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Red Tobago Blues
The first time I went to Tobago, I was about 12, if memory serves (though mine is more likely to double-fault than Andy Murray in a grand slam final). My strongest recollection of that visit was staying in an actual hotel, where bedrooms were air-conditioned and, small and unimportant as you were, you sat at a table (instead of being made to lay it) and a man in a white long-sleeved shirt wearing, unaccountably, a red bow-tie at 7 am, put a tray of toast in front of you and asked how you wanted your eggs!
But my second-strongest memory is not of the beaches, nor even of the extremely pretty girl in the Coca-Cola bikini at Pigeon Point (with Coke’s then tagline stretched across her remarkable bottom: It’s the real thing), hmmm; okay, my third-strongest Tobago memory, 40 years on, is of a mountain road and my father pointing out, not the wide blue sea in the distance, but the little kitchen gardens behind almost every house.
“People in Tobago,” he said, “have not lost the love of the land. They may not be rich, but they grow their own food, and that makes them better-off than most West Indians.”
It was a song my father, an agronomist, sang all his life, and with no effect whatever: no nation could be genuinely independent if it could not feed itself. It makes both primal and primary sense, and yet no West Indian politician has ever adopted it as a first principle even though, unlike Europeans and North Americans, we in the Caribbean have the great climactic good luck of being able to grow food every day of the year.
After working in agriculture all his life, my father died 20 years ago, being forced to accept that his island, surrounded by rich waters, was importing fish from everywhere in the world, and bananas from St Lucia.
Like many other Trinis, I spent part of last August in Tobago with my family. I went again in October, for the Blue Food Festival, and talked to dozens of Tobagonians, several professionally (for my Monday Guardian Trini/‘Bago to the Bone feature). Some had other jobs, too, but nearly all worked directly for or drew a financial benefit from the THA.
Last Monday, the People’s National Movement, under newly-re-elected Chief Secretary, Orville London, won every seat in the THA, and the first thing Mr London did was call for the $650 million owed to Tobago by T&T.
Two or three weeks ago, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, in one of her administration’s most blatant abuses of public responsibility on the off-chance of private gain, introduced the 2013 Constitution Amendment (Tobago) Bill to give total internal self-government to Tobago. It is a bill heavily pregnant with gigantic repercussions. Even with very careful handling, it is likely to lead to, at best, a constitutional mess, and, at worst, the disintegration of the country of T&T into two separate island nations.
And it was rushed into being only to gain a possible advantage in an election (which it didn’t even achieve). And anyone familiar with Tobago knows that Tobago needs less, not more, internal self-government.
Instead of making its own way in the world, the way it always used to before the country of Trinidad and Tobago won an oil-and-natural-gas lotto, Tobago has, for too long now, had its most self-indulgent, and perhaps most self-destructive, whims bankrolled by a wad of energy money.
With an obscene amount of cash in its pockets—a $2billion Tobago budgetary allocation translates into 37 thousand for every man, woman and child on the rock—Tobago has, for the last ten years, spent an annual fortune on itself without actually earning a penny. With half its workers employed directly or indirectly by the THA, Tobago, today, is farther away from the self-reliance and autonomy it needs to run its own affairs than it has ever been.
The same Tobagonians my father, the agronomist, praised 40 years ago for being able to feed themselves are now eat-ah-fooders of the first water/trough. If you stay in a hotel in Tobago today, it is not someone from Tobago who brings your food to your table. They have Filipinos for that nowadays; Tobagonians are too important, now, to grow their own food or serve someone else theirs.
And the only people likely to put on bow-ties in Tobago now are the newly-rich peasant politicians who imagine themselves well-dressed.
My father did not die a happy man. He never achieved his dream of demonstrating to the region’s political leadership that agriculture could free our peoples and that good farmers could become rich men. He lived all his life knowing that, if we fed ourselves, we could have stood on our own two feet, and died being forced to accept that Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean territories he loved were selling their souls to and buying their daily bread from our former masters.
But, if my father were alive today to see how far the people of Tobago have fallen from self-reliance, he might have drunk a gramaxzone-and-water.
BC Pires will not get a visa to the Republic of Tobago. E-mail your kevlar bene balls to him at [email protected]
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