Archive for the ‘Caribbean Life’ Category

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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Market stall: young men busy de-scaling red fish, Big Mama on break, eating lunch. Next to her sits an older man, doing the same and who politely offers me a fork full. And to her other side a young man with a suitcase full of lingerie, all colours except, black, white and beige. I mean, lacy, glow in the dark tiny pieces of fabric.

Big Mama wants to match her bra. As if to remind herself, she looks into her bosom. Purple, I want a purple. The young salesman unwraps a lime green shorts brief. “Uh , uh”, the older man declaims. ‘That wouldn’t look good on you at all”.

I am disconcerted on her behalf. How you can say that? But Big Mama, is unmoved. “He doh know nothing about me” she verbally shrugs. His opinion neither offensive nor helpful.

Turns out, he likes  women in panties that cover the waist. But why? And then we get into a surprising conversation about the relationship between underwear choice and infections.

He opens his legs so that I can better understand the risks. Quite clinical and with a very serious informational tone.

All of which to say that in the market, any kind of conversation is possible.

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Loving LIAT

How we in the Eastern  Caribbean love to hate LIAT!

As a teenager making my way back and forth between Barbados and Dominica, LIAT was the only way to go, except otherwise by schooner. Come to think of it, it still is the only way to go. But back then, everyone conspired to find an apt expansion for the acronym LIAT. Where ever two or more frustrated passengers gathered in an airport, (daily) the brainstorming got under way: Leave Island Any Time. Late If A Tall, Luggage In Another Territory. You get the drift. LIAT was synonymous with delay, unpredictability and inefficiency. And that is a reputation that it seems unable to shrug off completely.

Yet LIAT manages, I understand, over 70 flights daily across the eastern and southern Caribbean, starting at 6 in the am and going non-stop throughout the day into near midnight. It is a complex operation of which we should be most proud.  

The view in the morning in Barbados and Antigua at LIAT’s hub airports gives the sense of just how indispensable LIAT was and remains to the family, community and business life of Caribbean peoples. With sometimes 6 aircraft waiting on the tarmac, all to set off before 8 in the morning, we rely on this little airline that could and does.

I love LIAT. I love the informality of boarding, of open seating, the quickness of departure. I am happy to hear where the flight attendants hail from, even though they all seemed schooled in  some strange LIAT accent. And I like how the planes drop down, brrrrrmmm, abruptly coming to a halt on the short runways. Like travelling on a bus. And I love too, how I always know people travelling on LIAT, reminding me of how small the Caribbean is, how connected we all are.

Is true. You have to be strategic though about your flights. Well, there is only one strategic moment daily. If you get out on the first flight, all’s good. And with  carry on luggage. After that, chances for delays increase with every passing hour. Until, if you have the last flight out of any island, expect setbacks,  the result of compounded delays along the island hopping routes. But this, a small price to pay.

We keep talking, tiresomely, about the importance of West Indies cricket for integration. Or about UWI. But really what institution has furthered functional integration, intermingling of regular folk, business transactions more than LIAT. Everyday, 365 days a year.

During the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, I was privileged to be on a LIAT to Grenada with a team of Barbadian customs workers who were taking relief supplies down for their counterparts in Grenada. I believe they were on that flight at minimal charge. You can say, evidence of market inefficiency. Or you can say evidence of an airline that is vested in Caribbean culture and understands its role in development.

LIAT is aortic, a vital channel of movement of people, goods and services in the Caribbean. Time to update the acronym.

Linking Islands All the Time

 OK. I am no poet. You come up with one.

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The Joker in the Pack

Jeewan, my brother-in-law wants to know what 50 feels like.  Well he finds out today. Happy Birthday Jeewan.

I have known Jeewan forever and he remains more or less the same. The person who will crack a joke when things get tense. Who will process absurdity with some long view wisdom. He is a buddhist at heart, staying far  from negative states of mind, believing in karmic  consequences of small mindnesses.

He is a generous and open sort and the Clarke family has been a main beneficiary of that. Big time limer, Jeewan makes  friends on the train, playing cricket, drumming in bands. 

And he also believes that slow cooking is the key to a great curry and has spent his whole adult life trying to convince me that his lovingly and long prepared lamb curry (with tomato. Please!)  is better tasting than my 30 minute pressure cooked curry. Well Jeewan I am happy for you to keep on trying to make your case.

Have a great day Mr. G 1.


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Jamaican snippets

Here in Jamaica  and had the most delicious braised ox tail. Very fancy title, what in our homes we would call stewed. But, just like you see on Food Network, braising, slow cooking,  is for especially tough meat. When properly done, the meat will just fall off the bone, at a mere glance of the fork.

Anyways, Tuesday was nomination day and here and there groups of  people in green and people in orange. But most others  fastidiously in every other colour. On the TV, nomination day looked carnivalesque, full of partisan joviality, the vuvuzela full blast. People, mostly women, to my eye, chipping along, supporting their party, their candidate. One candidate went to register on a horse (‘a one horse race’ ) another went on a bicycle.  The day looked like high dramatic fun for those politically engaged. Everyone optismistic about their chances.

Taxi drivers can be a reliable sample of public opinion.  In Jamaica, the taxi drivers seem  non-committal or otherwise weary of politics. As one told me, the Lord is the answer.


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Thinking Independence

I feel some distance from the nationalism that Independence celebrations typically and properly represents, this probably because I self-define as a Caribbean person.

As a little girl, I remember being in Windsor Park when Dominica got associated statehood status. I was a brownie then, attending Goodwill Junior School (brand new compliments the Canadians). And I sang the national anthem, knowing all the words. The Dominica national anthem is melodious and with a lyrical emphasis on nature.

And I was also in Dominica for its attainment of Independence and again in Windsor Park when the complicated, hard-to-draw flag went up in 1979. Dominica has retained its hold on me, on my sense of who I am even though my mother is the Dominican one and even though I left at 6. When I land at Melville Hall, apart from feeling euphoria to have survived the plane ride between mountains and buffeted by crosswinds, my feeling of connectedness is deep. Home.

We spent a lot of time, my siblings and I, lamenting our exile in Barbados, away from beloved Dominican grandparents and the reeevar. And in the  child-like way of focused loyalty, in my heart there was not room for more than one country love. And Barbados lost out.

But really, as an adult I feel happily Barbadian too.  I am a product of the Barbados education system and my father’s propadandizing. (More on that next week). With the Barbadian propensity to see in black and white, little room for tolerance of the things on the perceived wrong side. A certain self-righteousness. (You can only imagine who much I sputtered incoherently in sweet TnT when I first lived there. How, why…I cannot believe….!)

Barbadians are definite people. And the homogeneity of the place allows for consensus and wholeness. Because of its long history of racial domination Barbadians put a great ethical premium on fairness and meritocracy. And because of the sheer geographical and physical limitations, the people are generally thrifty, conserving and cautious.

If Dominica’s anthem is characterized by nature evocations and Trinidad and Tobago by the idea of unity in diversity (side and side we stand…where every creed and race find an equal place) the Barbadian anthem is serious, serious, reflecting on the efforts of people to build a nation. It is an anthem of some exhorting power, with, I find with few platitudes. And the anthem honours the vision of Barbadians on the independence era to be the “Strict guardians of our heritage, Firm craftsmen of our fate”.

 So whatever my preference for Caribbean citizenship, (I am a wannabe Trini too) wherever I am, Independence Day is a moment for pause, for reflection and affirmation on our collective work for greater freedom, self-determination and self-responsibility.

Independence Day also reminds us that nationhood in the Caribbean, the Independence project was (is) located in a rejection of inequality, domination and oppression. Of all kinds. Listen up homophobes and class elites.

Independence is then both the destination and a way of living. We are all on the journey still.

By the way, the Belizean anthem has the best lines of of rebellion and resistance to oppression: “Drive back the tyrants, let despots flee-Land of the free by the Carib Sea!”

To end by saying that the Alex Jordan morning radio show (FM 101.1) simply and meaningfully profiled Barbadians, from across the proverbial walks of life every day in November. Great job

Happy Independence Day to all.

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Staying in motion

Here in Haiti for an intense week. I wonder if the streets of Port-au-Prince ever get silent or empty. Looking at Haitians moving, moving, resilience comes to mind. But is this just a platitudinous cliché, a patronizing delusion? A sop for helplessness. Better to think of resilience than the vacant silence of the vendeuses at the side of the road, chock-a-block, all with the same menu of goods. None of them making sales for most of the day.

Because what else are people to do in historic, chronic, mind-numbing crisis? The human instinct surely is for survival. We are hardwired that way, to wake up day by day, to put one foot in front the next, to look for sustenance. And that is what Haitians do. They endure. And they laugh, quarrel, fight, work hard, live, love. So, yes, they are resilient.

Yet evidence of the recent past is everywhere. In the mangled steel, in the rubble that dots the landscape, in the pall of dust that pervades the atmosphere. In the stories that people do not speak about but are there one scratch away from active thought.

We are staying at Horizon Suites which to my unease turned out to be a renamed Hotel Montana. Hotel Montana was the go-to hotel of the international development denizens. It was sophisticated and urbane in, yes, a roughish kind of way. Tiles not quite straight, fixtures not quite plumb. Over-sized rooms that the more efficient capitalist them would understand as an inefficient use of space.

The earthquake struck as if the fault lines were located right under the hotel and at that 1 foot away from the surface. Most of the hotel collapsed and with that many lives were lost.

But near two years later, a much smaller version of the hotel is back in business, disconcertingly, yet poignantly on the same location. The dining room remains intact with the spectacular view of the city below and the denuded mountains across the way.

The world is so small. It turns out that the owner, one of them, went to boarding school in Jamaica with Joan, recognizes her from what must be 50 years ago and we get to talking. She is vivacious, energetic, alive, wiry in that hard working looking way. And as she reminisces, talk turns to the hotel. Yes, they are rebuilding. Yes, many lives were lost, including that of her grandson. Her sister was trapped in the rubble and rescued after 4 days. But, life goes on. There are somethings that we cannot control, she says, bringing an abrupt end to a conversation that can only deliver pain.

Is this faith? Is this life affirming pragmatism? I do not know. But one thing is sure. People make choices about how to live with crisis and it is those who are blessed with optimism and determination that overcome. And perhaps resilience is that capacity to discern the forces that you can control and to focus on those and not the areas of powerlessness.

This propensity to look forward in motion might be the outcome of nurture, but perhaps too the luck of nature.

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