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Humble village boy becomes President

By AZARD ALI Sunday, March 17 2013

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Even as a boy in rural Fyzabad, Anthony Thomas Aquinas Carmona knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.

Tomorrow, when Carmona, 60, is inaugurated as Trinidad and Tobago’s fifth President, he will undoubtedly reflect on his childhood days in Fyzabad when he chased iguanas with slingshots, read profusely, and there, under his parents’ house, gave extra lessons to schoolmates who didn’t get good grades.

A curious mixture of the practical and visionary is how those who grew up with Carmona in Fyzabad describe the country’s new President. He is the eldest in a family of six, born to Dennis, now 86, and Barbara Carmona, now 78. His parents still live in the wooden and concrete house in Crest Camp, Fyzabad, where Carmona, his two brothers and three sisters all grew up.

Dennis, a former purchasing supervisor at the now defunct oil company Trintopec, started marriage life with Barbara, in Palo Seco, where Carmona was born. The family then moved to Dalley’s Village, Los Bajos, where Dennis, promoted to a senior staff position in the company was offered a luxurious bungalow which he turned down. The man, now father of a president, opted to live in a junior staff house on Crest Camp’s entrance in Fyzabad, close to their neighbours along Santa Flora Main Road, near to the Fyzabad Police Station and the “Universal” and “Empire” cinemas.

It was this humble village life that “sowed the seeds”, said Carmona’s sister, Marcia Carmona-Hill, 59, who flew in from Florida for tomorrow’s inauguration. With sisters Cheryl, Felicita, and brothers Joseph, a medical doctor, and Nicholas, Carmona attended the Santa Flora Government Primary School.

Carmona-Hill, a certified Olympic coach and special education teacher, recalled:

“Tony and us would walk through the cocoa fields to get to school. He was a remarkable boy ; he never fought in school. And when he would buy paradise plum, sugar cake and tamarind balls during recess, Tony would find us and you would see him come running to share with his sisters first.” To live as a child in rural Fyzabad in the 1960s, she added, was to live life to the fullest because there was schoolwork and playtime, but also time for house chores, church, and family gatherings.

Parents Dennis and Barbara never spared a moment to ensure their children were groomed in all those facets of life, she said.

“Dad read to us every evening, stories from Dr Kildare and Perry Mason, two fictional characters in a detective series. Mom made sure there was hot food on the table,” she said.

As a primary school pupil, Carmona walked with his brothers and sisters along the Santa Flora Main Road every lunchtime to eat their mother’s home-cooked hot food.

Carmona-Hill recalled: “It was Tony who, while walking to and from school, would be the first to call out (to the neighbours), ‘Good afternoon Ms Gittens, Good Morning, Ms Waldrop. He was always smiling.”

She described Carmona as the peacemaker, at school and at home.

According to her, the man who would tomorrow be inaugurated as this country’s fifth President, would sit and listen attentively to his father, mother, brothers and sisters. He would then “convene” court in the family’s living room, and give his advice.

Televison in the home was strictly controlled but when the family looked at the Perry Mason shows, his sister said Carmona would have one of his family take a side with the case being argued and he would argue for the other side. He would be the prosecutor.

The Carmonas, ardent Catholics, worshipped at the Los Bajos Catholic Church in those days of childhood. Church member, Martha St Clair, 79, remembers Carmona as a teenager in church, saying that the tall slim boy tried to memorise the entire Bible. “He used to quote chapter, after chapter,” St Clair said.

Carmona-Hill remembered with tears an incident involving her brother which she said she would cherish all her life. Carmona was 16 years old and a Form Four student at Presentation College, San Fernando. In those days, a “short drop” to the Los Bajos Catholic church, four and a half miles away, cost 25 cents. “I had lost my 25 cents for church one Sunday morning. I didn’t want to tell Mummy or Daddy. Tony gave me his quarter, and I took a taxi with my other siblings and went to church. Tony walked to church that morning. He walked through the lonely oilfield roads. It was his choice to walk though,” she said.

Upon graduation from Presentation College and after a teaching stint at secondary school, Carmona said goodbye to the fun days with his parents and his brothers and sisters at Crest Camp.

The year was 1975 and he had decided to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Political Science at Mona, Jamaica,. His brother, Joseph, affectionately called “Keith”, remembered the sad moments of their separation as he left home to travel to Cuba to study medicine.

Personal empowerment is not a feature of the Carmonas make-up; they have always given back to the community of Fyzabad. Carmona himself was part of a group of men from Fyzabad who called themselves the “Saturday People”, a title given to the group of students, which also included his brother Joseph, who had graduated from secondary school and who taught primary and secondary school drop-outs so they could write the General Certificate of Education exams in English, Biology, Spanish, Literature and French.

Joseph recalled other “Saturday People”, all born and bred in Fyzabad as former school’s supervisor Alan Noreiga, former Permanent Secretary Steve Crease, Lesley Blades and Daly De Gouville. Joseph said the group, having completed their ‘O’ and A’ Levels, and before deciding on choice of work, had decided it was time to help those who had not done so well at GCE, and wanted another “go” at the London exams.

“We gave extra classes to those children and also to those children who were not so well off who were sitting what was known then as the Common Entrance Examination. The “Saturday People” was born out of that,” he said. Carmona was then18 years old.

The “Saturday People” group tutored their students at the Fyzabad Intermediate Anglican School on weekends. And the aim of the group expanded to include provision of financial aid as members discovered that there were teenagers whose parents could not afford to pay for the London GCE exams.

One elderly man in Fyzabad who requested anonymity for this article, remembered that Carmona had come up with the idea of having brunches and cake sales under the Carmonas house in Crest Camp, to raise money to assist the students financially.

“It was a group effort; it was memorable,” Keith remembers of the 1970s project.

The elderly Fyzabad man also remembers the Carmona’s generosity of spirit, recalling an incident several years ago when he, not content with just tokens being presented to retired teachers at certain schools in the southland, got together with his brothers, to sponsor all-expenses-paid trips to Tobago as gifts of appreciation for said teachers for their long and meritorious service to education.

Another demonstration of Carmona’s open-heartedness’ which Joseph said he will treasure forever, was the new president’s financial support to the football teams of various schools’ in Fyzabad and Santa Flora.

A close relative also revealed that Carmona once took a bank loan to facilitate “certain” projects among youths in Fyzabad, a debt which he completed repaying only a few years ago.

After his law studies, Carmona rose through the ranks of the judiciary — he was an Acting Director of Public Prosecutions and was appointed a judge of the High Court. After nine years in the judiciary, he was appointed as a judge to the prestigious International Criminal Court (ICC) in December 2011.

When Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced on February 2 that Carmona was the nominee for president, some female staff in the High Court Registry broke into tears. He was the judge who tempered justice with mercy in the criminal courts, often lecturing to each accused before passing sentence, never allowing an accused to leave the dock without echoing the words of what became his personal motto: “Do the right thing, and it begins with the man in the mirror.”

Three years ago, a rape accused, about to be sentenced by Carmona in the San Fernando First Assize Court, smashed the dock, kicked at policemen and hurled abuses at the judge. Carmona looked on from the bench then lectured to him with a calmness befitting that of a father to a son.

In an interview in the December 2012 edition of The XPAT Journal, a magazine for expatriates in the Netherlands and which featured Carmona on his appointment as ICC judge, he spoke of the passion he had as a schoolboy, for justice. Carmona told the writer Roy Lie Tjam: “As a teenager in High School, I would ‘break beach’ (leave school without permission) and attend high-profile criminal cases. In majority of the cases, however, I found that the plight of the victim was not properly represented. I decided there and then to change that, by becoming a successful prosecutor.”

At the Carmonas home last week, while parents Dennis and Barbara rested, sister Marcia, standing in the big yard, pointed to the fruit trees extending on all sides of the Crest Camp house, and beyond which are thick forest trees through which Petrotrin’s pipelines run.

Among the coconut, orange, grapefruit, portugal, bananas and cherry trees in the big yard, stands a primrose tree which bears abundantly, a very rare and expensive fruit that is fast becoming extinct in Trinidad and Tobago.

The primrose fruit is recorded in divine scriptures, as a special fruit with immense healing powers. Carmona, family members said, cherishes that fruit tree dearly and his mother, Barbara, is known to give the fruit away to passers by.

“Barbara will call you on the phone and tell you that there are primrose in the tree...come and pick,” said Sarojanie “Sisto” Persad, who owns ‘Sisto’s’ shop nearby.

It is at “Sisto’s”, which Persad owns with husband Ramesh Jaimungalsingh, that Carmona does his monthly grocery shopping

“You will never think he is a judge. If you see him carrying boxes from the shop, into his car trunk. You would expect Tony to push trolley in HiLo. And every Sunday, Tony will come and stand outside the shop and talk to everyone passing. He will buy five and six newspapers to share with others,” Persad said.

Residents of Robert Hill said Carmona bought a parcel of agricultural land and began planting it. Joseph, who is the District Medical Officer for St Patrick, said his brother is a “Sunday morning gardener”. He chuckled, “And I’m his assistant.”

Jaimungalsingh recalled fun memories with his village friend, Carmona, whom he said, recently tried his hand at planting watermelons.

“The watermelons happen to be no larger than a small cabbage. Nevertheless, Tony shares watermelon among all of us, and even called people on the phone to remind them he dropped melons at their home. He is our friend and we love him like a brother,” he said. As a tribute to this son of Fyzabad, pupils of both the Santa Flora Government Primary School and the Intermediate Secondary schools, will attend tomorrow’s inauguration.

Transport is being provided for villagers, friends and well-wishers, for the journey to the Hasely Crawford Stadium where the ceremony will be held at 5 pm.

Some of Carmona’s school friends who live in Texas and as far as Sweden, have returned to Trinidad to see their former schoolmate sworn in as President.

Be it family, friend, schoolmate or villager, each would undoubtedly reflect during tomorrow’s inauguration, on how there lives would have been personally touched by the man who is TT’s next President, Anthony Thomas Aquinas Carmona.

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