…Can the Centre Hold?

  chinua-achebeI went to bed Thursday night to the news that Chinua Achebe had died. Many of us in Trinidad and Tobago may know nothing about Africa or being African, but we know Okonkwo, his most famous character from his most famous novel.Things Fall Apart is one of those rare books where if the words seminal, masterpiece, classic and canon are used to describe it, the description would actually be apt.

 

That novel was my introduction to Africa. Not the Africa showed on television at nights that showed malnourished children and their parents lined up for food, while words like famine, refugee camps and ethnic warfare were bandied about. Achebe taught me that Africa had, not just one, but many cultures and civilizations long before the Europeans arrived to dismantle it. He would go on to write several novels, poetry and essays; all of which explored Africa before and after colonization and before and after independence. What happened to Africa in the aftermath of European colonization and independence bears striking resemblances to Trinidad and Tobago, and to many other places that share a history of colonization and exploitation.

 

chinua-achebe (1)In the years since secondary school I have been privileged to not just read more Achebe, but to teach him as well. And to teach him to students who have no concept of Africa or African culture. Students who will easily identify as African or even black on a survey, and have no concept of what Africa or describing oneself as African means.

 

In 2011, as part of the marathon session during which the government justified using something as serious as a State of  Emergency to treat with crime, several ministers quoted the poem by William Butler Yeats that influenced the title of Achebe's novel. Lincoln Douglas in particular went on to recount the story of Okonkwo, and to explain why a society falling apart at the seams needed its constitutional rights taken away in order to put a check on crime. Had Achebe heard Douglas' butchered analysis of what is arguably his most recognized text, it may well have caused him serious discomfort. It set my blood pressure on boil; because it wasn't the spate of murders that signaled things were falling apart, but rather the very clear fact that a government was quite willing to tamper with the rights of citizens in order to further abuse them.

 

Since the SoE, I believe our country and quality of life have gotten worse. And there are many ways in which they have worsened. Crime we all know is at an all time high. And our government, who roundly abused Patrick Manning three years ago for relying on handouts and sporting facilities to solve crime have come and outdone the PNM at its own game. So much so that the Prime Minister in the space of a week has announced that a report done by Selwyn Ryan says more sporting facilities will solve the country's crime problem. I am hoping to see the report to confirm this myself. Because if that is the case, given the number of recreation grounds in Central and South Trinidad there should be no murders in these parts of the country. Certainly not any with dismembered bodies and heads lying about.

 

I would be interesting to see whether Dr Ryan and his team have made any mention of the other support systems that can assist in alleviating crime and the general societal break down that the President discussed in his inaugural address.

 

Having taught at the secondary level for eight years at both government and religious board schools, I've seen first hand how deviant behaviour develops and then leads to criminal behaviour. I have seen students at both prestigious and government schools learn to cheat, steal and lie. I have seen some of these students go on to become criminals. Sporting grounds and million dollar basketball competitions do not solve an already rampant crime problem; these things can play a role in curbing the tendency only at the early stages.

 

But what is also needed are a number of things: an effective and relevant education system; an effective system of counseling and social work; an efficient economy where money doesn't trickle down but is properly allocated to all the areas that require development; an employment environment that is free of nepotism and corruption, where people are promoted on merit and not their relatives. We also need effective border patrols, a criminal and judicial system that doesn't favour the wealthy and privileged, and a police service that is trained in better investigative and detection methods.

 

Everything I have suggested there is elementary. The average man in the street can tell you this. The current government promised it. Yet now they pretend not to know it.

 

And it is left to us citizens who hunger and thirst after that elusive thing called good governance so much that we voted out bad to go worse, to figure our way out of this problem.

 

The government has made it clear that it is not equipped, or even willing to solve any of the problems that challenge us. Tim Goopeesingh continues to make mistake after mistake with his education policies. His crowning achievement to date has been to order shipments of laptops. Thereafter...nothing. With every new medical crisis Dr Fuad Khan finds his way into radio and newspaper interviews, gives the big grand charge about cleaning things up, and then nothing.

 

Our Minister and Ministry of National Security have made us the joke of the Caribbean if not the Western world. And at every turn you have people still referring to Warner as the hardest working minister. Flooding is not a thing of the past, neither is crime. So what exactly has he been successful at? Nothing...

 

In Things Fall Apart, Achebe describes for us a society that is on the cusp of change. A new culture has come and is eroding the old ways and traditions. Exploitation, oppression and greed will soon become the order of the day in the Africa he writes about, and so will poor governance, weak leaders and military coups. Achebe wrote about an Africa that experienced terrible transitional pains. The kind of pain we are now experiencing. Will we fall apart, or will we hold our centre?