AS TOLD TO BC PIRES
My name is Nakita Poon Kong and I am an environmental manager.
I’m from Diego Martin. Real (ie, plenty) people from Diego!
We were right off the Diego Martin Main Road. Past (the late calypsonian Lord Kitchener’s home and performance venue) Rainorama, top of a hill, overlooking the valley.
When people outside of Trinidad see my last name and then see my picture, they get very confused.
I have a Chinese background on my father, Raul Poon Kong’s side. My mum is Donna. They’re still in Diego Martin. I have one younger sibling, Kimberly, in Toronto, about to move back to the Caribbean.
I did my undergrad degree in a very small university town outside the Twin Cities in North Minnesota.
I put them in a tizzic. Hearing my accent, seeing my name, then looking at me, at my hair. And (to make it even more confusing for them), I actually went with another Trinidadian, now a great friend, Ashley Thompson-Stuart, who is a blonde!
My dad’s father came off a boat from southwest China when he was six.
Our surname was an Immigration mishap. My grandfather’s first name was Kong. And he was from the Kon Village in Canton.
Kong, Pon, mix it up, add in an “o” and give him an English first name in Philip.
Coming from Trinidad, you’re just intertwined into multiculturalism, it’s just normal. Outside Trinidad, you look back and think, “No, it’s the Trinidad thing that is not normal!”
It doesn’t happen like that around the world. This Trinidad is such a beautiful mess of culture, heritage, everything.
All my standout memories of childhood are of being outside. Long car trips to see leatherback turtles at Piero Guerrini’s hotel in Grande Riviere. I remember having dinner at Mt Plaisir, the lights very dim, for the turtles, and a leatherback came and knocked into our table. I tie that back into what I do today.
I went to Maria Regina Prep and then “Convent.” You can hear the “Corn-vent” accent. I grew up Catholic but I’m not a believer. I wouldn’t say I was atheist, agnostic or “spiritual”. I’m just here, right now, appreciating.
In my third year of university, in two study-abroad programmes, I lived in southwest China for four months.
And then Port Elizabeth, South Africa, for six months.
China was an eye-opener into my family.
I ate my grandmother’s “bess” Chinese food with chopsticks. In China, seeing the same furniture as in my grandparents’ house, eating with chopsticks, I connected all of that to my dad and family.
In post-apartheid South Africa, I would be classified “coloured” and I was dating a white American-Irish guy. So we were a very strange couple for the time in South Africa.
I did a two-year masters in environmental management in Australia before moving back home, to try to understand Trinidad’s environmental context.
I took the time to understand the sector in Trinidad, whether it was NGOs, private sector, whoever doing what. I worked with PlastiKeep, the Green Fund, UNDP Small Grants Programme, and then I did consulting.
A friend sent me a job description for my job in Mustique and, because of all my varied experiences in Trinidad, I basically ticked all of their boxes. A little bit of this experience, a little bit of that. I swear, it seemed like that job description was written for me to apply.
I was hired as the first environmental manager for the Mustique Company.
Day to day, my job is never the same.
I oversee both the green and the brown environmental initiatives on the island.
The green side is typical conservation projects, sea turtles, land conservation, keeping your trees, your mangroves, alive.
The brown side is the operational side, things like waste, water, energy.
I work with guests, in terms of experiences, educational outreach. And I work with the company itself, the strategic plan.
So my job is very much all-encompassing. I could be working on a presentation to the board or the environment committee or I could be under water for a week, planting coral we’ve grown to restore a reef.
In my department, the total number of people is one. Me.
There are four pillars in the running of Mustique: security; services; community; and the environment.
About ten per cent of our villas are green.
We have a long way to go to being 100 per cent green, but what is nice is that the environment is actually written into the programme.
We look at the big picture and connect the dots. We know that what we do on the land affects the sea. We can actually make sure we’re taking care of everything, not just one piece of the puzzle.
We’re still in the Caribbean, so things like banning plastic bags, which I did in my first year, weren’t initially well-received.
We’d get accosted in the grocery. The old head of security called me “the Bag Woman”! People would tell me, “I have a right to get free plastic bags in the grocery!”
Rather than start with “saving the turtles,” I explain to people that environmental management is first and foremost about people.
I try to show people how safeguarding the environment is actually about their own health and well-being. If you take care of it, the island will take care of you.
I brought Gypsy, the dog I picked up on the road in Trinidad, with me. So this Trinidadian pothound is running around free on Mustique beaches.
I haven’t had a Trini Christmas for four years because I have to be on Mustique from Christmas to New Year’s.
But my parents and sister usually come up. Old Year’s Night in Mustique is a great party.
The best thing about being an environmental manager on Mustique is that, on a Monday morning, when everyone has put on their work clothes and gone to the office, I could be underwater, looking up to the sky. Swimming with a couple o’ sea turtles, a spotted eagle ray, maybe some Caribbean reef squid.
I’ll come up to the surface and say, “Wow! I’m at work!”
The bad thing is working with very wealthy people can sometimes be challenging.
When you’re that rich, you’re accustomed to getting your own way.
And if you don’t care about the environment, it doesn’t hold your interest. The challenge is finding that balance.
I don’t like doubles and I don’t like pepper so, for me, a Trini is not doubles or pepper. That’s, like, two strikes against me one time.
For me, a Trini is a melting pot. That is what I am and that’s what I miss most when I’m not there.
Trinidad and Tobago means everything to me. It is who I am. It is where I’m from. Without Trinidad and Tobago, I would not be who I am. So, I suppose, to me, Trinidad and Tobago really means…me!
Read the full version of this feature on Saturday at www.BCPires.com