Monday, January 22, 2018

Towards a Laventille Renaissance

Part I

I want in this two-part article to propose some ideas that could be the basis of a national dialogue and action, leading to peace and prosperity in Laventille. Indeed I have in mind a Laventille Renaissance. Keith Smith once suggested in a column that we should not forget what Laventille is. It is to a large degree the cauldron of local culture--the place where the steelband was born. Remember Winston Spree Simon? Keith suggested that we may owe Laventille some sort of cultural premium. I agree with him. I have another source of inspiration. My navel string is buried on Laventille hill, where I was born. My mother had a shack there from which she made the trek to George Street market to sell zabocca, chocolate, spice, clove, seamoss, soursop, and sugar-apple. Many of the market women lived on the hill. Most were Grenadians. I remember the red dirt and the gaping incisions in the soil made after each rain as the waters ran down to the alley. My first school was a pre-school on the ground floor of the Nelson Street plannings. Don’t call me foreigner.

Prof Max Richards, former president of the country said the steelband is our most important indigenous invention. The evidence agrees with him. What else do we have in this regard? We owe Laventille something for what the generations have contributed. To solve a problem, we must first identify and clearly define it. And here we come to the first challenge, which is that this has features of a classic ill-structured problem. But we can talk about its manifestations. Young men in Laventille are killing each other. One approach here is that we can re-frame the problem, not in terms of solving crime, but in terms of bringing normality to residents.

Violence has perennially been a part of Laventille existence. Marabuntas was one of the oldest gangs in the country, their notoriety to be heard in calypso. I personally witnessed the clash between Despers and San Juan All Stars in 1959, as a 12-year-old boy, from the vantage point of Memorial Park. That morning I had walked down the hill watching men tend to the ark from their band Highlight of Noah’s Ark. That old time violence was sustainable. Men lived to tell their tales. Men like Fisheye and Batman. Eric Williams ‘solution was steelband sponsorship. This brought peace for many decades. But then a new kind of trouble was introduced, perhaps in the early 1990s. Laventille, like Trelawney in Jamaica, took on the characteristics of the ghettoes of Los Angeles and Chicago. Now there were guns and drugs.

I agree with Fr Clyde Harvey and with Earl Lovelace, that poverty is an important aspect of the problem. It is also the case that Laventille is essentially a squatters’ community, and part of the trouble for such communities is that they are left largely unregulated. If you look at a Google map of Laventille, you see a barren space, next to the well-ordered geography of Port of Spain. There is a single landmark, Desperadoes panyard. You do not see Joe Betsy Hill, nor Ovid Alley, nor the Catholic Church. You see a lattice work of tracks with no name. You get no idea that here is a civilization.

Eventually communities such as Laventille and Cocorite get water, electricity etc, but they do not get secondary schools, hospitals, industry, health centres, playgrounds, or police stations. They are left to themselves. This neglect is exploited by restless, unemployed youth.

The first order of priority in the Renaissance I envisage is to get the warring parties to the table under conditions of amnesty, and a restorative justice regime based on United Nations principles. The approach is Truth and Reconciliation that offers rehabilitation to those who confess to murders as part of the two-decade long war. In this process, it must be ascertained why the combatants have been fighting—what are they fighting over. The model is based on African tribal tradition, and was used to good effect by Desmond Tutu and Mandela in South Africa after apartheid; and In Rwanda and Burundi after the genocides in those countries that resulted in the death of at least one million people.

Warring parties have to come together to bury their guns. The people who can help here most are steelbandsmen like Robbie Greenidge, along with people like Fr Clyde Harvey, and pacifists and human rights people such as Hazel Thompson-Ahye, Eintou Springer, and Verna St Rose. Others who could help here include Representative Marlene McDonald, along with Brian Lara, Machel Montano, Destra Garcia, Earl Lovelace, Khafra Kambon and Le Roi Clarke. Desmond Tutu himself and Kofi Anan could be invited, along with a youth icon such as rapper Fifty Cent.

The aim of this amnesty phase will be to uncover truths about what causes the differences between the young men, the lines across which there is tension. This stage must also be educative. Elders of Laventille must be involved in recreating the history of the place. One thing we are sure about is that the majority of people in Laventille want the current period of violence to end. These people have been helpless, so far.

To be continued