?I do not live in Laventille and there are those who will say that I am, therefore, not qualified to comment on the plight of the people of that community.
But I will comment nonetheless, because for sometime now I have had great empathy for my fellow human beings who have had to endure and are continuing to endure the multiple challenges of physical and social violence, unemployment and underemployment and under-education. Perhaps my empathy has to do with the combination of my own humble beginnings and my more recent experience of the townships of South Africa. This empathy comes to the fore when I hear the wails of a mother or wife who has just lost a son or husband in a hail of bullets. "He was a good boy." "He was a loving husband." "I don't understand why they have to kill him." And on the other side I hear the comments of people of the wider community of T&T: "What she talking about–dey too bad." "Let them kill out each other." And the situation continues with almost daily reports of murders and other forms of extreme violence–believed to be the outcome of the well-established culture of gang warfare in the Laventille community and surrounding areas.
I am sure that the people of Laventille sense, feel and understand their humanity intuitively. They know that they have a potential that is no different from that of the human beings who live in St Clair, Valsayn and Westmoorings. They know that their lives can have greatness. I am sure that they have a deep desire to be good and to live fulfilled lives. Laventillians know that there is beauty in their own lives. They can see and feel the goodness in their children, wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, boyfriends and girlfriends. They know that they are capable of expressing love, care and compassion like other human beings. Great artists, scientists, musicians, calypsonians, soca stars, engineers, craftsmen, biologists, chefs, economists, medical doctors, designers, teachers, soccer players and cricketers have emerged from among the people of Laventille. It is their creative genius that gave the world the steel pan. I believe that there is much more of this creative potential trapped and crying out to be released. However, most of this potential is frustrated–trapped in a violent urban and cultural prison with walls that are slowly closing in. The result is the ongoing panic, fear, aggression and anti-social behaviour that keep the community in the national spotlight. Living in Laventille has to be hell for many–a prison without walls acculturating its unwilling prisoners to think in biased ways, thus propagating the anger, fear, hatred and seemingly unending circle of violence.
For many there is a need to escape–and for some, to escape and never to return. Indeed, even the iconic cultural and creative showpiece of Laventille, the Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, seems to be seeking an escape route. Laventillians, like all other Trinidadians, want to be people–people with dreams, desires and aspirations to be fulfilled. Like most of us, they want to sense and feel their human dignity. In Laventille there seems to be an emptiness arising from unfulfilled expectations. There is a huge hole that is crying out to be filled. There is helplessness and there is a blindness among many. They want better, but feel encaged in darkness and thus vulnerable to the many selfish power brokers and gang leaders in their midst. And in the darkness, the young people are being led in directions that they don't really want to go–to gangs and the resulting gang warfare. Paradoxically, many join gangs for their own security–falsely thinking that they have a better chance of survival. The violence is really a cry for help! It is a crude attempt to fill the ever-expanding hole of despair and hopelessness. And sadly, many in the wider national community continue to cry out: "Arrest them!" "Jail them!" "Kill them!" "More police!" "Bring out the army!" Yet the problem continues and the hole gets deeper.
Much more is needed than just restraining the negative behaviours–curbing the violence. Although necessary, policing alone is not good enough. It is not solving the problem. The people of Laventille need to recognise that they have the power to discover and grow the positives in themselves. We need to help them to remember that they are beautiful and good at heart; that they are creative; that they have dignity; that they can achieve great things; that they don't have to feel trapped and that they don't have to walk into new prisons over and over. They must know that they can break their dependency and take charge of their lives. We need to help them to understand that positive change is possible. They must be reminded that they too can be people, that there is life to be enjoyed, that they are genuine members of the brotherhood of humanity and that they have great reasons to be alive. We have a responsibility to fuel a sense of hope. Deep down people want to live for more than satisfying the raw sensual pleasures and emotions! They want to thrive, not just survive. What will it take to bring the change? I believe that true change will only come when the people themselves accept greater responsibility for their own lives and grow their self-discipline. Change must be initiated from within before those on the outside can help. The people of Laventille must therefore be more self-empowered and self-disciplined.
I am convinced that Laventille cannot be "fixed" by those on the outside. We are all aware of the resistance of the community to the many well-intentioned development initiatives of various government ministries, the police, the army, various religious groups, various international organisations and a miscellany of local service organisations. Most of these initiatives seem to wither and die early, while others play noisily around the periphery while the fires continue to rage at the centre. Laventille has to be fixed from the inside, by Laventillians. The community is crying out for the appropriate leadership to emerge from within–leadership which can harness and coalesce the goodness that lies in the hearts of its people. There is need for a philosophy of true self-empowerment–a philosophy that promotes hope and promise. The people of Laventille must know that they have a future, in spite of how the rest of society sees them. They must know that they can individually and collectively bring change to their lives. They must escape the well-entrenched culture of dependency–waiting on others to solve their problems. URP and Cepep are necessary make-work programmes. However, in time, the jobs and contracts of URP and Cepep have morphed into becoming the new spoils of the gang warfare. As the spoils get bigger and the problem deepens. But, in terms of human development, nothing of real permanence will be created if the mind-set remains unchanged.
These programmes should not be seen as a long-term solution to individual and community development. At best, they must be seen only as stepping stones. The more people are dependent on others, the more others will exploit them–and the people of Laventille have had a long history of being exploited. We have to help the people to find their freedom. But in the end they have to do it themselves. They must commit to growing their self-discipline. They must take charge of their lives if they are to free the vast human potential that exists in their midst. I live in hope.