Solving crime through culture

Sharon Rowley works on the wings of a Dancing Flames costume at the Zebapique Productions Ltd children's band mas camp in Petit Valley on December 3.  - JEFF K MAYERS
Sharon Rowley works on the wings of a Dancing Flames costume at the Zebapique Productions Ltd children's band mas camp in Petit Valley on December 3. - JEFF K MAYERS

Solving Crime Through Culture programme, founded by the children’s mas band Zebapique Productions, has positively affected the lives of many in East Port of Spain, according to its stakeholders.

The programme is under the patronage of Sharon Rowley, wife of Prime Minister Dr Rowley, Justice of Appeal Malcolm Holdip, and sponsored by Republic Bank Ltd and the Ministry of National Security and several other companies.

Insp Terrence Burris, head of the Inter-Agency Task Force’s (IATF) Hearts and Minds Unit said the programme was a welcomed addition to the unit’s many activities as it introduces the youth to TT’s Carnival culture, and channels their energy and focuses them away from gangs and violence.

And he believes the band and the unit have had a marked effect in the communities they serve, producing tangible results.

US ambassador Candace Bond gets her hands dirty as she and Republic Bank's general manager, group marketing and communications Karen Tom Yew assist with the wings of the Dragon Hunters costume at the Zebapique's Productions bands mas camp in Petit Valley on January 14. - JEFF K MAYERS

“Over the years, we have no record that any of the young people who have moved on from the Zebapique programme, ended up in a life of crime. That is encouragement for us to continue, to go deeper and to seek other stakeholders to get on board.”

In addition, he said there has been a reduction in murders from 176 in 2006, when Hearts and Minds became an official unit, to 36 in 2021, as well as a reduction in shootings and woundings in the 53 areas of operation.

What started as a way for two brothers to give back to their country, has expanded from affecting around 30 children and their families to over 400 children.

Andrew Alleng, bandleader of Zebapique Productions, explained he and his brother Antony Alleng, a former Carnival King, started the band in 2004.

“You know anything you’re suffering with the first thing they tell you to take is zebapique (a plant which has a bitter taste when boiled) to cure it. So for Carnival, we see it as a cure for a lot of the ailments that is taking place in the country.”

Solving Crime Through Culture targets high-risk areas in East Port of Spain and its environs, children and parents go to the band’s mas camp in Petit Valley every Saturday for three months to help make the costumes. These children get to meet new people, make friends, learn about the country’s culture and play mas, free of charge.

Band leader Andrew Alleng shows Sharon Rowley, wife of prime minister Dr Keith Rowley, costume pieces at the Zebapique Productions Ltd children's band mas camp in Petit Valley on December 3. - JEFF K MAYERS

“This year we are taking children from 18 areas and mixing them up so that, by the end of Carnival, they would know people from 18 different areas, removing the borders established in their communities. In Zebapique Productions, there are no borders. Everybody plays mas together.

“Even the adults benefit as, before the days of the parade, there is involvement by the adults of these areas who would not have seen each other or can not go to different areas, and create the costumes.

“I believe sports and culture are the two main things that could solve crime in this country. Not more police guns or cars, but getting the youth active in positive things.”

Alleng told Sunday Newsday it all started in 2005 when the mas camp was visited by the Laventille Girls’ RC School. The children loved the mas and the founders donated 30 costumes to the school. The next year, the brothers expanded to three schools.

In 2007, then Major Al Alexander from the Regiment contacted the Allengs to suggest they become partners since both organisations were doing work in Laventille. So the project became official and, eventually, the relationship evolved into one with the Hearts and Minds Unit of the IATF.

Since then, Alleng has seen a change in the relationship between law enforcement and the communities.

“You have to remember that, in these communities, the only time they hear about the police is when they coming to take somebody, or someone committed a crime. Now, the Hearts and Minds Unit has been able to create a relationship, making it easier for them when they are dealing with issues in the community, without confrontation, because they are now working with the communities. This is what should be done throughout TT.”

IATF Hearts and Minds programme Inspector Terrence Burris at the Zebapique Productions Ltd mas camp in Petit Valley on December 3. - JEFF K MAYERS

Alleng said it is easy to sit back, criticise and talk about the crime situation in an area, but those same people refuse to go into those areas to identify the problems and see how they could help. He believed that refusal is one of the problems with many of the decisions made with regard to fighting crime.

“People need to go on the ground and work with the authorities, with programmes, to get to change. That was my motivation. I asked myself what I could do for a better TT. I love the culture, and when I see people of different areas come together, that is all the motivation I need.”

For Carnival 2023, Zebapique Productions is in the large band category with the presentation DAN-CE. There are over 500 participants in the band, with 400 costumes being donated to children from 18 areas in Port of Spain including Sea Lots, Beetham, Nelson Street, John John, Gonzales, and Dan Kelly Street, Laventille.

He said more children and their parents would like to get involved, but the band is limited by sponsorship and the areas in which the IATF wants to concentrate.

He thanked the band’s main sponsors, Republic Bank and the Ministry of National Security. He also expressed his gratitude to another sponsor, Magic Mist Services Ltd, which has employed several parents from the project.

Karen Tom Yew, general manager, group marketing and communications at Republic Bank said the bank has been working with Zebapique since February 2017 to help restore peace and stability among the young children of the communities they serve.

“Since then the bank has provided sponsorship for the band as it seeks to provide opportunities for youth in at-risk communities to experience the joys of Carnival through playing mas.

“The alliance with Zebapique aligns with our Power to Learn pillar under our Power to Make A Difference programme, as Zebapique has afforded both parents and children the opportunity to learn the art of mas making by creating their own costumes. This provides a wonderful opportunity for not only a hands-on experience but also allows for the understanding of the history of costume making.”

In addition to long-standing relationships with organisations, Zebapique enjoys the patronage of Justice Malcolm Holdip and the wife of the Prime Minister, Sharon Rowley.

Alleng said Holdip has had a relationship with Zebapique for 20 years, with his son being a former king of the band. Holdip told Alleng he got involved because he would rather see some type of intervention while the children were young, rather than see them before the courts.

Rowley was invited to partner with the band in 2016. Alleng said every year she visits the camp and joins the parents and children making mas, talking to, encouraging and inspiring them.

“One of the things about the East Port of Spain area and the band is that there are a lot of single mothers. We wanted a role model for these young single mothers so we approached Mrs Rowley to be the patron. Her involvement is helping to create the change needed to make them great citizens.”

Rowley told Sunday Newsday she got involved because, as the adults of tomorrow, children need to be properly nurtured – academically, socially, spiritually – for the nation to thrive.

“Where there are gaps in that nurturing, for whatever reason, it is necessary for those who can help to step in and assist. I viewed the collaboration between Zebapique and the IATF through the Hearts and Minds Project as one beneficial to the ‘at risk children’ in the Laventille area, which is deemed a hot-spot area, and if I am able to contribute in any way then it was a project I wished to be involved in. Dr Eric Williams (TT’s first prime minister) said that the future of our children lies in the book bags of our children. Well, the future of our culture lies in their hands as well.”

About her role as patron, she said she has spoken about her values with regard to the family, education, work and spirituality over the years. She believes it is the parents’ responsibility to mould and guide children.

“We have to trust, respect and discipline our children but at the same time, we must give them our unconditional love. If our young mothers are able to emulate those values, then I feel that I have contributed in a small way to improving our society.”

She believes the Solving Crime Through Culture programme is essential to improving the lives of at-risk youth and reducing the prevalence of juvenile delinquency. It also has positive social benefits, as the children improve their social and interpersonal skills and are integrated with children from different communities.

“I can only hope (the integration) will contribute to reducing the number of warring factions in the future, the children are able to dedicate some of their time to understanding our culture and they are able to participate in costume construction which may be in danger of becoming a dying art form. And we can only hope that with this intervention their values, attitudes and perceptions of themselves are improved.”

She commended the commitment and dedication of the officers of the Hearts and Minds Programme and the Zebapique team to the development of mas, TT’s culture and the children of East Port of Spain.

She also hoped the project could be extended to other communities throughout TT and that other bandleaders follow the initiative.

“While no society is free from crime, it is an ever-present condition as with sickness, disease or death, we can make every effort to try to reduce the level of crime through similar interventions.”

Getting real results in crime hot spots

The IATF became involved in Solving Crime Through Culture in 2009.

Burris explained that the IATF was formed in 2003 comprising members of the Defence Force and police. It was charged with the responsibility of curbing murders and woundings in East Port of Spain and its environs, and anywhere with a “vast increase” in crime.

“As far back as 2005, officers on the ground realised the young people they were interacting with over the years, eventually were recruited into gangs. Living a life of crime became a way of life.

“The traditional police patrols and beats were not bringing the results they should have created so there was a need for other interventions. We started this social intervention which we now call Hearts and Minds, to pull young people away from a life of crime, to create other options, another alternative.”

Officers would use their funds to host functions and events for children. It grew until finances and manpower were assigned to the activities, stakeholders bought into it, and, in 2006 it became a section of the branch under the name Hearts and Minds.

Now, the official unit serves 53 communities, consistently interacting with them, creating sporting and cultural initiatives such as competitions, functions and field trips, and partnering with various ministries to bring services to the people in an attempt to improve their lives. The officers also visit homes and schools daily and support the activities of those in the communities.

“We have the young people constantly engaged, minimising the opportunities for criminal gang leaders to recruit them.”

For the Solving Crime Through Culture programme, the officers usually target 20 children, ages five to 15, from 15 communities each. This year, they are working with 25 children from 18 communities, including 40 children from three police youth clubs.

The children will be participating in the Red Cross Children’s Carnival, St James Annual Kiddies Carnival Parade, Downtown Carnival Junior Parade of the Bands, and at Piccadilly Greens.

Woman Corporal Vanessa Marcano-Phillip of the Hearts and Minds Unit explained that the unit has community ambassadors in each community who would source the interested families. The IATF members escort Alleng and his team to the children’s homes to be measured for their costumes, escort the participants from their homes to the mas camp and competitions, help the children put on their costumes, provide security and transport, and help co-ordinate.

She too has seen vast improvements in the communities, this time in the attitudes of the parents and children.

“What we’ve noticed is that parents come and support their children from preparation to competition time. They are even on the road with us while we are providing security and comfort.

“Before we had parents who weren’t really involved, who weren’t part of their children’s activities and lives. We are seeing that change.

“We are also seeing a change in the children’s behaviour. They weren’t exposed to those kinds of things before...they were only allowed to see mas on the tv. Now they can get out there and put on a costume that they helped make.

“It’s a joy for them to see a costume they put together on the road and they are in it. They could be proud of what they accomplished.”

She said the children live very sheltered lives at home because, most times, they have to stay inside and cannot go to other areas. So in the mas camp and on the road, they are joyful, they socialise, make friends across community borders, and get the chance to perceive life differently. Even the children who are trouble-makers in school become well-behaved and there has never been a negative incident related to the programme.

She said parents have been calling to get their children into the programme, but the numbers are limited by sponsorship. Burris added that the unit would like to keep expanding the programme, and called on other companies and organisations to get involved.

“If we could get the murder toll moved from 176, our objective is to get it to zero. And we recognise this is the big ticket item to do that, by changing the minds of young people, giving them new opportunities, letting them see things differently.”

He said the programme also bridges the gap between the “we” and “them” between the communities and the police since the IATF officers are the ones aiding them in so many aspects of their lives.


"Solving crime through culture"

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