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Voice from the Ghetto
Posted: Wednesday, June 24, 2009

By Derren Joseph
June 24, 2009

Last Saturday, at our East Port-of-Spain mentorship training workshop, Fr Harvey invited someone to speak with us about the lives of 11- to 15-year-olds in the area. Let us call him "BB." BB is 36 years old and is what we might term a gang leader in charge of a certain area in Laventille. BB began by explaining how he got to be where he is. He started off at 11, when he found himself without his parents and having to live on the streets of Port-of-Spain. He learned to fend for himself. After a while, he was taken in by a relative whose sons were around his age. Unfortunately, this relative was involved in illegal activity. By the age of 13, he had a leadership role and was further promoted by the age of 15.

He became what I could only describe as a spokesperson for his gang. In the corporate world, he would be a vice-president, business development. If the leader wanted to send official communications, he was responsible. BB also was charged with negotiating terms when it came to "business" transactions. His attitude was that if tomorrow came, it came. BB believed that no one truly cared about him except his crew, which was and probably still is like his family. He believes that his experience is representative of many young men in what he called, the "ghetto." There is a recognition that they could die at any time. There is also a belief that because of where they live and come from, there are not many choices available.

Gang leader

BB explained that when you applied for a job and list your address as St Barb's, Sea Lots, Beetham, or Picton, you are judged negatively. It is as if everyone on the outside of these areas looks down on you. Today, BB is still a gang leader, but he is adamant that none of his crew is involved in "serious" crime any more. No murders since 2006. Instead, he and his team of about 35 young men are creating a lifestyle apart from the fast living of other gangs. BB is involved in planting a small garden (sweet pepper, tomatoes and cucumbers).

They stay away from parties and tend not to stray outside of their territory. Between you and me, I am not completely confident that BB's gang is no longer involved in serious crime, but he does strike me as a man who has faith in God, and perhaps because of that, is somewhat regretful of the path he has walked to this point. He says God is protecting him now, and he "doh believe in man-made connections." Someone asked him what he thought about the crime situation today.

BB is adamant that not every young man in three-quarter pants and a rag on his head is a criminal. Rather, there is a powerful minority responsible for most of the crime. He asked us to remember how many times we would hear the same name repeated as murder suspects. In BB's words, "We don't have a criminal problem in Trinidad; we have a repeat offender problem." BB said most gang leaders lived in fear. They knew that there were enemies looking for them. Another person asked him what could we, as ordinary citizens, do to help?

Various skills

BB replied that we should admit that there is a problem; focus on the young people; and do not wait before it is too late. He went on to suggest reaching out and talking to people and understanding that each person had a reason for what they did. Before we judge them, first understand them. We then asked him to be more specific. He said that education was very important. "It have plenty bad man that cyah read; they have gun in dey waist, but cyah spell it." He admitted that he himself could not read or write properly. BB was full of praise for the work that Fr Harvey and Norman Tang are doing in their area.

I also understand that there are various skills development programmes being made available through the Ministry of Social Development. In fact, a large part of BB's crew (up to one-third) is pursuing an agricultural programme. The situation is definitely not simple, but I am encouraged that positive things are happening.

As always, I end by saying that despite our challenges, we are so blessed to live in this beautiful country. We need to remember and acknowledge just how much uplifting work is being done all around us.

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