Itations 'n' Reflections

May 10, 2019.

I’ve been tossing in bed since about midnight. It was about 1:30pm and I was feeling a bit “peckish” as my grandmother called it. I get creative with food sometimes, but I always draw from the years I spent watching my grandmother move around the kitchen.

“Granny, please teach me how fah cook!” I would often demand of her. She would respond that nobody taught her how to cook but I just have to watch and learn. I never bothered. It wasn’t until I moved to Trinidad for studies at UWI in January 2015 and damn-near starved that I finally appreciated how much I should’ve been taking those lessons.

By that time granny had already migrated to the US, and even when my semester ended and I went back home to Guyana, there wasn’t a chance I could benefit from a couple of her recipes. We developed a system of cooking through Viber, Skype, and Whatsapp with a combination of text messages and voice notes (most effective for recalling recipes for later date) and a video call every now and again just to see how the pot was turning out.

Of course, she’d never be able to taste it but at least I was getting it down for myself.

I navigate much better around the kitchen now. So much so that my time on Milner Hall (now Freedom Hall) in academic year 2017/2018 saw me dominating the kitchen with Guyanese dishes that were a hit with the regional students. You could always get people together around a pot and a hot plate of something good.

We developed a system– “put something in de pot and get a plate.” IT was a kind of cooperative socialist principle that ended up working out well. Even if you brought the onions to contribute to the pot, you’d still be guaranteed a plate. It’s been about a year since I’ve been away from Hall, and I’ll be returning on May 12 for a week. A lot has changed, but let’s see if the system still has value.

Tonight, I saw some boulanjay in the fridge. I didn’t feel like cutting it up and cleaning it and using oily pans and so on, so I just put it on the stove as is. I saw granny do it before. I rotated every now and again until the outer skin was burnt and you could tell the inside was cooked. I held it up from the stem, peeled the burnt outer layer, and mashed the now-steamed inside.

I added some Caribbean Seasoning (a brand) for taste with a little bit of pepper, and mixed it with……. a tablespoon of chicken stuffing I had in the fridge. A strange combination but it went well together. I ended off the whole thing with a few slices of just-fried ripe plantain. The last of the plantain I had in the fridge.

The flavours pulled together well. Tonight I am thankful for my grandmother, Margaret Rodrigues, and for the women who take time to teach, to share our culture and to teach us the value of a good pot to bring people together. I still don’t know what this boulanjay thing is called. Is it choka?

I googled it, and yup… it’s baigan choka. ❤

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Itations 'n' Reflections

May 6, 2019.

Co-Signed Letter to the Editor published on April 26, 2019, in the Stabroek News daily newspapers: <https://www.stabroeknews.com/2019/opinion/letters/04/26/social-media-personality-making-light-of-street-harassment/&gt;

“Social media personality making light of street harassment”

Dear Editor,

We, the undersigned, note with concern the circulation of videos on the social networking site, Facebook, which shows a social media personality recording himself walking up to strangers in public places and holding their hands.

Street harassment is the most common form of violence against women in Guyana and the Caribbean. Almost every woman has experienced some form of street harassment in their lifetime from catcalling, staring, stalking, physical assault or sexual assault.

Usage of social media must be done responsibly to not recreate the elements of rape culture which has made it difficult for women to stand or walk in public spaces and feel safe.

Social media must never be used to glorify or reduce street harassment and reproduce it in a whimsical way for public consumption and laughter. Too many horror stories have emerged of similar things happening to women on the bus park and in other public spaces which makes the streets unsafe for women.

Street harassment does not exist in a vacuum. Street harassment is only part of the broader spectrum of violence against women which includes whistling, staring, stalking, catcalling, rape jokes, sexual gestures, verbal abuse, inappropriate touching, physical assault, coercion, rape and murder.

Violence against women in whatever form must never be tolerated. Men must be held accountable for violence against women. Sexist and misogynist mumblings must not be allowed to stifle women’s experiences.

Based on its prevalence, the elements of street harassment have been criminalised under Section 4(1) of the Sexual Offenses Act of Guyana. Section 4(1) of the Sexual Offenses Act is not gender-specific. Men, too, can be victims of sexual violence including street harassment.

Consent, under Guyana’s law, refers to “words or overt actions by a person who is competent to give informed consent indicating a freely given agreement to have sexual intercourse or other sexual contact… ”

“Sexual” under the Sexual Offenses Act of Guyana also means touching or any other activities deemed to be of a sexual nature and can include touching “with any part of the body.” Consent must be given before any sexual activity including any form of touching viewed as sexual.

For public knowledge, Section 4(3) of the Sexual Offenses Act states that “A person who commits an offence under subsection (1) is liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for five years and on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for ten years.”

Men’s role in eradicating the scourge of violence against women means listening to their stories and making conscious, sustained commitments to see where mistakes were made and to correct those mistakes for a future where men and women can peacefully coexist.

Yours faithfully,

Derwayne Wills

Ronelle King for Life in Leggings: Caribbean Alliance Against Gender-based Violence

Clestine Juan

Ahreefa Bacchus

Renuka Anandjit

Renata Burnette

Oliceia Tinnie

Mariah Lall

Shanae Singh

Karen Abrams for K12youthcode.com

 

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Itations 'n' Reflections

May 5, 2019.

Happy Arrival Day to Guyana! Today the nation observes the first arrival of indentured labourers whose descendants now form part of the social fabric as well as the building blocks of our legacy. There are also some things which must be problematised about “indentureship” which has been a term utilised marginally to refer to labourers from the Indian sub-continent and China.

In Guyana, however, records within the national archives show a number of indentured labourers arriving from west Africa, particularly Sierra Leone, in the 1840s up until the 1860s. This practice would have followed the abolition of slavery. The idea of black indentured labourers problematises many narratives comfortably taught within the history curricula but also disrupts some notions of “African Ancestral Lands” which had linked pre-1838 experiences of the slavery system with a right of claim to land as reparations.

I’ve always been invested in the idea of knowing where I come from. I was born in Guyana, but I’m descended from both indentured labourers and enslaved Africans. I haven’t explored my mother’s side of the family but the name Masdammer connotes a Dutch influence. My father’s side of the family has a bit more details. My paternal grandmother recalls her grandmother came to British Guiana on the boat from Barbados. Ade Thorne was her name. Granny’s mother was Stephanie Rodrigues, a direct descendant of Portuguese and Bajan (maybe not the place of origin) heritage, who gave all her children her name inherited from her father. Stephanie was born around 1926 in British Guiana and died in 1992– one year before I was born in 1993.

Granny’s grandfather was Reginald Rodrigues who arrived by boat from Portugal. There’s very little record which suggests he remained here. A glance at the Portuguese ship records reveals a regular movement of ships between Georgetown, Demerara and Lisbon, Portugal. My paternal grandfather’s side of the family is a bit concealed about our history. Grandfather’s father was not Guyanese. He was described as a short “Chinese” man who farmed, but he wasn’t from China. Their memories are scanty and there was no need for them to recollect it but my great-grandfather suggestively originated from Vietnam.

For an assumed Vietnamese, Cecil Wills (as my great-grandfather was named) has a particularly British origin. This is not uncommon within colonial immigration records. During the time of indentureship, the language barriers between British officers and Asian immigrants saw many immigrants being renamed based phonetically on the closest thing to English that their names resembled. This callous act from representatives of the crown saw many family histories and legacies erased and rebooted. My paternal aunt tells me she never knew of nor knows any relatives of her grandfather. It seems she’s looking in the wrong part of the world.

I’ve always wondered if the archives in Barbados have any records of my great-great-grandmother, Ade Thorne ever leaving the island. I’ve complemented with a scan of the Guyana records, but I haven’t uncovered anything as yet. The national archives in Guyana was, at the time of my search, undergoing a digitisation process with some of the records being exported to The Netherlands for digitisation. Portugal’s ship records are quite detailed but the online version is more for referencing before physically visiting the archives building. Not to mention almost everything is in Portuguese and google translate it’s always effective.

In his memoirs, Glimpses of a Global Life, Sir Shridath Ramphal writes too about his family history. Of course, time would permit that he, in his age and wisdom, would have a much closer relationship with the era he examined. In the opening paragraph of the third chapter, Ramphal writes: “On 1 January 1881, (in the wake of Gladstone’s first letter to the Calcutta firm) the sailing ship Ellora arrived in Georgetown from Calcutta after a voyage of nearly three months. Its human cargo was indentured labourers for the sugar plantation of British Guiana. Among them was a widowed mother, Doolnie, and her son of nine, Ramphul, bound for that same estate of Vreed-en-Hoop. Her story was already remarkable, though not unique, for this journey across the kala pani was for her a third crossing.”

I’ve taken on this project of connecting my family. Of course, this depends heavily on the participation of the most senior family members in the Rodrigues (paternal grandmother), Masdammer (maternal grandmother), and Wills (paternal grandfather) clans. Some stories are unsavoury ones and the culture of shame and silence tends to break over time, but usually when the main actors of the memory have passed on already. I’ve considered exploring pursuing the subject of my family tree at the master’s level (MPhil) blending together history, biography, migration, gender, empire and race.

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Itations 'n' Reflections

May 3, 2019.

Interim Chairman of the Guyana National Youth Council, Derwayne Wills presented at a Moray House Trust Panel discussion entitled ‘Guyana’s Oil: Road to Perdition or Prosperity.’ Derwayne spoke on the youth interest in oil and gas and made a call for youth consciousness, knowledge consumption, and youth collective action in Guyana’s emerging oil and gas sector.

MHT writes: “Derwayne Wills of the Guyana National Youth Council asks some pertinent questions in this short presentation, part of a Moray House Trust Panel entitled ‘Guyana’s Oil: Road to Perdition or Prosperity.’ He cites Article 13 as a mandate for youth engagement in decision-making processes in Guyana and gives some examples of shortfalls in practice.”

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Itations 'n' Reflections

April 29, 2019.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the physical and social security risks that come with advocacy and activism, but I note also how that affects young advocates and activists still balancing their advocacy, social life, school (in some cases), and potentially their work life.

Henry Wallice Charles left Guyana a few days ago. I could spend this entire blog post writing about his accolades and fetes, but the one I value the most is his connection with the youth council movement, himself coming out of the ‘modern’ St. Lucia National Youth Council where he served as the Public Relations Officer in the 1980s. Mr Charles was in Guyana late April working along with the Department of Youth as they prepare to finalise their strategic youth development plan for 2019-2024.

The Guyana National Youth Council, of which I serve as the Interim Chairman, was invited to the sessions, but of course, I suspect this is only because Mr Charles himself insisted it. In his presentations, Charles touched on the development of youth work within the Caribbean and how it emerged out of the idea of the welfare state. Much of youth development and community development work is still premised on the idea of the welfare state, and more ideologically underpinned by cooperative socialist values in some regards.

The idea of unsafety in advocacy work is not unfounded especially in a contemporary world where the spaces occupied by the ideological left are quickly and aggressively eroded by right-thinking governments emerging in Europe, in Brazil, in the Caribbean, and in the United States.

Indigenous Rights, Protecting the Environment, Sexual Rights including women’s access to abortion, rights for LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender) people, and the call for greater civic and political education to break decades of ethnic voting are among those areas of youth and community development work perceived as ‘threatening’ as it disrupts the status quo of stigmas, discriminations, and dehumanisation.

Charitable organisations and charitable initiatives not seen as having any linkages to political advocacy are given nods of approval from office bearers who seek to consolidate their own power by monopolising the advocacy landscape and determining whose work is valid. In doing so, agents of the political system exclude groups with hardline points of advocacy and activism which call for transformational change in policy and legislation, new practises, or even greater social and political accountability. These are the actions which threaten the physical and social security of the voices calling for change, and further creates a social and political climate which is intolerable of activists.

The principal objective of the political system, according to Article 13 of the Constitution of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, is to create opportunities for an inclusionary democracy where citizens and their groups are involved in the decision-making process, especially in those decisions which affect their well-being. In disaggregating the idea of the “political system,” I note this means central as well as regional and local governments. Article 13, which seems to slip out of the speeches of our leaders as I’ve never heard any of them speak openly about it, speaks more to governance than a system of government. The two are not the same, but it is the former that must pave the way for the latter.

Where there are still advocacies perceived as ‘threatening’ by the agents of the political system, is our democracy really inclusionary?

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Itations 'n' Reflections

April 26, 2019.

I haven’t blogged in a while. There’s been a lot happening with me personally, professionally, and even with my volunteer work so finding the time to sit and write has been a challenge. I tried doing a private diary but I found myself only having time to write in it when I wasn’t too busy which was most times just before or after midnight. By that time, I’d be too tired to focus and get disinterested as the bed felt more comfy.

I write now because cutting out Facebook from my life (Yes, I’ve deactivated) now means that I have way more time to think, to breathe, to feel, and most importantly to heal. It’s not the first time I’ve advocated for persons to take themselves away from Facebook every now and again. I’m not sure when I’ll re-activate but for now, my messenger remains active, and I can still be reached on WhatsApp and email.

Yesterday, I facilitated a session at the GRPA (Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association) with some of the younger members who form the organisations Youth Advocacy Movement (YAM). I was once a YAM member but now I find myself on the Board of GRPA. The session was to re-assess some of the values of the yutes and see how those values aligned with the broader mandate of the organisation. Mr Henry Charles, global youth development specialist, was in-country. So, I invited him to chat with the management of GRPA and eventually with the youth themselves. I always appreciate the way he grounds contemporary advocacy as continuing the independence project and challenging colonial-era values.

Some of the yutes talked both directly and indirectly about their sense of social and physical security when advocating for LGBT rights, or abortion rights, or even for gender equality. They identified some of the main culprits like the over-zealous religious folks, or that antagonist who just comes around simply to antagonise. But they touched on something that I felt needed to be written about, and that is the constant attack on activists and advocates by folks on social media. There was an incident involving a young fella who thought it harmless to go to a public space and video himself walking up to strangers and holding their hands.

For some, the humour was present. For others, particularly women, it reopened old wounds of walking through public places and just not feeling safe because men felt the urge to shout sexist, rapey things at them, or even to touch them about their bodies. The stories from the women who were and continue to be aggrieved just kept pouring out. But there were some who swung out in defence of the yute saying he made a mistake.

It ended up turning on the way advocates treat these issues on social media. But was it? What was really the issue at hand? I just could not handle the toxic back and forth on social media where women had to validate the stories that pretty much have shaped the way they organise their life and literally navigate the rest of the world. Street harassment must never be taken lightly. Some women have chosen to “walk the longer route” because they felt unsafe walking to school or home or to work.

For a minute, I looked at my newsfeed and I felt a bit of unsafety because the assaults were flowing, but as advocates, we have to continue pushing through the tide. I touched base with a friend, Ronelle King the founder of Life In Leggings. I needed some amount of reassurance that I wasn’t going mad. I had openly asked for feminists and feminist thinkers in Guyana so we could create a group for knowledge sharing. That too was ridiculed.

But maybe I was doing it wrong. When people have unlimited access to you, this is what they do. I needed to starve them of that access. I needed to continue to engage in the streets and in the letters sections of the daily newspapers, and completely cut away this toxic place called Facebook. I was foolish to think they wouldn’t still come for me. And so I received a message attached below. I choose not to respond. Responding gives them even more power.

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It took me five minutes to make the decision to deactivate my Facebook page before beginning to type that letter. The other time I spent typing up what was to be a Letter-to-the-Editor co-signed by others (men and women) in support of ending street harassment and calling it out where it existed. Unfortunately, I was the only man who co-signed and so greater solidarity from men is needed on this issue, especially in calling out other men. I shared the letter with one friend and asked her to share it around and then I messaged others. We had 10 signatures in the 24 hours.

There is power in collective action. I can’t help to connect with this idea of social and physical securities being challenged. There are going to be those who feel uncomfortable by the work advocates and activists do, but there’s a price for advocacy especially the ones people feel threaten their privileges.

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Itations 'n' Reflections

Aug4,2018. Gary Griffith gets no congrats from me as a former immigrant in T&T

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The front page of a November 2014 Trinidad and Tobago Newsday newspaper. 

I am apprehensive about inserting myself in the state affairs of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago and I also wouldn’t wish to insert myself in a delicate selection process as the one surrounding the country’s Police Commissioner, which recently concluded.

I am reverent to this process belonging to the people of Trinidad and Tobago through their Parliament. At the same time, I must express how disappointed and concerned I am at Gary Griffith’s appointment as Police Commissioner.

As an immigrant who studied on the island, I recall this is the same Gary Griffith who, while being National Security Minister in 2014, opened the floodgates for the mass pursuit of immigrants when he grossly inflated the figures of undocumented immigrants living in the twin-island republic and cast much of the blame for the country’s crime rate and economic situation on immigrants from Guyana, Jamaica, and Nigeria.

This is the same Gary Griffith that had the University of the West Indies scrambling in 2014 to make sure non-national students’ documentation was in order because the hunt was on and no immigrant seemed safe.

One bold red headline plastered as the lead story across the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday newspaper screamed “ARE YOU ILLEGAL?” as it went on to report Griffith mustering up a multi-agency effort to “weed out” what he quoted as 110,000 “illegal” immigrants living in the country.

That figure was later revealed as being incorrect by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs which revealed that based on the country’s population of 1.3 million in 2015, international migrants were numbered at 3.7% of the total population or approximately 50,000 persons. This information is found in the UN-DESA 2015 report on the International Migrant Stock with country data based on figures from 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2015.

In all those years identified above, Trinidad and Tobago’s migrant population, as a percentage of their total population, has been recorded respectively as 4.1% in 1990, 3.7% in 1995, 3.3% in 2000, 3.5% in 2005, 3.6% in 2010, and 3.7% in 2015.

Griffith’s figure of 110,000 undocumented immigrants would’ve meant that this category alone accounted for close to 10% of Trinidad and Tobago’s overall population.

Even after Griffith had left office, he continued his rantings as he was quoted in the Jamaica Observer online in April 2016 citing some 20,000 undocumented Jamaicans living in Trinidad and Tobago whom he said were exploiting the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) by abusing the six-months stay arrangement and ultimately overstaying thus becoming a burden on the state. It remains to be seen where Griffith found his figures.

But these numbers aside, one must consider the real-world implications of such dangerous uttering and what it means for the perception of non-nationals in the eyes of nationals and how that could create distrust and further strain relations between those who “belong” and those non-nationals who are scapegoats for high crime rates and a declining economy.

One must also consider how such dangerous misleading contentions from a person in authority exacerbates stereotypes and xenophobia, and further how it made the country unsafe for non-nationals who continue to contribute to the economy and the social and political systems as we have done from the very birth of the nation.

Furthermore, the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian reported in June 2017 a more modest figure of undocumented immigrants quoted by then-acting National Security Minister Dennis Moses in the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament where he noted there were 15,042 undocumented immigrants in Trinidad and Tobago between January 1 and May 1, 2017. A breakdown of the numbers by Moses tells an entirely different story which departs from Griffith’s rantings.

It is a crying shame that it requires all this effort to track down and quote statistics and research after one man in a position of authority grossly misleads an entire nation and compromises diplomatic relations between CARICOM countries.

But there a few things I’ve come to accept in the era of Trump. Not only do we continue to reward bad behaviour, but we also continue to give authority to those who are misbehaved and give further legitimacy to their wrongdoings.

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July 22, 2018 edition of the Sunday Express newspaper’s front page. 

 

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