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The Fire Next Time
Posted: Friday, September 2, 2005

By Michael De Gale

From Independence to Republicanism and beyond, the people of Laventille and its environs have placed their hopes in the PNM for relieve from their long-suffering. This they demonstrated unequivocally by voting en masse to elect successive PNM administrations. To this day, they have nothing to show for their support except increasing poverty, violent communities, social stigmatization and economic marginalization.

I can vividly recall the jubilation that radiated, particularly in these marginalized communities when the PNM won its first election in 1962. I was in the Savannah flying kite with ah set uh lil boys. Short khaki pants, sweaty, barefoot, hungry and half-naked - descendents of the third estate of colour. I was about 8 years old at the time and as my mother would often say, "we like to drivay." In the distance, we see ah ban comin rong the savannah, beating drum, ringin iron and singing "when PNM go marching home." Although we did not know it at the time, this was a celebration of hope, a celebration of promise. In retrospect, they were giving thanks in song for relief from years of neo-colonial exploitation. Massa day was finally over for those that Fanon called "the wretched of the earth." It was liberation time and our destiny lay in the palm of our hands. Without a second thought, we aiyo the kites, jump in de ban and shake we bony ass all the way home.

The celebration lasted deep into the wee hours of the morning until people retreated to their homes in the cracks and crevices of Belmont, the broken down buildings behind the bridge and the shacks balancing delicately on the hills of Laventille. Better days were coming they believed, but time dashed hopes and visions faded as that day never came. It was as if they miss the bus. Everybody else could see his or her way. Even foreigners found prosperity while these communities continue to wrestle with poverty and its accompanying manifestations. Amazingly, after 43 years of independence, the PNM could still count on support from those improvised community where some continue to cherish the hope that things will get better. After all, that is the promise that is made every election, when wolves in sheep clothing come begging for votes hoping to assume power without taking responsibility for the alleviation of human suffering.. Independence may have brought a new administration but is the same old khaki pants.

Deprived of innovative programs, which would enable them to improve themselves and develop their communities, these people are systematically relegated to the bottom rungs of the social and economic ladders. Access to capital for economic development is impossible to secure through traditional financial institutions. Post secondary education to liberate mind and body is still reserved for the independently wealthy and social programs to ease the strain leaves much to be desired. DEWD, URP and more recently CPEP - the crumbs from the economic table - is used as bait to satisfy short-term hunger, ensure re-election but holds no promise of sustainable development.

Prophetically, old people say that "ingratitude is worst than obeah." It is no surprising then, that criminal activities emanating from these historically neglected communities are reaching pandemic proportions. The seeds of discontent were planted decades ago and nurtured for generations by successive PNM administrations. Governments, who failed to implement mechanisms to empower the members of these communities to ensure sustainable growth and development. Instead, they are used as pawns in an elaborate scheme to assume power and maintain the status quo.

In his book, "The Dragon Can't Dance", Earl Lovelace captured the essence of the people of these communities. He revealed their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations and showed that theirs are fundamentally similar to all human beings. The need for food, shelter and opportunities to secure a better life is central to the human condition. We read this book, shared their pain and vicariously experienced their hunger. We know Philo and Fisheye and Aldrick and Sylvia and Guy. We know Miss Olive, Miss Cleothilda, Miss Caroline and all her hungry children. We know them because they are, in all their colourful manifestations - the proud people of Trinidad and Tobago. Despite the variations in colour and class distinctions, they have contributed greatly to the economy, culture, history and more importantly, to the formation of the Trinidadian personality. No world-renowned pannist, calypsonian or limbo dancer ever originated from Goodwood Park, Federation Park or Elleslie Park as far as I am aware. These are only the consumers of this rich heritage, which allows them to say with pride that they are Trinis. Marginalized Trinidadians created the compass that allows people to locate us on the map of human geography. Yet, they are the cousins of whom we are painfully ashamed and treat with utter disregard.

Like Haiti, we immortalize them in song but fail to render concrete support to enable them to elevate themselves and take their rightful, productive place in the society. They have been mired in poverty for so long, despite the country's unimaginable wealth that poverty appears to be a normal condition. The people of Laventille and surrounding areas are vibrant, energetic and enterprising. When water is more than flour, they make bread out of stone. We see them ply their trade on the streets of Port of Spain. They give life to Carnival, Emancipation and similar cultural celebrations. They infuse a natural energy into the society by virtue of their determination to live out loud. It is only their sheer determination to survive that keeps them from being torn asunder.

According to David Rudder, out of this muddy pond 10,000 flowers bloomed. However, this represents only a small fraction of the human potential currently beseeched by crime, drugs and other poverty- related problems that are consuming these communities. I do not know what strange celestial bodies; preparation and opportunity may have aligned to liberate some from this smoldering cauldron, but sustained and deliberate efforts would do much to liberate future generations. Grinding poverty is not a natural condition nor is it a curse for being the children of Ham. This poverty was meticulously orchestrated historically and structurally interwoven into the very fabric of the nation.

The culture of crime that is currently plaguing the country will not go away overnight neither will it be permanently eliminated by increasing the number of police and military personnel. These are only stopgap measures to protect private property, safeguard the wealthy but do nothing to address the root causes of social deviance. Decades of economic neglect, failure to provide opportunities for community development and empowerment, limited access to post secondary education are only some of the issues that need to be addressed. We callously accept that life for people in depressed areas is a normal phenomenon and hence socially acceptable. They live on the periphery of society and every effort is made to ensure that they never gravitate from margin to center. By sheer neglect, they are blatantly denied their humanity and consequently are not deserving of human consideration. The constant shortage of water, no electricity and other necessities of life that others take for granted are denied them decade after decade. How much longer must this go on? The Government must demonstrate substantively, a serious commitment to improving the conditions of existence in these areas. Crime will not go away for the long term by simply increasing police presence. Every day a new batch of children are born in a country in which they do not share in the wealth. With notable exceptions, people are not born criminals, dire circumstances; illiteracy and desperation are major ingredients in the making of the criminal mind. Storm clouds are gathering in the form of desperate young people with nothing to lose, in a nation in which they are increasingly and systematically alienated. We will eat the bread that the devil knead, if we fail to act decisively to include those who live on the margins of society in the developmental process. Or, according to James Baldwin - the fire next time.

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