He asked, “Are you a Muslim or a terrorist?” I was talking with a group of villagers, all Africans, while sitting under the tent erected outside a home in Boot Hill when a young Indian man joined us and posed that question to me. It could have been a deliberate and maliciously conceived act of grave provocation or, perhaps, it was nothing more than the frivolity of one who turned in worship in the direction of Washington. But the villagers responded to the question with fury. They insisted that it was an insult, and that I should not answer the question. Instead they demanded that the young man apologize for his insult, and they persisted until he eventually apologized to me. That was a taste of Boot Hill’s tribal democracy that brooks no tribal injustice. Politicians and political scientists of this country would do well to study Boot Hill’s tribal democracy.
I went back to Boot Hill (a nickname for St. Thomas Village, Chaguanas, in my native island of Trinidad), my childhood hometown, to offer my sympathies to Kenneth Valley whose son had been shot and killed two days earlier in the nearby village of Felicity. It was a killing that provoked significant tribal protest from Boot Hill’s African villagers that quickly erupted in dangerous street demonstrations. It even provoked acts of violence against Felicity villagers. Some of them were beaten and a vehicle was destroyed.
Felicity is tribally homogeneous with the overwhelming majority of residents being Indian and Hindu. And while the shooting death in Felicity of the young African from Boot Hill may not have been caused by race, it certainly provoked a violent racial response. Indeed I fear that the die has, perhaps, been cast, and that the dangerous new stage now reached in tribal rivalry can eventually include the entire country in a fatal grip. Hence this timely essay!
Rivalry between the two main tribes of this country continues to be provoked by the tribal nationalism that has infected Trinidad and Tobago’s politics for the last fifty miserable years, and tension between the two main rival tribes has long been simmering. Indeed the violence that so spontaneously erupted in Boot Hill and in Felicity is, perhaps, a case of “chickens coming home to roost”. A corrupted political system that divides the tribes rather than unite them, is itself a Sign of the Last Day.
We are in fact poised on the brink of a pit of fire with the eventual likelihood of tribal segregation of the island’s population, and yet all that the establishment has to offer is an “Imperial Presidency” as an answer to the failed political system.
My father had the foresight to oppose the PNM’s tribal nationalism. (PNM is the People’s National Movement, which is the ruling political party in Trinidad and Tobago.) He paid the ultimate price for that opposition. But that is another story. He must have had strange feelings in his Boot Hill grave when one of his children eventually rose to hold the highest office in the public service of the country.
My Indian Muslim family lived in Boot Hill for more than a hundred years until my widowed mother, worried by tribal nationalism and by mysterious changes that were slowly creeping upon the country and the village, moved us a mile away when she built a new house in midtown Chaguanas. But even then I continued to work as a teenaged teacher at the Chaguanas Government School where my father had spent the last years of his life as Principal. The children of the village thus became attached to me, as they had been to my father before me, as their own hometown native teacher.
Many tribes were represented in that tiny village that nestled so peacefully right next to the bustling town of Chaguanas. The tribes all lived with each other in a state of harmony, with recognition of tribal equality, and with respect for tribal identity and for differences in tribal culture and religion. Each tribe possessed autonomy and the right to preserve its tribal identity and to regulate its life in accordance with its own system of values and tribal genius. More than that, Boothill hosted the Chaguanas Government School as well as the Chaguanas cemetery, as a consequence of which the village became the educational home for thousands of children from far and wide, and the final resting place for all who died. Neither the living nor the dead, coming from far and wide, ever felt discomfort in Boot Hill’s tribal democracy.
I would always remain grateful to Allah Most High for the good fortune that I had to grow up in a Boot Hill whose tribal democracy stamped itself upon my teenaged consciousness. It was that very tribal democracy that I offered to the nation in my address on “Islam and a Tribal Democracy” in our Muslim Consultation on Constitutional Reform that was held at the Jama Masjid San Fernando.
The proposal for a ‘tribal democracy’ that would resolve dangerous rivalry and contain the tribal nationalism that has corrupted Trinidad and Tobago’s politics these last fifty years provoked an enthusiastic response from men like Congress of the People’s leader, Winston Dookeran and University of the West Indies academic, Prof. Dr. Brinsley Samaroo who attended the Consultation. It even earned the quiet respect of Attorney Rajiv Persad who had worked long and hard on the Principles of Fairness draft constitution, and of Ambassador Patrick Edwards, both of whom also attended the Consultation.
There was a Portugese man living in our midst in Boothill. “Bosey” Vasconcellos lived obliquely opposite our home and was the owner of a big oblong concrete building where his family produced wine. That misfit of a building still stands to this day. “Bosey” had married Doris, an Indian woman, and all three of their children looked more European than Indian. There was also Eric Maingot, a Frenchman who married an Indian woman from the village. They had a houseful of children who easily found a natural place in village life. And then there was a Spanish woman who lived in the village just a few houses away from us with her Indian husband, Clifford Imamshah. They also had a houseful of children who all looked far more European than Indian. Even the elderly Mr. Kidney, whose property was next to our home, was of English stock.
All these Europeans and their Euro-looking children were accepted in the village and lived in complete harmony with all other villagers. Yet the amazing thing about Boot Hill was that Europeans resident in the village were not recognized to be in any way superior to the rest of the villagers. Tribal equality was not imposed upon the village. It emerged naturally. Nor did the Euro-families segregate themselves. They lived harmoniously among the villagers.
The Chinese were prominently represented in the middle of Boothill by the Chong Kai Mee family who ran the only village shop. When Mee Zin’s husband died she persuaded her brother, Ato, to come all the way from China to live with her to help run the shop. Her daughter, Millie, made friends with the village girls (my elder sister claims that Millie was her only real friend) and was slowly becoming a part of village life when she had to leave for Hong Kong. But the villagers were predominantly African and Indian with quite a few of mixed tribal descent. The Africans were almost all Christians, and the Indians were almost all Muslims.
What was most remarkable about Boothill fifty years ago was the harmony with which it managed its tribal diversity. No tribe looked down upon or felt threatened by another tribe. No tribe discriminated against another tribe. We all lived as a family. And when a villager was in distress or in need, the village would assist without any tribal discrimination. The poor of the village, to whichever tribe they belonged, would all flock to the Masjid for alms on the day of Eid. And alms would be given to all. The tribes lived together without even a whisper of residential segregation between tribes, or between the rich and the poor.
Tribal harmony grew into a veritable symphony when it came to selecting the Boot Hill cricket team or the Globetrotters (football) team. The marketplace of sports was a tribal democracy of the purest form. If you could play well you could get selected and even become the captain of the team – it did not matter to which tribe you belonged. I had the honor of being selected on a few occasions as 12th man of the cricket team and had to ‘tote’ my fair share of cricket gear.
The village Masjid was one of the earliest to be built in Trinidad. Indeed, for almost a hundred years it was the only Masjid in the greater Chaguanas area, and Muslims came from far and wide to offer prayers in our Masjid. The Anglican Church is still located across the road from the Masjid and the mutual respect and cooperation which characterized Christian-Muslim relations in the village named after St. Thomas Aquinas, reflected yet another dimension of the village’s tribal democracy. My father and Rev. Lamont even exchanged cars on occasions – something that provoked many a smile in the village.
Most remarkable of all, the village demonstrated great tolerance of inter-tribal marriages. In addition to the Portugese-Indian, French-Indian and Spanish-Indian marriages, there were quite a few African-Indian marriages. The Mackintosh family was a case of an African-Indian marriage that was totally accepted by the village. And then there was Orin – a thorough gentleman – who, with his quiet dignity and good manners earned the respect of all. When Orin, the African villager, married the Indian Imam’s daughter, he remained dearly beloved to all. They had many children. Those children, like all the other mixed race children in the village, never suffered from identity problems – not in Boothill.
My own Indian father dearly loved an African woman and longed to marry her. But in the end religion stood between them and they had to sorrowfully give up on marriage since she adamantly insisted that any children born to them would have to be raised as Christian. And so my father sacrificed the love of his life so that his children could be raised as Muslims, and so that this son of his could eventually disseminate Islam in this country and in many other parts of the world.
I was pleasantly surprised when the villagers gathered at the Valley residence gave me a warm and loving welcome as a long-lost son of the village. After all, I had left the village more than forty years ago and during that time I had become a part-time Trinidadian. My happiness was complete when Kenneth Valley himself reminded me that I was his teacher at school. As we sat discussing Boot Hill and its tribal democracy the villagers urged me to write this piece and to publish it so that the country might benefit from what Boot Hill still has to offer to this day.