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Raffique Shah


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Devalued awards in a depressing country

August 29, 2004
By Raffique Shah

WITH days to go before we mark the 42nd anniversary of this country's independence, one needs to ask what there is to celebrate? Oh, there is much we can be thankful for, many of them mercies from on high for which less-than-ordinary men claim credit. That we have not degenerated into two warring racial camps that could have seen us descend into the kind of hellholes that other, similarly composed societies have become is nothing short of a miracle. Demagogues on both sides of the main racial divide, Indians and Africans, have fought relentlessly to drag us into that pit.

Fortunately for us, the vast majority of people of both races, and those of mixed or other extracts, have grown to love our laissez-faire attitude to life and living, so we end up doing more feteing than fighting. That is, of course, both a blessing and a curse. But if it keeps us from slitting each other's throats even as it keeps us from serious nation-building, then there is something to be said for it.

Still, I see this problem, and those who stoke the fires of racism, as being more dangerous to the society than all the bandits and criminals put together. On the eve of independence, for example, a group of Indians calling themselves GOPIO or some such "chupidness", has decided that since fewer Indo-Trinis than their Afro counterparts have received national awards, and more so that the current Government has retained the Trinity Cross as the nation's highest award, they will give their own. Although I expect them to have a few token non-Indian faces among their nominees, I also expect their list of awardees to be heavily skewed in favour of Indians.

This is not to condone the colonial insensitivity of the PNM in government that simply followed awards fashioned by Judeo-Christian societies to honour their heroes. In debating the relevance of the Trinity Cross to the country as a whole, the PNM has argued that the "Trinity" in the Trinity Cross refers to the "Trinity Hills" Columbus first saw when he came to this island. Ask them where then did the "Cross" come from, and they cannot explain away its obvious Christian connection. Moreover, what relevance Columbus is to all of this, he being merely the first European to set foot here (and even that is debatable), makes their argument hollow.

But are we so foolish, so petty, that we allow a symbolic award that has been considerably devalued to further divide us? Without disrespecting those who have been given the Trinity Cross (and in its 35 years of existence, only a handful of Indo-Trinis have been so anointed), I personally think that almost all our national awards have lost their aura of being something special. I well remember when the late Grandmaster of calypso, Lord Kitchener, came to the newspaper office where I worked to explain why he would accept the Trinity Cross and nothing less. If any entertainer in this country deserved that award it was Kitch. But the authorities did not see it that way, and the bard, who was a lifelong PNM supporter, went to his grave an unhappy man. I said to him then, "Kitch, you are the Grandmaster. The people of the country have given you that honour, and that means so much more than what any government or committee can give you. Forget them and their cross!"

I don't know that I convinced him, but I will forever hold that view. When the people you serve recognise you for what you are or what you have done for your country, you don't need an "official stamp" in the form of an award. But after 42 years as an independent nation we continue to squabble over these petty issues. Where are we in relation to knowing our country's history, the many men and women who have contributed not only to the development or recognition of this country, but who starred on the world stage of politics, academia, medicine, sports? Ask the average Trini who was Henry Sylvester Williams or George Padmore and they would look at you as if you are testing their patience, not their knowledge. Ask them about Dr Lennox Pawan or Mannie Dookie and they would point you to far off India.

We, and here I mean both people and successive governments, have failed miserably in building a nation of which we can be proud. We have failed to instil in our people a sense of nationalism, of pride in belonging here. Is it any wonder that prominent citizens can be seen at national or international forums sporting on their chests the colours of other countries, or the faces of basketball or ice hockey players? That our youth prefer to mimic the Jamaican "twang" or even American accent, than our Trini lingo? We have reduced Carnival to a flesh-fest a la Brazil rather than showing off the creativity bestowed on us by the geniuses of the past. George Bailey and Cito Velasquez are dead and forgotten.

While all I have mentioned above are important, they have to do more with symbol than substance. Where are we in relation to our social and economic development, given the abundance of natural resources we have been blessed with? True, the country boasts of being the industrial hub of the Caribbean, and recently (and at long last) those who guide our destiny have seen the need for us to exploit the real wealth that we have. On the one hand, they are going downstream with oil, gas, and even our limited agricultural activities. But on the other they are leaving behind, stuck in persistent poverty, a large chunk of the population. That can never be just, not with the resources we have, and our relatively small population.

One explanation for our dilemma in the face of apparent prosperity may be found in a simple remark made by junior Finance Minister Conrad Enill last week. As oil prices soared to almost US$50 a barrel, Enill told the nation "not to expect any windfall"! He mentioned only declining production of crude, but that's not the whole truth. The truth is that we are virtually giving away our oil and gas, that the royalties we collect are so meagre, and that the provisions agreed to with the multinationals that exploit our oil and gas by all our governments, the UNC included (Atlantic LNG Trains II and III), deny our people a fair share of the national patrimony.

Which is why, come Tuesday, 90 per cent of Trinis will remain detached from what's happening with GOPIO or at President's House. They are both irrelevant to nation-building.