BENI TONKA is a writer and creative director of events and film who lives in Cologne, Germany, but half of his roots are in Moruga.
He has written for German-based magazines, collaborated with filmmakers on independent films and worked on advertisements for brands such as Lamy of Germany, whichis nearly a century-old company known for its pens.
Though he spent most of his life unaware of his TT roots, the moment he discovered them, he researched until he could embark on an adventure of more discovery. He wanted to learn more about his bloodline and saw no better way than to visit the country.
Tonka’s introduction to TT’s landscape, people and culture inspired Good Lime. It’s a book of stories and recipes that embodies everything TT represents to him – much of which may go unnoticed by people living in TT because of its familiarity.
Tonka said, “Caribbean people know the meaning of ‘good lime.’ When you’re in one, you know it. When you’re in a good lime, you’re not thinking about life in any way outside of that gathering. The expression and essence of those moments, appreciating the moments during a lime that are full of connectedness, stories and laughter – it’s something that runs throughout the Caribbean.”
Tonka said food is a major part of limes, which influenced the concept of the book – sharing stories and food. The recipes are based on how he saw them made by family members like his father, his aunts Cynthia, Eileen and other people from Moruga.
The stories and the interwoven recipes from TT cuisine begin on Carnival Monday in 2013, when he first set foot in the homeland of his biological father, whom at that point, he hadn’t met in person.
He told Newsday his parents met while his father was stationed in Germany as a US soldier. “They met at a nightclub near Frankfurt. He told me he was impressed by (Tonka’s mother’s) wit and they connected because they had similar interests. I can’t speak to the nature of the relationship, but they were close for about a year.” The stories go back to when his mother first told him the man he now knows to be his stepfather was not his biological father.
“That thrust me into a search.”
Tonka’s father, Kirk Louison, is a retired activist and writer from Moruga, who Tonka says has a passion for life and music.
“I eventually found a number for my paternal grandmother, who was living in New York, and she made all the connections.”
Until then, his grandmother had no knowledge of her only grandchild’s existence.
Tonka made plans and visited TT six months later, landing during Carnival.
“I landed in Tobago. It was my first time in the region – ever – and it was a great introduction. I entered to see revellers and blue devils, music louder than I’ve heard in my life – and I’ve been to festivals. In the middle of all that I see my father, whom I had never met before, and it was like an instant recognition between us.
“We then flew to Trinidad and headed to Moruga. I fell asleep and woke up in Moruga to witness another parade.”
Throughout the book he shares stories about meeting his extended family and his paternal grandfather, whom he and his father met together, both of them for the first time.
“This is the coconut bake story, when we drove out to Point Fortin to meet an old man, whom my father had never met before. He was 51 at the time, and I was 27. I met my father a few months before, and here he was, meeting his father for the first time. That experience makes sense now, when thinking about how the relationship grew.”
Since his first visit, he has visited TT about 12 times, for six months at a time.
“So you could say I spent four of the last ten years in TT – exploring all of it, spending time with family in Moruga, Charlotteville, Cunupia, Tunapuna, Sangre Grande, Diego Martin.”
He still has questions to be answered such as why his father didn’t know his grandfather.
“It was after meeting my father that he got nudges from my aunts and grandmother to find his father.
“It wasn’t his responsibility, but when we met it became a bit of his responsibility, because I wanted to meet my grandfather. Sometimes that’s how responsibilities shift.”
Tonka describes the book as the outcome of a process of reconnecting spiritually, and connecting physically to his family and the Caribbean – parts of himself he once didn’t know existed.
“Finishing the book, and getting it to a point where it’s going to be shared with so many, in English and German, is amazing. And now that this book is out, I can look forward to finish(ing) up some projects in film and writing that are in the pipeline.
“I hope this will help open doors for what is yet to come from my and my counterparts here and in the Caribbean.”
Tonka said he thought it important to launch the book in Germany and in German because Caribbean culture, particularly TT culture, is not widely reflected there. He wanted to ensure the culture, with which he connects deeply, is introduced to a new space in a novel way.
So while he’s excited to share the book with the English-speaking global population, he hopes publishing it in German will allow it to stand out more than it would among the vast body of Caribbean literature written in English.
His last two-month visit to TT ended in March 2020 and he looks forward to visiting next year during Carnival season.
Tonka is also part of a team co-ordinating an arts festival in Cologne, Germany, focusing on art from TT, encompassing work from the visual arts, reading TT-related literature, film, music and dance. It is slated for September 3-24.
“We want to showcase artists from TT. The series of events will showcase the work of filmmakers Shari Petti and Maya Cozier, photography by Kevin Adonis Browne and an event telling the story of TT music.”
This chapter of personal discovery and rediscovery isn’t closed, Tonka said. He’s discovered his lineage is also connected to Carriacou, Grenada.
“I’ve never been there – but it’ll happen.”