The year was 1986, and my American University Soccer team was having an average season compared to our previous season having reached the National Championship game against perennial powerhouse, UCLA. Seven of our starting team had graduated, including three fellow Trinbagonians who were players of outstanding quality.
I was now co-captain with an excellent English player, Keith Trehy, who was truly the first poor white boy that I had encountered in my lifetime. Our players mostly freshmen and American, except for one Chris Morgan—a Jamaica national youth team player and one of the best dribblers I have ever seen in my career; and I’ve seen and played with the best.
Midway through our average season and we were down in Florida scheduled to play against University of South Florida (USF), another college powerhouse and ranked in the top 25 nationally. We were not optimistic.
After breakfast an urgent knock on my hotel door: “Nak, Nak….yuh dey?”
Fearing the worst, I hustled to the door. After all, college freshmen virtually unmonitored in a hotel room down in the ‘Sunshine Sate’; well, the possibilities were endless. It was Morgan.
“Nak bwoy, me and de boys just seen a USF game program and dem have three white South African players pon dem side; and two of dem was in de South African army.”
His words lingered in the air to the point that I felt I could literally pluck each word with my bare hands. By this time, the whole team minus my co-captain was crammed into my room waiting for my reaction. They had seen me many times on my way to the anti-apartheid rallies mostly held outside the South African Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, just down from our place of learning.
I had spoken to them of Nelson Mandela. Not the shuffling, smiling, dancing, eager to please the white voices Mandela, that all you house negroes like to portray the man as; but the militant Mandela, the one who spoke about economic and social reform for the monstrously oppressed black South Africans; the Mandela who knew that a vote without structural and political context was nothing but that: just a vote.
I spoke about Steve Biko, Patrice Lumumba and Malcolm the X man. People they had never heard of but were eager to hear their stories. My reaction could only be one: “fellas get some white cardboard strips and some markers.”
For the next three hours, almost up until game time, this group of mostly white Americans made some of the finest protest placards that one could imagine. ‘Down with apartheid’, ‘free Mandela’ and ‘Justice for Biko’ were just samples of the placards hurriedly made.
We thought we would hold them aloft as the teams lined up, the crowd would cheer and praise us, we’d be satisfied with our noble behaviour and we would have done our small part to abolish the oppressive scourge that is apartheid. Well none of that imagined scenario played to script.
First of all, we were joined by my co-captain, the poor English white boy who was very aware of the significant part that the UK government played in not only propping up the apartheid government but eliminating the voices of dissent from the African diaspora.
‘I’m with you guys’, he proclaimed and picked up a placard on his way out the door. Great, I thought, we are all in now.
As we lined up for the game, it was easy to spot the white South Africans on USF. They were physically imposing with white faces that were abnormally red from the hot Florida sun. I had a couple of the bench players bring out the placards so they’d go unnoticed by our coach Peter Mehlert, a Chinese-American man who was competent enough as a coach but wished he was British and had a despicable personality, especially towards the black players.
I remember it like it was yesterday. As the players distributed the placards to our starting team already at centre circle, my eyes were on our coach as he began walking towards us.
He quickly saw the signs and made a beeline towards me. Seething with anger, he said this can affect all those on scholarship. But he was looking only at my co-captain, Trehy, and myself. The message was clear. We were due for graduation next semester.
And it was then I realised, literally in the blink of an eye, that I was not of the mettle of Malcolm, Lumumba or Mandela. Everything became surreal. I saw the disappointment in my parents’ faces as I came back to Trinbago expelled. The glee on my enemies’ faces as my four years of hard work and footballing achievements expunged.
The feeling became worse as my co-captain dropped his placard where he stood and moved to the end of the line. All the players were looking at me from both sides, my dubious pretence at nobility in plain sight. I felt like I was floating, I kid you not, almost looking at myself to see my reaction.
To this day, I cannot tell you what I would have done if I didn’t hear a voice from the stands, as he moved from the viewing area closer to the field, shouting: “yes Nakhid, yes Nakhid!” I made him out immediately, it was Paul Peña, an ex-St Mary’s College boy I had not seen in years; and an older friend of mine.
He continued: “yes Nakhid, yes Nakhid, down with apartheid!”
It was morale manna from heaven for me, as I held up the placard and began shouting: “Free Mandela, Justice for Biko, Down with apartheid!”
My players took the cue and all except my co-captain held up their placards, the white South African oppressors began cursing at us, officials were scrambling everywhere; and our point was made. Our average team went on to play our best game of the season, beating a nationally ranked USF 6-3. I had a goal and three assists and as Morgan, who was dribbling the USF players to the point of embarrassment, would tell me later: “Nak, you looked liked if you were floating over the field.”
I don’t remember much of the game details to be honest but I remember that our coach never said a single word about that game or the preceding events. Nothing. Crickets!
Why my trip down memory lane? Firstly, I think at this point in my life I should, while I’m able to share some of experiences I’ve encountered during a truly blessed life full of failures and, yes, intermittent successes.
Secondly and more importantly, as our Trinidad and Tobago hurtles in overdrive to social and economic destruction, maybe some of our citizens might take heart from knowing that no-one is as brave or as noble as he seems or even proclaims. But nothing is insurmountable including our deepest fears.
The collective oppression inflicted on us—whether we claim to be so called Indo-Trinbagonians or so called Afro-Trinbagonians—by both major political parties, the PNM primarily and the UNC or PP version is now down to us as citizens to overthrow, and that revolution cannot be an armchair one. It must be feet on the ground, protesting, educating, engaging and exercising our right to civil disobedience at all levels.
If we as a people could read and learn about the corruption of both parties in facilitating the payments of rents to politically influential families—including the wife of our present AG, Mona Nahous Al-Rawi—to the tune of 440 million dollars a year and not have widespread protests to demand this government’s resignation and the complete sidelining of T&T’s corrupted political class, then I don’t know what else will move us.
Maybe the self-realisation that we are not who we imagine ourselves to be just might. Maybe it is when we let it sink in that money paid for empty buildings is frittered away at the expense of our disastrous healthcare system, failing education system, our manufacturing and agricultural industries, and our sporting facilities.
Do we honestly expect that a few burglaries targeting the affluent contract mafia in our country will change the way our politicians—corrupted and complicit with this contract mafia—conduct their modus operandi?
Just look at on the ongoing revolution in Lebanon for guidance. No chance in hell my brothers and sisters.
I will leave you with this and I know some of you with your pretences to democracy may disagree. When a country that has been corrupted to its core, along most—if not all!—of its institutional structures, then the practice of voting is no longer relevant as a tool for change.
Both parties laugh at us, as they make provision for the security of their children’s children’s children, as the son of one of our late corrupted PNM ministers (who attended American University with me) coolly told us.
The corrupted privileged class, politicians included, understand only three things: loss of wealth, loss of power or loss of life. If they had any sense of empathy, they would not have brought us to this sorry pass.
Now, we can choose to act like Morgan; or we can drop the placard and move to the end of the line. It’s really up to us!