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Raffique Shah


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A nation of 'nawsty awsses'

By Raffique Shah
May 13, 2007

One of my favourite sergeant-majors in the Regiment used to say to private soldiers who committed infractions of any kind: "Boy! You is a nawsty awss!" His peculiar accent and the manner in which he berated some poor soul would elicit stifled giggles in the ranks, and laughter among officers who happened to overhear him.

I think of him (oh, he's very much alive and kicking!) as I move around the country testing my own Vision 2007, knowing that 20-20 has diminished with the aging process. I am convinced by what I see that however much Prime Minister Patrick Manning may change the skyline of Port of Spain, whatever the authorities may put in place to keep the country clean, the majority of Trinidadians remain "nawsty awsses".

In fact, I should start with those in authority, their lack of pride in public property. They love to build (hell, they aren't spending their money) in order to inflate their egos. But maintain? That's foreign language to them. Look around at structures like the Hall of Justice, the Eric Williams Plaza, Police Headquarters, and many more that were built mere decades ago. These sturdy, expensive structures are grimy on the outside, and in most instances that's an understatement.

They look positively stink. And if you enter them, look for cobweb on the ceilings, grime on the air-conditioning vents, dirty hand prints on stairway-railings, and much worse.

Is there not a unit responsible for maintaining public buildings, for ensuring they look as good as they were when they were first occupied? I shudder to think what the National Library will look like in a few years. The dormitories of some police stations that were built after 1990 look like vagrants' quarters. I ask myself: how can anyone sleep comfortably there? And I am only looking on from the outside.

I use my imagination to think of what inside must look like, the state of the toilets, the mattresses, the dining rooms. I can say this about the army-and I hope it still holds true. Soldiers took pride in their quarters, with barrack rooms and offices being cleaned on a daily basis by those who occupied them, and the outside of the various camps being spotlessly clean every day.

If the Government and its many agencies set the "stink mode" as their benchmark, what can one say of ordinary citizens? They no doubt feel justified living in squalor that seems to be the norm, even in some upscale communities. Like the sepulchres of biblical times, the houses and lawns may look lovely on the outside.

But don't you dare enter some of these mansions: children no longer have responsibility for cleaning their rooms or any room, and many parents, if they cannot get or afford help, behave no differently. In poorer communities the standards tend to be lower, although this is not universally true.

There are a few who still take pride in themselves and their country, and they cooperate to make their districts the envy of others. Sometimes serendipity strikes suddenly as one drives through a little village in which the entire community, from its streets to vegetable and ornamental gardens, is aesthetically superior.

In most of Trinidad (and here I deliberately exclude Tobago), people simply cannot be bothered with basic hygiene, far less overall cleanliness. They eat their fast food and throw the waste any-which-way. Cigarette packets, soft drink containers and beer bottles litter the highways and byways. You have a big appliance that has ceased to function? Buy a new one-and dump the old on some lonely stretch of road. Poultry vendors are stinkers of the worst order, dumping chicken waste by the bag along roadways. As for those who live off "de labasse"! Just drive up on the Claxton Bay flyover and see the mess that was once pristine grass-and-shrub-land. It's disgusting. And no one seems to care, to have the authority to lock up those who make our country-scape look like an open sewer.

There are container-trailers and abandoned vehicles permanently parked just off roadways, dangerously so. Who cares? As for scrap-metal dealers, they are in a league by themselves-and are a law unto themselves. While we appreciate the work they are doing, collecting and selling what would otherwise be unsightly waste, they operate on roadways or just off them.

They won't bother to spend some of their earnings acquiring land on which they could collect, sort and load their waste behind fences. Driving along the Butler Highway, one encounters eyesores that make you feel you are in the slums of Mumbai or Mombassa, not in a country that's aiming for developed status.

This stink starts at the top, and if it must end, the top must first show the example, then move on the middle and bottom with a vengeance. We can boast of the highest growth rate in the hemisphere. But that does not excuse us for being the "nastiest asses" in the world! Right, sergeant-major?