A Random Post

 They say the young people dem done with Facebook. The crowd is older, less cool. Certainly the young people in my life hardly ever go on and so my position of maternal macoist is compromised.

But I am still an avid FBer. And maybe that has something to do with being far away and needing the Caribbean energy in the 24/7 kind of way that one gets on FB. But that energy comes in all kinds of waves.

Today I lucked into two posts, both generationally-specific. From the brief one-liner, I understand that friend Marsha (actual friend) went to a back in times school fete. She used FB to express her annoyance that the  DJs played some ‘bun out batty man” music, from the nineties I suppose. She was calling them to account, implicitly asking them to use their privileged access to be more thoughtful and intentional about what they played.

What followed (and is ongoing) is so interesting. The responses are a good guide to the changing cultural atmosphere. The DJs accept that bigoted, violent and homophobic music is unacceptable even as one of them cautions that Caribbean music is chock-ful of discriminatory attitudes and especially against women.

This is a point. As much as I love Sparrow, some of his songs have become indigestible to me. Much in the same way that I cannot watch Casablanca (with all of its intelligent wit) and feel comfortable with Elsa asking about the ‘boy’ playing the piano.

With the modern day soca, I have to convince myself that the lyrics are saying something more complex than the plain meaning of the words or otherwise the music is soooo sweet that the rest of my body will be moved,  overcoming the objections of my brain. For example, ‘Too real’ by Kerwin Dubois is all about a woman’s backside. But I reach for a more romantic reading, imagining that he is singing about social  chemistry, about that special fleeting frisson that happens in carnival fetes between women and men unknown to each other perhaps but  culturally connected. I imagine that Kerwin is singing about carnival magic. Bumper becomes a metaphor. Yes, well.

Today I am reading one of the many biographies on Bob Marley and remembering how intelligent and  poetic all of his music was, not some, all. Is the state of Caribbean popular music another manifestation of the failure of imagination and rigour of post-independence education?

I will tell you all about the second post tomorrow.

What is to be done

 Recently, book club player that I am, I met in one of the 3 book clubs which I attend in fits and starts, all found online. This nameless one meets in a food court, because where else in this city of food, “can one meet without having to buy food and drinks”? A resolutely undistractable book club, members and itinerant readers do not bother with the niceties of making acquaintance, still less sowing the seeds of friendship. They are incurious about each other. Like some kind of spy network, we all get emails from the convener about the venue of the meeting and the name of the book, blind copied at that lest we be  tempted to bother each other with salutations. No phone numbers are exchanged. Just the book, ma’am!

Anyways, we discussed “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Kathleen Boo. This is a book about life in a slum close to the Mumbai airport and behind a concrete wall peddling some product that  promises beautiful forevers. Many questions arise such as the ethics of the outside gaze which I thought was careful. The author, not an Indian, (meaning Caribbean generalists, not from India) embedded herself in the slum and within families. She chronicles the mostly bleak and sometimes quite tragic lives of those living there. We get a sense of the auto-pilot instinct for survival, the not even acknowledged daily courage needed to fight up for the small and finite leftovers. Rancor and jealously hang malevolently over the community. Boys, starting as early as 6 years, hone the skills of  scavenging, sorting and valuing  waste for recycling. This is the pathway into manhood, a manhood that offers just more of  the same, even while everyone dreams of breaking out, breaking away into the beautiful forever, meaning maybe, a service job in a hotel.

At the book club someone who was from Mumbai but has lived outside for quite a while reflected that growing up there she was not aware of this kind of poverty. And then the BC mulled over the awareness of poverty. My first response was skepticism. I find it hard to believe that anyone can be unaware of the grinding poverty that courses through and circles mega city life, any city for that matter.  But no doubt privilege can act as a blinder or a soporific shielding us from angst. How many of us know much about the details of the lives of those in our hard-pressed urban areas and rural villages?

 I thought about this later reading an editorial, by Russell Brand, a popular culture artiste of some variety, but known to me only as a social justice provocateur and engaging writer. In an article in New Statesman on inequality he confessed to being way more outraged by his cell phone charges than by the exploitation of those making his cell phone. He was being glib-cute to make a point about human nature.  How the suffering of others can be abstract or abstracted; how we can be overwhelmed by the scale of the change needed and by the inconvenience to us personally that such a change would require.

This week gone I was in another country and had the opportunity to visit a community of women who have migrated to the city in search of economic opportunity. Theirs is a life of work, hard work, manual labour, responsibility, obligation. Their histories and presents are ones of limited and exacting choices. They do what they must, they make do with what they have. Some are recyclers, scouring the city to pick out the value from the discarded, others work long night hours moving heavy freighted bundles  within markets as porters. There is no concept of weekend; an unaffordable luxury for those who only get paid when they work.

I have no point in writing this and I am rambling, but it is weighing on me.

 This week I am in the Cook Islands at a meeting convened by the Pacific equivalent of CARICOM. Unlike elsewhere in Asia, everyone at this meeting knows the Caribbean, and indeed CARICOM. That is, the policy makers do. Most recently, Pacific states met in Barbados in a Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) meeting.

Raratonga (one of the Cook Islands) is Caribbean beautiful, though I suppose it could be said in the reverse. All depends on who is doing the comparison. Skies are crystalline, light is squinting bright, the sea, variations of blue – royal blue deep, light aquamarine, and the breezes are constant and cool.

photo sea


I feel definitely a belonger in the environment, flora the same as home, green hills in the background. This could be Tobago, St.Kitts or Grenada. Except, a very small population of about 10,000.  Yesterday, with no vehicles behind ours, one in front and two motor bikes to the side, the driver told me that when he wants peace and quiet, he goes to another island. Raratonga is too busy. I sighed, me the Bangkok transplant, living with people, traffic, noise, light, happenings.

pacific-mapWhile there is some sense that we are all SIDS people together in similar waters, in fact the Pacific SIDS are in a  geography that challenges the reach of globalisation. Spread across the most vast of oceans, there are some 20,000 plus islands. Even nation states can be comprised of hundreds of islands, like the Bahamas, but dotted over a large expanse of ocean. There is no  equivalent of our little LIAT which can and usually, reliably does (despite all the ungrateful hating we lump on it),  impeding the kind of connectivity which we take so for granted.  Pacific Islanders have to travel through hubs, New Zealand, or Australia, or Honolulu or Fiji to move within their region. What ought to be a 4 hour direct flight may take 20 hours and two connections. The expense of it all.

The Pacific is also facing climate change with rising sea levels threatening to submerge islands. With a small population, the region grapples with diseconomies of scale. Economic and social opportunities for young people are limited, the big countries attract and the brain drain goes on.

But Pacific Islanders are hopeful. They speak like many of us do, with a fervent passion and commitment to their space in the ocean and the world.

Yet the truth is, that to most people, Pacific islands are like Caribbean islands, too small to know or think about, low growth, donor dependent, indebted, food importers and questionably economically sustainable, at least in the neo-liberal market framework.

Ever so sensitive about those ignorant people who do not know where we are from, (who would not know the difference between Dominica and Dominican Republic????) we also do not know too much, if anything, about the Pacific.

 At the conference I picked up a brochure on Wallis and Futuna. Could that be a product, like chocolates or an ice cream brand???? Maybe a finance firm or engineering company?

Too shame. Here is the Pacific Islands lesson of the day taken from Wikipedia:

Wallis and Futuna, officially the Territory of the Wallis and Futuna Islands(Uvea mo Futuna), is an  island collectivity  in the South Pacific . Its land area is 264 km2 (102 sq mi) with a population of about 15,000. Mata-Utu is the capital and biggest city. The territory is made up of three main volcanic tropical islands along with a number of tiny islets, and is split into two island groups that lie about 260 km (160 mi) apart, namely Wallis Islands (Uvea) in the northeast, and Hoorn Islands (also called the Futuna Islands) in the southwest, including Futuna Island proper and the mostly uninhabited Alofi Island. Since 2001 it has the status of a French overseas territory.

So can we say that gooseberries are to cherries what Wallis and Futuna is to Turks and  Caicos .

Or that gooseberries are to cherries what Wallis and Futuna is to Martinique and Guadeloupe.

Didi Bahini

There is a somewhat dispiriting conversation which plagues feminism in the Caribbean. Are we transformational enough in our thinking and action? Are we so concentrated on a simplistic reading of gender equality (add numbers of women to the mix and stir) that we lose the script of other inequalities, failing to understand how dominant free market, neo-liberal economics diminishes the redistributive capacity of the state, reinforcing other inequalities. Is our analytical lens wide enough to take on the whole of governance deficits – corruption, exclusion, power capture?

But feminism as practiced has delivered some real change. Of course it has. Though no doubt we have made less of a dent to the surrounding political, economic , social and cultural environment than we hoped, thinking that working on gender equality would give an entry into disrupting and confronting other inequalities. “Gender as a suggestion” as Tracy has said somewhat enigmatically.

Hazel and GabrielleThis March 8th, on Facebook, I came across this picture of Hazel Brown and Gabrielle Hosein. I kept looking at Hazel’s face, weary but determined because  making change can take one a whole lifetime of work, and without any guarantee of victory.

In making change we seek companions across our diversities. Why am I posting this which I wrote in March and forgot? Because this last week I met someone from a Nepalese organization called Didi Bahini (Big sister little sister). And I remembered this image.

It is humbling, this gift of a life of effort. You wonder how social justice activists  do not become  cynical. Maybe they do from time to time. But for the warriors, their nature is to fight.


I have, as it turns out now that I am writing this, enough memories of televised beauty pageants, watching young women walk sure-footed in high heels across a stage, listening to them in the ‘question round’ straining to transmit the obvious - that they have fine minds and interested hearts, doh mind the swimsuit.

Beauty pageants are cringe-inducing  on many levels. Yet even when we are quite uninterested, they will commandeer  attention as when Jennifer Hosten won Miss World in 1970. I mean, from that tiny island of Grenada? And what about Penny, Giselle, Wendy and Lisa? Those ‘crownings’  had  some political significance, in the sense of experiences that transcend the person involved. They were moments when other people might get to know that we exist, in a world, as David Rudder puts it, “that don’t need islands no more”. And there is no denying the politics of race and ethnicity in the definition of beauty. Our Caribbean women winning affirmed especally in the 70′s and 80′s for those who needed it, that black is beautiful.

If you had asked me, well even up to August this year, whether I would be attending Miss World, I would have been bemused. A joke perhaps? But there I was on Saturday, two rows from the stage in a hall in Bali, sandwiched between two beautifully clad women, both waving a huge Dominican flag. I think you saw me on TV? I was sitting directly in front the mother of the person who eventually won, Miss Philippines.

ShowCan I say that I had an experience, one that I will remember for several reasons? For watching Lassa, composed, seeing dimensions of her young womanhood, some absolutely consistent with the 10-year-old Lassa - her certainty,  her ease with people,  her clarity on the beauty of her naturalness.

I was sitting in front the support contingent from the Philippines and participated in their utter delight, observed the mother’s tension and her release. I shared in those seconds of contagious pure maternal satisfaction. The families around, those supporting Miss Dominica and Miss Botswana, would have felt some disappointment for their daughters, nieces, god-daughter, but they were proud and taking pictures.   

The show, the concept, is a curiosity, out of time, yet it resonates,  springing to  life oddly.  Like for Dominica, having a contestant for the first time in 35 years, one who has in the last year, won four other competitions in the Caribbean. Someone who represents a country so tiny, so often confused with Dominican Republic, giving an opportunity for others to see the country’s specialness, its natural grace.

The feminist critique of the beauty competition is for the smallness of its vision of femininity, for its reinforcement and validation of male attention to young women’s sexuality, whether or not men even watch the shows.  They exploit the dominant gender culture’s preoccupation with the compare and contrast of women’s bodies.

We lament the constructed idealization of beauty – thin, fair, straight hair. There is something fundamentally disquieting and reductive about judging young women for how they look. It mirrors our daily reality as women across the life cycle, that we are first of all, the sum of what we look like. Whatever our feminist gains, the profitability of the cosmetics industry reminds of the durability of the notion of beauty as a woman’s primary attribute and asset.

We tell young women that they are entitled to the range of life’s opportunities without discriminatory barriers. And indeed depending on the country and depending on socio-economic factors, more women have and are breaking ceilings, pushing back walls, constructing reservoirs of self-reliance, designing whole edifices to integrated life.

So these beauty competitions  try to refresh and reinvent themselves, promoting beauty with a purpose, beauty with brains, beauty with muscle, beauty with talent.  I wonder about this, about this promotion of Superwoman.  Now these young women must be purposeful, strong, smart and beautiful.  More fields of judgement.

Still, this is what the social scientists call a negotiated space  and we see young women (and those who support them) seek ways to use this experience to make common cause on issues that they care about.

Leslassa has started an NGO through which she advocates for holistic education. Over this last year, she used her platform to speak about domestic violence and child abuse. and she will continue to do so.  Her world has opened up and in that opening she is telling young women to stay true.  Her fabulous head of unprocessed natural African hair such a thing of beauty.

Others in the competition used their professions to bring services to the excluded as dentists, as midwives. Miss Barbados contributes to  an organization that brings happy experiences to children who are terminally ill.

I judged them all to have won. And yes I was happy to be there with Team Lassa.



Hearing well

Quite an obvious thing to say, but I am getting to know the world more in its diversity. This week I am in Timor Leste.  Located on an island like Hispaniola, Timor Leste shares a border with West Timor, which is a part of Indonesia. Once colonised by Portugal, Timor Leste (East Timor) seized its independence on 23 November 1975  only to be invaded by Indonesian military forces on 7 December 1975. There followed a long and terrible struggle in which over 100,000 people are estimated to have died from violence and famine.

This is memorialized in the Resistance Museum in Dili, a museum dedicated to recording and keep alive in memory the loss and yes the costs of what was regained- self-determination. The museum does a fine job of honouring the Veterans, and disseminating, in the words of the brochure “the values of the resistance struggle”.

When you think of how many died,  you understand that most everyone here is touched by the quite recent and terrible past.

Here is the poem in the museum brochure, with a Martin Carter feel:

Culture are the memories
of a people who refuse to die!
Action is the history
of a people who refuse to die!
Did you hear me?
Did you hear me well?
Life is the freedom
of a people who refuse to die!
Did you hear me?
Did you hear me well?
Independence is the craving
of a people who refuse to die!
Did you hear me?
Did you hear me well?
Justice is the endowment
of a people who refuse to die!
Struggle is the finding
of a people who refuse to die!
Did you hear me?
Did you hear me well?

Maubere Manifesto

Fernando Sylvan


Lessons for Life

Caribbean education is elitist in origins, it remains that way even with universal education post-independence.  We value the education system for what social mobility it has promoted. And this is the case, but it also does reproduce disadvantage. Passing to a ‘good’ school is not quite as hard as passing through the eye of the needle but you do need the equivalent of that wire loop needle threader. Lots of lessons which the more well off can pay for, more home support  which the less stressed parents can give etc.

And because of these, what social scientists call structural factors, the majority of Caribbean young people leave with little evidence of achievement which seems ironic as the schools are set up to focus almost exclusively on certification. I understand that over 60% of children in the Eastern Caribbean leave with under 2 CXC passes and over 30 % leave with none.

My brother the teacher, points out that at common entrance, there are children, too many, who may score under 30%. Yet these children enter secondary school expected to do the same curriculum as those who got almost perfect scores. See how embarrassing that is to read. Embarrassing in the thoughtlessness and irrationality and mortifying when we think of how those children are made to feel about themselves, about learning, about school, about authority.

Yet year after year, we all march to the sound of the exam drum, common entrance, CXC, CAPE. Those of us whose children get through, while lamenting, are quietly satisfied to have run the gauntlet, leaving it behind with a dispiriting shake our heads. The status quo remains intact.

The inadequacy of our education system is being brought home to me, literally daily. My daughter is in an international school in Bangkok. Yes, not representative of the normal school experience here but  indicative of what could be that normal. I follow closely the school’s functioning, not voluntarily I have to say, but because those teachers send out a frustrating number of  emails to inform on every blessed thing going on.

The young people are engaging explicitly with skepticism, critical thinking, questioning. They read about the world around them. And that reading is cross-cultural. Rais’ first week in school, the class discussed works by Walcott, Kamau Braithwaite and Jamaica Kincaid. I felt such pride about that, the Caribbean has produced so many brilliant people. But a secondary thought set in.  Do Caribbean children know anything about Asian literature? Or even about Latin American literature. I hold no brief against Beka Lamb, but there is so much more, indeed so much more Caribbean literature for that matter.

And what about Caribbean history? Isn’t it odd that having gone through no less than 8 years of reflecting on slavery, on discrimination and oppression, so many Caribbean young people leave school homophobic, sexist, ethnically intolerant? Are we just teaching the facts of 15th-19th centuries without a reflection on the values that ought to inform our present realities?

The education sector’s dysfunctions are having a tidal effect on every aspect of Caribbean life – most immediately, on what we expect, demand and accept from our politics.

Where do we start?


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