As part of Why Are We Still Here?, a series of 12 blogs written by women around the world to mark International Women’s Day, Trinidadian activist and artist Ellen O’Malley Camps writes about Carnival Theatre, working in a maximum security prison and fifty years of feminist activism.
I am a 77 year old feminist whose heart and soul reverberates painfully at the clear, mounting, unrelenting evidence of the horrors inflicted globally on children and women.
I am an activist-artist no longer involved in marches or demonstrations. Age and restricted mobility enforces a different kind of activism. The former passion that fuelled my experiences with the disenfranchised and disempowered, has morphed into something different: compassion.
Trinidad is my home. I arrived on 1 January 1966 with my Trini paediatrician husband and two children. By the time I had three more children I had founded the Housewives Association of Trinidad and Tobago (H.A.T.T) and established the Trinidad Tent Theatre company.
I had also experienced and fallen completely and passionately in love with the Trinidad Carnival ethos, though I could only watch these yearly celebrations from the side-lines with children in tow.
To cut a (very long) story short, I began to envisage ways to incorporate the J’ouvert traditions – mostly marginalised to make way for a more “Bikini” style mas – into a “local” personal and group developmental training process. I began with the young inexperienced actors in my Tent Theatre Company.
Over time the process developed further through interaction between the techniques of ritual, carnival, and theatre as well as the insights of restorative justice, mediation and transpersonal psychology. This interactive process I call Carnival Theatre. The aim is basically change and transformation through “right relationship” and “best communication” practices – first intra-personally and second inter-personally. I moved beyond theatre circles to work with groups like women single heads of households, various NGOs, government ministries, community groups and businesses.
My present focus is on a project at a Maximum Security Prison in Arouca, Trinidad, with a group of long-term and lifer inmates. This group have experienced many faith-based or other correctional training programmes, as well as having many years “under the belt”. Like my old age self, they look to continue a spiritual journey towards self-realisation and individuation grounded through very practical and communally useful components that will contribute to the reduction of anti-social behaviour and social conflict in Trinidad and Tobago.
At the same time the group seeks to move from rigid institutionalisation by seeking “official” recognition for their many contributions through outreach collaboration with other “official” programmes in the prison. As we say in Trinidad, they “takin’ in front” and challenging the institution to catch up. They want to turn the Carnival Theatre process into a self-sustaining programme that they – the present participants of the programme – as facilitators, can roll out for other identified long term and lifer inmates.
Looking back over more than fifty years activism I am truly grateful that I was able to inspire many groups and individuals to try to become the best possible versions of themselves. As I interacted with Trinidadians young and old, female and male – the most creative and loving people on the planet – I was and continue to be, inspired to “keep on trucking”. Or, as we say here, “always to make as if…”
Ellen O’Malley Camps co-founded the Trinidad & Tobago Housewives Association (H.A.T.T), inaugurated the Trinidad Tent Theatre Company, St. Lucia’s Téyat Toutafé, and Trinidad’s Brown Cotton Tent Theatre Ensemble, EMERJ Associates and Brown Cotton Outreach. Shedelivers human enrichment programmes in Trinidad’s Maximum Security Prisons.