By Raffique Shah
August 15, 2022
It pains me whenever I feel it necessary to confront the race issue in my column. I see it as a waste of valuable column centimetres where those of us who have been selected by the managers and editors of newspapers to highlight and comment on matters of national importance instead find ourselves discussing drivel.
But there comes a time when columnists cannot ignore attempts by influential people in the society resorting to race, playing the race card when everything else fails them, in the hope that controversy might save them from oblivion, a fate politicians fear more than they do the hell-fire that is promised to believers and non-believers alike for the sinful lives they lead, convinced they are so clever, they can fool even the Creator.
It is in this context that I often intervene, pointing out to these charlatans and the fools who follow them that they can fool half of the population most times, but they can’t get past my gate using either the lyrics they have mastered or the innocent faces they use to mislead the masses. In my 76 years on earth I have spent 27 months in prison among criminals, accused and convicted, who most people think are the scum of society. But I have also spent 50-odd years interacting with politicians, business leaders and others deemed the cream of society. Believe me when I say I can’t think who is worse, and I am not convinced the criminals in jail are any worse than those who steal not only from the treasury, but also the soul of the nation.
National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds has the propensity to get carried away by the occasion and audience-response. Emancipation Day, which did not exist (as a public holiday) until the dawn of the new millennium, has stirred up Afro-consciousness among a wide cross-section of Caribbean descendants of slaves. I was most present and active back in the day when its weekend of activities consisted mainly of speeches by pioneers such as Khafra Kambon and Eintou Pearl Springer, good drumming and chanting from Mansa Musa and other masters of the art, and showing off with pride genuine Afro-shambas (huts) built by a team led by the late Dedan Kimathi, on grounds off Mucurapo Road. Dedan is hardly remembered today, activities are held at the Savannah, funded heavily by Government, and many who did not see themselves as “Africans” then parade today in expensive Afro-garbs and accoutrements.
Minister Hinds, addressing the sensitive but legitimate issue of belated recognition of, and reparations for, the descendants of slaves, spoke of the visible absence of Afro-Trinis from applicants for State lands for agriculture. Good point, I thought. But how did Cabinet ministers identify Afro-Trinis from other citizens/applicants unless they applied under their adopted Afro-names? John Smith, for example, could be Indian, dougla, white or black. I recall the story—and soldiers’ stories are always a mixture of half-truths, lies and exaggeration—about the British commanding officer of the T&T Regiment, Colonel Pearce-Gould, who, having noted the overwhelming majority of Afros in the military, met with the recruiting officers, expressed his concerns, and suggested he grab any suitable Chinese applicant. There were already around five per cent Indians in the military, and one could hardly expect more.
On the day the new recruits assembled on the parade square, the frustrated CO asked the recruiting officer, ‘Where are the Chinese?’ ‘They must be here, Sir,’ responded the officer, who scanned the list, then watched the 60-odd fresh faces: not a Chinese in the formation. ‘Call the names,’ the CO ordered. Maybe, he thought, they had applied, were selected for final examinations and had withdrawn.
The Training Wing sergeant bellowed: “Take one pace forward when I call your names. Tan Wing!…” A brown African smartly stepped forward. “Fough!” This time a strapping, black African responded. “Ming!” A dougla. Aching! Indeterminate origin. And thus died Col Pearce-Gould’s bid to recruit Chinese by names. In T&T, people carry the strangest names. Boysie Moore-Jones, president of the sugar workers’ union who came after Basdeo Panday, is Indian, and a devoted Muslim.
So if names of applicants for State lands for agricultural purposes were the guide Minister Hinds and his colleagues used, they were destined to end up thoroughly confused. Further, if their aim was to encourage Afro-Trinis to engage in agriculture, it was a laudable goal, but conducted in a manner that could be deemed racist. You don’t use race as the determining factor in matters such as this. By all means, encourage your people to engage in food production. But ensure all applicants have a genuine interest in farming. It is a most demanding job. In fact, it’s more a “calling” than a job.
There are many young people, African, Indian and others, who are squatting and producing food off which families not just exist, but thrive. Mr Hinds will find his farmers in that lot.