Thursday, April 24, 2008

Stepping Through Sweden

When you’ve been born and brought up in the global South and continue to live there as I do you appreciate visiting places where things work the way they’re supposed to and resources are never a problem; where Plan A is what prevails (instead of constant compromises with Plan B or C); and where human chaos is ordered and contained in artful ways.

I found myself in Gothenburg, Sweden, the other day attending a two-day meeting at the Museum of World Cultures. After arriving with a swollen leg and no luggage I still had a great time -- a tribute to this unusual country and its friendly people.

I’m a real sucker for sophisticated design, whether graphic or interior, and Scandinavian design is outstanding. So despite the forbidding exteriors of most buildings I found myself in a succession of beautifully designed interiors and luxuriated in them while I could. The colour schemes were as rich and unorthodox as Kanjeevaram saris—a bright orange auditorium, a magenta and pink bathroom, the most elegant fixtures—leading me to radically revise the colours of my blogsite as soon as I got back.

The Museum of World Cultures itself was a trip. Our conference room was screened off with a unique, superbly designed grill or screen consisting of human figures with outstretched arms and legs balanced on one another. The screen is an artwork created by a Korean artist named Do Ho Suh .

An exhibition called Fair Fashion drew attention to the costs associated with clothing and keeping up with the latest styles. Although wearing cotton may make us feel virtuous (it’s natural! It’s cool! It’s cheap!) the cost of keeping the world clothed in cotton is actually quite expensive, harmful and unfair to cottonpickers. Some of the facts the exhibition highlighted with the use of imaginatively dressed mannequins were as follows:

  • Cotton is the most water-intensive crop around. In order to grow a kilo of cotton, you need something like 10,000 to 30,000 litres of water.

  • A whole kilo of chemicals and toxins are employed in the production of every single kilo of conventionally grown cotton.

  • Every year 12 million pairs of jeans are sold in Sweden. Each pair weighs approximately 0.6 kg, and consists of 95 % cotton.

  • You need 0.6 k of che­micals and toxins and 12,000 litres of water to manufacture a single pair of jeans.

  • Cotton is grown in over 100 countries. The major producers—China, India, Pakistan, Brazil and Uzbekistan—are responsible for more than 80 % of the world’s cotton production. The global market price has remained rock steady at 60 cents per pound ever since the 1950s. This is mainly due to the fact that cotton-producing countries in the West, along with China and the EU, provide their domestic cotton farmers with various subsidies. As a result of this practice, cotton farmers in other parts of the world are forced to accept the low international market price.

Another concurrent exhibition “Wild Style” told “the story of how hip-hop came to conquer the world”.

This was rather fortuitous for me because the reason I was at the Museum of World Cultures to begin with was to attend a meeting of authors and editors of a text titled Creativity, Cultural Expression and Globalization. Volume 3 of the Cultures and Globalization Series published by Sage, London, the Series editors had invited twenty writers and scholars from around the world to participate in the project by contributing chapters highlighting new forms of creativity thrown up by the forces of globalization.

My chapter, titled “The Turn of the Native: Vernacular Creativity in the Caribbean” discusses the phenomenon of Jamaican music, in particular its current avatar, Dancehall. When my turn came to present my thesis it gave me great pleasure to be able to introduce the subject by citing the Wild Style exhibition that started its documentation of the story of hip hop with the following words: “It all began in August 1973, when a young girl named Cindy Campbell hosted a party at the legendary address 1520 Sedgewick Avenue in West Bronx, New York.”

As I explained, although the words Jamaica and Jamaican never appear anywhere in this narrative, the party mentioned was at the home of Jamaican migrants and Cindy’s brother, Clive, borrowed the sound system from their father, a Jamaican, to play Jamaican music at the party. Clive is better known today by his DJ moniker, Kool Herc. Everyone knows the rest. The African-Americans at the party were not receptive to dancehall music so Kool Herc started playing soul and funk hits while talking and shouting over the music in the style of Jamaican DJs. Now the party was hopping and voila, hip hop was born.

As easily as that I had made my case for focusing exclusively on the phenomenon of Jamaican music. As I went on to explain there are not many places in the world where “the masses who have been silent for two thirds of a century” have found their voice(s) as volubly and effectively as in the Caribbean; here, using the medium of music, “low-budget” people persistently neglected by both state and society, have creatively married oral traditions with the most advanced technological innovation to create a highly mobile, popular, indeed, trend-setting, product that is competitive internationally with similar products from the most advanced societies in the world.

Unfortunately in the society it was created Dancehall has still barely acquired legitimacy although there are signs that this is beginning to change. Last night on the CVM TV current affairs programme ‘Direct’ that usually deals exclusively with political and economic issues, the subject was a recent poll conducted on the subject of Dancehall. The poll conducted by Don Anderson had purported to come up with some amazing findings such as that only a minuscule segment of the population listened to or liked Dancehall compared to Reggae, and that most people thought that dancehall DJs could and ought to do something about the spiraling violence in the country.

Fortunately Garfield Burford, the host of the programme, then brought on Donna Hope and Ragashanti Stewart, two scholars who have researched the subject of dancehall quite thoroughly and by the time they had disaggregated and queried the questions asked by the Poll you realized how little the pollsters knew about the subject they were claiming to collect information on and how much their ignorance impacted on the quality of the data they had so triumphantly produced. What for example was the distinction being made between Reggae and Dancehall? If another category had been substituted for DJs, say teachers, media stars, politicians or pastors would the answers have been any different? Anderson admitted that the question could have been more precisely framed so that respondents indicated which of these categories they considered most able to influence patterns of violence in Jamaica. Kudos to Burford and Direct for focusing on a subject that is at least as important as tourism and the practically non-existent formal economy.

Well, there’s much more to say about Sweden. I was only there for four days but when you’ve had a chance to test out the medical system of a country, go shopping there (stores close at 5 pm and one isn’t bombarded with commercials and subliminal messages to shop, shop, shop) and also do the opposite, spend significant time in its premier museum (shops and museums are spaces that are fundamentally opposed I think) you do get a sense of the place and its people. The clinic was fabulously designed with its red brick and tiled lobby, with sculpted walls covered with the most fascinating, provocative three dimensional imagery.

The system was streamlined and user-friendly, the doctor was kind, what more do you want. And fortunately for me it wasn’t that expensive (I’m still trying unsuccessfully to collect from the expensive health insurance plan I was required to buy in order to get a Swedish visa). I'm much indebted to Anna Thelin, programme coordinator of the Museum, for taking me there.

The other thing that impressed me was the size of the sidewalks which were as wide as country roads in Jamaica with a lane for bicycles and a separate one for pedestrians, clearly marked. I loved the image of the father and daughter used to indicate the pedestrian lane. Sweden struck me as a place with the resources to live humanely and the imagination and good sense to do so without the bombast and waste we’re used to in this hemisphere. Skol!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The day the cowdung hit the fan…

The term ‘coolie’ is as overloaded and weighed down as the porters it denotes in India!

Well, I had been saving this subject up for a moment when I could find enough time to spend on it but I’ve been pre-empted by events in the media landscape in Jamaica. Ever since Ragashanti, popular talk show host on Newstalk 93 (formerly Radio Mona, located on the campus of the University of the West Indies), invited callers on February 4 to express opinions on the topic of the week, Indians or Coolies (Raga’s topics cover a wide range from things like the subject this week which is, “Is it ok to deh with somebody who did deh with one of your friends or relatives before?” or Do wives have it better than Mateys or vice versa?), I’ve been itching to write a blog called “Cows ARE sacred” but have been simply too busy. Over the weekend the news broke that the local broadcasting commission had recommended the shutdown of Newstalk 93 based on the racist slurs made by callers expressing their views on the subject.

On the day in question I was shocked at the stream of callers freely expressing the most derogatory opinions about Indians. I think Raga himself was taken aback at the absurdity of some of the comments (the most frequent complaint voiced by almost every caller was the intolerable “smell” apparently attached to Indians whom most of them referred to as Coolies or to be precise 'di coolie dem'). He had deliberately chosen the subject as the topic of the week because as he put it, “There are a lot of stereotypes about Indians in Jamaica” and he wanted to elicit the views of his callers on the subject with a view to having a discussion on air that would have served to interrogate and challenge these stereotypes.

Alas long before he could do that the cowdung hit the fan. The views expressed on his show were so racist, such a slavish recitation of precisely the kinds of things the European colonizers said about “natives” in various parts of the world, so exactly a repetition of the things slavemasters said about the slaves that it was impossible for any Indian or any conscientious person not to feel disturbed and upset by what caller after caller was saying. Indians/Coolies were described as smelly, dirty or ‘nasty’, dishonest, oversexed and simultaneously physical weaklings. Several callers identified the fact that Indians eat with their hands as being ‘nasty’ and problematic to the extent where I am now abnormally self-conscious about a perfectly normal mode of eating food not merely in India but in many parts of the African continent. The word “coolie” was also being bandied about with alarming abandon and while it’s a word I myself use quite freely, it IS-- like the word “nigger”--quite loaded when deployed by someone who doesn’t share the particular ethnic category being referred to. I cringed at the thought of Indian children trying to make sense of all this.

So I decided I had to intervene on behalf of my coolie brethren and sistren. Yes folks ‘coolie’ is a word that is freely used in Jamaica unlike Trinidad and Tobago where it’s actually illegal to use it. Over here as far as i know it is not used as a term of abuse. Still I knew that if Raga continued along these lines he would definitely get into trouble and since I value his show and him very much I sent him a message to call me so that we could have a discussion on air about the subject in question. By then he had already received a call from an outraged lawyer who said that he was so appalled by the broadcast that even though he wasn’t an Indian himself he was willing to take action against the show and the station on behalf of any Indians who might be offended like himself.

So on the day in question I actually appeared on Raga’s show--in the guise of an expert on Indian affairs I suppose--and found him very receptive to my suggestion that he be more cautious with the use of terms like ‘coolie’. In fact the next day he apologized profusely for having inadvertently offended anyone and announced that he would discontinue using the C-word, urging callers to do the same. He went on to say that the topic for the week had now been broadened to elicit the views of any ethnic or racial group about any other ethnic or racial group.

Interestingly despite this the majority of the callers who responded in the following days continued to sound off on the subject of Indians and how nasty, dirty and dishonest they were in their opinions. I found myself intrigued by this. Numerically Indo-Jamaicans are about 2% of the population and unlike their counterparts in Trinidad and Guyana most of them remain impoverished and are little or no threat to anyone anywhere, least of all black Jamaicans.

What accounted then for such hostile views towards those of Indian descent? According to an eminent cultural theorist friend of mine it has to do with the history of Indian arrival in Jamaica where indentured labourers or coolies, from both India and China, were brought to the Caribbean in the mid-19th century by the British, to supply cheap, virtually free labour, which had suddenly become unavailable after slavery was abolished. The ex-slaves had entered a period of ‘apprenticeship’, a kind of neo-slavery, that many of them rightly refused to participate in. The newly arrived Indians were therefore seen as ‘scabs’ and perceived to be crossing the picket line as it were by the rest of the working (or non-working!) population.

I remembered a story an Indo-Jamaican friend of mine once told me about her first encounter with racism here. I wished I could remember it in detail; Lucilda Dassardo-Cooper now lives in Cairo so I emailed and asked her to recount it to me again and this was her response:

The story I told was of the first time I realized that the prejudice in Jamaica was irrational. I had always heard the kids taunt us as being weak, which was not quite thrown at me because I had actually beaten the school bully in my basic school, and the class bully in primary school.

Callaloo, a favorite food of Indians and eaten with dhal, rotis, rice and roasted saltfish was supposedly why 'coolies' were weaker than 'negah' who ate boiled dumplings, green bananas and yams with saltfish boiled and refried with onions and tomatoes.

It must have been my first year at St. Jago, when I was on the bus to school that the incident happened. The bus was overcrowded and we were all crushed together. My nicely and carefully pleated uniform was assaulted on all sides when this pushing happened and I was swept along. I was complaining in general about the pushing and shoving being unnecessary, when this woman jumped on me, telling me that "You are coolie and I am negah so "I don't have to box shit out of hog's mouth."

Maybe some of your Jamaica friends can enlighten you on the expression, but the impact on me was astonishment. Here I was going to high school, a big deal at the time as not too many had high school education, and she was going to work in a factory in Spanish town. Yet she felt that she was somehow superior because of her race. Also that she had chosen to respond to my general complaints not directed in particular at anyone, and most especially not at her as she was also shoved along with the rest of us.

"Boxing shit out of hog's mouth" is an expression of being so poverty stricken that one is competing with hogs for shit. Go figure!

Then when I was on the beach in Jamaica maybe four years ago there was a little girl who asked me "Are you a coolie?" Instead of responding, I asked her "What are you?" she told me "I am a negah."

See how complicated, vexed and vexing all of this is? That's why I didn’t want to write about any of this till I had plenty of time to write something considered and illuminating rather than a knee-jerk sort of response. So there you are, my take on all this is that in the haste to censor if not prosecute Raga and Newstalk 93 the important work of combating the stereotypes Indo-Jamaicans are faced with has fallen by the wayside. That to me is the pity of it all. Complicating much of this is the confusion people make between Indo-Jamaicans, the descendants of those who came here as indentured labourers and Indian nationals, creatures of quite another make-up. The latter are notoriously obsessed with skin-colour themselves and wont to look down on people of African descent. Their racism, clannishness and refusal to mix with the natives of the countries they migrate to contributes quite a bit to the ill will towards Indians in general. I come from this latter group myself so I know what I’m talking about; and with regard to Indians from India I would say its not a bad thing for them to be confronted with the same kind of racism they mete out to others. Indeed their attitude towards Jamaicans of Indian descent is extremely problematic but that has to be the subject of another blog.

One can only be grateful to Raga for having brought the subject of Jamaican stereotypes of Indians to light in this way. Neither he nor his station should be penalized for doing this. The question is what are we going to do about the stereotypes?