By Raffique Shah
March 08, 2017
As I mark 71 years of life today, almost all of them spent in my native land, I reflect on how I have fared, whether I am happy with what my country has done for me, and what I have done for my country. On both counts, I can say I am satisfied. Not fully, mark you. But only an ingrate would gripe at being short-changed when compared with the successes of others. What’s the point in feeling unfulfilled in one’s goals when some may have been unattainable anyway?
Back when I was a boy, in the 1950s, free primary school education was available to everyone, something that was not universal across the world, and certainly not in all the colonies that were owned and controlled by European countries, in our case Great Britain, the biggest coloniser in history, on whose global empire the sun dared not set.
To simplify this celestial boast for today’s hi-tech generations, the king or queen of tiny England was the head of state to colonies in almost every time zone, today’s equivalent being, say, Google or Microsoft. The difference was whereas you have choices in computer and information technologies, back then, you rub the Queen the wrong way—talk of independence, say—gunboats and troops enforced her rule.
I remember June 1953, for the coronation of Elizabeth R, we schoolchildren, like millions of our counterparts across the Empire, gathered in our schools to be treated with “snowballs” and “drops”, and we lustily sang, “God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen…” Little did we think that God would listen to our pleas: 64 years on, Liz lives and reigns, albeit over Britain alone.
But Britain did establish some institutions that worked within the colonial system and afterwards, one of them being primary and secondary schools—with substantial help from several religious bodies. At the primary level, I attended Presbyterian, Muslim and Anglican schools where I applied myself and gained a solid foundation, especially in English and Math.
Still, I never won a college exhibition, which would have meant free secondary education at one of the best colleges: I believe there were 150-or-so on offer (1956-1957). In fact, none of the boys I joined in Form 1A in January 1958 at what, by April 1959, would become Presentation College, Chaguanas, had won an exhibition. But talk about bright! Some of those fellas like they ate 500-watt-bulbs for breakfast!
Some 90 per cent of the boys came from poor families who could barely afford the $16-per-term fee, to which transport had to be added, as well as the cost of textbooks. Lunch was not a problem: half-a-sada-roti or a piece of bake, invariably topped with fried-aloo or saltfish-and-something, washed down with tap water—good to go, and fit and strong enough to robustly engage in sports!
It was like a gift when, in 1959, Chief Minister Dr Eric Williams announced that Government would pay the tuition fees for all students in recognised or approved secondary schools: Pres Chaguanas was one such school, and our parents were grateful for the relief even if they did not openly express their gratitude: politics was rooted in race then as much as it is today.
I performed well in the Cambridge exams, did not pursue A-Levels because I felt compelled to help my father, a low-paid sugar worker, care for the family. Thereafter, I decided my own future: secured a government military cadetship at Sandhurst and returned to the Regiment as a commissioned officer before I was 21.
Like so many young people across the world, I developed strong revolutionary consciousness during the heady 1960s, and in 1970, at a critical point in the Black Power revolution, I was among the few youthful officers who led a mutiny against the high command and the government. It failed. We were arrested, charged with mutiny and treason, court-martialled and spent 27 months in prison. Rex Lassalle and I won our local appeals, the State lost its appeal to the Privy Council, and we and all the convicted soldiers were freed in July 1972.
Throughout the trials and imprisonment, we stood tall, walked like dragons.
As if I had not experienced a colourful enough life at age 26, having been booted out of the army, I proceeded to organise and rally the nation’s sugar cane farmers from 1973. That would lead to me joining with Basdeo Panday, George Weekes and others in founding the ULF in 1975, forming the opposition in 1976, breaking with Panday in 1977, eventually walking away from electoral politics in 1981.
I switched to journalism that year, entering a new career serving as writer, editor and I remain a columnist to this day.
What more can I ask for? Maybe relief from Parkinson’s—and even that I take in stride. No, I’ve had a good run, led an exciting life, and I’m thankful for what I have achieved. I count my failures as blessings in disguise.