After the river there was #1 Mucurapo Road, the compound, a religious commune where everything was shared and where everyone was welcomed. Food, clothing, shelter, religious instruction, friendship, brotherhood/sisterhood, purpose, joy, education it was a one stop shop is what I am told. My childhood memories of life at #1 have over the years boiled down to about one dozen or so separate instances that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other except that they happened there.

Painting by Brother Omowale (Andy Thomas), Watercolour on Bristol Board, date unkown (My collection)
  1. Sister Razia’s sucker bags, I had at least two a day if I budgeted right. They were probably about 25 cents for one. Those frozen bags of juice really cooled you down on a hot day.
  2. Brother Abdul Bar holding me by my hands and spinning me around and around until I got dizzy. In fact, after each prayer in the mosque, all of the children would rush in his direction and line up for their spins. He was our human merry-go-round.
  3. Tipping over a pot of boiling water and burning the skin off of my chest on the day before Eid (that could have been 1987 or ’88). Ummi (my mother) placed damp pieces of cloth all over my chest I think, and I was rushed to the hospital. I was all bandaged up on Eid day and my dress did not fit too well that year but I was alive. It took 20 years for that scar the size of a sada roti to fade…
  4.  Making chow with every manner of edible leaf and fruit available to us.
  5. A night time walk to St. James for ice cream with my parents cut short by a drive-by shower of bullets before we could even leave the gate.
  6. Singing “Afganistan the land of Islam” by Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) over and over… and over…
  7. Watching the movie “Lion of the Desert” staring Anthony Quinn over and over… and over again on a communal television… especially on the days of Eid.
  8. And the girls … well we used to hide and sing Madonna songs like “Like a Prayer” , we dared not let the adults catch us though… so ironic now that I look at the references to stigmata and burning crosses in this video, that we were singing this song in such a deeply islamic environment…
  9. The large house on the western side of the mosque that felt like it dropped from Mars because it was certainly out of this world compared to the one and two room dormitories with communal washrooms that we lived in just like the majority of the other families. Once or twice I got to go inside and thereafter became obsessed with getting a tub one day to take baths in when I grew up… still don’t have a tub … but not obsessed with it anymore…
  10. Frequent raids by the police… on those days everything was disrupted and as time went by they got more frequent. For some of the children it became an exciting event,  they talked and made jokes with the soldiers /police and the mischievous boys tried to touch the long guns and then run away . I always remained somewhat nervous and cautious and usually never let go of my mother’s clothing or let her out of my sight.
  11. Having scores of mothers.
  12. The adhan or call to prayer, a beautiful and familiar sound that brought us all together 5 times a day. Most of the time Brother Hameed would be the one to call it but I also loved when my father did it, he had a special style.
  13. My yellow BMX bike that I only enjoyed for a month or so… i.e. May/June 1990

This documentary done by Karen Martinez around 1991 gives a glimpse into what life was like after the 1990 coup attempt. Here I am running around with my friends… oblivious, as children are, to the turbulence that we were engulfed in. Life for me as a child was always happy and sad at the same time. There was always a feeling, something indescribable, that all was not well. It was not until I was much older that I really was able to discover for myself all the words that truly described my outside-of-the-normal childhood.

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Me playing with friends. (In the middle in all white) – Still from documentary by Karen Martinez

It was during this time of discovering that I found the name Njisane Omowale (1969 – 1990). I learnt that he was killed during the aftermath of the 1990 attempted coup; a brilliant young man, former student of St. Mary’s College (CIC), on a two week vacation  in Trinidad from his studies at Howard University. The circumstances surrounding his shooting death never received attention by the powers that be and the whole case was believed to be an extrajudicial killing, (because it was his step father who had days before led the 1990 insurrection) as put forward by Ishmael Samad in his book. In 1984, while attending St. Mary’s College, Njisane won a poetry competition with the following poem. I share it here in his memory and with the hope that even after all of these years there will be justice.

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Njisane Omowale

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Some more imagery from my days at #1:

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An early letterhead
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Cover design for the primary school report book

It has been more than 30 years since the organization at #1 was established. For me and those of my generation there are many unanswered questions; issues that we are still grappling with while another generation is already here and asking questions of us. Some of course will go unanswered as these things always go. Whether they are too painful, too incriminating or just plain lost to memory, there are events and occurences that our mothers and fathers have probably vowed never to utter to a soul. And maybe, for all of us it is better this way.

I choose to share these memories now as I realize that my own (what I thought was private) history is inextricably linked to the history of my country. And that by sharing my bit I may be able to encourage others to share their stories so that we may all gain a better understanding of what happened. Maybe…

Nimah Muwakil… the girl who once had a yellow bike…