Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Tuesday, May 06, 2003  

Yesterday I had lunch at an American fast food establishment, one of a chain, and whose boast when you eat there is that you "Eat fresh".

Well, that boast probably holds true in the US, but not in sweet T&T. It took a good twenty or twenty five minutes or so between the time I got into the relatively short line to the time I cashed, and this despite there being three persons manning the assembly line-like sandwich-making counter.

The lengthy wait was completely unnecessary. Not only was the system obviously inefficient, but the workers looked as if they couldn't care less if Monday fell on Friday, far less if I wanted pickles, but not cucumbers on my sandwich.

Of course, the fast food industry the world over is notorious for the gum-chewing indifference and ignorance of the people who work in it, but here it is frustratingly, heart-breakingly, symptomatic of a wider apathy and lack of commitment when it comes to an honest day's work.

How to explain it? The usual answer is to go back to our past - to the days of the plantation, and a system that demanded everything of you and gave nothing in return; a system founded not on economy and efficiency, but sheer exploitation.

When that system ended nothing was devised to take its place, to turn an exploited, excluded underclass into a coherent, ordered, efficient people, part of a wider society committed to certain principles and goals. Not that there was any real society to speak of then; or, that there is one now.

Why, after over 150 years - 40 of those, capital I Independent ones - we continue to exist in a society where the majority of people still feel as if they are being exploited, that they labour primarily for others to prosper, and carry on with this belief informing their work ethic (or lack of one), I don't know. Is it simply lack of political will? The ignorance of our so-called elites, and what Lloyd Best calls their "unresponsibility"? Or, the reactionary's favourite, a deep-founded conspiracy between government and the upper classes to keep down black people?

What frustrates me most of all is a complete lack of sense of how fast we should be progressing (though some would say we're doing just the opposite, or simply marking time: stasis leading to chaos). Will I see the revolution in my own lifetime? Should I expect to? Is it as easy as it sometimes seems to be, or is the road to becoming a serious nation much, much longer and more difficult?

Dr. David Bratt in today's Guardian shares my frustration. And as he rightly notes, the lack of discipline, of a commitment to hard work, to doing things right - in short, a lack of standards - is everywhere, and not confined to just one set of people. Dr. Bratt's cri de coeur should serve notice to us all, and I reproduce it in full:

Slackness everywhere

Have you heard about the foreigner who came to Trinidad for the first time? On the way into town from Piarco, he was terribly impressed by our culture. It seems he had never seen so many statues alongside the roads of any country. Turns out it was Trinidadians working.

Sick joke, but true.

Check out any field of Trini endeavour. With the occasional exception, it’s all the same. Slackness down the line. Few Trinidadians are capable of doing any sustained work.

Twenty years ago, one of the paediatricians at the Port-of-Spain Hospital said to me, “If we could only get them to do an honest day’s work!” She was referring to the house officers, interns, lab technicians, radiographers and ward attendants. Interestingly, not the nurses, one of the few local professions where people are willing to work hard.

The work rate of the administrators at the public hospitals and the Ministry of Health was worse. Try to get an appointment with one of them to discuss an emergency on the ward. Never happen.

One remembers the days when you would go over to the Ministry of Health on Sackville Street on a Friday afternoon and find no one there but the watchman and the cleaning lady. The administrators were at the Hilton for “a business lunch” and the secretaries had gone with them. Has anything changed?

There are hospital medical directors who cannot tell you, in May of 2003, how many outpatients their Accident & Emergency Room saw in 2001, far less last year. How can they plan for 2003? Do they have a plan? Do they know they have to have a plan?

Two weeks after the high-profile launch, the papers are full of reports of visitors from Toronto slipping through the “SARS net”. People coming off flights from Toronto are being “screened” by a mysterious masked man in a gown, who stands up just outside the exit from the plane and watches each passenger intently.


Look at our pride and joy, the steelband. Take a simple thing like setting up on the Savannah stage. Steelbands still cannot set up easily. Back and fro, cuss and go, nobody knows where each set of pans is supposed to be.

How difficult is it to draw a diagram before going on stage, A, B, C, D etc. A goes here; B sets up next to A, and so on. Even if you’re drunk, where is the stage manager? Who is in charge? Sit down and do the work. Spend some time reflecting. Come up with a plan.

If you cannot solve minor problems like that, what hope is there for pan? How long are we going to depend on talent? Talk for so. Carnival post mortems. Opportunity for everyone to gallery and try to impress everyone else.

Who does the hard work before the meeting? After the meeting? How many meetings there are in Trinidad where nobody takes the minutes so a week later no one knows what was decided? Wasting people’s time.

Look at sport. Football. Cricket. Athletics. Any sport you want. Total chaos. Who’s in charge? Who is doing the hard work? Sitting down? Thinking? Coming up with a plan? So, smart-talking charlatans have the opportunity to take over a sport and walk away with the rewards.

Standards in the media are dropping, says the president of MATT, “The quality of media is in trouble.”

Last Friday night, one television commentator was heard to say that Steve Waugh now had the most Test centuries. On the other channel, his competitor claimed that Omari Banks was the best West Indian bowler with 3 for 204 runs. Simple things. Both were wrong. Someone hadn’t done their homework.

Think of any profession. Law. How often have you heard that the lawyer is not ready to proceed so the case is postponed? Or there’s nobody to take notes? Or the magistrates don’t know the law?

Fire burning hills. Endless talk on the radio. People writing in to the newspapers. What’s being done? The firemen can’t do any more. More talk about planes from Canada to out the fires.

Trucks run traffic lights, cross highways, fall on cars and kill people. What’s the Government reaction? None.

Name any ministry that is organised. Name a single Minister who has a plan for his or her ministry?

But everyone is making money and everyone’s happy. Thank heaven for the oil and gas. That’s what the rest of the Caribbean says about us. If it wasn’t for that, we would be the Labasse of the Caribbean. But a happy Labasse.

There is a dire need in the country for hard-working people, someone to do an honest day’s work. How long can the lack of action last?

David Rudder is right. Old talk drains the spirit.

posted by Jonathan | 10:59 AM 0 comments


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