Neisha Wattley is a market vendor, who sells foods and vegetables with her husband, Chris Rambhal. Before Christmas this year, she lived in a windowless shack near a riverbank that neither had running pipe water nor electricity. In 2014, Wattley was in the eye of the media, on a matter of the home but something entirely different to her situation two years later, something more tragic. Neisha Wattley ran for almost half of a mile to the nearest police station with a dying baby in her arms. Her six month old died of positional asphyxia, choking as she breastfed her new born in bed. The ambulance arrived thirty minutes after she reached the police station. This is also part of life in Trinidad and Tobago, a real challenge of parenting children and the distance between our citizens and social services – even when you physically get up and run toward them. The then Minister in the Ministry of People and Social Development, Vernella Alleyne-Toppin promised government assistance with the provision of land or housing accommodation. This puts into context why proximity is a priority for Neisha Wattley and her children.
Fast-forward. On Christmas Eve 2016, the Wattley-Rambhal family was the recipient of an HDC house. The ceremony included the key allocation with the presence of Minister Randall Mitchell and staff of the state corporation. The media recorded a visibly excited Neisha Wattley, in the company of her children dancing and singing on receipt of her new key to home ownership. Within two days, the media returned and featured a “twist” to Wattley’s story. Wattley expressed that she was not comfortable with her new living arrangement and that she was prepared to return to her “shack” if that meant that she could better access more affordable transportation for her children’s attendance at their respective schools. It is very easy to say that Wattley was “ungrateful” and somehow “undeserving” in all this if a command of Standard English, respectability and silence (no complaints) by the poor are the qualification criteria for a home. There is something much deeper as to why so many people are upset. Neisha Wattley was the perfect welfare and ‘political beggar’ for us to justify our stereotypes of the poor and working class who, especially in this recession, deserve to suffer more.
What I have learnt from the social media chit chat is that it is grossly disrespectful and unacceptable when someone in poverty expresses the following:
#1: “I am begging for a home for my kids, a good home.”
#2: “The hardest thing for me now is preparing for school for my kids. I have no one, no vehicle. [I am] not saying that I want the government to give me a vehicle. No, I don’t want that. I need a location where I will be capable to move about with my kids in Chaguanas where their school [is] located.”
#3: “Vanity on the earth don’t bother me. It don’t hurt me. Money don’t worry me. Having a big house is just it, when I die, this staying right here.”
#4: “Back to scratch. The government never make me and they will not break me…so I am not asking the government to prepare anything for me.”
God forbid anyone who is a rational consumer of a public good making a critique! Neisha Wattley made a complaint and I have offered you transcribed quotes from the interview. At no time she was “ungrateful.” But the outrage to her statement reminds me that a significant section of our population believes: The poor are supposed to be grateful. Complaints or alternative views are the preserve of the wealthy.
Our family once assisted another family based in “Bangladesh”, St. Joseph and the family received notice that they were allocated a home in Rio Claro. The young ages of the children and their settlement in the area where their parents worked made a transition to the new location very difficult. The family deferred accepting the home, preferring to wait longer (indefinitely) for a closer home in East Trinidad. Social services should not be top-down services; citizens are public consumers who have the right to help shape the design of the services being offered to them.
Word for word, Neisha Wattley was very reasonable in her complaint. Many persons just did not believe she had the right to make one. She spoke “improperly”, she was dark skinned, and her economic position was no secret. Her unkempt hair and ‘raw talk’ with child in hand made her the perfect stereotype of a messy poor person burdening the State and making it difficult for everyone. Here, gender intersected with racial and class stereotypes. The public outrage does not come from a vacuum too…as the middle class falls into the widening group of the unemployed and a precarious social existence; the ‘undeserving poor’ become targets of their class too.
For 2017, we need to keep a close eye on the economy, the things politicians say and the engines of discourse we give them to set the legislative and fiscal agenda of our nation. With an economy shrinking at 4.5%, the cuts in social spending create an environment for the spread of a narrative of irresponsible poor people on ‘costly’ social programmes that could no longer be afforded. This creates a political context for politicians “who serious” and “will tell yuh like it is” to lead an economic agenda of classist austerity. The poor, especially black and Indo single parent mothers are the easiest scapegoats.
Of course wastage and corruption need to be cut out, no one disagrees, but it has to take a sharper cut out of the political entrepreneurship and patronage that create the problem in the first place. It also calls for our public and youth on social media to think reasonably about public policy and the role of the state in our social development. The contradiction of welfare and social programmes is that they can be both a source of social safety but also a form of social control. When it comes to public housing, many do not perceive the process of distribution as a fair one. “We need social programs that are universally and automatically disbursed…that don’t impose humiliation as a condition of receipt,” Robbie Nelson put forward. I would also add, that we need social programmes that do not impose a complicit ‘humility’ and silence on the ‘beneficiary’.
When the private sector and corporate Trinidad and Tobago gets cash from the state for ‘infrastructural development’, it is referred to as a stimulus to the economy. When the working class and every day people who try to make living get cash from the state, it is referred to as ‘welfare’ and we think of them as lazy people who are a drag on our economy. We need to switch up the thinking for the New Year yo. The only means test I am in support of is one for Facebook, something to filter out classist, sexist and racist contributors whose content appears on my newsfeed. The headline of the Daily Express, December 30, 2016, reads “MAN OF THE HOUSE: Husband chastises wife for complaining about location of HDC Unit.” I can’t….I can’t even….
If we have a problem with a woman who does not look the way we desire someone to appear, speak standard English that we worship, and stay satisfied and shut up with de good ting government gi she because ‘yuh must learn to be grateful,’ we should say so. Then, the problem is not with Neisha Wattley, the problem is with us.
Happy New Year to you too : )
Sanatan, Amílcar. 2016. “Neisha Not Wotless.” Blog, Accessed [Insert Date]. http://amilcarsanatan.com/neisha-not-wotless/
Accessed December 30, 2016. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/92675704804410790/
Nelson, Robbie. 2016. “Engines of Solidarity.” Jacobin Magazine. Online. Accessed December 30, 2016. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/donald-trump-democratic-party-welfare-state/
Wilson, Sacha. 2014. “Aid for Mother of Asphyxiated child.” Trinidad and Tobago Guardian (Online). Accessed December 30, 2016. http://www.guardian.co.tt/news/2014-06-22/aid-mother-asphyxiated-child
Kissoon, Carolyn and Leah Sorias. 2016. “Forget my wife, we’re keeping the house….husband disappointed in relocation talk, Minister Randall intervenes.” Trinidad and Tobago Guardian (Online). Accessed December 30, 2016. http://www.trinidadexpress.com/20161229/news/forget-my-wife-were-keeping-the-house