August 31, 2003
By Raffique Shah
"FORTY-ONE years, how you feeling, Trinidad and Tobago?" our soca bards might croon through booming speaker-boxes. Yes, it takes a bit coming to terms with the fact that the nation is celebrating its 41st anniversary of independence, especially for people like me. It seems like only yesterday I was a 16-year-old cadet playing an insignificant role on the Big Day, but proud as punch, nevertheless, patriotism oozing from every pore. With the Cadet Force and Regiment bands trumpeting martial music in between the formalities taking place in the Red House, the "sleeping soldier" inside me awakened to an inner voice echoing: this is my own, my native land.
Now that Iím older and graying and endowed with more knowledge and experience than I was then, I ask myself if the pomp and ceremony that characterised Independence Day was worth it. I suppose in many ways it was. But true independence has eluded us in so many more ways. We were cast into a mould shaped by our former colonial masters, a veritable international caste system in which the Brahmins of the developed world have cleverly relegated us into "Chamardom" from which we cannot escapeóexcept by death.
Oh, we are not as badly off as so many other countries that were granted independence around the time we were. But thatís more a manifestation of our nature-endowed resources and the technical and intellectual prowess of so many of our citizens, that have saved us from degenerating into a wasteland. This is not to say that our political, religious and civic leaders did not make important contributions that enabled us to rise above the rest. In those early pre- and post-independence years, there were patriotic and dedicated souls who gave their everything to their country.
And what did they get in return? Indeed, the question should be: what did they ask for in return? The answer is, "Nothing!" They sought no national awards, no positions of authority, no bribes, no handouts from government. They laboured tirelessly to build the new nation, their only rewards being mostly unmarked graves. At that time, school teachers and "headmasters" inculcated values in us that complemented the guidance we received from our parents and elders in the towns or villages that shaped us into what we eventually became. The African adage "it takes a village to raise a child" could be applied universally in those tough years.
Looking back at the central issues that were raised and addressed in the run-up to independence, equity between the two major ethnic groups was of prime consideration, at least to the political leaders of the day. It was why the Judiciary remained independent and several service commissions were established to ensure that in the public sector every creed and race did find an equal place. It did not work perfectly, of course. But those who claim today that "Indians were discriminated against" will never explain how so many Indo-Trinis managed to rise to the highest levels in the Public Service and the public sector. Or how more Indians benefited from the tertiary education scholarship system than others. And donít BS me with "meritocracy". The latter does not exist in a society that is driven by discrimination.
While the leaders and many of their followers focused on race, the more important elements of independence were largely ignored. Our economy, for example, hardly changed in its structure. British and American interests still controlled our oil, the banks and the manufacturing and commercial sectors. It took the convulsions of the 1970 Black Power Revolution to trigger some paradigm shifts in these areas, and even those were largely token. The fact that even as I write a government team is trying to wring out from firms like Atlantic LNG agreements that are beneficial to us tells a sad story of where we have not reached 42 years after the Union Jack was folded for the last time.
In education, a most important instrument for the development of any society, we are churning out uninformed university graduates and semi-literates from secondary schools. I feel certain that 75 per cent-plus of our citizens under the age of 30 can tell us nothing about Dr Eric Williams other than he was a prime minister at some point in our history. They know nothing of Rudranath Capildeo or Buzz Butler or Captain Cipriani or Makandal Daaga. In fact, many canít point out on a map where Toco or Flanagin Town is located. They know nothing about "wet" and "dry" seasons. They know, though, we have a "summer". I canít say Iím looking forward to their "winter"!
We have really evolved into a confused society, not knowing who we are and where we want to go. That supposedly intelligent people could speak out with bitterness against Caribbean integration at a time when the EUs, the NAFTAs, the FTAAs of globalisation are steamrolling their collective weights over the cockroaches of the Caribbean, speaks volumes of just how backward we are. So itís not just the children of today who are being wooed and won by alien thinking and cultures, but many of our adults are hopelessly lost. And yet we remain puzzled over the materialism that has gripped the young to the extent that many of them resort to criminal acts to satisfy their consumer-driven desires. Hell, you advertise $1,000-back-to-school-sneakers but you also expect robberies to decline.
Truth is we have built a society in which we are neither fish nor fowl. The politicians are no better. In fact, they are, in most instances, the root causes of the evils that bedevil the society. Corruption and nepotism remain rampant, regardless of party in power. We continue to point to millionaires and million-dollar houses as benchmarks of achievement. We ignore the massive number of people who cannot afford to build shacks, who live in abject poverty because of the heartlessness of exploitative employers and the blindness of government officials.
Iím not seeking to rain on our independence parade, on the pomp and ceremony that will surround us today, on the feeling of pride that so many of our people exude. But watch closely at the number of vagrants and dispossessed youíll see "wining" to the beat of martial music as the military parade makes its way back to St James Barracks. They ask not what their country can do for them.
They do as much as they can to help build the country, and they are often more patriotic than the select few who will turn up at Presidentís House for tonightís gala. But the masses will remain the "Chamars" of a society thatís permanently scarred by colonialism.