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Raffique Shah


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Ordinary people, extraordinary lives

By Raffique Shah
Sep 04, 2019

They will cremate Miss Eileen sometime today somewhere in Florida where most of her daughters and only surviving son live. I hope the passage of hurricane Dorian does not disrupt the final rites for one of the matriarchs of the village of Bokaro (now "Frenchified" to Beaucarro) where I grew up and spent my formative years. She was one of two surviving women who were bred-and-born in Bokaro, the other being Lucille Warrick who also migrated to the USA, and who is, give or take, of similar age to Mrs. Eileen Prince, 93, when the latter breathed her last two Thursdays ago.

For some time I have been meaning to pay tribute to these ordinary women who lived extraordinary lives. I waited patiently for Miss Melda (Mrs Imelda Prince) to attain her 100th year last April, but she died weeks before the landmark, thus denying us the privilege of claiming a centenarian in the village that helped shape the lives of so many of us who took pride in belonging to Bokaro.

Besides Miss Lucille (all these women, whatever their marital status, were for us younger ones, "Miss This" or "Miss That", and the men, a respectful "Mr"), there remains Chan Segoolam (Miss Batohee), who must be in her mid-90s, and possibly a few others whose names I do not now recall. My mother, Khairun, who fell short of her 90th by four months back in March 2012, was preceded by 97 year-old Miss Baiju (Mrs Ramdoolarie Rambaran). More recently, Miss Whitehead died at 99.

All these women outlived their husbands, in almost every instance by decades. They therefore shouldered more than a fair share of the responsibility for seeing their children mature to adulthood, although in fairness to almost every family mentioned here, the men provided as best they could for their families during their lifetimes.

One reason I chose to put the main focus on Miss Eileen is she was born in Bokaro in 1926 and lived her entire life in the village until she migrated to the USA sometime in the 1970s-1980s. Almost all the others spent their early lives elsewhere and moved there later—in the case of the Shahs, 1954, which was when several families relocated there.

Bear in mind Bokaro Road was still without electricity (nearby Freeport and Bank Village had only recently been connected to the national grid) and potable water lines ran for less than one mile from the St Mary’s Junction. Interestingly, of the four public "standpipes" that serviced the community, the first was mere metres away from Miss Melda’s house, the second directly opposite Miss Eileen’s, the third next to our home and the fourth in front of William Rostant’s.

Miss Eileen was born into the Legere family, daughter of Ferdinand (Mr Fedna), one of the bigger clans in the district. They owned and farmed acres of mainly sugar cane lands, much like the Grants (Bajan stock), Raghoos, Bahals, Ramlogans, Ablacks, Bonapartes, Dookhies, Rostants, Rambarans, Warricks and a few others. Families like ours (my parents owned two lots of land) and the Garibs, whose fathers worked with the sugar companies, rented small plots from the bigger landowners to farm food- and root-crops and rear livestock to provide some of their own food and to supplement the meagre incomes from their jobs.

Bokaro was a racially mixed village, which is not to say it was fully integrated. There were differences that surfaced mostly when elections came around. But such tensions dissipated quickly, restoring the harmony that we yearn for nowadays. That did not happen by accident, The women I mentioned here, and scores of others who went before them or came afterwards, inculcated in the children of yesteryear basic good manners and respect for elders, once the latter earned it.

Adults could not be drunk and behave disorderly in the presence of children over the weekend and expect to be revered come Monday morning.

Most of the Afro residents were either Catholics or Anglicans, with a few Baptists. The bulk of the Indians were Hindus. There was a handful of Muslims, my family being among this minority. But there was mutual respect for each other’s religions that went far beyond tolerance. For example, I recall my mother sending me with the Legere families on a train-and-foot pilgrimage to Mt St Benedict. I would have been around ten, and I thoroughly enjoyed the day.

When Mr Bakando (master mechanic Ramdial) held the first nine-night Ramayan Yagna in the village, we boys of whatever creed or race attended, if only to savour the "parsad" that was shared each night. And without knowing it at the time, so young was I, I witnessed a Shango ritual that ran for several nights at the Warricks’ yard nearby. I distinctly recall the drum-beats and Miss Taylor (Miss Eileen’s aunt, I believe), something like a sword in her hand, dancing and chanting in a frenzied manner. "She catch power," my friend "Bodo" (Edward Legere) whispered to me.

Miss Eileen and her fellow-matriarchs presided over the upbringing of several generations of Bokaro boys and girls. They weren’t fully successful: some among us, including their own families, went astray. But that was not for lack of effort on their part. They went beyond the call of duty, and on behalf of those who benefitted from their guidance I extend our gratitude.

I would be failing in my duties of other aspects of life if I did not recognise the selfless contributions of two outstanding activists in their respective fields—Jimmy Singh and Abdul Ahmed. Jimmy, whose social and political activism impacted some residents of Laventille (Erica Street) where he lived and died recently at age 69, was a tenacious fighter for the upliftment of the downtrodden.

And Abdul, 74, was the smiling face of encouragement and inspiration for two generations of marathoners. Thanks, brothers.

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