There were times, when I was away studying in Baltimore, then I became bothered by the thought of returning to what was and is, a very conservative society, one that would have difficulty accepting new ideas about health and medicine. That made me think about what I knew of life back home in T&T, starting with the Days of Our Lives character of the island.
I decided to look for potential allies. So I began hitting the magazine stacks in the medical library, checking for articles about T&T, about children and public health and nutrition and feminism and the environment and the social contract. Having no contacts at home except those who thought a doctor was a serious man in a suit and tie driving a big car (not really my thing), I figured I might find something published. And I found nothing. Nada. Not a word. I searched for weeks and weeks. I found some stuff on parasites. And viruses.
From the T&T Rockefeller Public Health Lab but nothing about the social sciences. And so I began to panic. Things were bad, yes, I knew that but you mean nobody was publishing anything about life in T&T? No one was interested in the things I was interested in? What was the infant mortality? What was the fertility rate? What did people eat? Was the air polluted? Was the water clean? How many radios were there per capita? Were there ethnic differences in morbidity? Was violence a problem? Traffic? Police? I found some stuff about Jamaica.
I found stuff about Cuba. Venezuela. But it was as if the rest of the Caribbean did not exist. Where was T&T? One afternoon, one of the librarians approached me with a small brown, dirty-looking magazine in her hand and said, "This has just come in, it might have something." It didn't but it was the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute Quarterly and it had all sorts of interesting articles about what Caribbean people ate so I decided to seek out older publications and lo and behold there was this article about something called the Housewives Association of T&T!
And somebody called Hazel Brown was raising the call to arms about food prices and local food and imported stuff and I said, "Whew! At last, at least, someone!" Understand how I felt. In 1977, believing in the right of women and children to have clean water, nourishing food, a warm place to live and thrive etc, all basic to good health, was not universally accepted. I was told in no uncertain terms when I arrived back here that I was to concentrate on my hospital duties and forget what was happening outside and to tell you the truth, that has changed little in the field of medicine.
The idea of NGOs in T&T standing up for people was futuristic. In the seventies, the only NGOs around were the Coterie of Social Workers, amazingly founded in 1921; the Child Welfare League (1949); the Family Planning Association of T&T, 1957, and Hazel's first attempt at social activism, HATT, 1971. For me this is Hazel Brown's legacy.
Hazel was part and parcel of that 1970's grassroots movement, the starting point of organised social activism that resulted in the establishment of most of the NGOs in T&T. Rape Crisis Centre: started in 1984; The T&T Coalition Against Domestic Violence: 1988; CAFRA, 1991; ALTA, 1992. The Consortium of Disability Organisations (CODO) was not founded until 2001. Many of these lay organisations grew out of Hazel Brown's work. For me she has been the premier social activist since Independence.
There were others but she was the first one, in my time, who seemed to get anything done and she is by far the most useful. Except for the Family Planning Association, the idea of lay people and doctors forming groups and together working for proper health care did not exist in T&T in 1977. Hazel was the very first nonmedical person I met in T&T who was not afraid of speaking her mind to a medical doctor and because of her support I was encouraged to do my thing. TIBS is the first of the organisations that, partly because of Hazel's ideas, I have been associated with.
TIBS started in 1978. In 1982 Hazel was part of the TIBS breastfeeding group that persuaded the government of the day and the business community to stop advertising of breastmilk substitutes. Other NGOs were Community Chest (1983); the Immortelle Children's Centre for Special Education in 1986 and Families in Action, 1988. I cannot stress how much Hazel Brown helped all of us. Just knowing that she was around, and assertively around too, was so encouraging. I knew she would support me in just about anything I said or did.
I also knew I could depend on her to talk me in plain, practical terms when she did not agree with me. She was never vindictive or petty. Always clear-minded and to the point. So if she did not agree, I learned I needed to back off and re-think my position. It is simply wonderful to have someone like that around. She is still here, very much so. Every time TIBS has a walk, Hazel Brown is there! Every time I need some advice about a breastfeeding matter or policy issue, Hazel is at the end of the telephone.
Every time I write an article about children's health, Hazel is in touch by phone or email with words of encouragement. And each time that there is a public outcry regarding some aspect of breastfeeding, Hazel is at the forefront of the demonstration, leading from the front. No change! The drive and energy and fire in her belly is still there and I leave you with as Michael Camps' words, said admiringly many years ago, "Hazel smart, boy. That woman smart!" Hazel not only smart. Hazel Brown is a boss woman!