August 25, 2002
By Raffique Shah
ON the fortieth anniversary of our nation's independence, there are citizens of this country who have a major problem with government spending $3.8 million on a series of activities that span a forty-day period to mark the milestone. The most vocal among those objecting to this "wanton waste of taxpayers' money" did not have a problem when, in 1999, the then government spent some $80 million to stage a one-night-stand, the Miss Universe pageant, which, if anything, was 99 per cent foreign both in content and in beneficiaries. Or when that same government spent a significant sum of money on the World Beat Festival, which featured mainly foreign artistes and was a colossal financial failure.
But why should we be surprised at this heavy politicising of one of the few historical ties that ought to bind us as a people, a nation? There are tens of thousands among us who, having lived their lives in Trinidad and Tobago, some of them well over the age that will have allowed them to experience colonialism, federation, self-government and independence, claimed that they first celebrated the latter occasion after the UNC came to power in 1996. In other words, because of narrow and hollow political and racial considerations, they did not feel part of the independence experience until one of theirs became Prime Minister. I suppose if we pursue the other side of that midnight-view, diehard PNMites should have withdrawn their recognition of Independence Day during the period that the UNC was power.
Where, pray, is our commitment to Mother Trinidad and Tobago, our love for this country that has nurtured us all, that has sheltered us from the savagery that stalks our ancestral homelands? True, we are not a perfect nation, more so since we have been blessed with the natural and human resources that ought to allow us to become a shining beacon on a grim global horizon. I don't want to use this forum to gripe, but it would be hypocritical of me to gloss over our many shortcomings. Only last weekend I found myself fretting over the number of stray dogs that stalk the country (I'm sure they outnumber the human population), and worse, the number of dead-to-decaying dogs that litter our highways and by-ways. And that is the least of our sins of primitivism that betray our lack of pride in country.
It bothers me, though, that after forty years of independence, albeit under neo-colonial strictures that still bind us to Europe and North America, many Trinidadians and Tobagonians neither feel nor display pride in our nationhood. And it's simple things that count. When I see prominent people doing a telecast of Carnival celebrations or Panorama dressed in "I Love NY" T-shirts or caps, or worse, our sports administrators or athletes who are on the world stage decorated in the paraphenelia of foreign, mainly American basketball or baseball teams or European football teams, I see red (minus the white and black)! Why not "I Love T&T"? What do foreign audiences think when they see these icons of local sports and culture promoting teams or artistes from abroad, or cities or countries other than ours? Put another way, you'd never see an American icon appear before the media wearing a "Pan Is Beautiful" cap, bet your last buck on that.
Independence should stir a sense of patriotism in the hearts of the most cynical citizens. It has little to do with politics, and even less connection with those politicians who seek to exploit it for their own purposes. I was all of sixteen years young on the Big Day in 1962, and it mattered not to me that it was Eric Williams and not Rudranath Capildeo who led us to that milestone. There I was on Abercromby Street bedecked in my Cadet Corps uniform, puffing my chest up, bursting with pride that I was part of the grand occasion, even if the rewards for standing in the hot sun for hours were a bun and a soft drink. Indeed, my school friends who did not participate actively in the day's programme also displayed the pride that was almost universal back in 1962.
What has happened-or not happened-in the ensuing forty years to bring us to this sorry pass? To the point where a foreign artiste is billed as the main item on the cultural agenda of the day and not one of the thousands of youths who will be there to "usher" in the 41st year with him feels "ah how"? When, however, those of us who were fortunate to have lived through the transition from colony status to nationhood act as though it were just another holiday, what do we expect from the youth of the nation? We complain about the latter switching allegiance to Jamaica, at least in their musical tastes and language. But many who make that criticism do it in "freshwater Yankee" accents!
It is my generation (the current Prime Minister is a few months younger them me), and those older than me, who must take the blame for not instilling in the younger ones the pride in nationhood that is commonplace elsewhere. We have not only failed them, we ourselves are failures in this respect. Those who are disturbed by the decline in nationalism cite the fact that Independence Day falls during school vacation as one reason for this lack of interest by the youth. But what happens during the semesters? Are these students, many of whom might have never heard of Williams and Capildeo, being taught even a modicum of local history? They do not know that there was a time, less than 60 years ago, when the right to vote was limited on the basis of wealth. They do not know that the Governor, appointed by the monarch in Britain, wielded more power than elected representatives.
Most of all, they aren't taught about the struggles waged by so many at various points in our history to achieve what little we have today. Nobody writes about these heroes who took on the Empire-from Jim Barrat to Buzz Butler to Williams, FEM Hosein to the Sinanan brothers. They know nothing about the West Indies Federation and why it failed. Which is why they cannot appreciate the small mercies independence has brought us. So, in this historical void, "Usher" becomes more important than Rudder, and many would think nothing of trading our national flag for the Stars and Stripes. I suppose today's economic gurus would tell us that this absence of nationalism is a benefit from globalisation. We really reach!
Copyright © Raffique Shah