March 15, 2002
By Raffique Shah
PITY the poor people from the village of Biche. These people have had a rough time for more than half-a-century, having faced beasts in human form, the stigma of the “Ganja City”, and the concomitant police harassment that goes with that title. Now, the village that few Trinis could find on our two-by-two map (except for ganja traffickers, who could find it guided only by the aroma of good “grass”) was about to make it big time with a first-grade secondary school sitting proudly atop one of its lush hills.
But life’s a “biche”, really. Because in their moment of glory, just when the little Biche folk should be occupying the spanking new school, up comes God (well, who else to blame? Panday? Manning?) pouring mucho oil and spewing sundry gases on the troubled structure. Worse for them, in order to set the pungent gases free, He (or maybe it was the Devil, with whom you-know-who slept!) created cracks in the building. That, in turn, caused a lot of cracked-heads from the district to spew even more gas-methane, this time as they protested the government’s reluctance to open the school.
According to the irate villagers, they have lived there all their lives and they have never seen, smelt or experienced the ill-effects of noxious gases. They want the school opened, and they believe all this talk about the building sited on a fault line, about noxious gases, is PNM hot air. Panday was generous enough to give them a school that happens to sit atop an oil vein, and now the PNM wants to take it away. Clearly, the latter decision (in the villagers’ view) was based on race, not on oil, cracks, or cracked-heads.
Believe me when I say I feel for those “Biches”. Years ago, for those who are too young to remember, a man named Mano Benjamin—a giant of an Afro-Trini with the demeanour of a hyena—established Biche’s notoriety. Mano used its remoteness to imprison two young sisters whom he mutilated in a most savage manner. He gouged out one’s eyes and subjected the other to sexual atrocities that shocked the nation. When, in the 1960s, the trial judge jailed Mano for 20 years, he (the judge) dubbed the giant the “Beast of Biche”.
That was when many Trinis heard of Biche for the first time. Later, as “flower power” made ganja the drug of choice of an entire generation, Biche began to bloom. The agricultural district, in which rice and watermelons and fruits and vegetables were grown in abundance, suddenly discovered a new, lucrative alternative crop. Ganja was grown in people’s backyards, literally. And vast paddy fields gave way to ganja—as-far-as-the-eye-could-see. In short time pushers who could hardly navigate their way out of Port of Spain were able to find fields in the back of Biche almost by instinct.
Biche moved from a poverty-stricken village to a relatively prosperous one. Tapia houses were demolished to make way for elaborate concrete houses, rum shops were elevated to “snackettes”, even pubs, and the general standard of living improved. By the 1970s, Biche was the focus of attention of both politicians and the police. In the political arena, the village, which is part of the Nariva constituency, elected to Parliament a PNM representative named Hardeo Hardath. In the 15 years he was MP, he opened his mouth in the House only when he yawned.
The rest, as we say, is history. The UNC gained control of the constituency in 1991, and by 1995, Harry Partap moved magically from his journalist’s desk to the MP's chair. Presto, Biche moved centre-stage. To maintain its hold on the constituency, the UNC had to do things no government had done before. So why not a secondary school? Mattered not that the site chosen sat directly atop a deadly fault in the earth's crust, or later noxious gases emitted from the fault. “Build the school, and do it fast!” was the injunction that came from Panday’s Cabinet.
Now, we have the entire village rising up against the new government’s decision not to open the school for reasons of safety. In other districts, parents are cussing the authorities for putting them and their kids at risk from jack spaniards and stray dogs. In Biche, parents want their children to occupy the crumbling school that passes gas, if you could picture that. But you have to understand Biche to understand why they’d put their children at risk.
Clearly, they are all suffering from the ill-effects of noxious gases without knowing it. They shout in strange tongues (not English, not Hindi). They jump and wave (their placards) much the way red howling monkeys do. And, like “biche-d whales”, they appear to be confused, staring death and disaster with screwed-up faces. I say if they want to expose their children to whatever dangers exist at the school, let them be. But first, they must all sign disclaimers so that taxpayers won’t have to meet any $100 million bill, should the school explode. And let Panday and Partap find teachers who are willing to work in that uncertain environment. That way we’d get rid of the “Biches”, and as a bonus, we might even gas Bas to the point where he is all flatulence, no substance.
Copyright © Raffique Shah