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Laventille—spiritual centre of Africans

Friday, December 1, 2017

In the context of the recent events on the Beetham Estate, Wednesday, March 4, 1970, was a very meaningful day. It was the date on which the late Chief Servant Makandal Daaga led a massive demonstration through the streets of Port-of-Spain to “Shanty Town” (the original name for Beetham Estate) to show the conditions in which the dwellers were living.

The demonstration was the first major protest march of the 1970 Trinidad and Tobago Revolution (the Black Power Revolution) which took place only eight years after Independence.

The effect of the demonstration was so stunning that the newspaper headlines in the following days screamed: “Black Power stuns the city” and “Shanty Town is a symbol of neglect…”

The irony about a “favela” like Beetham Estate is that despite the neglect that it continues to suffer, Laventille remains the spiritual centre of Africans in T&T and deserves consideration as a heritage site. If that aspect of Laventille is understood, we may have a clear path toward the further development of the area.

Respect for Beetham and other parts of Laventille has to be addressed urgently because we are now confronted with Ella Andall’s “missing generation.”

Laventille is one of the birthplaces of Pan. Poets like Abdul Malik and Lasana Kwesi have written about their experiences. Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts), David Rudder, Dee Diamond (Deneison Moses), Mr King (Marvin Lewis) and Young Creole (Winston Barker) are Laventillians or have sung about Laventille. Lancelot Layne and Leroy Clarke have their roots in Gonzales, adjacent to Laventille. Laventille is featured in our politics. There were the 1881 Camboulay Riots, the Negro Welfare Social and Cultural Association, Tubal Uriah Butler, Dr Eric Williams’ PNM and of course, NJAC.

Trinidad, during the 19th century, was the “most cosmopolitan of the English-speaking West Indian islands” according to Dr Milla Riggio and more African labourers on the island lived in Port-of-Spain than in rural areas.

Africans settled in Port-of-Spain as part of their escape from the plantations. It is in Laventille that Jonas Mohammed Bath set up his community of liberated African Muslims. Within Laventille the Spiritual Baptists grew and developed. Within that community the Orisha devotees kept their tradition alive.

Unfortunately for many Laventillians, recognition was dependent on escape from the community. Derek Walcott who penned “Laventille” wrote, “To go downhill from here was to ascend.”

The harsh conditions in Beetham and Laventille have become exacerbated. In 1994 the manifesto for Makandal Daaga’s campaign for the Laventille West by-election stated: “When one looks at Laventille, one does not see a community. Instead, one sees poor housing; poor roads; poor toilets; poor health facilities; run down schools that fail to produce a few good students for colleges; no nurseries; no recreational facilities—men are playing football on dirt. Those who have made it in anyway, have left Laventille.

“The image of Laventille, as portrayed by the media, as a community of criminals has led to that area being subject to a lot of disrespect.”

Now in 2017 a young man observed:“…poverty mixed with poor parenting, the lack of mentorship in our hotspot schools and lack of positive role models, which see children turn to the gang leaders as idols.

“It also seems as though the Government finances the war by awarding contracts and then, on the other hand, they are trying to stop it. How does that make sense?

He added: “there are the low detection and conviction rates which make crime attractive… There’s definitely a high illiteracy rate amongst many in our community”.

The current political and financial overlords of Laventille have to be removed and the younger residents, whose parents and grandparents led that 1970 march have to be inspired to make Beetham Estate and Laventille great.

Respect for Laventille has to be established now. It is a spiritual centre.

Aiyegoro Om


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