By Dr Margaret Nakhid-Chatoor
The late and great artiste and musician, Andre Tanker’s song, ‘Sayamanda’, had been playing in my ear since the George Floyd story broke. Feeling compelled to look up the word, I was amazed at the connection with the symbolism of the recent tragedy and the song.
According to an explanation by Guanaguanare (2016), Sayamanda was a nonsense word that Tanker improvised while he was composing the tune, planning to replace it with more meaningful lyrics later.
But it sounded right, and later he interpreted it to state ‘Is I a man there’ meaning that “We’re all human. We all have a common kind of feeling; we can identify with what’s happening in another place.”
When I read that explanation, Minneapolis did not seem so far away and many persons who have been subjected to racism and injustice of any kind would identify with what is happening there. I am also the mother of two young men and every time I read of the incident, it unsettled me. Andre Tanker was a favourite.
Thirty-two years ago, seven months pregnant with my first son and playing the guitar alongside him in Rawle Gibbons’ musical interpretation of Ti-Jean and his brothers (a parable of man’s confrontations with the devil and more particularly of black man’s confrontations with the white devil) he had said to me: “Girl! Yuh belly big and yuh playing the guitar?”. Goodness all around! He had flashed his smile in approval, and you felt that all was right with the world.
But all is not right with the world and we know it. We all have a common kind of uneasy feeling as we look on at what is happening in Minneapolis and in cities all around the world. The words of his ‘Sayamanda’ are powerful!
From Trinidad to North Carolina [Hold on, hold on]
From Panama to Richmond, Virginia [Hold on, hold on]
Pole to pole and corner to corner [Hold on, hold on]
Behind the bridge and across the border. [Hold on, hold on].
Sayamanda, sayamanda, sayamanda, ring the bell
Are we truly human (Is I a man there?) when we are silent when injustice is done to another, regardless of race, colour, creed, or sexual orientation?
Is I a man there, watching as another man takes his last breath and calls out for his mother?
Is I a man there, using freedom of speech to belittle and spew hatred, in the guise of enlightening others?
Is I a man there, putting on a smiling face to the public while in my home in this Trinidad, young foreign women who need a helping hand are enslaved, beaten, and stripped naked in exchange for food and shelter? Hold on, hold on to the survivors of these inhumane practices.
The face of injustice, evil and ignorant in its intent, without rational premise, continues its journey behind the bridge and across the border. It weaves its web of instability, moral putrescence, and feigned acceptance of persons of colour in certain eating establishments and the non-acceptance of black people in work places. In this Trinidad still.
The lessons of the enslaved past seem to hold no significance to those who continue to be characterised by their racist actions. Do not be fooled by their words. Barack Obama stressed the importance of “ensuring that this moment becomes one for real change and that we can turn protest into policy.”
Unfortunately, for far too long in this country, democracy has been absent when there is the continuation of colonialist practices, the displacement of marginalised migrants and their families, and the failure to address issues of gender and sexuality which has triggered high rates of domestic violence and abuse.
There have been repeated concerns about the rights of the most vulnerable against the backdrop of international human rights law which seems to lack significant progress without political will.
Any actions to end social injustice has to move beyond expressions of grievances and protests into an arena where the end goal is a transformation in thought and in behaviours. The lived experiences and trauma of those impacted by racism and injustices are yet to be heard.
Let the words and the song of the ‘Sayamanda’ ring daily in our ears.
Pole to pole and corner to corner. Hold on. Hold on.
Dr Nakhid-Chatoor is a clinical and educational psychologist, and immediate past–President of the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Psychologists (TTAP).