island

Lagahoo Tribute: To Independent Spirits. RIP LPP

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Louis Homer met me at the gate to the church where his funeral service was in progress against the backdrop of the island’s oldest natural monument – Naparima Hill.
“Whey you doing out here, Louis?” I was about to ask, “shouldn’t you be in there?”
He wore his normal cheeky twinkle, as if to say, ‘You were always somewhere else when I did my field visits, but I knew you would come today. I have to go back inside now. Over to you.’
An immediate rebutt was already on my lips: ‘Whey yuh chain?’ He would understand that I meant the paraphernalia folkloric lagahoos are reputed to drag in the afterlife, since he had now migrated to the other side. Picong was always part of our discourse.
Inside the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church on Harris Promenade, San Fernando, a bouquet of red roses draped a coffin in which Louis’ body was being prepared for send off. Eulogists were recalling his life, his incessant energy, his annoying persistence, his long list of interests and skills, his relentless spirit, his passion for history and heritage.
The usher to his funeral service at the church door invited me to sign the condolence book which had one dotted line for memories of Louis. Louis and I were colleagues in two areas: journalism and heritage, and then some. Journalists may not be the most liked of persons; chroniclers of history are perhaps more appreciated especially by the direct communities they touch. Our society finds a way to isolate each sentiment and express its love or dis-love accordingly. The not-too-packed church reflected this ambivalence.
I looked around for the man who met me at the gate but he was nowhere in sight. It couldn’t have been Louis. Louis would never allow me, nor anyone else, the last word. On the Tourism Heritage Committee, everyone else had to compete with Louis for air time. His last words to me were: “is now you and Eintou (Springer).” It took me a while to realise he was referring to our contributions on the committee – we were two of the most vocal and he annoyingly unceremoniously cut into anything one was trying to say. That was at the meeting that preceded the most recent one which was the day when his heart failed.
It brought back another heart failure two years earlier, and the sound of the dull thud as the body fell from the chair to the floor, her words echoing with the thud, ‘I am tired. I have no more words.’
Pat Bishop’s heart gave up at the emotive meeting of the Expert Committee on Culture and Heritage met at the Twin Towers. Two days earlier she had echoed similar sentiments when she, along with Peter Minshall, Jackie Hinkson, Hans Hanomansingh and a couple others met in lagahoo session with me at the Trinidad and Tobago National Commission for UNESCO. Our blue print for propelling culture and heritage into viable creative industries, drawn from demonstrated successes and knowledge and understanding of the sector, were being stymied by myopic interpretations. They wanted to brainstorm a strategy for the meeting carded two days away that would transform the thinking of those charged as change agents but still steeped in old outlooks and older bad habits.
A Highway to Nowhere
I had grown up in South Trinidad, I told Peter Harris, in our last conversation. I fully lived the daily frustrations of waiting for hours for a taxi, or any vehicle for the matter out of my village because vehicles refused to come through the unkempt, potholed roads.
As a cub reporter just cutting my journalistic tooth in South Trinidad, my duties were the vague ‘covering the South’ – which the deskbound north editors saw as a dot on the map so I still have the first freelancer’s monthly pay check of TT$120 (no, there is no missing zeros there!) which my mom and sister, to their horror, had to supplement for several mre months, despite the fact that I was out of school and now a ‘working woman’ as it didn’t even cover even travel expenses, much less any other expenses.
Covering the South meant traversing the entire southern peninsula, for the most parts inaccessible. Drivers just would not risk the damages to their vehicles to enter a district in flood prone Penal/Barrackpore, the precarious pitch-growing paths of La Brea districts or dirt tracks of other districts in San Francique, Siparia. No one can deny what new transit networks could do to lift access and opportunities to the South.
But does it have to be done by razing of the assets that present the most potential for any success at diversification we may have if we were to break through into the new golden economies – culture, heritage, tourism, agriculture – the renewable industries that would endure long after the oil dried up? What a golden opportunity we have to demonstrated how the some 200 years of industrial 

Image from: http://www.discovertnt.com/userfiles/image/maps/Trinidad/south_09.jpg

development of the district could coincide with exploration in other dimensions – to help us complete the story of our civilisation. How could the planners even fathom the potential when the bases of their planning were still steeped in economics of convenience – tourism seen as cruise shipping; heritage as flag waving; a highway to who knows where.
It was a long conversation. Peter and I discussed some of the many options that were available – that would allow the rural south to have its access routes and the communities to have the assets by which they could grow localised self-initiated, self-supported endeavours that spring from their own talents, and skills and fill the development that the oil and gas and other industries in the area have never been able to.
But as in every other area as we have been witnessing in national life, it is an inconvenient truth that even the greatest advocates of change are nervous of shifting hardened stances. That inflexibility does not only exist in the public service. It is part of our culture. Changing the mindset, transforming orientation and outlooks, should form a substantive part of national budgets if such budgets envisioned change.
As much as the need for diversification is recognised, the baby steps taken to move in that direction becomes only rhetoric to the potential of these unrecognised assets that could ricochet diversification beyond expectations in productive activities that will allow individuals and communities to draw on their own resourcefulness, talents and skills with fulfilling self-sustained livelihoods which exist among us in abundance. Some still cling to the antiquated vision of our grandsires for their children to be doctors and lawyers (as if we really need more lawyers, though perhaps I would haveto eat those words by the end of this article!)
As Keshorn and more recently Jehue have articulated, our young are not as dazzled with escaping to foreign as previous generations were, especially, too, as opportunities abroad are already experiencing global warming, as they are, and drying up. Most youths around me give no thought to migrating and several abroad I know want to return; many would like to be able to stay here and build their lives with opportunities that can fulfil their intelligence and qualifications, not in hyped up exaggerated employment figures that mask underemployment that leave many in the population with a restless, unfulfilled, nervousness. As with Keshorn and Jehue, when they succeed we expect them to embrace heaps of accolades and goodies that they could have done better with in their years of struggle to success.
It is easy to tout change; it is more difficult to effect change, particularly as it requires changes in one’s own outlook in the first instance.
Planners dazzled by the flames of production of petroleum and its by products as the key drivers of economy, tout diversification, while pursuing actions that could destroying the very bases by which we may be able to achieve such diversification – invaluable, irreplaceable natural and cultural assets of the South Trinidad. Naparima Hill stands a living testimony to that.
The bulldozers of the road pavers could in seconds destroy millennia of valuable evidence of our prehistory the potential livelihoods of communities and leave them even more impoverished if these areas so rich in natural and cultural ecosystems were to be destroyed. We would essentially then have a highway to nowhere.
Balanced development
Finding the balance between development and conservation has always been a challenge for planners, but balance, it has been proven already in many areas, is attainable. It takes imagination – of which we have plenty unused, as Pat and Louis might say – and will – which might be in short supply. It is a matter of not just thinking, but acting too, outside the accustomed paths to progress – even the IMF and the World Bank recognise that now!
In that last conversation Peter and I discussed some of the many best practice compromises the plans for a highway could draw on, fulfilling the need for access to remote areas and at the same time protecting a fragile and super-sensitive cultural and natural landscapes which are already in their own right a world heritage – though we would not take the time to put the nuts and bolts in place that would facilitate formal recognition as such. A marriage of the unique industrial heritage and industries in the area with the communities for the model kind of sustainable development that is on everyone’s lips. is not a pipe dream.
I shared with Peter my unfolding research and jaw dropping body of evidence I was accumulating, supported by visits to sites in South America and elsewhere and in comparison with others across the globe, that suggest the broader significance of not just Peter’s pet site, but the entire district of that southern peninsula that stretches from La Brea and Cedros on the Caribbean Sea coast and its connections to South America, to the Atlantic Ocean. As with diversification, national budgets over the last decade have been delivering rhetoric about a knowledge driven economy, and diversification through culture, heritage, tourism and agriculture, but fall short of the actions to effect the shifts that will allow for such development, while at the same time offer and allow us to hold up a more wholesome vision of ourselves that overshadows the trials of the middle passage and extend to, be comparable to, and connect with the antiquity of other civilisations. We have been content to accept it as the district Raleigh discovered – so far from the truth – and apart from a few individual piecemeal efforts, not much of significance had been done to expand our knowledge and understanding of the district in the context of all the new research and activities that is being done elsewhere.
‘You still a baby in this. I have seen this many times over. I am too old now. Is over to you now child. I am too tired,’ Pat had said. Shortly after her death, Peter Minshall called me expressing similar distress, hoplessness, frustration, and despondence, and exhaustion too! more recently, along smilar lines, Hanomansingh. It is a cross no one wants to bear.
And then there’s Peter, the other Peter. A few months before his heart gave up, earlier this year, archaeologist Peter Harris called seeking support in a desperate bid to save his life’s work – the Banwari site – presumably the oldest known human skeletal remains in this hemisphere which he had discovered forty-odd years ago, though not many were any wiser.
We exchanged knowledge. I told him of sites I had visited – the area where Indonesia’s Java man was discovered was an expansive protected landscape, with museum and research institute; here all we were seeing was a grave site, not the bigger picture – of a time that was still challenging scientists trying to reconstruct and reconnect the missing links. He was preparing a report and wanted to consult with me on the accepted international standards for protection. That was Peter – quiet, soft spoken diplomacy to the end despite his extreme agitation of possibly having to watch his life’s work erased. The proposed highway to Point Fortin would pass dangerously close to the site, and the construction activity threatened to overwhelm whatever additional evidence may still be present, not to mention the quarter acre the myopic planners saw as ‘the site’.
At last visit to Banwari Site with deceased archeologist Peter Harris
Current custodians are happy to just focus on the few square feet of the skeletal site itself with no consideration given to its larger contexts and the surrounding districts. Industry – oil, gas, asphalt – shy away like the quick-fix politicians – from any substantive actions on how the rich harvests of the district 

could also help support exploration of new initiatives that could only add value to the area, and give the span of communities there a different view of themselves, of their place in the scheme of things, while directly opening them up to a whole host of new economic self generated individual-driven cultural and heritage employment opportunities and activities that function complementary to the technical skills of the district’s traditional industries that if at all, only indirectly filter down to them. Planning for the area, or lack thereof, has given no thought to these significant dimensions that could springboard the long neglected districts into 21st century relevance.
Louis, Peter and Pat – three heritage soldiers whose life stories and interests might be different, but whose focus were very similar to each other. They summoned their creative energies to negate the similar frustrations: dinosaur institutions, individuals touting change, but unwilling to take the necessary actions to effect them, then falling into their comfort zone only to replicate bad habits.
Louis, Peter and Pat – three lagahoos – sleepless, tireless explorers and proponents of heritage as essential to endowing the next generation with a sense of place and identity, but also sustainable sources of livelihood from the self initiative, innovation and creativity that spring so naturally from our communities.
Peter was a discoverer, of heritage. He tried to lodge his findings with institutions which reduced their significance to the narrow confines of the myopic limitations these institutions impose on themselves – post independence notwithstanding.
Louis was a hoarder of heritage. His anxiety that they would be lost to the ignorant, or the marauding development bulldozers, meant he was often only-too-willingness to cut, sometime dangerous, corners, as I had pointed out to him in relation to the Ganteaume tombstones in Mayaro which we subsequently found out were in his museum and several other issues that arose on the committee.
Pat Bishop was a creator of heritage.
‘T&T is a place that if you wanted to listen to a concert, you have to create one,’ she would say, and she created concert after concert. Louis wanted a place where our history and heritage could be preserved so he created a museum. I got the message: if I wanted people to read my books, to read local authors, I should create my own literacy and literary movement – and that means, in the absence of accessible systems to do so, inspire literary appreciation, educate, research, write, publish, market, distribute, promote, cajole, lobby, etc; that, and expect potential heart failure.
That is our social culture. It is a cultural norm that we do not acknowledge. In not acknowledging it we cannot address it. The story of inertia in the heritage, culture and tourism sectors – still largely viewed as cruise ships and flag waving – while our frustrated youths, seeing the unfulfilled potential around them, take up arms. It is not much different for any of our other sectors and the systems in the functions and attitudes that govern them.
That is also in our political culture: if you want changes in governance, create a political party. If that party falls short, you create another one. It is the same dynamics that have generated the mushrooming of more than 7000 civil society organisations across the country – a CSO/NGO each for less than three quarters of a square kilometre if one wants to get statistical, each championing a cause seen more relevant to the several others it may be duplicating.
Inflexibility and the absence of commitment to transform, change, and evolve; the lack of proper mechanisms, infrastructure and facilities for national assets that will ensure adequate protection of our national assets, including heritage assets encourage citizens to take actions in our own hands.
That void is adequate breeding ground for vigilantes.
When state systems fall down civic-minded citizens are left to take up the slack, until even the state begins to support corner-cutting, because it fulfils its agenda for politically expedient quick fixes, while the preparation of the substantive mechanisms and infrastructures are put on hold. By whatever name one wants to call it, it is vigilante action, fostered because the existing institutions charged with those responsibilities show little interest, understanding or willingness to take the necessary actions to transform themselves to become more relevant to evolving and dynamic social changes and expectations. The vigilantes become heroes. That’s what happens on this side of the fence, of those like Louis, Pat and Peter, who worked to protect, secure, build a future in villages and communities for other generations.
It is not rocket science, if we connect the dots. It is no different and just as much the cultural norm of what happens on the other side of the fence: those other community leaders, gang leaders, those propagating another kind of laga-hoodlumism, the other kind of vigilante justice…
The race is on and the bets may be already fixed on who’s going to win the war; and who will die trying!
If only we knew ourselves…
R.I.P. Louis. Peter. Pat. Happy Independence! From those of us independent, but still dragging lagahoo shackles on this side!