EYES CLOSED, guitar in hand and only a stool for a prop, Machel Montano cried as he performed a slowed-down version of We Not Giving Up: “Keep moving/ Keep walking/ Don’t you ever look down/ When you’re on the right road don’t turn around/ The road is long and rugged/ Yeah…”
A room filled with hundreds of students, teachers and dignitaries sat riveted, obviously impacted by the rawness and truth of his performance as he told his own story of struggle, self-doubt and ultimate triumph. The occasion was the graduation ceremony of the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) where he and a few other nationals received honorary doctorates in recognition of contributions to their chosen fields.
It was hard not be moved by the emotion in the huge hall. The pomp, ceremony and flawless execution of the event helped the hours to go quickly. But hope was the dominant emotion as hundreds of students proudly walked to receive words of congratulations and their certificates from President Paula-Mae Weekes and UTT president, Prof Sarim Al-Zubaidy.
Honorary doctorates were also presented to Roy Augustus – Distinguished Fellow; Leo Martin – Doctor of Science; Alvin Corneal – Doctor of Humane Letters, and Eintou Pearl Springer, Doctor of Fine Arts.
As she delivered her feature remarks, Springer called again for our curricula to reflect our multi-cultural nation: “Who will remind our children that Africans, Indians, Hindus, Muslims got together to challenge the same colonial administration and many lost their lives in the Jahaaji massacre of 1884. Sadly, that history is absent from our education system; indeed, I understand that history is now optional in our schools… Who will dare to create a new curriculum in which we are present, who will make our panyards and our gayelles the centre of creating new communities...?”
Still, it was with a sense of accomplishment that students with qualifications at all levels presented themselves. From petroleum engineering to fashion, dance and food technology with specialisation in public health; from Indian classical music to agriculture, pan, entrepreneurship and innovation, I was struck by the range of academic endeavour and the possibilities for our country.
Valedictorian Kellee Rodriguez reminded us that part of the mission of UTT was to develop work-ready students. As we witnessed all the areas of study, the questions came. What strategic alliances are in place to link graduates with employers? Will these new graduates help us transform our toxic work environments and refocus on rebuilding our country?
We also need to ask: How can we sustain the euphoria from such an event? How can the words of wisdom translate into meaningful action in our institutions of learning and places of work?
A clue to achieving these goals would be discovered in the words of all the speakers. For each of them, their individual story was of humble beginnings and a personal determination to succeed.
Kellee remembered her struggles in Laventille, while Eintou shared that her “family was poor like the proverbial church mice, but rich in the cultural emanations of that most fertile and mystical of valleys, Santa Cruz. My mother’s skirt, a powerful, threadbare matrix of protection, held the life-giving potions of stories, wonderful traditional foods, her knowledge of herbs, her sense of family, community... We were rich, so rich.”
Thus, an important part of that story is having someone who recognises your potential and is willing to support your own quest for self-actualisation. For Eintou and Kellee, their mothers were vital. A blind guitarist mentored Machel, and when Machel had technical difficulties with his performance during a competition early in his career, someone gave him a chance. He went on to win that competition and continue on his path to musical stardom.
It is hard to imagine the king of soca feeling down, but his tears that night reminded us that no one is immune to being vulnerable. As we battle with increased cases of mental illness, depression, abuse and lack of sense of self, we need to share more stories of support and caring. Further, it is important to acknowledge that the crime and indiscipline in schools are a reflection of dysfunction in our families and our systems.
From Machel then this final reminder: “Cause in the night we pray/ And in the day we play/ And the angels guide our way/ So we not giving up no matter what nobody say/ We not giving up, no way/ So we not giving up no matter what nobody say…”
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN