Home / View Point / Guest Columns / A ‘first gen’ story: ‘We sold fruits and veggies at the Arima market, so my sis and I could go to school’

A ‘first gen’ story: ‘We sold fruits and veggies at the Arima market, so my sis and I could go to school’

My mother got an A in picking cotton and a B in digging yam instead of the Common Entrance Exam. Her grandmother (and primary caregiver) must have thought that that was the better use of her time. 

Can’t blame her though; she herself couldn’t write and had a thumbprint on her ID card instead of a signature. 

A few years after, at age 15, Mom was pregnant with her first child. She was handed over to a man in the area who ‘see she and like she’. Kind of like how people these days go in the store and come home with a piece of cake. 

Photo: Columnist Avah Atherton (top) hugs her mother.
(via Avah Atherton)

She was pregnant again each year after for the next five years. According to Mom, she didn’t know what sex was until it happened to her. She didn’t know what birth control was until she hit her twenties and she had to sneak and hide to get it. 

Me? I didn’t show up until she left her raper-man/common-law husband with all the children in search of better. But better didn’t come. More children did. I’m the eighth of her nine children.

My dad? I don’t know anything about his education level except that he did secondary school. I think. He’s a retired police officer but his stepfather was the commissioner of police at that time. He might have been qualified but chances are, it was nepotism. 

He was absent for most of my life. One time he showed up, burned our house down and left again. That was the year before I did the SEA. Mom didn’t even try to report him for arson. “Police doh do police nothing,” he said to us once.

My dad came from a middle-class family and so he projected his middle-class expectations onto me. I was supposed to be a doctor, he said. Not the artist I wanted to be. 

Photo: Avah Atherton (far right) during her school days at SAGHS.
(via Avah Atherton)

If you asked him where the money for me to go to university to become a doctor, he would probably say how ‘God go provide’. It was unrealistic (and outright bold of us) to expect him to provide from his salary—not when he denied that my sister and I were his in the first place.

Mom and I sold fruits and veggies at the side of the road by Arima Market for years so that my sister and I could go to school. I passed for SAGHS, one of the most prestigious schools in the country, and was one of maybe five children in my year using the school feeding programme meant for the impoverished. 

I took extras home just in case we had nothing to eat that night. Or even the morning after. The books I used each term had to be kept immaculate so we could sell them at the end of the semester to buy more books for the new school term.

Sometimes I sneakily photocopied entire books in the library so that I could keep up with the work. I wore two school uniforms for the entire five years that I spent at SAGHS. Mom said that I was always motivated. No, I was just anxiously searching. For the better she never found.

Photo: Avah Atherton’s mother sells confectionary in Arima.
(via Avah Atherton)

I worked throughout my undergrad years, even taking a year off to save enough money to go back and finish up. I applied for a UWI scholarship for financial need. Didn’t get it. My financial need grew and my GPA dropped. But no one told me why that was important, so I didn’t take it on.

I struggled to buy books, food and to afford transport to classes in the midst of the ‘free education’ rhetoric. Finished with a BA in Linguistics with lower second-class honours.

Came back five years later to finally do something in art. This time, I had developed a passion for entrepreneurship, so I decided to go with the Postgrad Diploma in Arts and Cultural Enterprise Management. 

I couldn’t afford the MA in Creative Entrepreneurship whose course description sang to my soul. Is a good thing too because the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses Programme (GATE) showed up halfway through the diploma to say that the Government didn’t cover my final year of the BA. Suddenly I was owing them money and couldn’t finish registering for the new semester without paying them off. 

I scraped together some funds and paid it using the student payment plan. ‘Badmind’ has been my motivator for most of my life.

Photo: Avah Atherton has an AAS in Journalism and Public Relations from COSTAATT as well as a BA in Linguistics and a PgDp in Arts & Cultural Enterprise Management from the University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus.
(via Avah Atherton)

I got all ‘dolls-ed up’ for the graduation photo and everyone at home wanted to know what the special occasion was. I was graduating I said. ‘Oh okay’ was the response. 

I sat alone in front of my laptop and watched the virtual ceremony, waiting for my name to call and feeling proud of the classmates I had never met after a year of classes together. I graduated with a distinction they said. ‘Oh okay’ was my response.

About Avah Atherton

Avah Atherton
Avah Atherton is an aspiring cultural archivist with a focus on oral histories, folklore, and festival traditions. Her work has been published locally in the Trinidad Express, UWI Today, and Wired868, as well as internationally in the Shizuoka Chronicle, AJET blog, Connect magazine, and Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She has an AAS in Journalism and Public Relations from COSTAATT as well as a BA in Linguistics and a PgDp in Arts & Cultural Enterprise Management from the University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus.

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  1. Whoop whoop! You are an inspiration Avah! Your mum is extremely proud of you. Keep striving, keep pushing!

  2. This is so very inspiring! One can easily call her story “Against tbe odds!” She is going to be very successful in life. God bless her!

  3. Well done Ava “you did it! So proud of you, in spite of all your hardships you fought a good battle to reach where you are today, , you made your dreams come true, your mum and relatives must be so proud of you.Congratulations on your well-deserved success. What an impressive achievement. God bless you and your family,
    Regards Victoria

  4. Earl Best

    The power of the unspoken. Less, as every user of social media ought by now to have realised, is often more. And more powerful.

    Great writing. great story.

  5. Avah resilient nature is very motivating. She will be an excellent writer also and should document her life journey.

  6. Awesome piece l left Tdad more than 50 years ago
    You are to Tdad in oral history what David Moore is in Art
    Keep up the good work
    Hope to meet you some day
    Similar experience @ St George’s College in the 60’s