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Congo man

Sunday, February 11, 2018

It happened on a pre-Carnival night with the pans being tuned in the balmy dark in yards across the city, on the cusp of hills, deep into areas where few dare to venture after nightfall.

It was on a night like this that I arrived in a pan yard for the second time for this season of worship to the Gods of Bacchus to which the cream of our society had been shuttled in maxi-taxis.

There is warmth in these evenings that comes upon us after a day of heat, sudden showers and blossoms around the Savannah shaking down on steaming pavements, a rush of blood to the head.

The breeze carries the pan’s rising crescendo of excitement towards the J’Ouvert, the madness of spontaneous creation that happens when a palette of humans, paint and music is flung together, the excitement of the pretty mas, the las lap, the parties after the last party because no, no, we ain’t goin home and the party can’t done.

The late great Trinidad journalist Raoul Pantin showed me years ago when I was depressed about crime that almost everything about this country is art.

There was the arc of the hills, the flight of egrets into the changing light.

It was in the features of our people, many continents in one face, Gauguin masterpieces.

It was there in the attitudes people struck in a pan yard: some leaning on posts, others with a smooth gliding rhythm as if every beat of the pan resonated with their heartbeats. I saw it.

I didn’t need to borrow his copy of Walcott’s Omeros (the Caribbean’s answer to Homer’s Odyssey) to believe him. There were no social barriers on the street.

To see then, people dressed for cocktails piling out of especially hired maxi-taxis on a dimly lit street into tightly controlled pan yards, spend time there, and move on to another one in the safety of their maxi-taxis was surreal.

The pan yard maxi-taxi-hopping people (of which I have been one) had adapted. The lines were drawn. The ‘haves’ were stepping into the territory of the have-nots. Oddly in their faces was a self-congratulatory satisfaction or perhaps relief (I don’t think I was imagining this) that they were on the inside, enjoying what the outside world created, without being exposed to the underbelly of the outside–the criminal element.

We were taking their pickings off the street. We were disconnected from the street.

I overheard a man from the Congo complaining bitterly about how much safer he felt there. I could not blame him. January was the bloodiest month in history known to T&T, recording some 61 murders.

When I walked out of the pan yard into the street I encountered a near naked man, dark, muscled, bearded, strong, picking up a crack pipe from the street in a slick movement that belonged in the theatre. 

Our eyes met. His mocking, mine fearful, apologetic. I was ashamed at the way my group shrugged quickly past him as if he was a leper, rushing towards the safety of the waiting maxi-taxi. Out of the safety of the pan yard the dark street was as dangerous as the Congo.

Yet that man, stripped down, dehumanised, wild-eyed, raging, is you and me, us all.

We scoff when people say the system failed them. It did. Parents failed him. They did. Schools failed him. A country where drugs and guns come in while law enforcement looks the other way, failed him. He sleeps openly on the street. Many more are being prevented from being homeless and in drugged despair by only a thin barrier of minimum wage set by the captains of industry. They sleep under galvanize on torn mattresses on streets where bullets fly.

This year, as we ‘wine’ inside our expensive roped in barriers with ‘security’, we may remember that Carnival isn’t about people with money getting the best bands and safest fetes. It’s about freedom and art.

Many of our people are chained by poverty, illiteracy, ill health and lack of opportunity. The rest of us are roped in by a society we create every day, one where by barricading people out, we have caged ourselves in.


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