(Mtima Solwazi. Photo credit- Dwayne Morgan)
At a cursory glance, Mtima Solwazi wasn’t exactly approachable. A burly guy dressed in all black and a taqiyah sporting a stern expression and deep voice- he looked like he’d chew your head off. I met him at the same "Life Writing Skills" literary workshop I met “Phoenix," the subject of Cocaine Tales Part 1.
I was actually standing a few feet away from Mtima trying to cover the workshop in a cramped room. Since I was the photographer/videographer/reporter trying to wiggle my body in between participants, I made sure to avoid him.
Until he stood at the podium and broke down. Crack cocaine had ruined Phoenix’s marriage, and Mtima disclosed to everyone in the room that he was likely one of the dealers who snatched her husband’s soul.
“Shit.” I felt awful about misjudging this man.
After interviewing Mtima, I wish I could just give him a hug or a fist bump. He’s a real chill guy with big dreams who’s literally been through hell. Here is his story.
(The names "Garth" and "Mtima" are used interchangeably to describe the same person.)
An ‘adventurous’ childhood
“I grew up on Layan Hill, Belmont (in his grandparents’ house). There were exposures during my childhood, unknowing to me. One of my neighbours was a drug lord, but I didn’t know that. I was a child. I always used to be over at his house. It was a big house that housed an extended family- his mother, father and siblings. He lived downstairs with his wife. He had birds, dogs, a motorbike, a Nissan Laurel, and was a Rastaman. In those days, he used to sell marijuana. I really liked this man. He was very kind to me; He always looked out for me. I was like his son, his little friend. Eventually, he started to sell crack cocaine. I didn’t understand what being a drug lord meant, nor what crack cocaine was.”
One of Trinidad's musical giants, the late Ras Shorty I, released a song "Watch out my Children" in 1997, three years before his passing. That infamous line-"it have a fellah called Lucifer with a bag of white powder, he don't want to powder your face but bring shame and disgrace to the human race..." played like a stuck record during my childhood. I grew up in a community where domestic violence and alcoholism were prevalent (and accepted), but drugs was a taboo subject. I struggled to connect with the meaning of the song back then, even though I liked it for some reason. Stories like Mtima's are reasons why "Watch out my Children" existed in the first place.
“Back in the 80s, the ‘blocks’ didn’t run for 24 hours. They (the drug dealers) would come out around 8-9 am, and the block will close off around 5-6 pm. I remember around 4 or 5 of those guys would come on the corner near our house, where there were a standpipe and a lamp post. That area was "the block." My grandfather always cautioned me to stay away from the yard (the treacherous space that could have stolen Garth’s innocence) and those fellahs by the pipe. That used to anger me. We were children. Why couldn’t we play in the yard?!
I saw grown men get beaten up by the standpipe. I used to see well-dressed men in office wear come on the block. The guys used to give them money, and they would leave. I later learnt that they were police officers. These sightings were normal. My grandmother had plants in the yard and she used to hang clothes on them. These guys, before they left, would take a matchbox or cigarette box and hide it in the shrubs on the ground, covering them with leaves. I realized that whatever was in the matchbox was the reason they were by the corner, and why I couldn’t play in the yard. After they hid it and went up the hill, I will go outside when there were still daylight hours. I took these matchboxes, opened them and saw dinner mint-like things (thank God I never put them in my mouth). I will close back the boxes and hide them in a different location, and run back inside. They used to come the next day and look for them while I peeped through the window. They couldn’t find their boxes. They started arguing among themselves. This is 9 am eh, and no drugs were selling because they couldn’t find these boxes. So "De Boss" a.k.a my idol would come out. Some of the guys were also smokers, so as far as "De Boss" was concerned, they ‘smoked it out.' Now I never knew what this was. I just kept on telling myself “this is the thing that had these fellahs by the pipe, that prevented us from coming outside…I will blasted hide it!" "De Boss" used to planasse them when they started arguing among themselves. I used to laugh! Take that!
Now remember, "De Boss" was my hero, so I was glad that he was beating their asses. And then I will go and put back the boxes where they were, and they will find it the next time.”
Garth always played these tricks with them. He was only 7 or 8 years old.
His relationship with "De Boss" was the reason he was buffered from the dark underworld. “People used to be wary of talking about him around me. They said that I was his boy.”De Boss" never involved Mtima in his dealings.
At age 11, Garth moved to Maloney Gardens in East Trinidad. At the time there was a brewing war on Layan Hill; the drug underworld had pitted relatives, neighbours and friends against each other. Still unaware of crack cocaine, Garth recalled the ‘dotish’ (stupid) campaigns on television warning persons to "say no to coke." He struggled with the "say no to coke" campaign and the "coke is it" advertisements. Garth was confused. “I was confused with ‘Coke’ vs Coca Cola, so I just drank Sprite. I didn’t understand this dotish campaign.” Away from the watchful eyes of his grandparents, he started smoking hemp, then marijuana.
Maloney was the place where Garth slowly entered ‘this other world.’ He was now affiliated with a localized gang - “the Young and the Restless” - comprising neighbours and friends. One day, he saw a group of boys cutting up ‘this white thing’ under a staircase. He asked a friend about it, to which the response was “Crack.” Garth was still confused. “Crack? What is that?” He didn’t make the connection with the "white thing" and the “damn dinner mint-like things” he saw as a child.
The turning point in his life came when his step-father lost his job. “He got retrenched. I didn’t know what the hell ‘retrenched’ meant. And my mother wasn’t working, so poverty struck.” Garth at the time was attending the Belmont Boys Secondary School in Port of Spain, with empty pockets and a fiery heart. At Belmont Boys, he saw first-hand the effects of cocaine. “We had a friend who was on cocaine. Nobody knew what was wrong with him. He was a white boy. I remember a time we were by the sinks downstairs, and we saw him sweating. All of a sudden, he just ran out the school. That was the last time I saw him. It was only later on I learnt that he was on cocaine. He had friends in CIC and Fatima and those fellahs had access to the actual powder-form cocaine. It’s only when I got older I started to put two and two together.”
“So hear the shot now. My pardna (best friend) now going to Success Laventille. Some fellahs came to beat him up, and I got involved and ended up ‘bussing’ one of the fellah’s faces. Now my partner used to live in Maloney with his Godmother. I didn’t know who his mother was. Then one day he came to me and said “My mother want to see you.” I said “Your mother? Who’s your mother!” He said “come nah, I’ll carry you. He took me into Duncan Street Port of Spain in the plannings. Now I lived in the plannings in Maloney, so I know about plannings life. My mother was ‘catching she ass’ and we had a little table-top selling corn curls, sweeties, soft drinks - them kinda thing nah. When I gone by my pardna mother, she was also selling corn curls, sweeties, soft drink, kiss cake - THE SAME KIND OF THING. But, she had something else on the counter. Now they were wrapped in foil paper, and I didn’t know what the hell it was. She had fat wine glasses, you know, like those peanut butter jars. The foiled balls sold for $5, $10, $20, and $25. Now this woman house had chandeliers, a freezer, and ham in the fridge. I said to myself, “My mother is a blasted slacker! This woman can’t be selling fricking corn curls and kiss cake and her house have real nice furniture. I said “What the frick my mother doing?” I then realized that these balls were the thing that was selling. And as this thing was going down, they were replenishing it. I asked my friend “What the ASS is that?”
He said “balls.”
“What is balls?”
“What is rocks?”
“What is that?"
“Cocaine???” In my mind I was saying “that ain’t looking like powder form.”
When I watched it, I told him, “I WANT TO SELL THAT!”
A drug dealer’s life
At some point, Garth went back his idol, "De Boss," and asked to sell drugs. "De Boss" had built a lavish, sprawling three-storey house a few houses up from his childhood home on Layan Hill, Belmont, with even more dogs and birds. Garth approached him one day.
“I want to sell drugs for you.”
“No! “Why you want to do that?”
“I want money.”
"Well empty the garbage, I will pay you."
I can’t remember if it was $50 a bag or a $100 for a bag, and it was opposite his house I have to go eh.” (There was a dump opposite "De Boss'" house).
Now 13 years old, Garth became involved in the drug world. It first started off with a $25 investment from the weekly school allowance he received from his grandmother. That amount grew in small increments. But for a poverty-stricken youth in the plannings, the taste of money sparked a dangerous hunger from within. (Like the “Congo Man,” Garth wanted more.)
“Shit that, I really want to sell cocaine!”
Garth started working shifts in the plannings with his friend (11 years old) and his friend’s sister (9 years old). “The three of us ran that block on Duncan Street. For years. Once, his mother went to jail, and then there was a time when she went to St. Vincent and was there for some months.”
I cringed when he related what happened next.
“One day, the phone rang. I answered it. The person said “Next 15 minutes.” They hung up. So I was like “What kind of a stupid phone call was that?” So I called my pardna sister (remember, who was nine years old), and told her “Somebody now called and said next 15 minutes and hang up the phone.”
She said “Aye, that’s police!”
We hid everything - all the cocaine. Then the door knocked “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!” The police had arrived. Now I don’t know who called. But you know ‘the eye’ you give your children, when the police came, someone gave me ‘the eye.' I realized that it had to have been him who called. The police pretended to search the place and then left. They came back around 5 pm in the afternoon. My nine-year-old friend gave me a pile of $100 notes. Me and she came out in the yard. She watched the police officers and said “Give him one. Give him three. Give him two.” I’m talking about the year 1986, watching a 9-year-old pay off police. I was 13 at the time, in Form Three (Grade 8) in Belmont Boys.”
After that experience, I said “to HELL with school. I want to be a drug lord!" Because I was 13 years and I was paying (off) the police. Watch me. Me and my pardna had no (drivers) license so we can’t drive no car. So we were hanging around by the taxi stand - we used to go by the Laventille taxi stand. We used to ask drivers “horse, how much you does make for the day?” Man will say “I does make a lil $250” or how much ever. That car could have had two-three passengers in it. I would hand them $400 and say “get out," and we used to jump in that car and we, a 13-year-old and 11-year-old used to track blasted gyul (girls). Now we can’t buy no beer and thing. Nobody going to sell we beer. It’s ah snow cone with ‘heavy’ milk on the bottom and milk on top. So there we were, buying snow cones, calling them school girls, telling them “take what yuh want." We were rocking back with we snow cone. Remember we can’t buy beers, and the next best thing for a schoolgirl is a snow cone, because the sun was so damn hot.”
Garth sold drugs between the ages of 13 and 21. His empire went beyond Duncan Street. He met a mentor along the way, who taught him the ins and outs of the drug-dealing world.
“He used to say, “try to avoid the flash, because that will draw attention to the police. He used to well dress good. He had his gold and thing. But the excessive; he used to say forget the excess. You making money.”
Garth was now in the prime of his drug-dealing career. Between the ages of 13 and 15, he was rarely in school. He graduated at around 15 with four basic CXC passes. Without the trappings of Belmont Boys, he could now focus on his dream. He started befriending certain drug bosses, studying their habits and mistakes. At one point, he ran four drug blocks. He had two cocaine blocks in Belmont and two marijuana blocks - one in Maloney and La Horquetta. For him, there was no financial benefit to being in school. "There was just no profit (from school). I liked to sell drugs."
There was another drug-dealer mentor along the way, who gave Garth a different kind of education - the life-saving kind.
Sentenced to change
The law had caught up with the 16-year-old drug dealer. “I ended up in the big jail for an unrelated matter. My case went to the High Court. I didn’t stay long though.” At age 17, after spending a short stint at both the POS and Golden Grove Remand Prison, he, like many other Remandees, wanted to change his life. But this 17-year-old remained committed to his new cause. Garth went to his girlfriend’s mother and told her “I want to be like Jesus.” This proclamation was a big step in his life; perhaps the single most important thought he had as an adolescent.
“I remembered fasting and reading on Jesus. I started fasting for 40 days once a year from age 17. Now I didn’t know nothing about Ramadan fast. I read more about Jesus and watched all those Jesus movies. But something used to confuse me - I used to see Jesus praying to somebody else.”
A troubled Garth was unknowingly transitioning to Islam (and, to Mtima).
“I made up my own prayer. I wanted to pray to who Jesus was praying to. It went like this.
Oh creator of the heavens and the earth, and all between,
Guide me on the straight path, whatever is the straight path, guide me on it.
I started to say this prayer. First thing in the morning, my grandmother used to tell me to get up before the sun rises and pray. Your boy will get up at 5 and half 5 to say this prayer. And I used to do something crazy, I used to take off all my clothes. I wanted God to see me in the pure state as I was created.”
Garth, who was escaping warfare in his surroundings at the time, fled to Toco for three months.
“I used to go down on the beach, sit on this rock, and pray and reflect on my life. I used to go in the water and face the East and used to pray until the sun comes up, repeating “O creator...” One day I was meditating on the rock in Toco, watching the waves coming in. My life was in shambles. My girlfriend and I were fighting. I wasn’t working. I didn’t want to sell drugs again. I didn’t want to drink. I wanted to kill myself. But I always heard that when you kill yourself, you can’t see God's face. I said to myself “I can’t catch my ass in this life, then go to hell. I’m not accepting that.” I didn’t know what to do. I used to cry and beg God. I just wanted something better in my life. I was FED UP. If I had the courage to kill myself I would have. Recently I was talking to my father about this and he’s so glad that I didn’t follow through. I just didn’t want to be around people, not knowing it was cleanse God was cleansing me. On that rock I started to see reflections on my life going back. It was so vivid. I was talking to myself on the damn wave. Every wave coming in on that beach was a different stage of my life. Then there was this one wave that broke with a crashing sound, I saw a child, and I jumped up. “Shit.” My girlfriend was already three months pregnant.”
Mtima confesses that he was terrible, but still not as terrible as the other boys from the block. He says that after his daughter was born, he had a tumultuous relationship with her mother for well over two decades. He credits his grandmother for ‘taming the beast’ within.
“I had a special relationship with Granny. When I used to be on the block selling drugs, Granny used to want her tea by 7 o’clock. I used to ask those fellahs for the time, and when they said 6 or half 6, I used to tell them “I coming back.” I used to fly up Layan Hill to ensure Granny gets her tea and about 4 or 6 crix (crackers) at 7 o’clock. When she was finished, I put she plate in the sink and say “Granny I going back." She’d say "alright." I’d make sure she was good. You have to have a persona on the street, but I loved my grandmother. So you find that something inside of me will never connect with the street.” Garth made sure his grandmother was unaware of his drug-life. She did have an idea that he smoked marijuana, but Garth kept her in the dark about this, too.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Mtima's story-