Last Saturday, three men were shot dead in their neighbourhood at about 2.30pm. Six hours after, the newspapers went to press not knowing the identity of two of the men while the other one was more likely to be named as ‘Warlord’. They were nobodies.
On social media, some rejoiced and wildly accused them of criminal acts, including the shooting of a police officer. How could we not know their names? How could we callously kill them and not know their names?
Easy. They are Nobodies.
They have bodies to work but they have no value. They consume our goods, attend to us in the grocery stores and gas stations but to us they are faceless and nameless. A cipher. They have one dimension: criminals.
They are void of family life. Their parents are worthless people who have failed in raising their children. They are Nobodies.
Sadly, they are not the only Nobodies in our country. Nobodies are found everywhere and from every ethnicity. They are the poor lagoon dwellers eking out an existence and fearing heavy rainfall.
They are the peasant farmers who can no longer make a living by feeding us because of large scale theft of State lands. They become invisible since to acknowledge their presence is unsettling. They are bullied while we remain silent when state violence pushes them off the land which is then given to large business interests.
We retrench them but never speak their names. It does not matter—a circular letter would work. We could turn our backs on these Nobodies since we have done all we could for them, according to the law as we interpret that law.
They do not have money to contend with us in court. Might is right. Or so the story goes… for now.
In 1962, there was a dream called Common Entrance Examinations that every child, regardless of their family or social background, would have an opportunity to improve their lot in life. Educational opportunities expanded.
Rich and poor lived side by side without the poor having a sense of inferiority. All went to the same schools and churches. If your parents did not have an idea of where you could reach, the priest or teacher knew and mentored you to reach there.
If your mother worked for a wealthy family, you were often cared for as a child of that family. You were somebody. We were told that ‘our future was in our schoolbags’ and we had ‘boundless faith in our destiny’—even as we dared to believe that ‘here every creed and race find an equal place’.
But that dream was snatched away. Nobodies had no chance against those who could afford private lessons.
Then the schools became segregated as those who came into wealth paid for private schools for their children. Then they moved out of the neighbourhoods shared with Nobodies and two different worlds began to exist.
Where you live determined which school you went to, no matter how bright Nobody was. The jobs went away, and Nobody’s mother had to travel far to work long hours for little more than her transport costs.
If Nobody could not afford to leave the neighbourhood, then there was no job for anyone in the household unless you could get to use another address. Nobody, especially if he were a boy, realised that fighting to stay in school would not work out.
There would be no jobs for him since his address was wrong and his potential employer believe that he may be a thief. Why stay in school?
Now? Black holes of death and despair have emerged and get larger and deeper with each passing year. Not only in Laventille.
As the Selwyn Ryan Report proclaimed, the problem was everywhere. Despairing poverty knows no race nor political party. It is a myth that there are no poor East Indians.
Those Nobodies are also invisible to all, scorned by all. They also get into trouble with the law. But that uncomfortable vision we filter out.
We never talk about those Nobodies since it would spoil the patina of wealth the community wishes to portray. Those Nobodies are left behind in their painful silence.
Poverty is a family tradition, solidified in the family structures, and by religions that offer lots of emotion but no social support. Nobodies are mere pawns to be used every five years by those politicians who aspire to lead the nation.
We ignore the wisdom of Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton and Anne Case (2020), who tell us that men without jobs make lousy husbands and fathers since we wish to bash each other from a perch of perceived ethnic superiority.
Deaton and Case built on the pioneering work done by WJ Wilson (1996) who was ignored because he was black and supposedly only making an excuse for poor urban black people. But despite the work of Deaton and Case, Wilson and Robert Putnam, which showed how being poor affects the quality of life, we prefer to accuse each other of wanting things free.
We make no connection between the lives lived by the Nobodies and our crime situation. It is easier to say: ‘they wicked and worthless’.
Poverty breeds pessimism, negatively impacting masculinity and thereby destroying homes. Children and wives are abused even though the abuser’s drug of choice may differ.
In some communities, it is alcohol and in others, marijuana and cocaine. Nobodies live in hovels or in an HDC development and can scarcely do the schoolwork. Yet the well-intentioned pontificate about the chances that are available without recognising the handicaps which hold the Nobodies back.
Nobodies are not chauffeured in fancy cars to school. They have full-time jobs, ‘mothering and fathering’ their siblings—which rob them of the joys of childhood.
They cower when the ‘rum talks’. Their hopelessness leads to a lack of imagination and robs them of the will to take on life. The teacher, no longer the mentor, is as hopeless as they are, and the church is silent in observing their pain. The dice is loaded against them.
Ralph Ellison (1952) captured the pain that of these nobodies and the societal cost: “I am invisible because people refuse to see me…it is when you feel like this… you begin to bump people back… you strike out with your fists, you curse and swear to make them recognise you…”
Since then, times have changed. Basil Davis was a Nobody whose name we learnt in fear.
Once classified as ‘essential’ workers, Nobodies are now the ‘dispensable’ workers.
As the Black Lives Matter movement insists, ‘Say my name!’ I am a person.
Will we do so willingly, or will we be forced to do so?