February 8, 2001 By Keith Smith

Burning questions

HOW could a village’s desire for a community lead to fiery demonstrations in the street? Ah mean, how?! You’d think that the powers-that-be would see such a request as evidence of enterprise, instead of which the people of Enterprise have taken to the streets because the rebuilding of their community centre has been too long delayed? What stupidness is this, man?

I don’t know, but it seems to me that something must be wrong with a system that cannot satisfy such a simple need, the assumption being that public officials would be eager to supply villagers with the basic infrastructure needed to carry on community life.

Or, maybe it is that communities continue to be seen as a kind of humbug, important only in so far as they can bring in the votes, their role in the national life peripheral to what goes on at the centre.

What I am getting at here is that something is wrong with a system in which the villagers of Enterprise do not seem to have ever been in charge of the rebuilding of their centre, doomed to wait until officialdom moved or was forced to move.

I note, too, that the poor village councillor Vinode Boodram (and no official is more powerless in the world than a village councillor in Trinidad and Tobago and that, too, is part of the sad story) has said that funds had been provided for a new centre but said funds had been squandered.

Well, squandered by whom? And who were the villagers appointed to oversee these funds? And assuming that no villagers were so placed (the safest assumption in the world), the question that rises on its hind legs and barks to be answered is: Why not?

How come none of these villagers, so eager now to put their freedom and possibly their bodies on the line to get a centre, were in on the thing from the word “go”, their commitment now surely then would have ensured its coming into being not only in quick time but possibly under budget.

Why is it that so much of community energies have to be wasted in ritual protest when those same energies, properly directed, could dynamised community life, throwing up all kinds of opportunities to say nothing of leaders who could, one day, stride confidently on the national stage.

Look, man, if the events of the last 40 years have taught us anything, it is that we can’t continue trying to run this country from the top down and if the thinking before was, well, Trinidad and Tobago is a small country and all you need is 18 or 24 or 36 good men to run it right, the reality is that we need to think again since neither participatory democracy nor benign dictatorship has anything to do with size as anybody who has ever tried to run a steelband or a sports club will ruefully tell you.

I don’t know but, sometimes, we seem to be going backwards in this place. It must be nearly 40 years since Eric Williams had his community centre idea and then proceeded to build them without the slightest reference to the needs of the communities as expressed by the spokesmen that then abounded even more than now, so many, in the interim, having lost the zeal and given up, unencouraged and, thereby, discouraged.

Forty years later, it is as if the world has not moved on, and we continue to see community centres as places for party hacks to hold sway, as concrete shells to showcase the most pedestrian of activities when what we should be asking is what do we want these centres to do and how do we see them relating to the schools in the vicinity, the steelband in the area, how can we use them to trigger computer literacy in the young who are out of school and the old who are watching this new thing pass them by.

How, come Divali time, the people at the centre in the Centre in Laventille, for example, could use that space to have the Hindus living there engage the rest of the community in talk not only about that religion but about “Indian music” with the Laventille Rhythm Section beating out (as they do) tassa rhythms with nary a tassa drum in sight, all this, assuming of course, that the Laventille Hindus have not all become so ultra-creolised that for them, not even the basic puja has any meaning.

How, I am trying to ask, do we make these centres a vital force in the ongoing business of making us whole and not just structures—not that these structures have ever been built with an architect’s eye or at least with the eye of a Trinidadian architect—secure in the knowledge not only in Trinidad and Tobago in general but in the various areas of the country, in particular?

For example, should the kind of community centre you’d build in Tunapuna at the crossroads between country and town, be different from the kind you’d build in sea-going Charlotte or ambivalent Laventille? And how do you even site those centres? One big one for everybody or two smallish ones, one for up the road and the other for down the road, depending on the historical flow of the community vibe? What do the people for whom it is think? And what are they willing to provide to sustain it, not by way of concrete and labour, but by way of wit and imagination.

How does a community centre become the lung of a community? How do they, as a collective, be better able to help the country breathe? Burning questions, I want to think. Instead we are at the point of burning tyres hoping to raise answers from the stink.

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