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A House for Dr Rowley

Sunday, August 13, 2017

In 1961, Trinidadian-born writer VS Naipaul published A House for Mr Biswas, the story of an unlucky and downtrodden Indo-Trinidadian man who sets the goal of owning his own home. For the main character, Mohun Biswas, the house symbolises his independence, the ultimate desire for an individual whose life is steeped in tragedy and oppression meted out by family members. While it’s partially based on the life of Naipaul’s father, it also involves themes of power and position. These are important notions when it comes to analysing the relationship between Trinidad and Tobago. Though we are a twin-island republic, achieving independence together and whose union stretches back to 1889, not all our citizens believe it’s an equal and mutually beneficial arrangement. For Tobago, traditionally referred to as the “sister isle,” calls for increased self-governance have been steadily getting louder in the last few years. But now, with yet another Tobagonian-born Prime Minister heading our national household, can his fellow islanders finally expect to see the desires to put their own house in order come to pass?

Speaking of houses and what they represent…at a press conference two weeks ago, Dr Rowley announced that work would begin on a permanent residence for the prime minister on the island of Tobago. In making the case for the project, he stated that apart from providing accommodations, it would also host official functions for the benefit of the Tobagonian people, giving them a sense of inclusion and precluding the expenditure of state funds at hotels and private venues.

Though his administration is spearheading the initiative, he emphasised that it was not to be labelled “Rowley’s House” as it’s intended to be a legacy for future prime ministers.

Unfortunately for him, it’s doubtful that anyone is going to abide by that sentiment, for we all know what happened the last time a sitting PM built a house for himself–I mean–for the office he occupied. Also dubious is his claim that it would mean savings in the long run, as such a facility will need full-time staff, both household and security, in order to maintain its upkeep. But excluding the ongoing costs, the final price tag is probably going to end up being much more than the initial estimate. Since that’s the usual occurrence for state-funded projects, taxpayers shouldn’t be surprised if this turns into another Tarouba. But considering the current economic slump, why has Dr Rowley decided to spend scarce resources on something that isn’t a priority for the country? Well… that would depend on what “country” you’re referring to.

Going back to the before-mentioned press conference, contained in his rationale for the residence was a comment that alluded to Tobagonians feeling left out of national affairs, and that the structure is thus essential in strengthening the unity between the two islands. Do the denizens of the sister isle really harbour ill feelings towards its big brother? Perhaps the use of the sibling affiliation, and the rivalry that usually goes along with it, is appropriate in describing Tobago’s attitude towards Trinidad. After all, Trinidad does cast a rather large shadow and is dominant when it comes to geographic size, population and economy. Also, let’s face it, Trinis can be a little pompous when it comes to their sense of nationalism, often forgetting that they are one part of what’s supposed to be a “twin” republic. That’s not to say, however, that Tobagonians feel small or aren’t equally proud of their own identity. In fact, it’s probably that very pride that fuels the resentment Dr Rowley touched on.

Despite some local legislative autonomy as exercised by the Tobago House of Assembly, the body still follows the lead of the central government. And though there is consultation regarding shared domestic policy, it is Trinidad’s interests that tend to take precedence. This epitomises a fundamental lack of cooperation between the THA and central government when it comes to the development of Tobago’s infrastructure and the betterment of its people. Need an example? Take the recent and ongoing fiasco involving the inter-island ferry. It’s 2017 and Tobago isn’t that far away, yet it is still a challenge to implement a cost and time efficient sea bridge. Being something that’s so vital to the island’s ability to function, it begs the question whether the THA should be solely responsible for its operation instead of the ministry of transport. If a constant and free-flowing connection can’t be maintained between Trinidad and Tobago, then it ceases to be a twin-island republic and exists instead as a republic of two islands, or worse, one republic and one vassal state.

So maybe Dr Rowley should be applauded for wanting to strengthen the ties that bind our islands together. But the construction of a prime minister’s residence does nothing in advancing that goal simply because it isn’t what the THA and Tobagonians really want. For like the literary Mr Biswas, whose house failed to fulfil his desire for independence but became a home for his family, the metaphorical house of self-governance would serve a similar purpose for all.

Tobagonians. Final note: Happy Birthday to Sir Vidia Naipaul who turns 85 this week.

Ryan Hadeed


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