By Raffique Shah
July 11, 2022
Many moons ago, when I was young, idealistic and very much a utopian dreamer, I had a vision for a new Beetham community. It will have formed in the early 1960s when I first travelled to Port of Spain frequently.
The route the taxis used from Chaguanas was the relatively new Princess Margaret Highway (commissioned in 1954, I think), turning west onto the Churchill-Roosevelt (built by the US armed forces in 1941 to service the largest air force base in this part of the world, Fort Read in Wallerfield, and used exclusively by military vehicles until it was handed over to the local authorities in 1949). The CRH ended at Barataria. From that point, before the Beetham Highway was opened in ’56, all traffic to PoS had to return to the Eastern Main Road to access PoS.
It was because of that circuitous, time-consuming exercise that commuters had to endure to travel to and from the city that Governor Sir Edward Betham-Beetham agreed to cut a new eight-kilometre highway through the coastal mangrove west of Barataria, ending at the island’s main port, where the newly-constructed Wrightson Road from the west also terminated.
The Beetham had one major downside: it exposed travellers to the poverty-stricken community of what was then known as “Shanty Town”, a bustling network of thousands of shacks made from mangrove sticks, crocus bags, old galvanise, pieces of plastic, all teeming with people, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, babies, children, women and men living in squalor, seemingly unmindful of the stagnant swamp that was everywhere, and a malodorous, overpowering stench emanating from the effluent of the Fernandes/Angostura distillery.
The opening of the Beetham Highway also exposed mountains of garbage disposed of daily by citizens, all dumped here in the notorious “la basse”. As near-derelict trucks brought their cargoes of waste to this site that seemed alien to people like me, the main “attractions” were men skilfully scaling onto their trays, virtually diving into the garbage, and almost skilfully extracting from their contents items they saw as being of value. As if man-vs-man battles for waste did not shock one’s sensibilities, the feature attractions were fights between man and corbeaux. The vultures swooped down on agile teenage boys who had grabbed what must be meat or something edible dumped by merchants or households, now being retrieved by other human beings, presumably for consumption: why else would they risk their lives to secure the waste?
As a young man experiencing these unbelievable battles for survival during my early forays through Beetham on my way to PoS, I became conscious of other passengers watching my startled looks: country bookie coming to town. I soon heard taxi-drivers relate stories that ranged from humorous to horrible. I wondered why the government did not intervene to make these people’s lives better.
Bear in mind I’m writing about what I saw in Beetham 60, 50 years ago. That was before terms such as waste disposal, environmental impact, recycling, poverty mitigation had entered our lexicon. I would get the opportunity to experience Shanty Town, John John and other similar districts when I returned from training at Sandhurst in 1967, thanks to soldiers who had lived there for most of their lives.
By the time I emerged from prison and the events of 1970 were added to my CV, I could almost freely walk anywhere in Laventille, East Dry River, Morvant, Cocorite and most districts in Trinidad that were seen as being prone to violence and risky to strangers. I visited and limed in panyards across the island, mostly with friends, but often solo: I was always careful, but never fearful.
There are good, decent, law-abiding, friendly people everywhere I have been to. Equally, there are the “bad” who try to throw their weight around. I am told by friends I still have in such communities, “Raf, yuh cyah lime in Beverly Hills, in Never Dirty, in Belle Vue, the way we used to do. These youth-men all packing guns, they robbing and killing anybody. No respect for elder, no care children, nothing. They are like beasts.”
I hear them. I no longer travel around the country to get a feel of things, to assess the state of the nation, the way I once did by putting my finger on the pulse of the people. My health does not allow it. But from what I read and listen to others comment about, I know it’s a different world out there. The name Raffique Shah means nothing to young men and women setting the Beetham Estate afire, or to farmers in other communities justifiably protesting the state of their roads and other infrastructure, and to people who have become jobless at a time when the cost of living in the nation is as high as the cost of dying.
(Next week: The PNM and I battle over the Beetham.)