MA Candidate Candice Jaimungal recently attended an Indo-Caribbean Empowerment Summit hosted by the organization, Jahajee Sisters. Below, she reflects on her experience interacting with presenters, awardees, and attendees about gender-based violence in Indo-Caribbean diaspora communities.
In the early research phase of my capstone project, I was unsure if there were any organizations dedicated to combating gender-based violence in communities like my own, Indo-Caribbean diaspora communities. My research led me to some harrowing cases and lives lost in the areas of Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park, Queens, all womxn who were murdered by the hands of their abusers, including husbands and boyfriends. These specific cases prompted the organizing of “Jahajee Sisters,” an organization dedicated to creating a space for dialogue for women in the community. “Jahajee” in Hindi means ship-dwelling, a historical reference to when indentured laborers were brought from India to the Caribbean on ships. The organization strives to give voice to their lived experiences, to break down shame, and to use art and activism as a catalyst for change.
How lucky was I to discover that the organization was hosting its largest event of the year– just a few weeks after my discovery. Thanks to the SGPIA Travel Grant, I was able to attend the event, with a notebook, field recorder, and camera in hand.
“Can’t Stop We: Jahajees Thriving,” honored four feminist leaders from the Indo-Caribbean community: Umila Singh, Veemla Persaud, Grace Aneiza Ali and Taij K. Moteelall.
Umila Devi Singh is a community advocate, emerging leader, and chair of the Jahajee Sisters Grassroots Action Team. Umila is the Program Manager of SHE Co-Lab which is a product of her graduate MA thesis. I was grateful to hear the names which I now think about on a daily basis, Natasha Ramen, Guiatree Hardat, Stacy Singh and Rajwantie Baldeo, in a project of hers and mentioned throughout the event.
Taij K. Moteelall was described as a changemaker, artist, entrepreneur, and co-founder of Jahajee Sisters. Victoria Veemala is a trans-advocate hailing from Guyana, who escaped sexual and anti-transgender violence, immigration detention, and family rejection. Victoria Veemala’s story shed light on the range of violence in the Indo-Caribbean community and the need for intersectional programming. Grace Aneiza Ali is an Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in the Department of Art & Public Policy at the Tisch School of the Arts. She is the founder and curator of Guyana Modern, an online platform for the contemporary arts and culture of Guyana and its diaspora.
As I spoke to fellow attendees I was pleasantly taken around to meet others, each open and eager to ask questions about my M.A thesis project. The attendee next to me graciously introduced me to her mother, who greeted me with, “You can call me Debbie, or mom, either or!” It was clear that this was not only an event for those affected and community members, but for families as well. A father at my table urged his son to remove the Nintendo Switch from his hands, encouraging him instead to listen to the presenter sharing stories of her mothers’ abuse. It was clear that the participation of future generations and the role of boys and men are necessary in order to incite change.
I was invited to another event for the launch of the project, “Routed By Our Stories,” an intergenerational oral history archive dedicated to centering the stories of womxn and gender-expansive folx at various intersectional identities.
Overall, I had an extremely powerful and overwhelming experience at the Jahajee Sisters Summit. I walked out feeling optimistic about the community’s future, and even more driven to meet and interview the various womxn who had taken the stage and in true Caribbean spirit, the dance floor.
Each attendee was gifted a selection of poems written by womxn in the Indo-Caribbean community. I was in awe of how many participants were included in the booklet, I have included one of the poems below.
Miseducation of Me
From: “Bolo Bahen! Speak Sister!”
By: Simone Devi Jhingoor
My heart shattered into a million pieces,
a mirror exploding instantly
as each piece bled out my chest,
falling in slow motion to the ground.
Out my eyes poured the saltiest tears,
painfully burning the open would,
the words of Lauryn Hill all I had left
engraved to my broken heart.
“It could all be so simple
but you rather make it hard
Lovin’ you is like a battle
and we both end up with scars.”
You, a tumultuous tsunami
ready to flood villages with waves.
I, a soothing sea at sunset
steadily retreating into the horizon.
At times we conflicted;
oil in water – detrimental to mix
yet meshing intensely.
Heavy roots embedded in the earth
as though it were always meant to be.
I engaged in a jihad daily to stand by your side
believing the Lakshmi in me
would be enough to enlighten your soul.
A warrior shielding your anguish with my love,
blinded by my own compassion.
A wide-eyed child-like innocence
engulfing my soul, full of hope
trusting love could conquer all.
The truth is never easy to accept.
I was a withered leaf
floating down a stream
sailing to nowhere
branched to no tree:
a caged butterfly
fighting to soar free
confined in complication
unable to join the wind.
Loving with an irrational heart
capturing snapshots of wonderful memories
in the palm of a logical mind
incinerating with each side dish
of emotional rollercoaster rides
angry outbursts, crazy raging scenes
this was no longer appetizing.
He once said, “You created the monster…”
it took me a long time to remove
retrieve my repressed third eye.
Seeing with renewed vision,
Pain and sorrow in a young boy’s life
contaminates a grown man
with emotional baggage
too heavy even for a Devi to carry.
I wanted my love to save you,
but the end of our story came to prove
only you can save you.