Women’s Health – raising awareness, challenges and opportunities

“I’m interested in Women’s health because I’m a woman.

I’d be a darn fool not to be on my own side.”

– Maya Angelou

I am astonished that women are still struggling to have high levels of healthcare in the 21st century. Yes, we have come a long way in understanding our own bodies and the healthy lifestyles we need to lead, but despite the advances in Women’s Health – there is still progress to be made and we sometimes get a bit complacent with our own lifestyles choices. I don’t think we can ever stop improving our levels in health facilities and education. And so we will always aim to advance health programmes, especially in less developed countries of the world. There is an essential need to be open, transparent and to have this conversation. Our vaginas, breasts…and whole body need attention throughout life.

The last few months has provided a lot of inspiration for me to write this post. I have the following great examples of women helping other women, and also raising awareness in on health issues using traditional and social media to keep us engaged and to get their messages out. These are new channels to reach out to women, and girls. It is also encouragement to take the initative to have ownership of our health and bodies. With women constantly facing challenges in our life cycle – here are some of the amazing examples of positive action where women are helping other women to take control of their own lives and destiny. Some of the health issues on here are easy to write about as I feel compel to share the amazing work going on.

A gynaecologist relative, Dr Sabrina Ramkisson, proactively campaigns to raise awareness on women’s health issues, especially Cervical Cancer Screening. Sabrina regularly use tradition and social media to inform and empower women and girls to stay ahead on their health. She organised a 5K ‘Smearathon’ for women and men last August in the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain, Trinidad. At the event, there were other gynaecologists to offer advice, on-site smear booths and some fun activities. Sabrina also successfully hosted the digital #SmearforSmear lipstick campaign to remind and encourage women to take a regular smear test to prevent cervical cancer. I was able to take part here in London, and she also shared photos of other women in Trinidad & Tobago and other countries, who smeared their lipstick.   It was a visible bond and showed support for women who took part.

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There is a decrease in the number of women and girls who are not taking their cervical cancer screening. Therefore, it is with greater impetus and purpose that campaigns like these are being transparent with much fervour. Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is a UK charity set up by a co-founder who has survived cancer, and they also aim to raises awareness of cervical cancer with active campaigns. The charity founded the #SmearforSmear campaign which is run in January for Cervical Cancer Awareness. It was an utter pleasure to see #SmearforSmear trending on Twitter last month as the figure for women taking a smear test was in decline.

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Only yesterday I read an article about comedian Karen Hobbs, who was diagnosed at 24 years with cervical cancer. Luckily she is another cervical cancer survivor, whose blog and performance urge you to not be embarrassed about your smear test. Karen has also been praised by The Eve Appeal for making light the serious topic of cancer.

I also know the lovely Claire Mcdonald, who is working on changing behaviours, cancer prevention and raising awareness in health. Claire and her colleague Sinead recently visited me at the British Library to find lifestyles information for women and girls for their awareness campaigns on Jo’s Trust and Coppafeel, the Breast Cancer Prevention Cancer charity. They were particularly interested in demographics that will help them target their audiences, and their health messages. They were looking at factors such as reproductive behaviours, poverty, income levels, age, geographical locations and other factors that may affect a woman’s health. These bring the questions: Do women share a bath? Would they have time to ‘do the check’ on their breasts? How many persons are having children at a younger age that may prevent cancer? Are they smokers at a higher risk level? Questions needs answers.

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Do the Check! – Coppafeel

The library is useful for helping in researching these issues. For example some golden information nuggets in Mintel’s ‘Marketing to Women February 2017’ are:

  • the age of motherhood continues to rise “although 2015 saw a slight increase in the number of live births, the average age of motherhood continues to rise, reaching 30.3 years”.  
  • social media stars are feeding a culture of health and wellness amongst young women
  • on ‘Period leave’ – the issue of period impacting on women’s sports performance with Heather Watson and Fu Yuanhui both blaming their period for their underperformance, whilst marathon runner, Kiran Gandhi chose to freeblee for the duration of the London event
  • 16-34 years old are most likely to use or be interested in using apps that help anxiety or stress management
  • ‘This Girl Can’ campaign helps to get female more active with 16 million people aged over 16 play sport on a weekly basis

Looking at these lifestyles choices and demographics inform their messages in campaigns. Claire said something touching to me on young women…”You don’t know who is coming up in the world under you and you must take them along”. The best way to prevent poor health is to inform people of good healthy moderate habits. Cancer Research also organise 5K or 10K ‘Race for Life’ runs to raise funds for research, which are very popular with women. As the old adage goes – Prevention is better than cure.

 

There are still so many women in the world who also cannot afford menstruation products – therefore being open and discussing this in the mainstream is great for breaking barriers.

I also know the founder, Mandu Reid, of the menstrual cup charity ‘The Cup Effect’. Mandu foundered this charity that aims to change menstrual behaviour by empowering women and girls to use a menstrual cup, and protect the environment – that is synchronicity! The charity also uses the income raised to help women in ‘period poverty’ in the UK and in other less well-off parts of the world. Mandu also takes part in active campaigning, and again it was recently publicised in this brilliant article in The Guardian newspaper. To put some zest in this good work – Mandu also invites you to come to her Cupaware Party with friends.

Menstrual Cup
An Ergonomic menstrual cup  
The invention relates to a menstrual cup (10) having a bell-shaped lower part (20), comprising a plurality of non-convex grip surfaces (22, 24) which are distributed in a substantially axisymmetric manner at least over said bell-shaped lower part (20), and designed so as to be able to be pinched by the user’s fingers in order to facilitate the removal of the cup. Source: Espacenet.

Growing up in Trinidad, the girls in my school and neighbourhood circulated a famous book on puberty called ‘Growing up and liking it’ – see the link for past versions. It was in an easy-to-read format, and was instrumental in educating us on menstruation, pregnancy, menopause and what to expect of our bodies. We were fortunate to have mothers, sisters, aunties, friends and teachers at school to inform us too. Sadly, some countries still don’t have basic adolescent and puberty education, and so these challenges still exist.

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Growing up and liking it – Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health.       http://www.mum.org/GULIcov.htm

In all these Women Health issues, there are still opportunities to create charitable and profitable businesses. I have recently conducted some business research on these very issues. Again, only recently I have encountered ‘Fab little Bag’ whose mission is to stop pollution caused by flushed sanitary items: to make an awkward disposal into a fab experience…and to break down the barriers to promote female hygiene. You too might start to see their product in toilets across the country. These are the opportunities that entrepreneurial women are taking to help other women.

Women’s Health is too vast to cover as a one-off topic. As we enter the theme ‘Press for Progress’ for International Women’s Month in March 2018 – there is so much we can be thankful for in developments in research, health screening, hygiene etc. It is even better that we can rely on each other to talk, communicate, lobby, and raise awareness on Women’s Health to those near…and far to us. Pressing ahead, looking after ourselves is the best gift we can give ourselves – making time for our health and happiness should be top and number one on our To-Do-List!

On the agenda…Planet Earth

Om Sam Maa Sinchantu Murutah Sam Poosha Sam Brihaspatih –

May the five elements of Air, Water, Fire, Earth and Sky make my body healthy and strong.

Line from a Hindu Mantra.

We rely on the Earth for our own wellbeing, inner peace and life. In the last few months, you may have noticed that there has been devastating damage and loss to human life, property and the Earth by natural disasters exasperated by climate change. If you did not notice this in the news or social media – you must have been on another planet! I have started with this mantra as we said it at a prayer meeting which was a serene and gentle reminder that we are vulnerable mortals.  Just as nature can have a detrimental effect of loss and damage on us – we too must try to show some respect to the Earth. It is not too much for us in return to respect it and take small positive steps to sustain it for future generations and life as we know it. I will discuss some small environmental thoughts and ideas that have been bothering me.

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South East England

It seems that the environmental issues have come to a head recently with this year’s natural disasters.  Sadly, we all know that this is not the end of this type of devastation and all around the Earth… we will continue to have floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, avalanches, Tsunamis, droughts, etc. I will discuss briefly these big local and global issues, and acknowledge that it should not just be on the agenda…but remain a standing item on our consciousness.   I have little power to do much on a grand scale but in terms of raising awareness and acknowledgement of these issues, it is the least I can do.

First to note down, is the issue of plastics pollution. Plastics and tin cans are frequently dumped in my neighbourhood by street-drinkers and passersby.  Littering really aggravates me. I frequently get dirty fingertips from picking up discarded bottles, cans, plastic cups and other litter on my merry walks around town. I normally have to put them in the closest recycling bins that I can find. Plastic take away cups are also dumped near King’s Cross St Pancras as there are not many bins possibly due to security reasons.  I generally have to resist myself from picking up discarded cups left near the station’s Taxi rank.

 

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One solution to plastics pollution is the simple ethos of the three 3Rs – Reduce, Recycle and Reuse. It is better for us to practice these three Rs whether it is on a personal, commercial or larger countrywide infrastructure level.  In my initial research, I soon realized that this is not just a local level but also a global issue.  As a global community, there are already some discussions and work in progress to solve this in a collaborative and forward thinking way. We still have a long way to go on this issue.

Larger white goods and household trash (no fluffy word) are also frequently dumped in my neighbourhood.  Like-minded passionate environmental digital champions such as @Littergram and @CleanupWalthamForest frequently report ‘fly-tipping’ in neighbourhoods to local authorities.  This is a local problem but there are also global questions. I recently looked at a BBC documentary ‘Inside Story: A Week in a Toxic Waste Dump’ by Reggie Yates which mentioned the direct impact of our developed world consumption for white and electronic goods, which eventually leads to Third World toxic graveyards that affect lesser developed countries.  So to be clear…this is not an isolated issue.  There are reactive and circular factors that affect us and our world when it comes to consumption of goods. I visited my nearest recycling waste plant London Energy about five years ago, and it was an eye-opener on recycling, the circular economy and waste management on a large-scale urban city. We still have issues with dumping, litter and flytipping regardless of local authority run initiatives. Education and public information awareness may be the answer to solve these pollution problems, but it also requires behaviour change by citizens (culprits may be a better word).

 

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Somewhere along the way on this Earth, plastics make their way from urban and rural environments to our seas and oceans.  In Plastics waste inputs from land into the Ocean Science Magazine 13 February 2015, reports that ‘80% of marine debris originates from land with 275million metric tons (MT) of plastics waste was generated in 1992 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean’.  This horrendous amount of pollution is predicted to increase in future.

In recent weeks, plastics pollution has also been highlighted by Sir David Attenborough, naturalist and broadcaster, in Blue Planet. I was so pleased to see this conversation ramped up a few octaves and is still ongoing.  Sir Attenborough said that “everyone one of us’ has a responsibility to reduce plastics ending up in the ocean.  It is one world. And it is in our care for the first time in the history of humanity for the first time in 500 million years, one species has the future in the palm of its hands.  I just hope (humanity) realizes that this is the case.”

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Shared by my contacts on Facebook

Another exemplary organization I found in my research is The Ellen McArthur Foundation, which has been raising awareness on the ocean plastics issue and the circular economy.  In ‘Speaker: Recycling alone won’t solve ocean pollution’ Plastic News 25 September 2017, this foundation explains “plastic bottles caps and closures can easily become separated from their bottles and are particularly dangerous for seabirds, who see them floating and mistake them for food…..an estimate 90% of seabirds have plastics in their guts”. Seabirds are not the only species affected by plastics pollution – fishes and marine life may also ingest small plastic debris.  Apparently, Asian countries have the highest levels of plastics pollution. This may also end up in our own ecosystem and human food chain!

A paradigm shift is essential – and there is a warning that “our waste will continue to grow with the increased population and increased per capita consumption associated with economic growth, especially in urban areas and developing African countries”. Some behavioural change is required, and slowly this can change with education, positive attitudes and action. There has already been progress, for example, with the Plastic Bag ban or tariff introduced in some countries, so change can happen.

Five years ago at the London Energy tour, the Public Relations Manager told us that she felt that there was too much packaging in UK supermarkets. I always remember this too.  However, again with small steps, positive change can happen – behaviour and commercial initiatives can change pollution for the better.   For example, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched ‘The New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize’ for rethinking of the design and materials of plastic packaging – with categories in rethinking grocery shopping, redesigning, sachets and reinventing coffee-on-the-go. At their awards ceremony at the ‘Our Oceans’ conference, the commissioner reportedly said “bringing your fish home in a plastic bag one year and bring the plastic bag home in the fish the next is the reality. The rethink design awards show how innovation can inspire redesign, reduction of waste and re-utilization”.

 

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This is only one aspect of the Earth’s vulnerable environment that has captured my attention in recent months.  Climate change has also come to the front of my attention due to Earthquakes in Mexico and India, and hurricanes in the USA and in my beloved Caribbean. I tend to keep an eye on the storms in the Caribbean, but the hurricanes this year has been devastating in American and the Caribbean. The relentless and catastrophic damage to Texas, Barbuda, Puerto Rico and other countries in the region as witnessed on social media in real time was very sad and worrying to see.

 

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In the insurance industry magazine Reactions 2nd October 2017 Grappling with Irma Climate Change Link’, a Research Fellow at the University College London said that “warmer Atlantic sea surface temperatures mean more active hurricane seasons and stronger storms”. After the damage to property, lives, homes and the land caused by Hurricane Harvey, Lloyd’s of London issued a statement calling for greater industry awareness over changing weather patterns.  The statement said: “We know that climate is changing and with it traditional weather patterns.  The costs of natural disasters are on the rise, with direct losses in the past decade estimated at $1.4 Trn US Dollars globally”. There is no doubt about the financial and human cost.

All this damage is harder for smaller Caribbean Islands – there is a call for more disaster planning, a “wake up call”, a marshal plan as penned by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, whose own island was affect with by the hurricane this year. It is best explained on Caribbean Intelligence’s site as “a fresh approach to coping with all Mother Nature has to throw at the archipelago of territories prone to geo-faults and Cross-Atlantic high winds”. No time for wasting, there must be a coordinated approach to helping these beautiful islands in the Caribbean…and also the US states affected by these mighty hurricanes now and in the future.

As I reflect, I have experienced a terrifying Earthquake in Italy in 2009 and a hurricane as a child in Trinidad in the early 1970s.  The earth’s environment and sustainability is a big topic for just me to battle, and perhaps for you alone too. Optimistically, it is the little actions we should aim to take as often as we can to change course. Otherwise there will be dire consequences that inaction would lead to, should we ignore it. There will be even worst results for the environment and humans…if we do nothing. The United Nations is actively working to solve some of these issues and see their #BeatPollution hashtag on social media.

However small we may do to reduce, recycle and reuse with care for our world, it would eventually have a big impact on our lives, wellbeing and future generations for a better livable environment. We currently have a responsibility of leaving the Earth in a better state than when we arrived on it.  This is the universal language that we must try to speak, understand and live by. Earth is the very thing that sustains us. Therefore, it should stay on our agenda.

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Trinidad Carnival is Colour

Well, I have finally done it! I have my very own blog after many years of suggestions from friends and acquaintances that I should have my own online space.  I am a fairly prolific social media user, have blogged for work, guest blogged and used collaborative technologies since the 1990’s as work in libraries and information centres.

In the past I am too busy with other things to have time to blog, but I feel the time has come to merge my stories as they become interwoven into one space.  It may be easier for me to do this here due to the info centric, rich connections and experiences I encounter in my simple life, community, work and profession.  Let’s face it … this online space is for everyone to use for good and I also want to use this as an archive for future reference.

For my first post, I wanted to write briefly about Trinidad Carnival which occurs every year two days before Mardi Gras, directly followed by Ash Wednesday and Lent.  It is a time of year where I instinctively feel excited, and try to tune in from wintery cold England to the heat, energy, bursting creativity and vibrant colours or as wef4ffd61ffe17e19013e28c4547029b39 say… bacchanal (derived from bacchus) that is Trinidad Carnival.

The history of Trinidad Carnival is long and goes back to the 18th Century when the European plantations owners celebrated masquerades before lent.  Their African slaves were not allow to take part but formed their own caboulay celebrations. Here they developed mas’ (abbreviated from masquerade) as we know it now – whereby African musical and dance traditions fused with European masks and costumes into an eclectic and exotic mix.

 

And so I am writing this in London, but my heart strays away to the land of my birth this time of year. From as early as I can remember, I can remember Carnival! Carnival is part of the Trinidadian (Trini for short) psyche, mindset and makeup (no pun intended). Children would take part in schools by making masks and costumes. Usually schools arrange a bit of a “jump up” dance for the parading of these creations on the Friday before the Carnival weekend. There would be an extra tinge of excitement in the air as it is the start of four days of holidays for the Carnival celebrations. The actual big and commercial celebrations usually start the previous year with the launch of Carnival bands, parties or ‘fete’ as we say, being once a French colony. This is big business now, for when one Carnival finishes, the planning for the next year starts immediately after a short break.

I found some gems of carnival video clips from the 1950s when British Pathe digitised their archive.  The effort that went into the costumes are stunning with wonderful results.  I wondered if they were funded centrally or whether the costumes were made out of their own pockets! Anyway, I love the themes such as American Native Indians, Egyptians and all the other finer details in the mas. In the 1970s and 1980s, I had noticed even then that cameras and broadcasters transmitting the parades to people’s homes and possibly abroad.

As a child, I used to be excited waking up on Carnival weekend as the whole weekend would be a visual and rhythmical treat. Saturdays during the day would be filled watching on television the ‘Kiddies Carnival’ and later that night, some of the steel pan ‘Panorama’ competitions. The show usually finishes late, so I sometimes never saw all of the steel bands. What people don’t realise – the steel bands themselves in Trinidad are massive and consist of scores of musicians and organisers.  The orchestras fill a large part of the epicentre of the competitions at the Queen’s Park Savannah stage. The flag bearers were generally women who danced away to the steel drums on stage and were a treat to watch too – they waved it and shaked it!

On Sunday there would be the Dimanche Gras competition showcasing the large Kings and Queens Carnival costumes and the Calypso competition.  This is no longer the competiton format but it was exciting to see it then over the weekend.  The televised shows always made exciting live viewing and that was very special about Trinidad (this year I listened to live radio via the web in London and have seen live streaming on the web too in the recent years!).   

I remember the costumes being very elaborate and colourful in the late 70s and 80s. Now the costumes are still beautiful but a bit monotonous, as they are mainly bejewelled bikinis with feathers.  Don’t get me wrong – I guess this has made mas more accessible and now everyone can afford to participate in a piece of the action in an all-inclusive Carnival band.  A relative told me that most of the big bands mas are currently manufactured in China. However, I saw a few years ago that some top designers such as Brian Macfarlane still make theatrical theme-based mas, and also there are still organically handmade costumes in some communities across Trinidad.

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Jab Jab – Brian MacFarlane.

On Carnival Mondays, we would wake up to young children in my hometown Dow Village wearing their homemade masks.  They will go door to door chanting slogans and making noisy music with a pan and stick expecting small money for their efforts.  Pocket money  was given as an appreciation for their efforts.  Sadly, I understand this tradition doesn’t happen now in my village. From early morning on Carnival Monday when it is still dark, there would be live television broadcasting of J’ouvert – the official start of the adult Carnival on the streets of the cities.  I only attended J’ouvert once in Port-of-Spain circa 1985 with relatives and we got there for about 3am in the dark.  It was amazing to witness and participate in a celebration with people dancing on the streets at that time in the early hours of the morning.  The debauchery, dancing and parading would continue into the daylight of mid-morning. This is broadcasted on live television too, if you can’t go out to the streets. In recent years in London, I love seeing dawn tweets of Trinidad J’ouvert on Twitter.

J’ouvert leads on to the official parades of bands. Historically there is no wasting of time on the start of Carnival and revellers make the most of time before the Ash Wednesdays cool-down.  The rest of the day would be spent watching the Monday parades of bands on the Television.  My village had traditional celebrations such as Jab Jabs (derived from Spanish for diablo) dressed as devils with whips.  Unique to my village, some East Indians in the community would also have a parade to the beat of East Indian tassa drums to the next main town Couva.

On the final day that is Carnival Tuesday, our parents would always take us to Port-of-Spain (my mother’s hometown) to see the mas meeting up with our large family with homemade picnics and snacks for the day including delicacies like our own Trinidadian pilau (mixed rice dish with meat, pigeon peas and vegetables).  There we would be based all day to see the great and traditional masqueraders displayed on the Queen’s Park Savannah stage.  We would see traditional masqueraders such as the Sailor Bands, Midnight Robbers, American Indians, Minstrels, Moko Jumbies on stilts and blue devils covered with blue powder to name a few characters. There too, we saw the great bands of 3000 plus masquerade members by designers such as Raoul Garib, Wayne Berkeley, Stephen Lee Heung and my all time favourite designer – the world renown Peter Minshall.

Peter Minshall not only created beautiful exquisitely designed costumes for Kings, Queens and his band members – he retained the theatrical themes and origins of the mas with performances on the main Queen’s Park Savannah stage. Frequently his costume designs were provocative for social and political commentary with theatre and drama.  For example, I remember vividly on television the King of Carnival performance and showcasing of Mancrab for his band theme ‘The River’ – it was pure drama!  This was aired live on television to the movement and sound of calypso music.  I still think of the year he created the band Rat Race and the vision of hundreds of people dressed as Rats in the ‘savannah’ and on the streets of Port-of-Spain.  It is hard to cover all the beauty, vibrancy and growing up with Trinidad Carnival but they are cherished memories of the creativity and the celebration of our people.

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Rat Race by Peter Minshall.

On the business side of Carnival, Minshall is renowned for exporting his talent and creations at major global events such as the Barcelona and Atlanta Georgia Olympic Games Opening ceremonies.  He is also credited for designing the Tall Boy which he patented and invented with Doron Gazit.  It was great to see him also back from a haitus from Carnival in 2016 with his design of ‘The Dying Swan’.

There would be no Carnival without music.  Kaiso and the oral traditions came over with African Slaves and evolved into calypso and eventually to the modern day soca (soul and calypso).  The development of this music genre is innovative and laced with fusion beats and can be social and political commentary but generally is more upbeat, rhythmic with innuendos for having a good time.  Nothing can beat a good calypso to get a fete going or everybody on a dance floor or street. I still actively look forward to the new music releases and social media is a great tool for that hobby.  I remember when I first came to London, I had no clue what the latest releases were as I tend to listen to mainstream British radio and not the UK soca radio stations.  I used to receive cassettes sent over with relatives who went to holiday to Trinidad. Thankfully now I can find music on online radio stations, You Tube and via my own social network.  Forbes recently published a list of Carnival Entrepreneurs with the Trinidad Carnival Powerlist and there is much talk that soca music is finally going mainstream. I hope so, with so many Caribbean Carnivals being celebrated across the globe.

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At the British Library where I currently work, this is the final week for the dazzling exhibition ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’. I am extremely grateful to the curators of the exhibition for helping me understand the world and for my own self-discovery as an Indian-Trinidadian. I learnt so much about West African culture and its oral traditions, ancient manuscripts, symbols, fabric, musical instruments, musical history and art forms. It was also an immense pleasure to see the ‘Carnival Queen’ designed by fellow Trinidadian Ray Mahabir on the speaker-box with a nucleus of calypso and soca music curated to visuals of Nottinghill Carnival inside the speaker-box. Being in there, it was one of the moments when you can see all the dots joining up – a world connected. Old with the new.

Being in there, it was one of the moments when you can see all the dots joining up – a world connected. Old with the new.

I feel I can write a book on my experiences on Carnival, which has been dubbed a long time ago as the greatest show on Earth. I borrowed a few books to research from the British Library before my visit last year for Trinidad Carnival, and it has been documented for its social, cultural and delightful impact.

Today in London,  I wanted to remind those who know me that it is Carnival Tuesday and I can’t help my thoughts straying to Trinidad and that infectious energy, freedom, rhythms, empowerment and colour of my country and the people.   Later this year, I look forward to a little bit of that enjoyment at the Notting Hill Carnival in August.

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