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Independent, my foot! Part 2

Friday, September 5, 2014

People under 40 today may not remember the old joke about the Guyana of Comrade President Forbes Burnham: did you hear about the raffle where the first prize is a week in Guyana? Second prize is two weeks in Guyana. Until recently, Guyana was not the Land of Six Peoples but the Land of People Putting Six Giant Plastic Bags on a Plane without Paying Overweight. At an exchange rate that went to 100 Guyanese to one US dollar (and is now twice that), the currency was devalued almost to vanishing point—and the passport held the same worth for immigration officers the world over, who did not even try to hide their sneers when they looked up from the picture. To be Guyanese and to complete the simplest social transaction outside of home—buying a mauby or renting a car—required, first, overcoming the contempt with which one was automatically held.

It was said that Forbes Burnham was greater than Adolf Hitler, Bennito Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo combined, in that they managed to ruin Germany, Italy and Japan entirely during World War II, but Burnham destroyed a country, Guyana, in peacetime. But even at its worst, when the eggs served at the Pegasus Hotel were all-white, including, most visually-unsettlingly, the yolk (because the local chicken feed did not contain the carotene that turns egg yolks yellow), Guyana was richer than all her West Indian siblings: it was not cordon-bleu cuisine, perhaps, but, from morning until night, 365 days a year, Guyana fed itself.

Every time my father returned from what could have been the Agricultural Motherland (but was disparaged as “the Mud Land”), he showed me something inventive, such as the local cherries dyed red and passed off as maraschinos. Yes, he’d say, you have to carry your week’s supply of sliced white sandwich loaf and your roll of toilet paper in your suitcase to Guyana, but—and, as a child of World War II, who remembered what he was talking about—if the world’s shipping supply lines were disturbed for whatever reason—a madman in Russia, many madmen in the Middle East—Guyana would get by happily on her curried gilbaka and rice forever; while Trinis, Bajans, Jamaicans and the rest would be rioting for everything from their morning cornflakes through their lunchtime hamburgers to their fancy restaurant dinners: take away foreign food imports and the Trini would starve. It’s even truer today: whether you shop at Massy Stores or Hi-Lo, local content is limited to the people inside and a bit of fruit and ground provision.

Independent, my a--! Half a century into our supposed nationhood, we still see the agricultural land around us not as an opportunity to make us all rich, but as a reminder of our worst poverty, when we were not even free, were bound in systems of slavery and indenture, so Europeans could sweeten their tea. In this first week of school, how many Trinidadians know that we have a long school vacation from July-September only because, for centuries, the monks, the teachers, had to reap the wheat crop? In Europe and most of North America, food can be grown for three to five months a year. We can grow food every single day of the year, here; every single blessed day.

But we scorn the agriculture that could free us because, in our own small minds, constrained by our painful past, and still dependent on the outside world to tell us what is worthwhile, we can see agriculture only as a symbol of our own exploitation. We turn our nose up at excellent land and pursue mediocre desk jobs. (Our unmitigated immaturity is displayed big-time in our nonchalant destruction of our entire environment, from wetlands through rainforest to the built heritage we knock down swiftly overnight, to pre-empt protest against a gingerbread house being made into a car park—but that’s another column.)

You see our total lack of real independence best when we are at our worst: pull any drunken politician out of a Hyatt Regency “cocks-tail” party and hear him slur his babbling appreciation of what remains blended firetrucking scotch (not even single malt!), even if it costs a mortgage payment per bottle; and understand our ruling sector sneers at our premium rums, which, in Europe’s finest restaurants, will tonight be poured after dinner in preference to cognac. Compare the impossibility of getting a table at the newest American crap food franchise with the failure, last year, of Chaud Creole restaurant, chef Khalid Mohammed’s noble attempt to render our own food in genuine fine-dining style, the way the French and the Italians did 200 years ago! But we love to grand-charge in little islands. (Trinidad is measured in hundreds of square miles, just 1,848, 1980 with Tobago thrown in. We can’t even flatter ourselves to say our land mass covers a couple o’ thousand square miles; it’s more of a land mini.) 

Smaller than our land mini, though, are the minds of our policymakers, who reckon we should farm out the job of growing food to our smaller-island siblings (or to Guyana), and use our precious scarce land for more profitable purposes. The morons are talking about smelters or sweatshops but they could make themselves right—and us all truly independent—if they could think originally for one day of these last 52 years of so-called Independence. Yes, we can’t dress ourselves comfortably in formal clothes of our own design and, no, we can’t feed ourselves with food of our own but, in the last 52 years, if we had grown as a people at all, we would have been growing, on every inch of arable land, and exporting, for top dollar, the world’s best marijuana.

BC Pires is a double agent for the US DEA. E-mail your tushungpeng to him at [email protected]. Next week: The New Sugar, the conclusion of Independent, My Foot!


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