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When things tu'n ole mas

By Terry Joseph
December 14, 2002

Typical tourism-brochure seduction might croon: "on the first morning of Carnival (Jouvert), locals and visitors engage in frivolous portrayals, parading the streets in a carefree pre-dawn frolic called 'Ole Mas'."

But as came sharply to our attention this week, frothy definitions of Jouvert simply aren't true anymore. Ironically, in the vernacular, the same "ole mas" aphorism indicates quite the oppositea complete collapse of law and order (eg: when "everything turn ole mas").

As reinforced by Tuesday's news, which spoke of early retirement imposed on veteran bandleader Victor Rique, the two versions are not mutually exclusive concepts. Indeed, the more appropriate Jouvert description now resides fully in the latter sense.

Already deeply disquieting on its own, Mr Rique's decision to quit Jouvert doubles as the strongest signal yet on the abuse of women in Trinidad Carnival. With females comprising some 85 per cent of the parade, we can easily understand his growing tired of trying to protect his charges from marauding hordes of urban youth. Long before him, the TEARS group had thrown in the sponge for the same reason.

Evidently immune from law-enforcement intervention, Jouvert gangs routinely deny women the right to enjoyment of their property and brutally curtail other personal freedoms, a situation of apparently minimal concern to festival custodians, if we are to take our cue from their silence.

It is a horror successive Carnival administrators, tourism officials and The State have swept under the carpet, keeping it among the festival's unmentionables, even though we have had the convenience of a single person being Minister of both Culture and Gender Affairs.

Mr Rique's stark testimony doesn't exactly read like the script of The Greatest Show on Earth. "Individuals who played with the band have had horrifying experiences," he said, adding: "We saw groups of young people moving like packs of wolves, using the cover of darkness to commit unlawful acts on unsuspecting masqueraders."

Nor is the problem exclusive to costumed women. Last February, a festival review by this writer titled "A Carnival of Lawlessness", called for definitive action to curb this unsavoury trend; all to no avail.

The column quoted veteran Carnival music-provider DJ Hurricane George, who detailed female Jouvert frustrations at large. "It was nothing short of terrorism," is how he described the worst-case scenario:

"In that instance, apart from jumping up on the lady's vehicle and wrecking its surfaces, they rocked it with her inside, banged on the windows and windscreens and one among them even unzipped his crotch and proffered his privates against the glass.

"The victim sat there crying, helpless against this completely unprovoked attack," Mr George said, adding he had noted escalation of lawlessness since the mid-1990s and particularly at Jouvert. The article elicited absolutely no public response from Carnival's authorities.

That silence was nothing new. Indeed, at the time Mr George first noticed behavioural decline, a front page Express story quoted then police commissioner Jules Bernard as saying blandly: "The road make to walk on Carnival day", in response to a plea for protection against uncostumed revelers invading bands.

During the period 1989 to 1991, as chairman of the National Carnival Bands Association (NCBA), I met each year with senior police officials who held the same view. From Commissioner down, the officers found comfort in the fact that existing legislation gave them no facility for curbing incursions by uncostumed revellers, almost invariably the source of trouble.

At a November 1999 Boston, Massachusetts symposium convened by the International Caribbean Carnivals Association (ICCA), I delivered a paper titled "The Abuse of Women in Trinidad and Tobago Carnival—A Festival in Denial" that not only examined the problem but offered models for retrieval of the situation.

Copies were subsequently distributed to local police, Senators who defend women's rights, successive Ministers of Culture and Gender Affairs and chairmen of the NCBA and National Carnival Commission (NCC). Excerpts ran in the Express and the topic was debated on Trinidad and Tobago Television's Issues Live programme.

Still, absolutely no reaction came from the Carnival authorities, while other targets of this attempt to bring the situation under control produced little more than minor murmur.

Meanwhile, female masqueraders, the backbone of our globally touted street parades, are left to fend for themselves. And the woman doesn't have to be "wining up in a band" to suffer assault and indignity.

This year, more than 50 female guests from a single upscale hotel became victims of Carnival crime. And quite apart from the robbery motive, women's breasts, bottoms and pelvic areas are fair game for itinerant molesters.

In fact, police have historically adopted a hands-off approach to Carnival, their avoidance fuelled by an absence of laws on which to act. Politicians, forever with eyes on each next election, clearly do not wish to upset the uncostumed majority by enacting legislation that would stem wanton assault on women.

It should be noted that every other country presenting Trini-style Carnival has put corrective laws in place or, in lieu, dedicates enough police officers to the task.

Clearly, our politicians have taken the opposite view, waiting perhaps until everything tu'n ole mas.

The bad news is that everything already has...

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