On August 1 we celebrated Emancipation Day, and on August 31 we will celebrate Independence Day. Apart from both days being holidays when we fete and party a bit more than we usually do, they indicate defining phases in our national history. One day indicates the end of the oppressive and dark times of slavery, and the other celebrates the end of foreign control of our country. In some sense, both days represent freedom from the domain of others and herald the beginning of a time of self-determination. Fifty years after we broke off the chains of colonial control, have we become the nation we imagined, and how have we used the freedom we gained? Have we built a nation and a place to be proud of? And what is left to be done?
These are the questions the Government, the Opposition, the Judiciary, the armed forces and every single person should be asking him- or herself. As we run up to Independence, the media will be flooded with praises for our achievements and scorn for our faults and problems.
The journalists and public figures will trumpet our nationhood and pay homage to our country with rhetoric. Very few will question what is the nation of Trinidad and Tobago, what is our culture, what is our place and where are we going? We take for granted that we exist as a nation, a defined geographical area, but a nation is much more than geography. A nation is a sense of community and shared values, norms, ideals and citizenship. Anthropologist Benedict Anderson described a nation as an "imagined community" of individuals who would have never met most people in their country but feel a connection to them—thus the cognitive creation of a nation. Can we say this sense of connection to each other is felt in Trinidad and Tobago? Can we say our citizens imagine themselves as part of the collective of Trinidad and Tobago, or are we disintegrating as a nation where apathy is the norm?
Trinidad and Tobago has much to be proud and happy about. We are blessed with an abundance of natural resources, with tropical beauty and are relatively safe from hurricanes. We are a nation of many peoples of various races, religions and cultures, living together in relative peace and harmony. We do not suffer the terrible ethnic and sectarian violence that plagues places such as Burma, Iraq and Rwanda. We have built a nation which is mostly tolerant and peaceful, where each citizen is free to worship and to live as he or she sees fit.
Over the years, we have faced trials and tribulations that have tested our sense of togetherness and threatened our young nation. The attempted coup of 1990 stands out as one such terrible time when we were at the mercy of a reckless few who sought to take away our precious freedoms.
There are too many noble sons and daughters of our nation who have achieved much in the field of sport, medicine, business, politics, etc. There are also many unsung heroes who have dedicated their lives to the service of others, to charity, to animal welfare, to children, to the sick and dying and to the forgotten and vulnerable. We do have much to be proud of, but we also have much to worry about and to fix.
It would be difficult to gloss over the fact that there is much that is wrong with our country. There is much that makes us feel ashamed. The usual areas of shame include rampant crime, poor treatment at health facilities, corruption and greed, just to name a few. Many nations both great and small suffer from these ills, but for us we accept them as a fact of life and have allowed these things to take root. We tend to call them reality or the "facts of life" and, in many ways, we justify these ills as "just the way it is". These issues I believe are linked to a deeper sense of nationalism and nationhood, which we lack.
Many may not be happy with my accusation that we are falling apart as a nation, but I take my point one step further and posit that we never really formed a nation in the common meaning of the term. We live in a country where allegiance to the State is virtually non-existent. We feel little sense of national pride and we never really engaged in nation-building.
Our national culture is much more about the individual and the family group rather than the pan and Divali and Carnival, as we like to think. Much academic work has been done on the configuration of our nation and why most people care mostly about their families and loved ones and very little for the Government or even "religion". That is not really a negative thing, as we have been doing well until this point.
The real problem is that we are starting to divide into an "us and them" situation. This "us and them" is not about race, religion or even money, though it is tied to these in some ways. It is rather about the "good and the bad", those "who deserve to die and those who don't". I can sum up much of what we are seeing today by highlighting the breakdown of the imagined community. The people of this country care little about others and only about themselves and those close to them. From this apathy and selfishness, we can trace much of the ills and problems that are plaguing us today.
If we do not come to grips with this serious problem, then the next 50 years may see us disintegrating into gated communities and regions that couldn't care less about anyone else; and if the oil and gas is gone, our future is indeed dark.
Part II next week.
• Rajiv Gopie won the President's
Medal in 2006 for business/modern
studies. He is an MSc candidate in
international relations at the
London School of Economics.