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Prof Selwyn Cudjoe: The Savannah is our centre
Prof Selwyn Cudjoe strongly opposes the official plan to build a multi-sports complex at the Tacarigua/Orange Grove Savannah. It would be like pouring concrete on top of the Queen’s Park Savannah in town, he says: a form of extreme community sacrilege.
Cudjoe is professor in comparative literature and Africana studies at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. Born in Tacarigua, he left Trinidad in the 1960s, and now divides his time between the States and T&T.
He has always maintained close family and community ties to Tacarigua, and has written academic papers, and even produced a documentary, on the community history of the area. Late last year he published the 58-page book, Preserving the Tacarigua Savannah, specifically opposing the proposed sports complex with clearly argued reasons.
Cudjoe, a burly, outspoken literature professor who loves his neighbourhood and his community, spoke candidly with SHEREEN ALI.
Q: Can you share some childhood memories of growing up in Tacarigua and what the Savannah meant to you as a youth?
A: Everything happened in the savannah. I went to Tacarigua EC School, which bordered the savannah—so everybody played in the savannah. Football, cricket, soccer.
Tacarigua was an agricultural area—Orange Grove Sugar Estates was one of the largest sugar estates. There was a livestock/agricultural show every year—people brought their best pigs, cows, yams, their best cassava—and every year people looked forward to that coming together...I remember that from when I was a little boy, right up to the 1960s.
Schools had school gardens to encourage kids to plant, and make a compost heap, and grow dasheen and tannia and so on. And because of the centrality of the savannah, that took place there too.
Years ago, when the length of the savannah from the Eastern Main Road (or the Priority) to the Churchill Roosevelt Highway was empty space, the first Caribbean Girl Guides meeting took place in that savannah. They all camped on the savannah—such was the space.
Rohan Kanhai (a Guyanese cricketer who represented the West Indies in 79 Test matches, one of the best batsmen of the 1960s) played one of his first games in the Tacarigua Savannah, as did Brian Lara as a young boy.
Everything happened there. It was our centre. We used to have sports meetings. Remember, we had no other activities. It was an outdoor society—compared to today, when we live indoors, with our computers—but then, it was an outdoor society. You went to the rivers, you played football and cricket in the savannah. Life was lived outdoors rather than indoors.
So the savannah was the centre around which all the life of the community revolved.
Why did you decide to write Preserving the Tacarigua Savannah?
Tacarigua has always been my home. My people have lived there since before slavery’s end.
In July of 2013 a friend—Ulric “Buggy” Haynes—came and told me, “Hey, they taking over the Savannah.” That’s when I wrote the first essay, Preserving the Tacarigua Savannah, about the peaceful history of Tacarigua…the Hindus used the El Dorado or Paradise grounds, Muslims were in Dinsley, and Africans in St Mary’s…everybody had their own space, it was democracy in the Greek sense, everybody just respected each other and shared.
And then what you have now is the imposition by this foreign entity, called the Government, who decide: “We know what’s best for you.” But you don’t know what’s best for us. We are the villagers. We know what’s best for us.
We know there are some indisputable facts: there has never been a police station in Tacarigua. There was one in Tunapuna; in Arouca; never in Tacarigua. We’ve always been very peaceful. That peace came about because we were self-governing; because we had the rivers; we had the savannahs; people blew off steam and had a place to express their energies and activities.
We always knew that our communities were central. So we had our village councillors; we had our concerts; we had our plays; we had our mothers’ unions; we had our garden clubs. We have been self-governing.
Some might say you may be defending the preservation of the Tacarigua Savannah out of nostalgia, and have lost sight of current community needs. How would you respond?
Firstly: any healthy community must have open spaces. Open spaces are central to healthy and sustainable living. That has nothing to do with nostalgia. You do not touch Central Park in New York, or Hyde Park in London, for instance. These are open spaces which are retained for the health of the community.
Secondly: that particular area is the water basin for the entire Tacarigua, Tunapuna. Arouca and Arima area. It’s a water table. The water sinks into the ground. There are wells there. WASA has pumps there. Now when you put down a car park for 300 people, the water runs off...An example of that is when they took a small part of the savannah on the southwestern side to build a small car park, and the people in Trincity are suffering now because the water, instead of going into the ground, now runs off, backing up the sewers.
So it’s not nostalgia: it’s about health! Water is very important. When you take that car park for 300 people, and you put a stadium for 900 people, and you put artificial grass—where is that water going to go? And we’ve seen the effects—in flooding. That’s not nostalgia.
Thirdly: what are these needs? The claim is that we’ll have “elite” athletes—which is nonsense...We have already produced athletes (without such facilities). What we are really doing is destroying the community.
In T&T we never plan ahead. Twenty or 30 years ago, Laventille was a thriving place, with Despers, and people had jobs. Then when they mechanised the port, people had no jobs, and what you have is a spate of murders. Because people need places to play and to work, and to let off steam.
Now to Tacarigua: a building such as a $200 million aquatic centre would have to be closed off and maintained—for a particular few. So what you’re going to have, I can confidently predict, is a rise in crime. Because you would have more people coming to the area, (nowhere for them to play or relax), more kinds of antisocial behaviour…
So it’s not about nostalgia, but planning.
In an age of republicanism, it is the people who should decide what we want, based on our own traditions. Not the Government. The Government is discovering they cannot solve crime by building bigger police stations; people must come together and say: this is not acceptable. For that, you need a sense of community.
We already have our own community traditions in a place like Tacarigua.
Number four: what is development? As opposed to growth? Growth is simply rising statistical measurements of GDPs, etc. Development must mean the all-round development of people—not buildings, not things, but people. Development must arise out of people’s natural needs, and what is best for them, and how they could best realise themselves living in harmony with their environment and their community. That is development. Not buildings for the sake of buildings: that just impedes development.
Those behind the proposed development (at Tacarigua Savannah) are mostly friends and colleagues of Anil Roberts—and aligned with swimming, not football, soccer or many other sports…
We’re not against the project: they could build it elsewhere, if they want, and it could enhance the entire area. But to do it here would disrupt the natural savannah.
Why is preserving heritage (for instance, preserving valuable built structures, or protecting natural areas related to our cultural traditions) important?
A people are their heritage. A people do not exist independently of their heritage. You remove that, and you have zombies. You have rootless living organisms operating in space and time—a formula for creating crazy, disembodied people.
You are your past. You are your heritage. I speak, conscious of the fact that those who went before me, made their contributions to making society what it is. My heritage is what I share in common with others; for instance, my “Orange Grove-ness” or my “Trinidadian-ness.”
Any social development changes over time...in Trinidad, for instance, each people—African, Indian, Chinese—brought their own specific contributions…and that’s what makes you a Trinidadian. You are speaking of a culture that has shaped and nurtured you in terms of your language, your way of seeing the world, even the Trini love of fetes, or our T&T cosmopolitanism...as opposed to other cultures...To say that we exist without that, is not only an anachronism; it’s stupidity.
People need a sense of belonging in some place, a sense of continuity and respect for who they are. If you have no sense of that, you are almost a disembodied being; you are a nothing; you are a negative. Culture and heritage give you a sense of continuity that is a link between the past and the present; which of course helps to shape the future.
People will come together on the basis of their own social linkages, when they have things in common….People are what development is about.