Tobago has unfortunately placed itself in the international spotlight. The full-page headlines in many German and European newspapers over the past week that read, “HACKED TO DEATH,” is damaging to the island; there are no “ifs ands or buts” about it. In fact, it is not the first time that foreigners have been the victims of brutal attacks and the internet is filled with information about the troubles that take place in tiny Tobago. On their search for expectations of paradise and island living, they unfortunately met their deaths like the Keil’s or the Green’s, a UK couple currently suing the government who was assaulted a few years ago. We strongly condemn these acts of violence.
When critical events of this nature happens on a small island it requires taking stock of where we are as a people, a society and ultimately a country. These are not random acts of violence and while we don’t know the individual motives of various crimes because most times we cannot find the perpetrators; there comes a point when the society itself is the perpetrator and should bear some responsibility for these acts violence. Clearly this collective responsibility is not distributed equally because at the end of the day, power is not distributed equally but as Tobagonians we must bear a cost, whether now or in the future. In getting to the root causes of why there should be collective responsibility, the society becomes the perpetrator because of the perception and or reality of how foreigners are treated and this includes Trinidadians and even native Tobagonians who left and returned to the island.
Before we get into the heart of this commentary, I should make you aware of any bias. I am Tobagonian by birth, American by nationality and I myself have received the “you not from here,” from some Tobagonians I have encountered during my times in Tobago. I cannot say that I have been blatantly discriminated against, perhaps denied some opportunities based on my youthful appearance but the qualifications that accompany me which I don’t boast of is enough to be threat just by the fact I might think or ask a question or two.
Nevertheless, this is not about me but I have heard countless stories of Tobagonians who have lived abroad for many years and faced discrimination upon return. In fact, I know of one nurse, who returned to England because what she experienced at the hospital. The simple fact was her capacity, training and professionalism placed in a system where she went against the grain. These stories are based on the experiences of individuals with direct connection to Tobago about that sense of “you not from here,” so I can only imagine what those without connection to Tobago may experience from some.
While I do not believe the majority of Tobagonians are suspicious of those they deem “outsiders” there is enough rhetoric in the society to suggest it is a problem. I think it is normal for anyone from anywhere to ask themselves in their heads about the “presence of others” whether in their village, community, island, or country. The majority of citizens would not plot or conspire to rob or murder others, much less talk out “wha dem ah do ya” or share hostile remarks that suggest “others” are not welcomed. However, people hear remarks like these at times, and when they do hear them it suggests to them something about the society and the fact that they might be unwelcomed by some. The majority of Tobagonians continue to be hospitable people, but hospitable people can also stay silent at things they should speak up for and this is the silent suffering in Tobago. It is such a loud silence that we talk about it, we acknowledge it happens, but we never confront it and though as individuals we might be against it, we collective condone it because we do not collectively confront it.
Xenophobia has many synonyms, some of which includes (racism, nationalism, prejudice, racial intolerance and dislike for foreigners). I am deliberately changing the rest this commentary to a Q&A format because in an effort to fully conceptualize why this is a serious problem that must be dealt with effectively and immediately the reader should do some inquiry (ask questions)
Q: Is Tobago a racist society?
A: Racism exists in all societies. It is very difficult for a society to call itself racist, but understanding racism requires an understanding of power structures. Not liking a person because of the color of their skin is prejudice, but it becomes racist when you are in a position to deny that person an opportunity of some sort. While Tobago is not a blatantly racist society like the apartheid state that existed in South Africa in the past or the United States that practiced legalized segregation, there are elements of racism that exists in Tobago like anywhere else. It should be noted that Tobago is 95% black. While race might not be a divisive problem within Tobago; it is a society based on class stratification (income inequality).
Q: What is nationalism and how does it relate the Tobago?
A: Nationalism is an ideology about nationhood. There are many forms of nationalism. For example, patriotism includes displays of national colors, the flag, the feeling of pride one has for their country, and the duty one owes to country, like service in the military. This is an accepted form of nationalism that people from all countries typically have. This is what you see normally displayed during soccer matches during the World Cup or independence parades. Nationalism in an extreme form gave rise to World War I, where these feelings erupted all over Europe and ultimately led to two world wars and the shaping of the modern world was we know it. It is dangerous and deadly in its extreme form, especially when others factors are at work, such as militarism. Interestedly, synonyms of nationalism includes (independence, autonomy, self-rule and self-government). These concepts are important to Tobagonians and the turn on the inflamed political passions of people.
Q: What is an example of “inflamed political passion” in the Tobago case?
A: Tobago has an interesting political culture and elections typically arouse these inflamed political passions. On a larger scope, politics in Trinidad and Tobago is masked in utterances of something locally known as “picong”. When this is aligned with the political history which has a racial undertone given the historic voter bases of the main parties, some individuals cross the line and acts of racism are perpetuated, sometimes masked in utterances of ‘picong”. A major example of this was the “Calcutta Ship” statement made by Hilton Sandy during the 2013 THA election. Despite the apology that was issued, this one statement has probably done more damage affecting the progress of what could have been accomplished between the THA and Central Government, despite the election results. There was a communication breakdown between both entities and this hindered some progress.
Q: Why was the ‘Calcutta Ship’ an example of racial intolerance? What is the real problem?
A: The Calcutta Ship statement whether it was deliberate or not, whether part of a campaign strategy or whether it just popped into the head of the individual who made the statement on a political platform, it played on the fears of many. Tobagonians understand the concept of land and wealth, but unfortunately more than 85% of Tobagonians do not have deeds and titles to their lands, despite occupying these “family lands” for many years. Almost every culture experience the conflict over land that takes places in families, tribes and nations over land and Tobago is no different. The Calcutta Ship was the easiest way to galvanize support of an “us vs them” (the government – the Calcutta people) strategy to win the election, creating an “enemy” who will “take your land”. Perhaps it was convenient, but we can only hope inflammatory statements of this nature cease to be a part of political discourse.
Q: How does all this relate to the Kiel’s, the Greens and “a dislike for foreigners”?
A: Xenophobia’s is the dislike for foreigners and this happens everywhere. Tobago is not an isolated case neither is it the exception but the Keil’s were killed in Tobago and the Green’s were assaulted in Tobago, not elsewhere. We are a tourist destination, domestically and internationally and while we cannot stop bad things from happening there is no need to suffer in collective silence; there is a need to speak up. Hopefully in speaking up justice will prevail for the Keil’s, the Green’s and all those whose lives were tragically cut short by criminals occupying the Tobago space. Additionally, in speaking up we should speak loud enough so that the world can hear us. This will require speech, language and discourse that shows we are ready to do business with the rest of the world. Disliking foreigners and public usage of racist language even if masked in utterances of picong are things that do not belong in a society that seeks to develop itself.