence, go to: http://sta.uwi.edu/igds/breakthesilence/index.asp
Last week I picked up the Alice Walker collection of essays In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens and reread the very first essay, “Saving the life that is your own: The importance of models in the artist’s life”. I’ve read this essay before, many times, in fact, over the years since I first got the book back when my teenager was a little baby. The essay’s theme, that artists need to have templates to follow in order to live their lives, is one that I have always believed in. The templates are knowledge of the very existence of other artists like them. The timing of my rereading of the essay proved prescient, as this weekend I was fortunate to meet a woman writer whom I have admired for years, Nalo Hopkinson.
A brilliant writer, Nalo is one of the few Caribbean sci-fi/fantasy writers who have been internationally published. Her first books Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber are bonafide sci-fi classics. She writes brave feminist fiction; it is outstanding not simply because of its themes and Caribbean characters of colour (and the fact that in speculative fiction black writers are few and far between) but also because she’s a fine writer with a gift for lush, descriptive writing.
I treasured the time I spent listening to her and in the writing workshop she gave at the 30th WI Literature Conference, which took place at UWI, St Augustine, this weekend. Here is a writer who more or less forged her way in the publishing world without compromising her vision or her voice. This is a model I would be happy to emulate.
Pat Bishop’s passing leaves a hole in us. Not just the Trinidad and Tobago visual arts community, of which she was a significant part as a painter, or Despers, the venerable steelband with which she worked, or the Lydians, the magnificent choir which she directed from 1987 until her death on August 20, 2011. The work she did and the direction she articulated for our national and cultural identity is irreplaceable. It sounds trite but the lady was really a national treasure and we are the poorer for her passing.
At the memorial for her on August 28 at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, I cried and cried. Not just in sympathy for my friends who are members of the Lydians but for myself that I didn’t have the courage while she lived to spend more time with her instead of holding up that silly veil of some kind of separation between journalist and subject—after all, I had in the past been called upon and could conceivably be called upon again to cover her work or canvass her views on something, anything. What contact I had had with her was professional, not personal, and I always left our interviews with a feeling that I had only glimpsed her creative genius and her understanding of us as Trinidadians.
Consider this unpublished statement she made in a 2007 interview I did with her for Caribbean Beat on her work as director of the Carnival Institute: “If we are not to get to Darfur it is important that we collect and show the various public art processes and what they say about ourselves.” As we enter the third week of the State of Emergency in Trinidad and Tobago don’t those words seem prophetic?
And this, from the same interview: “I have all sorts of fantasies. I have in my head a flock of robot corbeaux—they will have beak caps and radar—and an encounter between the King Douen and Spongebob.
“The only way our children are going to find their place in the sun is to know who they are and to get on to the information superhighway. If I did my cartoons of Mama D’glo combing her hair, Yugioh would fall in love with her. They would know they are part of the world and not just someone that must say ‘Yes, master’ to Miami and survive on barrels from that part of the world.”
I was disappointed, to say the least, at the remarks made by Bhoe Tewarie at the memorial. Dr Tewarie, in his capacity as Minister of Planning, Economic and Social Restructuring and Gender Affairs, was one of the last people to see her alive, as he had hosted the meeting at which she collapsed, never to recover, on August 20. He talked at the memorial about the young Pat Bishop’s desire to be seen yet he failed to mention that the better part of her career as historian, musicologist and cultural researcher was far more devoted to looking than being seen. Not “look me,” but “look we” was what she in her latter work was all about. More than anywhere else, you could hear it in the magical way she fused tassa, African drums and steelpan with European Baroque tradition in her epic signature piece the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah as performed by Despers and the Lydians and Malick Tassa Drummers at the very memorial service.
It was this that stuck in my throat: rage. The government would make sure that Pat’s work was remembered, he said; but I somehow got the impression that it was the works themselves and not her intention that the government would celebrate. Pat Bishop was an artist’s artist, and even greater than her desire for making her own work visible was her passion for protecting our arts and fostering their growth, probing them for an understanding of our national possibility and potential. Dr Tewarie, in addition to your tributes and a retrospective exhibition or whatever is planned to memorialize Pat Bishop, why not found a National Arts Council that would give significant and transparent grants to the arts in this country? Would that not be the better way to celebrate her legacy? Wouldn’t she be glad to know that some artist here, digging in the rich soil that is our cultural heritage, would have it that much easier? That our arts could be as respectable and comparatively well funded as any? That the hardscrabble life lived by some artist could be a little easier for it?
My friend writer Barbara Jenkins, who writes for the Lydians, eulogized Pat Bishop in a note published in the programme for Winterreise, the show Pat was directing at her death. With Barbara’s permission I’ve republished her words here. I wonder if Dr Tewarie will read them and I wonder if he will then understand.
A Winter Journey of the Soul
Do not go gentle into that good night…
…Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Pat Bishop died on Saturday 20th August 2011. She had been working on this Winterreise concert when she died. As was her way, she was also working on a collection of paintings, She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore. For Pat, one creative activity inspired another, even segued into another. She could never do just one thing at a time when she was on fire; she had to find outlets everywhere or be consumed by her own energy, go into meltdown. This time, as she completed both – preparing for the concert and putting the last brushstroke on the last painting – she did self-combust.
I would venture that it was not the strain of the work she did do, that killed Pat Bishop – she was tireless with the choir, the steel, the painting, the teaching, the guiding, the writing, the thinking. These gave challenge, gave hope, gave reward in lifting the spirit, her own and those she worked with. It was the stress of what she did not do, could not do, that broke her.
More than anyone, I think, Pat recognised how lucky we are to have found ourselves here, in this miraculous space that is Trinidad and Tobago. How lucky we are to have arrived here with the gifts of intelligence, creativity and endurance and the blessed serendipity of being thrown together to share and fuse and mix and blend and make newer, better, more original creations, of people, of things. A people who, musical illiterates in the conventional sense, could take industrial waste, an empty oil drum, use heat and hammer, and create a musical instrument. A people who, colonised and coloniser, enslaved and slave-owner, plantation overseen and overseer, heated together in this crucible, could emerge as us! Look at we! Just look at we! Yes, WE the subject, not the object.
How many times must you say to a national community; how many times must you say to the corporate world; how many times must you say to ministers and governments of how many regimes, that the wealth of a nation is the people, their creativity, their natural born gifts, their talents? Not just say, not just talk, speechify, posture, but show by example, demonstrate by unceasing labour, by walking the walk, barefoot over beds of nails, through coals of fire, decade after decade after decade?
Say over and over and over, that our wealth, the treasure of our human capital, is inexhaustible, renewable, sustainable – the only long-term capital that this country possesses, the only investment worth while, the only thing that could, would, last beyond all other wealth. That this wealth must be recognised, nurtured, developed, cherished, rewarded?
That all else is ephemeral, all else, dross?
It was while she was called upon to say it one more time that the fragile clay vessel that housed her soul broke beyond repair and Pat Bishop died.
Pat had been going through A Winter Journey of the Soul for a long, long time. She had been soldiering on, putting the last of her energies into what she could do, while still hoping to persuade others, the powers-that-be, that the key to this country’s salvation lies, not in physical structures, but in empowering institutions; not in consumerism, but in conservation; not in $GDP, but in human GDP – Greatest Development of all People, ALL people – through their myriad talents, their boundless creativity. And she died, while saying so, one last time.
Is anyone listening?
Can anyone understand?
Barbara Jenkins, Lydian
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
The latest issue of Caribbean Beat magazine features an interview I did with USVI writer Tiphanie Yanique. You can read it here. I’ve already written a bit about Tiphanie on this blog here, but it’s worth repeating that she’s a gifted writer and I’ve been privileged to do a little book tour with her in NY a few years ago. I know she’s going to be an even bigger name in Caribbean literature as the years roll on and I’m pleased to have my name next to hers in Trinidad Noir, to which she contributed a story that appears in another version in her prize-winning book How to Escape from a Leper Colony. Write on, Tiphanie!