Neisha Not Wotless

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 : )

Blog Reference:
Sanatan, Amílcar. 2016. “Neisha Not Wotless.” Blog, Accessed [Insert Date].

Cover Picture:

Accessed December 30, 2016.


Further Readings:
Nelson, Robbie. 2016. “Engines of Solidarity.” Jacobin Magazine. Online. Accessed December 30, 2016.

Wilson, Sacha. 2014. “Aid for Mother of Asphyxiated child.” Trinidad and Tobago Guardian (Online). Accessed December 30, 2016.

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.

21 thoughts on “Neisha Not Wotless”

  1. It’s not just that Neisha was dark with badly straightened hair or had five children with an Indianan, one of whom died. She had done her nails. She had taken her children for KFC and paid $40 to get back to a new neighbourhood still under development. She should have saved those three pots of money to get the children to school. She was not only ungrateful for being made a government and corporate Christmas Eve pappyshow; she was an unfit mother, and her children as well as her house ought to be taken away from her.

  2. So because you’re poor, you can’t do your nails and attempt to look decent? Maybe she did it for the handing over ceremony when because she knew she was going to be on TV?
    Also, so what she bought KFC? The kids have to eat don’t they? Regardless of what the meal is.
    We have to remember that she is poor and seemingly uneducated…she does not have the capacity to think these things yhrough or make rationale decisions.

    BUT she is young and still has an impressionable mind…hopefully she gets the help she needs for her and her kid’s sake!

    Nevertheless, I believe she needs to be closely monitored psychologically. The father is in the home and seems a little more stable. Taking the kids away from them doesn’t seem like a solution. But I leave that for the professionals to decide.

  3. While I was disappointed in the many vocal rants on social media and the different radio station, I was more so disappointed in the boldface use of this woman as it was and is the duty of social services to take time to adequately investigate her case and work with her and her family offering psychological, physical and some life advancing skills. Did they (social services) check to see if this family will be able to pay TTMF for this property after all the lights, camera, show effect was over or are we to assume that the property was given with all cost and fees waived?

    Here statements afterwards clearly shows that Neisha was not consulted as to the area and if she was consulted about where the property was located and she agreed to the location then that is another spin on this story. If however if she was not consulted it shows the lack in applying clear assessment regarding her present position, while Couva and Chagunas is close in proximity it still cost an average of $90.00 per day for her to get her children to and from school.

    She has a right to state her concerns whether she did it in the pristine Queen’s English or whether she stated her concerns in broken backyard language, it is a genuine concern and it is her right to express it without fear, intimidation or judgement.

    I hope that all parties will learn from this hurridely spotlight show for a few hours and truly work to develop an all round holistic comprehensive social policy for this country and that time will be taken to re-visit community development.

  4. This was a phenomenal read and excellent context where I personally didn’t have any. It is so easy to jump to opinions without the proper time to read, digest and intepret.

  5. I have been ‘poor’ and on government assistance in Trinidad, and revictimised by people who were supposed to be helping me.

    I have been longing to write about the experience, or do a video blog about it, but the experience was so visceral that I have allowed the distance between me and it to stretch out like twine.

    This piece hit home deeply for me. I am bookmarking it because I want to quote it when I finally do put my experiences into words.

    Thank you for your sensitivity and your excellent writing.

  6. I don’t know but the way I see it, considering the opportunity she got it seems a bit foolish to turn it down. Fine let’s say you can’t even get back the children in the same school. It might be a bit dicy for a while but I would much rather adapt to that situation and figure out how to make things work rather than turn it down. I’m pretty sure if she really sat and thought about it, a solution to her problem could be found, it might be rough for a while but ultimately it would have been worth it. People are upset because many who are desperately looking for a home and would have been willing to face similar challenges, have to watch it being thrown away by another…so I can understand their point of view…at the end of the day it’s her business and her choice but people have a right to dislike it just as much as she has a right to refuse it.

  7. Say you only know about riding a bike and one day you won a car. Will it not take time to learn the car or you can just sell it because you can’t understand the benefits of a car when there is only traffic for so. Selling the car is not being ungrateful but not having an understanding about something could case you to react badly. A woman may be in an abusive relationship and someone offer her a better life and yet still she stays in the abusive relationship is not because she is stupid it is the mear fact she don’t understand that this situation is not healthy. The lady gets the house and regardless of what her old house was home. Yes she is happy to get the house just like the man and the car but can’t understand the great benefits. Some ppl just need guidance just as the youths today. Advice her on transfers for her kids may be she don’t know about that. You have to understand where ppl come from to understand where they are going. Pray for God’s wisdom upon her instead of bringing her down to the lowest level.

  8. Thank you , these “so and so ” moralists always want to tell poor people what they should and shouldn’t do . As if people choose to be poor . This ” Kill the poor” rant is the rant of ignorant people, who like to maco and believe that they are superior , and obviously know nothing of the real issues at hand . On an island like Trinidad . NOBODY should be poor , Nobody . Poverty is a social and political issue , so stop judging the poor and get on the back on the politicians who are only doing what is necessary to keep the big corporations on the top squeezing the very life forces out of working class people .

  9. All well and good writing but you on stupidness. Myself like many of the working class and tax payers have been sidelined for persons like Nisha, you should be more focused on doing a story on equity rather than sympathy. I am fed up of having to pay the burden for poor lazy people in this country under the disguise of doing good deeds and political mileage. Mrs Watelly story just raised and ant nest.

  10. A few points to note. 1. The area will develop in time like all other areas in Trinidad. 2. She can walk out d road and take a maxi, i know ppl living deep south who walk far out d road and then have to take 3 or 4 maxis to drop children and reach to work. 3. She sells in d market, do what it takes work hard and sacrifice like everybody else to send ur children to school. 4. She get a furnished place, ppl have to work and pay loans for years to do that, she get it free. 5. She get 3 years paid for the house more than enough time to save money. 6. She has a strong husband who is capable of helping. Her attitude is what was distasteful, ppl walk out their streets to get maxi or bus and working hard to make ends meet everyday. I know poor ppl working POS living South who walk and travel with children. She is simply not willing to walk, work hard and sacrifice for betterment. Stop making excuses for foolishness.

  11. I understand your point of view as well as the points of view of the persons who do not agree.
    This is merely a case of humility It’s not what she said but how she said it. It made her seem ungrateful, especially when she asked the reporter “What I supposed to do? Walk?”
    I know her poverty doesn’t mean she doesn’t have right to feelings but she has a right to be humbled by the generosity she received from caring citizens of Trinidad. Maybe with a different tone or approach she may have received a car but I think citizens were angered because it seemed as if she didn’t appreciate what she had already received. I hope she gets the counseling she needs.

  12. I can identify and agree with all conversations. I am grateful for having stumble on this forum. It gives me hope. We all get it, but how we treat with it , is a next ting. Our society, that seems to have no identity is dealing with so much “noise”, please, can we be kinder to each other. Crime is crippling us, cost of living…, lawlessness, disrespect, family values. 2017 let us love each other….. The Jesus type of love…..

  13. Nice try. 1) She did not complain about proximity to police stations, health facilities or utilities. It was to the proximity of the children current school. 2) She spoke and complained without seeking any options or alternatives to her own situation as a proactive adult would do. Her OWN husband indicated arrangements had been made. 3) The response to her previous complaint of housing was dealt with before thousands of others, she was prioritiesed for placement and therefore while as customers of government there is a right to shape and address, again any reasonable, vaguely appreciative person would recognize the privilege extended and complain in a manner that reflects knowledge that the inadequacies are due to the speed with which their main concern was addressed. 4) As to ethnic background and or appearance, it may just be that you’re projecting sir. She doesn’t get a free pass at decency, the ability to communicate and negotiate (she’s a business woman after all) and manners because of it. Your unbalanced, SJW argument only enables, I would dare argue that if she were blond haired and blue eyed making the same statement you would be so forgiving. Yes, this is classism as in the ability to conduct yourself with it. Please proceed in a 360 degree direction and attempt to approach again.

  14. I actually went to primary school with this girl. I was not in her class but let me say, a lot of students were ‘poor’ and that includes me. I was fortunate enough to get through the school system and graduate university, and I feel bad seeing someone I knew that is currently in this position.

    However, Neesha was always different. She always felt that people should give her things, she was prone to anger and outbursts, disrespectful to teachers, stole from the vendors at school, and bullied other students. Maybe it was her home life and upbringing that led her to be like that, I don’t know. I think the government might need to offer psychiatric services to this family. Mental and emotional problems are not really paid attention to in Trinidad.

  15. Bravo! I am glad that someone had the guts to address the other side of this issue. Even I had to assess my initial outrage at the interview when first published. Upon seeing the original interview, I was outraged at the angle the media decided to take with this story. I watched that video over and over, looking for the words where she said she go back to her shack. I never heard them to this day.

    Many times we twist people’s words, especially when they speak in anger. All I saw is someone frustrated with a situation and expressed it to the media, who came for the interview. I know many people who turned down houses by the government because of location. However her crass appearance and needy situation seemed to make her ineligible to make a complaint.

    We need to assess our own views as citizens concerning the poor. I agree with you wholeheartedly when you said that people’s ire may have well been fueled because maybe it was fit for a person like her to benefit from the comforts of a good home, while hard working persons are yet to own a home. Our selfish agendas has made us hardhearted towards the plight of the poor.

    A very intellectually stimulating read. Continue the good work.

  16. Thank you, Amilcar, I am sorry to say I was one of the people ‘running my mouth’ in a negative way. I apologize. Reading your post, I have a different take on the situation.
    Thanks for pointing out what I was too arrogant to see.

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