What Needs to Change
presentation to the Green Investment Conference - Roseau, Dominica - October 05, 2010
Caribbean Laureate for Arts and Letters, 2010
(Excerpt from Urban Drift)
Not so long ago
this landscape read
like a thousand years of unscarred hill.
The ancient road, the old stone church,
the quiet, still unchanged
despite the barking dog
in the dusty noon.
... There was a sanctuary in that slow pace.
A sanity, if you will.
There was calm, without the frenzy
of living large, elsewhere;
a dependable quiet which reminded of origins,
of ancestors, of a place called home
to which we could return
in body and in memory
as to a murmuring spring
or the blue quiet of a cove
for refreshment, for renewal.
The opening excerpt addresses the demise of traditional communities in a post-agricultural Caribbean. This has become something of a thematic anchor in my writing, because I feel that we have not prepared for the rapid social and economic change overtaking us.
I confess however, that I am part poet, part economist. Admittedly, a dangerous combination of heart and head, but I find it productive to draw on both voices. The duality reflects my own thesis that the Caribbean is dichotomous, often schizophrenic, and that we need to acknowledge this quirk in our personality.
Consider our contradictions: We are mixed and multiracial; insular but global; poor but pretty; one and many. History has made us unique. Geography has made us exotic. Size has made us manageable and vulnerable. A paucity of options has made us creative and taught us survival as well as subversion. We are capable of resistance as much as assimilation.
So, the poet tells the economist that there is a metaphor in this duality; an equilibrium to be graphed showing the relationship between the fervour we feel and the logic we have learned. By logic, I include the unwritten good sense acquired over generations, and that intuitive understanding of interdependence between the individual and the environment:
(Excerpt from It’s A Hard Thing)
It’s hard thing.
To live without passion
in a place that is a part of you,
to stay all level-headed and apart
when you feel the wind
like it’s your own hot breath
When you know a place so well
that you can tell from the smell inside the house
and the dark drumming on the zinc roof
that august rain falling heavy like a rake
and ripping ‘way your very skin
from the surface of the earth.
It’s a hard thing.
When in dry season
you see all the soil crack-up
like a big brown heart that split apart
and all the happiness that come
from loving green leaf
and bubbling spring
done gone and evaporate into air.
It’s a hard thing.
To stay all cool and comfortable
in a place that is your home
since before you born
because three generations before you
struggle, struggle, struggle
till they buy a house and land, together,
and get to own the place that their great-grandfather
used to rent but could never buy
in his one life before he die.
It’s a hard thing.
Not to cry when this place is part of you
as much as the hand that hold the pen
that write down this thing;
that same pen that your godfather give you
when you pass for college,
that pen with the deep dark ink that flow
like a bloodline from it.
And you know there must be
a heavy dose of nostalgia inside you there
with this craving for a longtime day
when we used to understand
that history is not what people tell us
but part of who we are:
determined to tell our story
under moonlit mango tree or street lamp
or in painting or our poetry
or that sweeter music that used to bubble up
from deep inside a place that we were not
like now, afraid to go.
And that we owe
a debt, a loyalty to this landscape that sustains us,
this earth that made you, this earth that
make you ask ancestors
if it was alright to fell a tree
that was older than you
because somebody navel string
might be buried under there…
It’s a hard thing.
When we gather, under mango tree or street light or in cool conference rooms, we do so potentially for causes larger than ourselves; larger than that sense of individual importance. And when we give ourselves to such causes, we start to recapture the communal spirit of the ancestral Caribbean. That spirit is a real and powerful thing. It spans oceans and centuries and generations, and is possibly the one shared thing that has sustained us over the last five centuries.
That spirit knows survival, but much more than that, it is a thing with memory; with understanding. It knows that prosperity is not achieved by one generation at the expense of the next. It knows that wealth is not measured in cash, but in equity, ownership, education, wellbeing and a certain quality of life which like a tide, raises all boats at the expense of none.
The late Rex Nettleford wrote a book entitled “Inward Reach, Outward Stretch” which addresses our ability to call up from within that energy we need to achieve our goals. Nettleford understood that goals give us purpose and being an enlightened people, we know that all will not be achieved in our one lifetime. Nevertheless, we find the conviction to sacrifice and persevere and contribute to a legacy which is the prime inheritance of our children.
Today, that conviction is withering. Our concepts of community are devalued. In our new post-colonial, post-independence post-traditional, postcard Caribbean, notions of collective consciousness, collective responsibility and communal ownership are all passing from us:
Under concrete, steel, laminate and linoleum
have we buried all these things.
Under the luxuries of better living.
Under the spin-offs of development.
Under all that forgetting who we are
And what it means to be, us.
But, it is not too late to remind ourselves that there is a higher probability of collective progress as a community of islands than economic survival as individual entities. Moreover, the fortification of Caribbean society is more important now than ever before. The economics of globalisation requires us to unite; not just as a philosophical notion but as an economic and political imperative.
Sir Arthur Lewis, arguing the case for Federation, maintained that the principle benefit of regionalism would be freedom from the tyranny of petit politicians. He foresaw that democracy divided, would be hijacked by little men, poisoned by parochial politics. The present coincidence of poor governance, low growth, and massive social dislocation seems to confirm his theory. We see that despite its considerable potential, the Caribbean is in crisis and the only way out is to face reality, cut the self-delusion, and start working together to address the massive turnaround required to regenerate prosperity our shared community.
What needs to Change: First, we need to have a plan; our plan. We need to stop adopting external agendas and foreign notions of what we should do and where we should be going. If we had our own plan we could dictate to donors and the multilateral agencies what they can do for us. Our plan must envision a new prosperity, appropriately defined for our circumstances. Poverty is no longer an option.
What needs to change: We need coalitions of hard working and deep thinking people who revolt against the complacency of consumerism, and who are seized of the fact that we cannot be blind accessories to the great human machine that consumes energy and resources in ways that devalue life, undermine community and destroy ecosystems. Our economic philosophy of “more now, less later” is denuding the very landscapes upon which we depend. That degradation is substantial and in some ways irrevocable. Its consequences stretch before us, way into the future, across generations, forever.
Because we are small and have limited options, concepts like trans-generational sustainability require us to be more conscious, more vigilant than ever. Where this Caribbean stands tomorrow will be determined our ability to stop the madness of mortgaging the future of Caribbean Society. If our young people seem unmotivated and ambivalent, it could well be because they perceive the future as already sold out, pre-determined, impervious to their own youthful desire for change.
The founding fathers who fought so hard to oppose the status quo ante, must be restless in their graves. Consider how far we moved in one or two generations; how by our own efforts in a world that cared little for our cause, we achieved what we are now in danger of forgetting: our own rite of passage on the road to enlightened self-determination.
And lacking certain options
People eased off the yoke
Of ignorance and dependency
By leveraging their labour and some land.
They dared not hope.
Not for inheritance or education.
Yet they rose out that regimented soil
With its settled stratum
And intimately held ourselves together
With the kind of dignity that poverty
and missing options will impose.
In our little island theatre
We became the leads:
Characters in the dramas of our own lives.
We managed to love
And proved that size
Holds no dominion over determination.
So, what possible excuse can we make for this apathy? What reasoning justifies our failure to address the bigger picture? While we have travelled far from the malaise and malevolence to which we were abandoned in the name of political independence, it seems that we have forgotten our history; a history that has given the world philosophers, Artists, Heroes, Athletes, Pioneers of all description.
The problem is that we lack a cause; a common enemy. Fidel and Marx before him, understood that all rebellion needs a common enemy, a shared perception of injustice, an understanding of mutual circumstance. We must rebel now against ignorance, crime, late justice, and bad government. These are the enemies of today.
If we are to return to any state of enlightenment, we need to determine why this generation of Caribbean people has become fixated on things frivolous, mediocre, profane, and inconsequential. See if you recognize this person:
(Excerpt from Think it Over)
So you think the struggle is over.
Yes, you with your fake brand-name jeans
halfway down the black crack
of your consciousness.
You think the struggle is so over
that decent coloured folk
can afford to imitate dem po-ass dogs
dem ghetto boiz and nappy-headed hoes
and just tek-up their jail-bird jibe
their going-nowhere projects vibe
like we don’t have our own fight
to get off on, to wager with The Man
to get our sof’ass butt in gear
and fight for what is right…!?!
Who else think the struggle so fuckin’ over
that someone somewhere
offered you job, heaven, and a favour
and you believe him...
So you don’t have to do like the rest of us
in this dark-skin world
work harder, wait longer, struggle more
for every inch of ground
and most of all work smarter
because the real battle coming round, again
and this time it’s for your brain.
For a new green thinking to take root we must be revive the imperative of viewing our collective circumstances as a regional community of island communities. This consciousness is central to the context of the country’s economic, social and political progress. Being islands, we do not have the luxury of space in which to hide, bury mistakes or for that matter to run away. The options are stay, die or leave. And leaving usually means abandonment of your very soul to the global appetite of the euro-american consumer machine. That is not development.
For many of us, this Caribbean is the only meaningful milieu in which we wish to live, grow, dream and raise our children. Family and community are the base from which our spirit, our energy, our inspiration, our motivation rise. It is the source of our whole spectrum of opportunities from which to spring board into the broader pool of possibilities which the wider world offers. We cannot define development without recognition of that fact. It is part of who we are and what gives meaning to our lives.
The wonderful thing about all this is that we are well placed to sample wisely from the menu of options that the old world offers. We need not repeat their mistakes. We do not need to adopt the mindlessness. We do not need to embrace a model which has a huge appetite but no soul. We can design our own hybrid avoiding the failings of the laisser-faire model which certainly has the means but not the message. It has the structure but not the sense of sustainability which builds societies as opposed to economies. What’s more, the information age which has engulfed us also gives us access to all the objective data we need and so to a new fundamental freedom of choice.
What Needs to Change: The ascendancy of the individual as sole beneficiary of development is a flawed concept. It is at war with our own historical context and current experience. All our really important milestones have been achieved by collaboration and contribution and cooperation. Indeed, to be quite accurate you need to add to that list resistance and when necessary, revolution. So, it is all the more inconceivable that we should be complacent about our future. To counter that complacency, we must rediscover the knowledge of ourselves as warriors and heroes and pioneers. The minute that is gone we begin to truly fall apart. The poetry explains:
(Excerpt from Think It Over)
...you feel the struggle over… !?!
Because we independent almost thirty years
don’t mind the politics so small and dirty, yes
we have we own dollar bill
but your dollar going in someone’s else’s till
amigo, limey, bacra, bachay, yankee… whatever
but ckeck it baby-doll
your buck ain’t coming back
to your studio apartment
a.k.a. that one room shack
But, watch you
you don’t grow what you eat
you don’t sew what you wanna wear
in fact you don’t care
if the party dress
just put on once and throw away
so long you looking fly and hot
and fit to do what you gotta do
to keep yo’ man by you.
Girlfriend just don’t care to know
where we at or where we need to go
but she consider
that in these guava-season post-fig days
when she putting out she better put aside
some of that cell phone and chicken money
to educate the pickney in her pickney belly
and you so effin’ right my girl
your reasoning tight like being white
you say the struggle over and is true
cuz when you give up, give in, give out
that’s when the struggle really done with you.
As communities, as nations, and as a region, our agendas must not be allowed to shrink. Our daily concerns in descending order of importance now seem to be food, sex, fete, alcohol, cellular phones and just enough cash to pay for things without the stress of thinking too much or too deeply. We must now wonder if we have bought the bullshit in the brochure: the rum-and-coca-cola sunset, the contemptuous comedy of the banana republic. That definitely has to change.
What needs to change: We need to expand the very limited agenda transmitted to us by uninspired lyrics, misinformed radio, unschooled television and illiterate print. In those worlds basic survival is a rather uncomplicated and banal affair. The poetry paints a painful picture:
(Excerpt from Think It Over)
No job and not a ring in sight
despite the putting out each Friday night
an’ you eh hearing still?
you gonna spend nineteen dollars and fitty cent
on another coke and KFC
when you done see
that hyper-tense and sweet pee
already killing half a we
And you think the struggle is over…. !?!
with your weave and press-on good to go
and you know that you could still get it
cause your mobile have five dollars credit
for those most important words:
Hi Baby, call me back…?
Or maybe you think that’s overstating the case: surely, we are not there yet? But if you ask the young people around you, aged 15 to 25 - and that is the litmus test – they will tell you that we are most certainly THERE.
So in terms of picking an appropriate sample form the vast menu available to us let us put it this way: we need to turn the children on as much by Miles as by Movado, a little Mozart alongside Marley, a little Wordsworth with your Walcott... a little more dance and less grind, a little more thought and purpose and vision! If we fail them in this then their appreciation of our past and their future is indeed bleak. The alternative reads as follows:
(Excerpt from ESPERANCE : Vox 2)
They will take your girl-child
all your love incarnate
and like a bag of coals
cast her at the feet of djabs.
for the lost way
the clouded memory
for old habits passed from rote
the simplest rituals:
shared meals, prayers, hymns, sunrise,
the coming in and going out of doors
and public greetings,
She will be lost
mostly to her self
and will not wish
even to see dawn’s blush
or the flutter of the dove’s shadow
come to earth
or the posturing lizard
sunning upon its rock
or the next blossoming of forest orchids
or the homing sea bird at day’s end
whose love sang her into life
whose breath comingled and
You, whose every wish
lies bagged and corded
cast at the feet of djabs
Sackcloth of black bones
black dust sifting through
fit for the making of night
which will become your chore.
You will churn it
from the mills of resignation
like a slow fuse to gunpowder
a simmering angry dusk
settling in the soul
Meanwhile, the sky thickens
with cataracts of ego, greed and lust.
We falter on the brink of memory
no map of routes already travelled
or roads to come
our anecdotes forgotten in mute skulls
our stories hung in thinning air.
To many thinking Caribbean citizens we are a region adrift; on a sea of short term expediency, without much thought about our future as a nation in the world of nations; without an understanding or a vision of ourselves so that our rubric of norms and values, largely unwritten and unread, our chance of an enlightened Caribbean Society passes from us a little more each day.
What needs to Change: In defining a new charter for Caribbean Society, we need to relegate partisan politics to its rightful place: at the bottom of the pile of priorities. The travesty which now passes for government has to be redesigned. This amalgam of convenience and deceit visited upon us largely by rogues and charlatans, is archaic, decrepit and bankrupt. It needs to be detonated. In its place, should be constructed a strategic vision for the region and its subset of islands, and a work plan that is larger than the individual and the immediate; a plan that foresees as its central objective the delivery of an optimal quality of life for the many rather than the few.
What Needs to Change: Our comfort with our own complacency. Too many of us are too comfortable: with our government jobs, our car loans and mortgages, our all-inclusive homes that shield us form the madness beyond the garden fence. Or, with our children safely boarded at schools in London or Miami, do we think we will retire far from the madding, murdering, malingering crowd, lock the burglar bars and go to sleep. If only immunity were that simple:
(Excerpt from Esperance: Vox 2)
All recollection flattens down
becoming strangely two-dimensional
under the weight of indulgences
we have put on
and the dark semblances we crave.
Self-image digital, processed, and
portioned into wafer-thin allotments
will be served white-gloved
to our enslaved children.
Now where are your generations
Lord, what will we become?
Yes, they will take your girl-child
your innocent, all your love incarnate
and your first son will be among them
laying live offerings
at the feet of djabs.
What needs to Change: Too many of our leaders are prepared to hand our islands – together with our gift-wrapped souls - to people whose regard for us is less than flattering and whose agenda has not changed in 500 years. We need to put foreign investment in its place: a necessary input to be tolerated for a while and stringently regulated in the public interest until we have no further use for it. In the meantime, our people as the primary beneficiaries of our development model, must be empowered to participate in and profit from the process, and must eventually grow into a position to buy out their foreign partners. Let me refer you to the work of economist Amartya Sen which explores the relationship between freedom and development, showing how freedom is both a basic constituent of development in itself, and an enabling key to other aspects. Let me also refer you to writings by Derek Walcott in which he criticises the illusion of incentive-fed, tourism–led development as a “...kind of prostitution”.
What needs to Change: We need to reverse this tendency to wager our sense of dignity. That is, our identity and all that which makes us special, worthy - and ultimately more wealthy - than money can measure. We need to validate those things that we are blindly wagering in the bewildering poker game of the immediate, the individualistic, the short-lived, the unsustainable. There is a thin and dangerous line between marketing that which we are, as opposed to that which we make. If we do not make that distinction, we may fall like Alice in Wonderland into the picture postcard illusion of idyllic islands where nothing substantial starts or is sustained.
There are still many people who can make a difference. People with passion, commitment, capacity and reserves of untapped determination. If so, then we must fight on, for the struggle is not nearly over. For the fight to end in victory we will have to change our aversion to the academic and the intellectual. Our main resource in the development game is our treasury of minds. It is exactly that rigour of academic analysis applied to intellectual notions of equity, justice, identity and relevance which will elevate our society above the dog-eat-dog, zero-sum game in which we are currently trapped. Expanding skill sets, redefining benefits, assessing options, re-engineering models, adopting best practice, and energizing communities takes logic as much as idealism and we must not allow anyone to diminish the value of that.
What needs to change: We must stop looking to the politicians. Our inspiration cometh not form those hills. We must take back our democracies by setting a new, broader agenda which transcends the 5 year political parenthesis. Besides, leadership is not the sole responsibility of Government. Real citizens need to stand up. We must look to ourselves: within our families, businesses, community organisations, professional associations and our media. These are the hallmark institutions of a functioning democracy. Independent, objective, non-partisan entities which have the strength of their collective convictions will find the bedrock of their own legitimacy. That legitimacy comes with the right to promote and preserve principles and laws that are for all society and for all time, and which rise above the shrinking agendas of passing men and petty politics.
What needs to change: The leading lights of our region, the leaders of institutions like UWI, CDB, CARICOM, ECCB, CAIC, OECS, CCL and others need to come out from under the barrel, or out of the closet, or wherever it is they go to enjoy their tax-free status and admit that they do not have the answers. It is obvious that they do not understand the problems. It might help if they listen to the beat from the street and stop dancing to the donor’s drum.
What needs to change: The quantum of resources, yes. But then money has never been our biggest problem. We learned to live without that long ago, before we started defining development in terms of dollars. That needs to change. So too, the wastage, the non-strategic and arbitrary expenditure driven by short-term expedience.
What Needs to change: The monolith of government needs to be reengineered for growth. Its main priority should be the design and implementation of long-range development policy: sound, sensible, pragmatic, people-centred policy. A good plan - properly managed - will always attract resources, because people, even donors, like to be associated with success. There is money out there looking for worthy ventures; more so now, than ever. On my change list, good management ranks much higher than money: we are wasting so much now on the wrong things that we could work wonders by redirecting some of what we already have into a well managed strategy to get what we really need. Gold in the hands of fools is only fools’ gold.
As has become my way in this impatient summer of my days, I prefer to be candid than polite. That is because there is so much to be done in so little time. I hope that this has disturbed you, deeply for this is not your grandfather’s Caribbean when wheels turned at their given pace and God was happy in his heaven. This is a single competitive global market in which we must be informed, agile, and strategic.
There is still room for confidence. The Caribbean can blaze a trail and stand as an example to the world. We need to be brave and bold to stay beautiful. But, if we intend to live here and have our children live here, then we must be collectively concerned. We need to change what needs to change.
(Excerpt from Navel String)
When we were young
and poor and wise
and held each other
in each other’s eyes
and forced for want of means
to share alike
each others’ joys and miseries
we marked each birth
by planting navel strings.
And lacking alternative device,
great branching memories
to bless the spot
where to more abundant life
we bound ourselves
mere shrivelling flesh
proffered to eternal earth
rock to sinew,
root to bone,
and so forever
to this unbroken place.
might have had your monument
grown out from,
around and into you,
rooted tendrils locked
into your vault of flesh,
painful and deep,
like the love you keep
for a spiteful child
of your own making.
So now imagine
its green foreskin
its leafy hand
its earth-brown muscle
slashed to stone-white bone.
Imagine that it makes you retch:
that stench of ignorance,
that bile of deceit
so that you die a little
from the clog of litter
in the artery
of an innocent stream.
the full reward
of a hundred labours,
your countless generations
parting the tender furrow
of your field of dreams
in the flowering of the banana,
applause from the towering palmiste
kisses from the red lipped balizier,
imagine a noble samaans
granting its green blessing
to the earth.
Imagine such a harvest
on your children.
if you just turn your face,
Tilt your chin
and sniff just so,
even from your high green mountain
you will smell history
repeating on a western wind
sense the leaching
from those same hills
cradling your first child’s navel string.
That is the scent
of earth evicting us:
a whole root system recoiling
You can sense
the tensing noose
of our undoing
in your groin.
And in your dreams
where angels should abide
yawning concrete graves
await your tenancy, and
winged shadows of forgetfulness
move heavy ‘cross the contours of tight skin
There on the black nipple of your child’s distress
where lacking alternative device
she has let them touch her.
There on your mother’s ruby lip
a blister from the corner
of your father’s drunken fist
There in your own protruding gut,
in your son’s foreign body language,
on his putrid breath.
There is the living death,
the alien seed deep in our mortgaged soil
where faith has died
without its branching tree.
© Adrian Augier, 2010.
All rights reserved.