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Hand In Hand He Walks With Me

An Autobiography


Mary Serrette


All rights reserved by author.

Copyright © 2017 by Mary Serrette

Cover illustration copyright 2017 © Mary Serrette

Cover design © Ian O’Neil, Lieno Innovations

Book design and production by Enkryptions

Editing by Marva Mitchell

I have tried to recreate events, locales, and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations, and places of residence.

No part of this book may be reproduced, re-sold, or transmitted electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the publisher.


This work is dedicated to my family - my husband, nine children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. It is also dedicated to Kamal and Elaine, two special people in the lives of my family.


Dear Reader,

My life is a story written by God, the Author of Life. Each chapter filled with its ups and downs; a fusion of challenges, disappointments, and adventure. The hands of the Creator molded me for a purpose; to work in His vineyard as a vinedresser. Trained by the Owner of the field, I was sent out as an Apostle to in turn nurture my own labourers and be a mother figure to others.

I recognized that my mission was to minister to the downtrodden in our hurting world. Along the way, I came to realize that some of these unfortunate ones simply needed a listening ear, others, a shoulder to cry. The majority however, wanted a home away from home to rest for a while surrounded by love and family togetherness.

Within these pages, I have captured small accounts of people from the different villages where I grew up. In so doing I share with you a long-time lifestyle, with ole-time sayings and the joys and sorrows of hardships I endured.

Looking back, I see my entire life as a training camp, with daily lessons. At the end of it all, I acquired a Master Degree that certified me as trained to know the importance of life and the quality of the gift that I received.

Now, at age eighty-three, and the mother of nine, grandmother of twenty-four and great-grandmother of fourteen, I sit in the porch of my home at number thirty-seven De Gannes Street, in the thriving borough of Arima in Trinidad and reminisce in wonderment.

“I can’t believe what my life is today in comparison to what it was yesteryear.”

In the deafening quiet of noontime, memories of the past haunt me and I relive each moment - at times interrupted by the loud noises, shrill voices and the idle chitchat of visiting family. Sometimes my musings are disturbed by the occasional swearing of the madman in the road and even by the dragging of weary feet of passersby. All are a welcome relief that shatters the silence.

I sometimes sit and ponder on fragments of my childhood. My maternal aunt, Tanty Phoolanie was the one who shared with me everything I know about my early childhood before the age of three. Every strange or painful event that occurred after that tender age though is an account of my own.

Even the decision to write this story is a tale of its own, as I knew I was not qualified. It was for this reason I asked my friend, Cassandra, who worked at the University of the West Indies to bring me some English Language past papers to equip myself for the task. I devoured the teachings within those copies until I was satisfied that I was ready for the journey.

His ways are not our ways nor, His thoughts, our thoughts.” Isaiah, Chapter- 55, Verse- 8.

God is an architect of order. His plans always bring about healthy results, though not always pleasing to the human eye or comprehensible to the mortal’s mind.

Part 1 - Early Beginnings

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

before you were born, I set you apart;

I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

- Jeremiah 1: 5

Chapter 1

I never understood what joy or fulfillment my aunt derived from telling me the story of my parents’ ill-fated love life that ended, in disaster, the tragic death of my brother, and involved the conflicts between the different ethnic groups of their time. Indeed, it often occurred to me that it was through her mischievous intent that she related these and other stories to me.

Tanty Phoolanie never failed to share with me everything that happened in our neighborhood. I was her sole companion during the lonely daytime hours when she needed the relief of conversation in those early days of my life. Perhaps, these conversations were more than simple circumstance and in fact part of a divine plan, as they provided me with real accounts of that period of my life when I was too young to interpret the events myself. Of course, her signature barrage of negative remarks punctuated these accounts.

In writing this story, it dawned on me with sudden clarity that through her constant gossip she shared my history with me, which included the lives of my parents, my early beginnings, the history of my home in Sookram Village and indeed, my heritage. If not for her tales, I would never have known my roots or gleaned any understanding of who I am.

I came to understand that God’s design for me took from the bowels of India, in the continent of East Asia, my maternal grandparents, Etwaria and Jaglal. Brought to Trinidad as indentured Indians they worked on the estates in the central part of the island. There they met, married and were blessed with seven children; Doma, Popo, Raja, Ramjit, Larkan, Phoolanie and my mother, Batie.

From the Central Asian Mongoloid group the ancestors of my paternal grandmother moved down through the Americas and over the years they reached Venezuela and crossed over to Trinidad. Known today as Amerindians they were the first people to inhabit the island. From that lineage came my paternal grandmother. Her name is unknown to me as too is her family’s background and the knowledge of the specific group she inherited her bloodline. I only know that she lived in the town of Arima and she descended from ‘the people who came’. Locally, she was classified as Carib. This was the only information my father was able to provide in his latter days. Details on my paternal grandfather were provided with greater specificity, however.

I learned that he was brought here as a slave from the continent of Africa. His given name was George Francis–no one knew his African name. When he acquired his freedom, he moved around for quite a bit until he finally migrated to Arima. After settling down, he met and married a daughter from an Amerindian group. From their union came several children. Included, were twin boys, Rupert and Albert.

My father, baptized Albert Francis, was fondly known as, “Bertie.” As a grown man Bertie and his twin brother, Rupert, came to Sookram Village. They rented a piece of land and built themselves an ajoupa–a hut made of mud walls with a thatch roof. Back then, Sookram Village was a single street with houses along both sides and an all-Indian population. In those days, the different ethnic groups who hailed from completely different backgrounds kept to themselves. So there was much displeasure when the brothers took up residence in the village.

My father and uncle’s mud shack stood obliquely opposite the home of my maternal grandparents and it was there Bertie first laid eyes on my mother. As the story goes, they became attracted to each other. He was after all, a handsome mixed breed from Arima.

Despite the differences in ethnicity and culture, they developed a romantic relationship, which they managed to keep hidden from my mother’s parents. That was at least, until my mother became pregnant. It was one-step short of a disaster and the quiet neighborhood where nothing ever changed waited in bated breath to see what my grandfather would do.

The gossip drove him crazy–that, and the constant ridicule from his jahage bhai or boat brothers. One night he reached his wits end. In the stillness of the night, he banged his cutlass for the entire neighbourhood to hear and shouted, “Go from here! Ah, doh want yuh in meh house no more! Ay eh go stand by and see yuh disgrace meh. Go from here tonight! Move from meh eyesight!”

And that ended that.

With the money they made from making and selling coals for commercial use, which back then was the main source of fuel used by the white folks for their coal pots, the brothers acquired a larger property on Red Head Lands in Quare, better known then as ‘Toorule’. It was a forested area about two miles away from Sookram Village. There, they built themselves a tree house with a pull-up ladder for safety at night.

The next day Bertie and Batie gathered their belongings and moved from Sookram Village, way into the confines of the tree house on Red Head Lands in Quare, now known as North East Settlement. The villagers were satisfied with my grandfather’s action and ceased their gossip.

Well at least everyone except for my aunt. Tanty Phoolanie always lamented, “Dat wretch leave where he come from to mash up we family. He go dead bad!”

And maybe my aunt’s goat mouth, as was the superstition of my time, did indeed take him as in his old age he suffered tremendously from prostate cancer.

When my mother moved in with my father his brother, Rupert, moved back into the ajoupa in Sookram Village. Batie however did not foresee what this new life entailed.

Red Head Lands was high woods in a remote area where dangerous wild animals roamed everywhere. By four o’clock in the afternoon, it was completely dark and at nighttime the eerie calls and hoots of the night creatures were deafening. It was a terrifying place to live after being born and raised in the security of a tight knit village community.

Batie no longer had any neighbours, or her sister’s funny jokes. There was no laughter or fun in her life anymore. She missed her family. When the time came for her to deliver the baby, my father begged my grandmother to attend to my mother’s needs. She agreed and delivered my brother safely. He was named, Cecil.

In spite of the hardships that came with her life as a mother and wife in a wilderness for home, my mother did not leave her unfortunate situation. She endured and kept hoping for better days. She contented herself with many hunger-filled days and a water soaked bed at nighttime during the rainy season. Two years later, she found herself pregnant with her second child. Any chance of returning home was gone. She could no longer return to her parents’ home, not with another child on the way.

I was born on May 31, 1933. When my mother introduced me to my brother, he looked at me and said, “Dat is, Mary.”

Everyone was astonished that a three year old, who lived in the forest, could name a newborn baby. Tanty Phoolanie always said in her many recounts of the story that it was as though someone else had spoken the name.

Chapter 2

When I was around two my mother became pregnant again. This pregnancy proved to be the most difficult. Complications arose when she became ill. The hardships she suffered in her condition wrought by that uncivilized and alien environment were more than my father could handle. He begged my aunt for help who in turn beseeched her parents. Eventually my grandparents acceded and took my mother back home. It was too late though. She had developed a respiratory ailment that needed professional consultation.

At that time a three-bed health facility on Coronation Road, in Boys Town, Sangre Grande was the only place to receive professional health care in the area. They took my mother there via a hammock. The District Medical Officer in attendance, Doctor Inniss, and his assistant, Nurse Villafana examined my mother and promptly referred her to the Port-of-Spain General Hospital.

Tanty Phoolanie took charge of the situation to ensure that my mother reached the hospital safely. They travelled by train, the only means of transport to the city. The ride was long and tiresome but my mother endured the painful ride. Then came the mile long trek up Charlotte Street to the hospital. That proved the undoing of my mother’s fragile state. The arduous nature of the trip took its toll on my mother’s already distressed and ailing health given her pregnant state. That night, all alone in the anguish of childbirth, my mother and the baby passed away.

My aunt returned to the hospital three days later, with the hope of taking home her sister and her newborn baby. Instead, upon her arrival she received the sad news that they both had passed away and their remains already buried by the government.

My mother’s life ended without any tears, funeral service or farewells said by her family, her friends or her two children–then merely babies. Cecil and I were left alone with our father, a man who could not even take care of himself.

Tanty Phoolanie blamed my father for my mother’s death.

Yuh father make yuh mother tote bags ah coals on she head with she big belly down Ojoe Road to sell under Chow-Lin-On shop. Dat is why she dead like ah crapaud.”

It did not matter whether my aunt’s accusations were true or not, I only knew that I had lost someone special–a part of me that I would never know.

The only good thing my mother’s death accomplished was to bring the family together where it was possible to share pleasantries. Yet, despite this welcomed union, my father still packed up our sparse belongings and left to pursue his chosen livelihood. I suppose he had his plans in doing so.

He took us to live deep in the bowels of the Matura forest. While I thought that Quare was wilderness, Matura was even more remote and further into high woods. This jungle was dense and populated with a multitude of ants, scorpions, centipedes, bats and snakes. Even at six and three, my brother and I were aware of the insanity of wanting to raise two young children in such an environment. At least, in Quare, we were nearer to people and all year round, there were Cocorite trees heavily laden with fruits to satisfy hunger.

In the Matura forest, the Bois-Cano and Kisskidee trees were much shorter and though there were many large clumps of massive Timite leaves, each had its own pool of brown water surrounding the large mounds – a potential watery end for a wandering infant. The tall bamboo stems soared upwards and the massive Immortelle trees were nothing compared to the gigantic Mahoe, Tapana, Cedar, Mora and Silk Cotton trees, which all spread their branches so that they entwined with each other to touch the clouds in the sky. This was terrain where no man had gone before, until my father. But as my father moved in, several others followed in his stride. It was a wide expanse of land and there was room for many.

I still remember the shack he built under a very large tree. It was covered and barred around with Timite leaves, with one opening for the doorway. This was our new home. My father kept saying he would build a better one. Even though he repeated this many times up until the time I left, two years later, the temporary arrangement was still a makeshift run down hovel.

My aunt blamed my father’s general attitude for his lack of ambition and often said to me, “Yuh father backside so lazy, he does walk lazy. De man cyah even fix he own place up. Dat lazy like ah pregnant woman ready to make chile.”

My unvoiced assessment was different–less harsh but damning all the same. I believed that he was a simpleton–simple minded and very gullible. His intentions were honest but he was easily fooled which led him to make foolish choices–choices for which Cecil and I suffered the consequences.

When we moved into the Matura forest like the fairytale Hansel and Gretel, my brother and I discovered that we were all that we had. We survived each day through the comfort of each other. Cecil, little more than a baby himself took on the role of my caregiver as best as he could in a wilderness where we were not afforded the luxury of clean water, bread, tea with milk or clothing to protect us from insect bites. We survived without getting Malaria and luckily for us, in those days, we did not have mosquito borne diseases like Dengue or Chikungunya. Nevertheless, our bodies were always spotted from the countless insect bites we received.

Cecil and I learned to be content in this new wilderness with our impoverished conditions and with what little attention our father gave us. Each day we sat and watched the birds flitter from tree to tree and the monkeys swing from branch to branch. On certain days, the lumberjacks came into the forest armed with huge saws called cross-cutters to cut down specific trees. When they cut the branches off the trunk, the coal-burners hauled them away to their pit sites where they cut the branches to suit the length of the pit. These they packed into the pit and then compacted the entire pit with dirt before they set it alight to make coals.

The lumberjacks used their long saws to cut the trunks into logs, which were then pulled away by huge bison that they brought with them. The bison were equipped with a yoke on their necks tied to long poles upon which they placed the logs. The woodcutters whipped the bulls to make several trips per day to the main road, where special trucks with cables and a pulley waited to transport the logs to Abass’ Saw Mill in Guaico.

The men, like my father, who made coals were scattered throughout the Matura forest. Some had their families with them and often planted short crops to supply their household with food. It was an honest livelihood but coal pits would sometimes burst unexpectedly making it a dangerous occupation. The coal-burners took turns with family members in their camp at nighttime to watch out for bursting pits that could easily get out of control. It was hard and tiring work for these African men.

While doing his chores, my father often fed us roasted breadfruit with salted butter. Sometimes he boiled chatine with a piece of salted pigtail or boiled corn on the cob from the crop he planted in an old coal pit site. Very often, he would cut a bunch of green bananas and store it between two logs, covered with dried leaves. There he left it to ripen then we had to make haste to get our fair share before the manicous and other fruit-eating animals devoured the majority.

Chapter 3

One morning when we awoke, my brother and I found ourselves under the bunk where we slept instead of on top of it. As we arose, my father called out to us, “Cecil. Mary. Come an meet, Miss Tina.”

We emerged from our sleeping place and ogled at the stranger seated on our bed.

“Dis is Mary and Cecil,” my father said to the woman.

Miss Tina had long flowing black hair and a peaches-and-cream complexion that cast a radiant glow about her. She was the most gorgeous woman we had ever seen. Her physique and looks would easily classify her as hot in today’s parlance.

As country bookies, Cecil and I were delighted that a woman would once again live with us. We envisioned regular baths, combed hair, and home cooked meals– practices overlooked by our father. But this was not to be. We soon realized that Miss Tina’s beauty was only skin-deep. She had no interest in caring for my brother and I, and left us largely neglected.

My aunt, ever the astute judge of character, was not fooled as we were in the beginning. She summed up Miss Tina aptly in one sentence, “Dat bitch so good looking, if she ways was as nice as she face, she woulda’ be a perfect human being.”

Cecil and I stood in the bylines filled with regret and disappointment by her intrusion into our lives. Our once simple lifestyle changed from one of contentment, to days of loneliness and child neglect.

Tina now accompanied our father to the coal pit every day while we remained at home without any food or supervision. At ages three and six, we learned to fend for ourselves. Often we survived on pieces of fruit dropped by birds in flight. That simple act of nature provided us with enough sustenance until the couple returned home on evenings.

Life in Matura forest was disappointing and tragic. The worst part was having a stranger move into our lives, one who had absolutely no interest in our wellbeing. When I was older, I finally learned the truth about Miss Tina. At the time she inserted herself into our life she was a married woman with three children of her own. She had abandoned them and gone into hiding in Matura forest with my father. As it turned out, she may have been the reason why he uprooted us and left for Matura Forest so hurriedly after my mother’s death. Miss Tina needed a place to hide and deep in the Matura wilderness was the ideal place for her deceptive plan.

My father spent the rest of his life in bondage with this woman. There is a saying in Trinidad - beauty is only skin-deep. Miss Tina was its epitome. She neglected both myself and Cecil, my father and even herself. Yet, my father worshipped the earth she walked on. Maybe he was blinded by her beauty - so blinded he was unable to see that his children were suffering. In the end, it cost him his son’s life and my love for him.

After our initial introduction to Miss Tina, our sleeping arrangement moved permanently to the space beneath the bunk bed on bags spread out on the dirt floor. It was neither safe, nor hygienic as we were in the middle of the cold forest and the ground was always damp. So it was not by chance that a scorpion stung my brother.

Sometimes my father left us with Miss Tina to go to Cunapo to sell coal. At the end of the day, he returned home bearing groceries he purchased with the money he made from his sales. So it was on the day my brother was stung.

My father was gone for the entire day and Miss Tina did what she always did, even in a life-threatening instance like this. She did nothing. Upon my father’s return in the evening, she did not even mention that Cecil had been stung by a scorpion.

In the middle of the night, after a fitful slumber, my brother awoke vomiting and groaning gripped in throes of the poison in his system. His skin was on fire from his fever. My father did not need anyone to tell him then what was wrong with his son. He had been around the wilderness long enough to recognize the signs of a scorpion sting. Even though he must have known there was no hope for Cecil he did all he could to help him.

He cried out, “Tina what the hell wrong wit de boy?”

She replied, “Eh, eh Bertie. I forget to tell you - scorpion sting him.”

My father ranted and raved in anger, while tears of guilt cascaded down his face.

He cried, “Cecil, forgive me! Forgive me son!”

We never got to find out if Cecil forgave him as he died late into that night.

My father screamed like a baby when his beloved son died in his arms. He clutched my brother’s tiny corpse in his arms until he contained himself.

Chapter 4

Trapped in the middle of nowhere, without any telephone, transportation or neighbours in close proximity, my father had to toucan his fellow coal burners. This was a method of communication used in rural areas to summon neighbours from a distance. The toucan was a piercing sound made by clasping both hands together into a cup-shape and whistling into them. My father’s fellow coal burners arrived one by one after a short time had passed.

After much discussion among themselves, they placed my brother’s corpse in a hammock and four men volunteered to transport the body back to Sookram Village, where my father’s brother, Uncle Rupert lived. I rode on my father’s shoulders as the other men trudged along the jungle tracks through the darkness under the flickering light of flambeaus. Our company was the deep sounding groans of grief the men made all the way. They walked from Matura to Sookram Village bemoaning the loss of my brother.

The procession arrived at Sookram village around seven the next morning. After greetings were exchanged and an explanation given over coffee, the transportation crew left. Before they left however, in keeping with their gayap, which was their support group system, they circulated word around the African community about Cecil’s death. It was not long after that members of my father’s community arrived and my brother’s remains were taken over by their competent hands. They handled everything from the death certificate to the burial site. They built the coffin and provided the entertainment and food, to which every member of the African community contributed. They brought cocoa, coffee, salt biscuits and bush rum.

There was no post mortem done on Cecil’s body. On his death certificate, the cause of death was recorded as complications arising from a scorpion’s sting. The District Medical Officer, Dr. Inniss provided the necessary documents to facilitate his burial. While these preparations were underway, Cecil laid in repose at the house.

On the day of his burial, there was neither a church service nor the offering of prayers for the dead. The gravediggers were the first to arrive on the scene. Together with relatives, they set off to choose a spot in the cemetery. Their payment for their work was not monetary but instead, consisted simply of my father’s gratitude for their services and a hearty serving of sancoche. This was a traditional African dish in the form of a thick soup that contained every imaginable local ground provision, dasheen bush and all kinds of salted meats. Liquid refreshments consisted of lime juice with crushed bird peppers and bush rum, called capuchin.

The cutlass carpenters also came. They went into the forest to cut the materials needed for the make-shift tents, tables, benches and a basket for the repose of the body. They cut Kiskadee wood, Timite leaves, and Bamboo stalks. These skilled craftsmen tied the material together with long vines, as nails were costly and for these occasions were used for the building of the coffins only.

In those days, every home had a store of cured Cedar wood for the unfortunate occasion that a coffin needed to be built. Such was the case with my uncle. They built the coffin at his home at nighttime, a rather challenging feat given the lighting that was used. But there was a solution if there was a mismatch in the coffin length. If the coffin’s measurements were inaccurate, on the day of the burial the feet of the deceased were sawed off from the ankles so that the body would be able to fit into the box.

The women who came performed the part of the morticians. They took charge of preparing the body for burial. After kerosene was poured down the corpse’s throat, they stuffed an assortment of grounded herbs such as cinnamon, bay leaf and clove as well as squared camphor into all the orifices. This practice prevented the immediate decay of the body. The mouth of my brother’s corpse was kept closed by tying his chin with a handkerchief, while two pennies were placed on his eyes to keep them shut.

On the night of the wake, at around seven o’clock, the group of men and women charged with entertaining the guests began the activities organized for the occasion. There was a card players’ section where participants played games of wapee at which they gambled for pennies. The old ladies told stories of Trinidad’s folklore, which included mythical tales about the Soucouyant, Lagahoo, Douen, LaDiablesse, Papa Bois and the Phantom. These fables told by these Africans passed down through the generations and are what we know today as the folklore of Trinidad and Tobago. For me each character had their tale and significance that fascinated me.

The Soucouyant was an old lady from Africa who came to our shores with one of the African groups. As the story goes many Africans did not eat the salted meats the slave masters provided, as they believed that salt made their bodies heavy. These Africans maintained a light weight to increase their buoyancy for when they practiced the art of flying on Brigand Hill in Manzanilla. Many were able to fly back to their birth country by night. However, one old lady who lived in Mayaro stayed behind. She had a lover she could not bear to part with him. She flew around at night and encroached on sleeping victims. First, she would shed her skin, which she hid in a mortar. Then she flew to her victim’s house where she would fan them with her long breasts then as they drifted off into a trance, she would suck their blood with her elongated snout. This old woman was in fact a fabled female vampire. As she flew through the night skies, she appeared as a ball of fire.

A Lagahoo, was a rapist whose pleasure was to take sexual advantage of sleeping women especially those who appeared stuck up or in local parlance ‘hifalutin’ . The Douen on the other hand was a baby who died before it received the rite of baptism. As the old ladies told it, the feet of the dead child were placed in a backward position at burial.

The La Diablesse was a woman scorned by many lovers in her lifetime. As a restless spirit, she went out of her way to ensure she paid back her male companions for their deceptive promises. She appeared to them as a beautiful woman lost in a forested area. The only telltale sign of her true form was one normal human foot and one cow’s hoof. Those unfortunate men who played Romeo and went looking for a Juliet she seduced then, lured them deep into the forest, where they would be lost for days. However, if they smoked cigarettes they were able to escape her wiles as she was sensitive to smoke. The large number of cars pouring exhaust into the air today may be the reason she no longer appears.

Papa Bois was the game warden who trapped hunters in the forest when they indulged in the excessive slaughter of wild animals. He guided them along paths where they walked on vines that caused disorientation. They lost their way as a result. Many hunters remained lost for several days, while they went around in circles–a condition the old ladies called tootolbay.

The tale of the phantom was used to scare people who liked to roam about at nights. As the story goes, he would spread his legs across the street. If one had to walk that road at night, they would have to pass under his legs. His shadow darkened the entire area and it was very frightening.

The old ladies also told stories about Obeah, which they exaggerated with imaginary tales. The stories were mainly about some of the men in our society, who wanted to achieve power, wealth, fame or even female affection and the women who wanted to secure the faithfulness of a man.

In addition to the old ladies, there were the dancers and drummers who were the largest crowd. They occupied Ojoe Road, just a dirt track at the time. Their audience formed a ring around them and chanted the choruses. The dancers were each buxom beauties who only entered the ring when she was going to dance. The old ladies were the scrutinizers; they checked for mistakes and if a dancer faltered, they jumped in and rectified the mistake made by doing the dance themselves. Most of these old ladies were from Martinique and they were the ones who wore dwiyet dresses. The men were the drummers, who for the occasion painted themselves from the waist up. The dance performances included Bongo, Limbo, Bamboo, and the Shango.

There were also the stick fighters, mostly younger men with local legends such as Joe Prengay, Bull Brady, and Doodoi. They were the kings of stick fighting in those days. Each represented their territory. They wrapped their wrists, waists, and head in brightly coloured strips of cloth. A single drummer chanted a laveau while others followed with an appropriate chorus. Meanwhile the fighters made gestures that challenged their opponents.

Stick fighting was influenced, to a large extent by the sword play of the British masters. The slaves watched and perfected the art form of their masters but instead of swords, they used sticks. It became a popular form of entertainment among the Africans.

While the storytellers told their tales and the dancers moved to the steady rhythm of the drummers, the children played hide and seek, also called hoop, using the cover of darkness to their advantage. Young lovers also shared stolen kisses, especially when the wake was on a moonlit night. The lights of the flambeaus– a bottle filled with kerosene and a piece of cloth as a wick; did little to penetrate the darkness.

Nowadays, wakes are very different in comparison to the traditional way of the African community. When one died in the African community it was considered a time to rejoice. It was said that death indicated that all troubles and suffering was over and a birth meant that troubles had just begun.

Today, when funeral services are held and eulogies read, the theme is always the celebration of life. ‘Sugar coated’ stories of the deceased whose corpse lays in the box are sometimes shared to keep with the theme and can mislead those who were not too familiar with the departed. The tradition of the bereaved family providing funeral attendants with food after the burial is still practiced.

On the day of the funeral, the small children in attendance were passed over the coffin three times. This prevented his spirit from following the little ones. Without such extravagance as a hearse back in those days, it was left to the pall bearers to do the honours.

Family members carried two benches upon which the coffin rested when the pall bearers grew weary and needed to rest. The final farewell took place in the cemetery. Those who gathered were mostly family and friends. Goodbyes were said. Some cried, while others murmured regrets. Long after the service was through and Cecil was buried, Tanty Phoolanie said to me, “All de hypocrites cry crocodile tears dat day.”

At the end of the funeral, the community gathered together again but this time the crowd was smaller. They bade farewell to the bereaved family until they returned on the ninth and the fortieth nights, as was the custom to pray for the deceased. According to my aunt’s assessment of the end of the congregating, “All zandolie had to find dey hole den.”

For me it had not all ended. I learned my first lesson of the heritage of my African lineage then. Africans supported each other. Using this gayap system there was a brotherhood link within this ethnic group.

Chapter 5

After the funeral Tina, my father and I went back to our home and our life in the forest. Nothing changed except with Cecil gone I found myself alone each day. Miss Tina was back to her routine of accompanying my father when he left, leaving me to care for myself. I was little more than three and unable to attend to my personal hygiene. Needless to say, I was a mess all the time. In addition, I was devastated from my loss. My brother, my friend, my caretaker, my constant companion was no more. Thank God for the ever adaptable human mind. Eventually the loss of Cecil got easier to bear and I survived. I have no idea how much time passed over those long lonely days when I haunted that rundown shack deep in the belly of the Matura forest.

One day as I mulled around outside the shack I heard a whisper coming from a nearby Boosie, an entangled, thorny shrub. The sound drew my attention and I saw between the leaves, a finger. It beckoned me to come hither. Unsure but curious, I moved forward with caution to get a better look. There, hidden among the entangled shrub, I saw Tanty Phoolanie.

Uncertainty gone, I drew closer and she asked, “Way Papa?”

“By de pit,” I replied.

“And Tina?” she questioned further.

“With him,” was my response.

“Nannie sen meh for yuh. You want to go and see, Nannie?”

I nodded immediately.

She held out a bag to me and said, “Ah bring cake and pastie fuh you.”

Suddenly overcome by my famished state I reached for the bag and my aunt grabbed my naked, smelly, mosquito bitten body.

She covered me with kisses and exclaimed tearfully, “Oh God! Look at meh dead sister chile! Ah dog better dan she! God bless meh eyesight today! Dat ah meet she still alive.”

My Moses–my deliverance, came in the form of my maternal aunt that day. I received my freedom from the bondage of child neglect within the arms of my aunt. When I grew older, I came to acknowledge that this was my equivalent crossing of the biblical desert.

Tanty Phoolanie lifted me and tucked me on her side–a position referred to as ‘godie’. Then she ran with me out of the Matura forest.

Our flight through the forest that day was frightening. My aunt had abducted me straight out of my father’s house. She was a young woman alone, with me to carry. She was scared out of her wits. When we finally emerged from the high woods onto the main road, she breathed a sigh of relief, thankful to be out of the dark forest even though not many people frequented the road. Without vines and roots to entangle her bare feet on the main road, she ran faster. Throughout the entire journey, she kept glancing over her shoulder to ensure she was not being followed.

When we arrived at the Oropouche River, she stopped and went down into the water. However, instead of her parting the river for us to cross, as Moses did she went into the river and gave me a much needed bath and dressed me in the clothing, which she had brought with her. In later years I realized that in that moment I had symbolically washed away of my old life and donned a new one.

We continued on our journey with haste until she reached La Sieva Trace that led us directly into Sookram Village where my grandparents lived and awaited our arrival.

And so it was that my stay in Eden–a place where the forest was my home and God provided for me, came to an end and my exodus to find a new life began.

PART 2 – Exodus

Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you;
I will hold on to you with My righteous right hand.’

-Isaiah 41:10

Chapter 6

My arrival was welcomed by the open arms of my grandparents. They earned my eternal gratitude that day for this reception. I felt something I had not for a long time–love. It is perhaps because of this that I came to appreciate my East Indian heritage.

As the first Dougla in the village, I became somewhat the topic of discussion. I belonged to neither ethnic group–an outsider, except to my family. I suppose the practice of excluding those of different ethnicities was a means to preserve cultural identities back then. As time passed, they did not in reality change their way of thinking towards my ethnic peculiarity, but instead came to accept it as a new culture in a strange country.

Nannie and Nana, as I called them, were my maternal grandmother and grandfather. They were both employed at Wicking Estate in North Manzanilla. Each hailed from a different part of India; Nannie from Southern Calcutta and Nana from the Punjab. Though both were of the same ethnicity, my grandfather was different in physical features, mannerisms, and language from his wife. He was short and dark with a curled up moustache. His long, white beard was knotted at the end and he wore a Capra–male East Indian pants, at all times. On his head, he had short, cropped hair, except for a few long tresses at the top called a chorkee.

My grandmother on the other hand was tall and heavyset with curly hair and a light brown complexion. Her arms were adorned with bracelets from elbows to wrists; these were called churia. Her right ankle was also graced with a heavy bracelet. Both ears were decorated with earrings from top to lobe and in her nose, she had a ring and a stopper. These pieces of jewellery worn on her nose and her ears were known as either knackphool or kahnpool. She also wore an elaborate neckpiece, which was the balajoban. Apart from jewellery, she had tattoos on each arm, above her forefinger, on her nose and her chest. She wore mainly skirts and tops and on her head was her Orhni, which was made of the softest material. Her name, Etwaria can still be seen at the National Museum in Port-of-Spain. From Central Trinidad, my grandparents migrated to Sookram Village, leaving my uncles, Raja and Ramjit, in the barrack room.

My grandmother awoke at three o’clock every morning to prepare meals for the day. Meals consisted of Sada Roti and talkari; made from either, crayfish, conchs or freshwater fish caught in the streams that ran under the cocoa trees on the estate. Her morning routine started with her leepaying the chulha with soaked white dirt in a calabash. With that done, she kneaded the flour and made balls called loi. When all the vegetables were prepared, she climbed the fireside or machand, where she would stoop and sinekay all the roti.

All this time I was wrapped up in her orhni, tucked in her bosom, where I felt the heat of the fire. I was happy to experience her closeness and to inhale the fragrance of the coconut oil. To this day, the sheets that I use for cover at night times consist only of materials as soft as that of an orhni.

My grandmother belonged to the Hindu religion and as I was in her charge, she taught me some of her cultural practices, even her native tongue, which she spoke frequently. Once, even I spoke Hindi fluently. However, due to disuse through the years, I lost some of the pronunciation skills of my ancestral language though I can still understand it.

It was only after I joined my maternal family that I came to know Tanty Phoolanie.

My aunt lived with Nannie and Nana. Every day, when they left for work, she did her household chores early in morning. After preparing the evening meal, she would bathe and dress me, rubbing me down with coconut oil from head to toe. She would then lie in the hammock and sit me on her lap, contented to tell me stories about everybody and everything in and out of our family circle.

With a mischievous smile plastered across her face, she told her stories with cunning, and the excitement and detail of a sports commentator; ball-by-ball coverage of all that happened. Tanty Phoolanie was blessed with a good memory, a loving disposition, and endless quotes, which enhanced her story telling abilities despite her inability to read or write.

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