Trinidad and Tobago


Census cynicism

May 03, 2000
By Terry Joseph

For immediate relief from any thought that your job may be too stressful, just imagine yourself as a census enumerator, one of hundreds currently trying to convince locals that their best kept secrets should be shared with the state.

Historically, the Central Statistical Office (CSO) has been less than zealous in its efforts to modify negative public perception about the importance of its business, so the enumerators have to do as much marketing as marking down, now that the show is on the road.

As a consequence of CSO inertia, far too many people are yet to be convinced that the taking of a census is a benign activity, designed primarily to track crucial information and crunch the findings into feedstock for the nation’s planners. Given that the planners work under the purview of politicians, what their bosses do with the information is, of course, quite another matter.

And in the absence of easily identifiable benefits from compliance in the past, members of the public might well be tempted to treat the current census with some degree of cynicism, exposing enumerators to the kind of reception normally reserved for Sunday morning Mormons.

For the CSO to rely on nothing more than a promise that “all information collected will be kept confidential”, is patently naïve and does not, by itself, constitute a persuasive device, in a country where the greatest fear among adults is to hear that: “Yuh business on de road.”

In fact, the CSO approach to garnering greater public participation betrays a grave misunderstanding of the culture in which the agency operates.

The whispered concern, that strangers might abuse freely given access to personal and private information, is hardly diminished by a mere Government guarantee of confidentiality.

It is not easy to forget that, in the interest of scoring petty points in a parliamentary debate, we were once treated to sensitive details of a private citizen’s medical records, at the behest of no lesser person than the Honourable Prime Minister himself.

So, against this backdrop of mistrust, it cannot be unreasonable to surmise that, over the five-week duration of the current census, the majority of people interviewed will tell a string of outrageous lies. Several will hide from the enumerators for as long as possible, fearful that the information they request could invite big trouble; some of which could start right in the very home.

Ask a Trini man: “How many children do you have?” then add the word “altogether” and in most cases, two different responses are guaranteed. Go further. Ask him about his income in front of his wife!

You see, our very culture is rooted in trickery. Calypso, the indigenous music for which we are globally famous, freely admits that its best products are those based on double-entendre. And most locals speak a kind of Calypso-ese, often leaving the listener unsure about the correct version of what he has only just heard. Others simply deny that they had said that at all.

From the top down, we are frequently bombarded with reminders that this society is nothing more than an elaborate Liars Club. The President has suggested that the Prime Minister was not altogether forthcoming about which of them was really responsible for a collapse in relations.

The Prime Minister has expressed the view that local media comprises nothing more than lies, half-truths and innuendo and that we actually make up letters to publish. Not merely by way of response, the press remains wary of executive spin.

At street-level, no one believes any shopkeeper who says he does not have change for a $100 bill. Play-Whe, the widely patronised and State-run electronic gambling game, is viewed with extraordinary suspicion. City merchants claim every successive Christmas season that “business was about ten per cent less than last year” which, mathematically, could only last for nine years. And which church-going mother has not lied in front of her children, when charity cases or carol-singers come knocking?

In short, lying seems to have become the agreed communication-standard and scandalous exaggeration a virtual way of life, in Trinidad and Tobago; with petty fibbing not even ranking anymore for a seat in the bustling confessional. In any event, most religions that operate here offer complete and immediate remission of such sins, through a simple sequence of verbal admission, contrite repentance and the reciting of a few holy verses.

But even after the lies and deception, the enumerator also has to explore some areas that Mother Teresa herself might have wished to avoid. As we saw in yesterday’s newspapers, a man driving through a short-cut via Sawmill Avenue on his way to work, was robbed in broad daylight, after bandits threw a log onto the road. And don’t limit that kind of difficulty to the San Juan/Barataria area.

But perhaps the hardest job is yet to come. After the enumerators have collected their information, somebody has to reduce it to user-friendly figures. That person has to tell us how many Indians and how many Africans really live here.

At that time, particularly if the results show that one of the tribes has made a significant leap ahead of the other, whoever has to hand out the findings might well prefer to be an enumerator instead.

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