Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : September 21st 2014 Contents A24
Sunday Guardian www.guardian.co.tt September 21, 2014
Iwas in the gym wondering
why, as in the myth of Sisy-
phus, human beings spend so
much time pushing a heavy ball
up the hill, working out, pump-
ing iron only to watch that ball
rolling down, muscles dwindling,
fat returning with a bout of the
flu or a single indulgence.
I was thinking of the vanity of
some of the muscle men whose
blood-curdling hollers while
weightlifting sounded like women
in labour. I have to confess that
at times like these, I am guilty of
objectifying and judging these
men as vacuous peacocks, just as
men are of objectifying beauty
Feeling guilty about my stereo-
typing (glad he couldn t read my
mind), I asked a bodybuilder
(whose brain I didn t think I
would ever be interested in) for
As he obligingly tossed about
my pathetically light weights like
air, an exchange of pleasantries
turned into a kind of confession-
al. People get ponderous, expan-
sive around journalists. It s a perk
of the job.
All these years I have been
biased towards women, thinking
us more economically and physi-
cally vulnerable. In doing so, I
may have denied the wounds of
boys and men, demonised "the
man" as an automatic predator.
It must have been a blind spot.
It s not like I haven t met broken
men: men who have been taken
advantage of, men who were bul-
lied when they were little, men
who were neglected as babies,
men who never ever got approval
from their fathers when they
were boys no matter what they
did, how hard they tried, men
who got licks, men who simply
weren t encouraged to develop
their emotional intelligence, men
whose hearts were stunted and
stained by all kinds of wound-
All I saw was the manifestation
of the wounds. The taciturn,
unspeaking, sometimes violent
men. I turned away.
On this day in the gym, Alvin
(not his real name) said he was
60 but looked 40. I m guessing
he has not destroyed his body
with steroids and drugs to win
competitions. To digress: in yoga
they sometimes say "soften your
eyes," during a particularly diffi-
cult pose. To do this you have to
consciously unfurrow your fore-
head and literally allow the
stones in your heart---disappoint-
ment, loneliness, fear, sadness,
loss, to melt away. Alvin s torso
was ripped, his eyes soft as he
told me his dramatic story.
Alvin was just nine months old
when his Vincentian mother
abandoned him to his father and
went to England to work as a
nurse. She never made any con-
tact with Alvin.
I asked Alvin the usual ques-
tions. Was his father abusive, was
he a womaniser? No, Alvin said,
his mother "just wanted a new
life." It didn t include Alvin.
When his mother left, Alvin s
father remarried. Until he was 15,
he didn t know he was a stepson.
He was treated just the same as
his half-brothers and sisters.
Same love, same buff.
One day after his stepmother
allowed a remark to slip--- "I
wonder what your mother would
have to say about that?"---Alvin s
world splintered into bits that he
was always picking up.
He wanted to meet his biologi-
cal mother but hadn t a clue
where to start. When he was 40
his inquiries led to a relative who
told him his biological mother
thought he was dead. She told
him, "You were only a baby
when she left and doesn t know
if you survived without her."
Alvin flew to St Vincent, where
he found his mother s details. He
phoned her. I got the impression
they spoke, cautiously, hesitantly.
The past was a heap of fragile
bones. He found out he had four
"It was just like the movies.
Suddenly I had a whole new
family. I couldn t wait to meet
The softness in Alvin s eyes
turned into water. He said, "I
was ecstatic, but a doctor advised
me not to go to England to meet
my biological mother unless she
sent a ticket for me. I didn t take
him on. I spoke to my half-
brother before I got on a flight. I
asked him how I would recognise
him. He said I would just know
because that is the way of blood.
When he received me we recog-
nised one another at once. We
hugged and cried. It was like the
"When I met my mother for
the first time, I found after all
the anticipation I couldn t call
her Ma. The doctor was right---
"I shouldn t have gone unless
she d sent me a ticket to show
me she really wanted to see me.
"But also wrong because I am
happy I met her. I know now my
real mother was my stepmom,
the woman who looked after me,
loved me so completely as her
own that I could never guess I
was her stepson until she told
He added, "When my son
comes to meet me in the gym I
hug him, kiss his forehead and
people think I m funny, but I
don t care, because I know what
"What is it?" I asked. "Love is
associated with blood and mar-
riage, but it is actually a choice.
Anyone you truly love is family."
Last Tuesday, 75-year-old
Kenneth "Stew" Parvatan
was found dead by his young
granddaughter, hanged with a
bed sheet at his home in the
village of East Canje, in rural
Guyana has the world s high-
est suicide rate, according to a
report released this month by
the World Health Organization
(WHO). In 2012 there were 277
suicides, a rate of 44.2 per
That compares with a world
average of 11.4 per 100,000, and
a rate of just 6.1 for low- and
middle-income countries in the
Neighbouring Suriname has
the world s sixth-highest suicide
rate---27.8 per 100,000. T&T s at
13.0 is lower---but above the
world and regional average, and
also of great concern.
The other Caricom countries
for which the WHO provides
statistics have fewer suicides.
The per capita rate is 2.3 per
100,000 in the Bahamas and
Barbados, 2.8 in Haiti, 2.6 in
Belize and 1.2 in Jamaica.
Suicide statistics are notori-
ously unreliable. For social and
religious stigma, many go
unrecorded. But the trend is
clear. Guyana has a problem.
Guyana s per capita suicide
rate is the same as Jamaica s
murder rate---also 44 per
100,000 last year.
Bringing down murder rates is
at the forefront of government
policy in most of the Caribbean.
Suicides, too often, are quietly
On the surface, Guyana looks
happy enough. Georgetown bus-
tles. There are clear signs of
poverty both there and in the
countryside, but not the pall of
gloom which haunts drab apart-
ment blocks in ex-Soviet eastern
Europe, another region with
high suicide rates.
Guyana ranks 121st of 187
countries on the UN Develop-
ment Programme s human
development index, which looks
at health and education stan-
dards as well as economic wel-
fare. That is a low ranking, but
not a disastrous one. The Philip-
pines, which places just above
Guyana, has a suicide rate of
"Stew" Parvatan was in many
ways typical of Guyanese sui-
cides. Three-quarters are male.
Most are middle-aged or elderly.
Men over 70 are five times as
likely to kill themselves as those
in their teens and 20s.
Most suicides are rural.
"Stew" lived in Berbice, an agri-
cultural district in eastern
Guyana, which has two-and-a-
half times the Georgetown
region s suicide rate. He was an
Indo-Guyanese; more at risk
than other ethnic groups. As a
method, hanging is not unusual.
But poisoning with herbicide is
more common; sadly, it kills
slowly, and with maximum dis-
The Guyana Foundation, a
recently founded non-govern-
mental organisation, this month
released findings from a small-
scale study, based on in-depth
interviews by Serena Coultress, a
researcher with the Global
Health programme at Maastricht
University in the Netherlands.
She talks of hopelessness and
frustration among men who are
unable to fulfil their expected
role as provider, and turn to
domestic violence, alcohol abuse,
and sometimes suicide.
There is a need, she says, to
look beyond immediate coping
strategies and encourage broader
Cultural and sociological
explanations are the first call for
most researchers, but they do
not tell the full story.
Environmental pollution may
also play a major and damaging
role, says Prof Gerard Hutchin-
son, a psychiatrist and Head of
the Department of Clinical Med-
ical Sciences at UWI s Trinidad
A well-supported body of
research suggests that exposure
to organophosphate pesticides
can lead to suicidal impulses,
with disastrous results. That is
in addition to more obvious
physical symptoms, such as
extreme tiredness, breathing or
heart problems, weakness or
A paper from the journal
Advances in Psychiatric Treat-
ment reports unpredictable
"swings into depression on the
one hand and irritability and
anger on the other." It talks of
"impulsive suicidal thoughts that
are out of the blue and may
result in serious action being
taken. Tractors may be put into
full throttle and aimed at walls
or ditches; shotguns may be
taken from their cabinet, loaded,
and placed into the mouth of
the sufferer; or nooses may be
tied and fastened to supports."
In the main, Caribbean farm-
ers and agricultural workers are
rural middle-aged or elderly
males, the group most at risk
Most are broadly aware that
pesticides are dangerous. But
few are fully informed, and there
is too little training from agri-
cultural support staff. Written
warnings with big words and
small print have little impact.
Pesticides can be absorbed
through the skin.
"I have never seen a farmer
wearing full protective gear," says
a professional woman who
works closely with rural com-
munities. Masks may be worn,
sometimes gloves; but full
cover-up clothing is almost
unknown, not least because it is
hideously uncomfortable for
physical work in a hot climate.
There has been little obvious
sign of a suicide control strategy
in Guyana. There have been
workshops on suicide preven-
tion, but with little follow-
through. There is no functioning
telephone helpline---though the
police, to their credit, have
announced plans to set one up,
using trained civilian counsellors.
(In T&T, a non-governmental
organisation, Lifeline, has a hot-
line number: 645-2800).
Hotlines are vital. So are social
workers. But, if Prof Hutchinson
is right, agricultural advisers can
also play a life-or-death role in
GUILTY OF OBJECTIFYING, JUDGING
PESTICIDES AND SUICIDE RISK
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