Even after the spectacle of the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is over, its controversies linger on in public discussion.
Last year, there were issues with the online accreditation process for photographers and other professionals covering the festival. This year, there was a furore over the subpar broadcast coverage of key carnival events.
That — plus a few crime stories — might have been enough to satisfy the public appetite for gossip in other years. But 2015 is an election year in the twin island republic, so the calendar's standout event was never likely to escape political ‘silly season’. Thanks to the presence of Dr. Keith Rowley, the country's Leader of the Opposition at the Carnival, both mainstream and social media will have enough controversy to feed off for weeks to come.
So what did Rowley do to ignite debate?
Wired 868, a website known for its political satire, described the situation as follows:
There are several shots of the 65-year-old Diego Martin West MP [Rowley] dancing closely with a supposedly 17-year-old Ravina Rampersad and standing side-by-side with arms around each other’s waist during San Fernando’s Carnival celebrations.
UNC [the party of governmnent] supporters almost passed out with righteous indignation. […] According to UNC followers, Rowley embarrassed his wife and his post as Opposition Leader and displayed scandalous behaviour for a wanna-be Prime Minister.
PNM [People's National Movement, the opposition party] supporters suggested Rowley had a civic duty to wine on any bumper that presented itself without prejudice and called Rampersad a poster-girl for racial harmony.
In other words, a prominent politician was playing mas’ (masquerading) in a public space and took a ‘wine’ — the hip-swivelling dance for which the Carnival is famous — with a young woman (some say a teenager) who appeared, at least from photographs, to be either a willing participant or the instigator of the dance.
Suddenly public conversation becomes about everything ranging from Rowley's fitness for office to the state of tribal politics in the country:
The Jamaican blogosphere recently had a comparable debate about the appropriateness of expressing sexuality while holding public office when members of the public were shocked after Lisa Hanna, Jamaica's Minister of Youth and Culture, posted a photo of herself wearing a bikini on the beach.
The Wired 868 satire site thought it “ridiculous to suggest his Carnival behaviour will have any bearing on Elections 2015″ but joked Rowley's wife might want to know why he “spent so much time canvassing a woman who isn’t old enough to vote.”
Rowley himself laughed off the noise with a few posts on his Facebook page, showing him having “a great time alongside the southern masqueraders”, while Rampersad, who has not confirmed her age, was forced to delete her Twitter account amid the media attention surrounding the dance.
Many of the comments on the thread were in defence of Dr. Rowley. Donna-Marie De Bellot said:
Nobody pelts behind a mango tree that not bearing!! If they wasn't quaking…who Dr. Rowley wine on in the season of wine and jam wouldn't be a problem. Such petty and poor politics from this government it is simply shameful.
Playing the ‘race card’
As if the age difference of the dance partners in #bumpergate was not enough to keep copy turning and jaws moving, the girl's Indian ethnicity was another explosion waiting to happen in a country in which Indo-Trinbagonians slightly outnumber Afro-Trinbagonians.
Satnarayan ‘Sat’ Maharaj, a divisive religious and political figure in Trinidad and Tobago, who heads the country's largest and most active Hindu organisation, added his voice to the debate, saying he was “shocked” at Rowley's behaviour with a “teenager”. On the same day the opposition man was “wining”, Sat noted, the country's incumbent Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, a practising Hindu, “visited about ten temples with her son.”
The inherent ethnic stereotypes generated by the controversy were not lost on netizens. Rhoda Bharath fumed:
Demonising black male sexuality is nothing new here….but if you want to vex with a black man for wining on an Indian woman and not appear racist, you have to criminalise his sexuality….so the conversation shifts from him wining on an Indian woman to him wining on an underage Indian girl….without information to support your argument.
In a post titled ‘My Body, My Temple’, Vie Maharaj, a new blogger who is both female and Hindu, blasted Sat for “pulling the ‘race’ card”:
For the umpteenth time, this religious leader is relying on the quietly prevailing Aryan Hindu Patriarchy’s ideologies to make his argument. If she is too young to be danced with, then by all means […] let us revise the Marriage Act, which allows 14 year old Hindu girls to be married off! For if she is too young to ‘wine’ at 17, why are our girls old enough to be married at 14? Further, she is dancing with a man who is not of Indian descent! And of course the Bhagwat Geeta says you must marry within your caste and creed, but in this day and age have we not advanced enough to understand that a man/woman is more than the color of their skin or the texture of their hair? […]
These points will not be accepted until we, as Indo-Hindu Trinidadian people, begin to understand that we are Caribbean people.
Pulling apart patriarchy
Vie Maharaj's post also touched on the theme of patriarchy and its relevance for young Hindus growing up in the Caribbean. She continued:
It is a downfall of our dharma that we continue to police the female body by Aryan Hindu Patriarchal suppositions. We have set ways in which the woman is defined, her roles and functions, her limits and borders. We as a society have tested many of these and proven them to be outdated, allowing our women to be educated, have careers and take public positions. However, the woman’s body continues to be policed.
Another blogger, Amilcar Sanatan, registered his displeasure over the fact that while American hip-hop model Amber Rose, whom the blogger describes as a “foreign sketel“, was celebrated for playing Carnival in Trinidad this year, “local sketels” get slut-shamed:
Ravina Rampersad is the local sketel Trinidad and Tobago loves to hate. In a country that glosses over its racial divisions and subscribes to class pretensions Dr. Keith Rowley was guilty of being an African (‘black’) man dancing with Ravina Rampersad, an Indian woman. Bringing up her age, as bloggers did, only explained the gender ideologies that confine women’s sexuality and young women’s sexuality and Indo-Trinidadian women sexuality. So, the local sketel knew that de ole talk was more than just a politicized affair; it in fact was racialised and gendered. Bringing up a functionalist interpretation of family and trying to locate the picture with Dr. Rowley and ‘de way his wife must be feel’ further tells us how much we are alien to the peculiarities of Caribbean culture. Thank you Mr. Ivan Kalicharan for speaking up and the rest of Facebookers with a conscience who knew that that beating up on a 17 year-old in cyber space was more evidence of our collective schizophrenia and politics of the day than declining moral values in Trinidad and Tobago.
The truth of the matter is that you have the right to wine, look sexy, bruk out half naked, and take pictures regardless if you choose not carry yourself that way as an individual. On the contrary, we do not have the right to shame, send hate mail, and divide our people against each other because of our prejudice.
Revelling in the ridiculousness
As the hype surrounding Rowley and Rampersad's ‘wine’ went on, conspiracy theories flew: Twitter users suggested that Rampersad was actually ‘sent’ to wine on Rowley and create bad press for the opposition leader. Facebook user Robin Foster shared another perspective that he had heard on a local talk radio station:
On a talk show on 90.5 last night. I heard a caller say that what happened carnival Tuesday is a good indication of what Keith Rowley would do to people south of the caroni river [where people of Indo-ethnic descent mostly live] if he ever gets into power.
I know it's racist bullshit but still had to laugh. Sorry.
Laughter, in fact, is the overriding reaction to the debacle.
Artist Darren Cheewah posted a series of quirky illustrations that widely shared on social media. Here a sketch of Rowley asks a sketch of Rampersad who she votes for and whether she can cook sada, a roti made from white flour that is a popular element of breakfasts in Trinidad and Tobago.
The fake news site The Late O'Clock News posted an entire spoof about Rowley's resignation in the wake of his scandalous behaviour:
The Late O’Clock News texted the tarnished Dr Rowley to find out why he did not ask for ID from [Ravina Rampersad]. Rowley said:
‘I don’t know how it happened. One moment, I was behind my office desk drafting policies for the future of Trinidad and Tobago, then a truck passed outside playing Party Done and I blinked. When I reopened my eyes, there was a can [of] Stag [beer] in my hand, a bumper on my fender, and a feeling of jubilation in my heart. Looking back now, I am ashamed of myself, so I have decided to done my own party.’
Facebook user Natasha Ramnauth summed up the whole affair:
If all we can find to talk about is Amber Rose's wining skills, what [Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the Prime Minister] wore to a fete and who Keith Rowley wined on; then clearly this country is the model of efficiency and we have nothing pressing to worry about. Life in the Republic de Lacatan is good.