Phenomenal Women


I write this a day earlier than it will post and today is International Women’s Day

Maya Angelou wrote a poem called Phenomenal Woman. Let us honour the phenomenal women in all of our lives.

Today I will highlight one such phenomenal woman, my dear friend Marla, who in 2017 gave the Sir Arthur Lewis memorial lecture, a big stage for a Caribbean economist.

I share with you here a video created and posted for IWD2019 of her opening to that speech, plus the transcript from that.

I remember when I first heard the speech, it gave me goosebumps, the power of the story was so strong, the way Marla honoured her grandmothers. I hope it so inspires you too.

Transcript excerpt:

For me it is a tremendous honour, to be the second woman, and the second Trinbagonian, to deliver this prestigious lecture in its 22 year history. The first woman, Dr. Kari Levitt, and the first Trinbagonian, Dr. Lloyd Best, together gave us the “Plantation Economy Model”. This seminal work, like almost all academic work in this region post-1950, was arguably built on and influenced by Sir Arthur Lewis’ constructive anti-imperialism, but was a critique of his “Dual economy” model, in explaining Caribbean economies.

What impossible acts to follow!

And I beg your forgiveness this evening for breaking with the tradition of paying homage to Sir Arthur Lewis at this lecture, and instead, recognizing the role of his mother in shaping his genius. From all that I have read of Sir Arthur Lewis’ character, this is what I think he may have preferred.

After his father had passed away, Sir Arthur Lewis’ mother, Ida, was left to single handedly raise five sons ranging from 5 – 17 years old. FIVE boys! Sir Arthur Lewis said “My mother was the most highly disciplined and hardest working person I have ever known, and this, combined with her love and gentleness, enabled her to make a success of each of her children,”. This to me itself is worthy of a Nobel prize!

And while it was my initial idea to dedicate this lecture to my family – my parents, my husband and my children – the giants upon whose shoulders I stand, I want instead, to dedicate this lecture to my late grandmothers.

To my grandmothers:

  • Who were born into the vicious cycle of persistent poverty, typical of indentured labourers in Trinidad and Tobago in the post-WWI era.
  • Girls who were married off as child brides to young boys they didn’t even know, not because their parents didn’t love them, but because such love is a luxury that hunger cannot indulge.
  • They had no real freedoms or choices, due to grinding poverty, true, but sadly, also due to misogynistic traditions thinly veiled as “religious” beliefs.
  • My grandmothers were basically illiterate, but they knew, with the intelligence that God gave them (rather than a solid British education, or from empirical studies in peer reviewed journals), that education is the only way to break the vicious cycle of persistent poverty.
  • Education, and not making child-brides of their daughters. For their eleven children each, taught them the importance of family planning, because it was a choice they never had.
  • These women were able, against impossible odds, to help break the cycle of poverty in their families, without a fancy World Bank or United Nations Poverty Reduction Programme. And not by a process of osmosis either – for many families remain stuck in this cycle of poverty in my country. And I have seen families descend into poverty, for a lack of a wise and determined matriarch.
  • My grandmothers had never worn pants, literally never wore pants, nor had they “worn the pants” so to speak, in their homes. But guess what? Who needs pants when you can wear a cape, disguised as a sari or an orni. These women, my grandmothers, are my superheroes.
  • So, and I thank you for indulging me, I dedicate this to my grandmothers, because I think I can safely say, with utmost humility, that this – me standing before you here this evening – is what they suffered for, and what they would have wanted.

Also published on Medium.