By Atillah Springer
Attilah Springer is a columnist with the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, where this column first appeared on November 24.
It is now some twelve days since Trinidadian Wayne Kublalsingh, a 53 year old environmental activist and part-time lecturer at the University of the West Indies St. Augustine Campus, began his hunger strike outside of the office of Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar. Kublalsingh’s strike (neither food nor water) is on behalf of the Highway Re-route Movement in Trinidad and Tobago, and concerns the building of a highway between San Fernando and Point Fortin in the southwestern part of the island. Those involved in the Re-route Movement state that they are in support of an initiative to link up communities via the highway, but that they oppose a section of the proposed construction (from Debe to Mon Desir) owing to disproportionate costs (by their calculations, some 1/3 of the road will consume close to 2/3 of the proposed construction budget), the displacement of long-standing communities and potential environmental degradation to the wetlands in the area. Kublalsingh has made clear that his hunger strike is in response to the failure of the government of Trinidad and Tobago to uphold an earlier promise to halt road construction pending an independent technical evaluation. At a press conference last week, PM Bissessar insisted that she had held meetings with members of the Re-Route Movement and that it was they who were being uncompromising and attempting to “stop a project that would benefit hundreds of thousands of citizens for generations to come.” In an interview with the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian published yesterday, Kublalsingh’s brother Hayden dismissed these claims of consultation as “a public relations stunt” and described the government’s technical review as a “five-page unbound report, consisting mainly of photographs and one-line captions.” Last Friday Kublalsingh, who has refused both food and liquids and has lost some 40 pounds since his strike began, was taken to hospital, where he remained overnight in the Intensive Care Unit on an intravenous drip. He was discharged on Saturday, and according to a newspaper report, his brother has said that “by Monday, day 12, he expects to be back in front the Prime Minister’s office.” On the online news service Caribbean360,Roman Catholic priest, Father Clive Harvey, observed that“What is important [to Wayne Kublalsingh] is the technical committee. The other thing he is saying is ‘if this technical committee decides differently from how I feel I will accept that. I am not being some stubborn pig on that issue, all I want is some transparency and truth and to be able to be able to restore some level of trust to governance in the country’.”
When asked by the Trinidad Guardian yesterday what would prompt his brotherto take the extreme step of a hunger strike without water, Hayden Kublalsingh’s reply was clear and a lesson to us all: “What drove the hunger strike was every possible attempt was made to find basic information for people: the consequences of the proposed highway, the transparency issues.What is the society to do when a genuine issue arises, when there is no recourse for ordinary people, when questions of transparency, procurement, environmental degradation, loss of agricultural land remain unanswered?
What happens when questions of transparency, of procurement are left unanswered?
What happens if after you’ve written protested, argued, gone to the highest-level authority, been thrown out of government buildings, had your sites destroyed by the army and police, endured verbal abuse and been arrested, and still the concerns of ordinary citizens are not addressed in any proper manner? What is a man to do?What happens when fundamental rights of information in any civilised society are impinged, when despite all your efforts the tractors are still cutting lands and the Government pretends they’ve done a sufficient review to the satisfaction of people? How else do you secure the interest of the ordinary people? I ask you, what type of action is appropriate?He decided on fast since nobody is listening. The system is opaque, corrupt and full of toxicity. What is required is not civil action but drastic action to force the Government to do what they should have done in the first place. He is doing this on behalf of the ordinary citizens, of the people of this country.”
This is a situation that we are sadly all too familiar with in Guyana, as in the rest of the Caribbean. And this is why Wayne Kublalsingh’s story goes far beyond Trinidad and Tobago. This week we offer Trinidadian columnist Attilah Springer’s reflections, which urge us to seek out these wider meanings, for our lives and for our Caribbean. Will we stand up and be counted? What will it take?
Them belly full but we hungry, A hungry man is a angry man, Rain ah fall but de dirt it tough, Pot a cook but de food nuhnuff
Dem Belly Full, Bob Marley
Do you know hunger? Have you ever met the burning in the pit of your belly, the waves of discontent rumbling up from inside of you and not known how to ease it? Have you ever had days when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from or if it will come at all? Hunger is a physical pain that is easily healed if you have the means.
Hunger is a temporary state of being for most of us. Any hunger I’ve ever felt in life has been self-imposed. The understanding being, when you choose to fast, to have the clarity of mind and the understanding that food, the life-sustaining force, is a blessing that we should never underestimate.
So the other night, at minutes to 11, I was in a shop in Ocho Rios on the way to Runaway Bay on Jamaica’s north coast. I’d eaten some fries and as I was walking back to the car to continue the onward journey I heard footsteps behind me. A man in a white shirt and walking stick put his hand out to me and asked if I had anything eat.
And because I have the luxury of too much food at my disposal that I can choose to be vegan and the vanity of Western standards of body beauty, I gladly hand over my veggie burger and soft drink and turn away before I get too curious and decide to ask him why he’s out here and hungry and limping. I don’t know how hungry this man is. I don’t know how long the hunger burned in his belly before he limped up to me and asked me for something to eat.
My adventures with fasting have taught me that we eat way too much. We use food like punctuation and our desires far exceed our needs. So it’s no accident that in a country where so many cultural practices are focused on food, the local euphemism for self-interest is eat-ah-food. In the land of rum and roti and excess, the decision to not eat is about as radical as you can get.
So regardless of whether you agree with or not, you have to give jack his jacket. You have to look at your own self and wonder what you would sacrifice in defense of your beliefs. It’s a funny thing about activists. Like artists, we exist to make a difference.
It is either foolish or arrogant to believe that you can make a change in the world around you. It is either madness or a slightly aggressive level of self-belief that creeps into your head and convinces you that you have the power to change the minds of those who think they have the power.
And because activists don’t usually have someone bankrolling their campaigns, they have nothing to lose. They have no one to answer to but their communities, or the voices in their heads. We are a nation of eaters. Food is all around all the time. We gorge ourselves on the fruits of our labours or mostly other people’s labours and have all the lifestyle diseases to show for it. We, most of us, do not know the bitter taste of starvation at the back of our throats.
I overheard some Jamaicans talking at the airport on my way in on a flight delayed in Piarco because of power cuts caused by T&TEC’s load-shedding. The Jamaicans wondered aloud how a country so rich could have an airport without independent power generation facilities. Dem worship money a Trinidad, he concludes.
I hand over my burger with the excessive haste of someone burdened with the guilt of abundance. In the night too dark now to see the outline of deepest blue Caribbean Sea I think about money worshipping. I think about how Jamaicans are so unapologetically themselves. Proud and defiant, and some of them are obscenely poor and some of them are horribly rich.
I think of Wayne Kublalsingh and the rumbling of hunger in his belly. I think of all the comments I see online that range from admiration to contempt to ridicule. All these sitters on fences who have never had the arrogance or the madness or the conviction to stand up for anything.
And while we eating ah food, the nation is starving for leadership. And focus. And commitment. While we eating ah food, the nation’s belly is empty of seriousness. We are worshipping at the gilded feet of a false goddess, a mother who stifles her children in her breasts rather than feeding them. We are worshipping folly and feasting on the carcass of our potential.
We chewing up our patrimony fine like Sunday stew chicken bones. I wonder when we will realise that we are hungry for something other than food.