Change. It’s scary and messy. It starts with that terrifying discovery of the truth. Once you’ve found it, it strips you from your comforts and you lie naked as destiny works its magic.
Mtima’s transformation was well underway, and a Dublin-educated, middle-class teacher named Gerard Pantin had a part to play.
During the height of the 1970s Black Power Riots, “Gerry” Pantin saw and felt the pain of impoverished African youths who marched in the streets. He wanted to intervene in their lives, and left behind his cushy teaching job at St. Mary’s College to serve these poor communities. He founded SERVOL (Service Volunteered for All) in 1970, which began as community intervention projects. Pantin walked up the Laventille hill one day and introduced himself “My name is Gerry Pantin, I’m a Catholic priest, how can I help you?”
To date, there are over 600 staff members at SERVOL and 200 locations across Trinidad and Tobago, offering a gamut of educational programmes for parents, adolescents, and differently-abled children.
“At age 20, I started going to SERVOL because of my cousin. He used to live home with Granny. One day I saw him sweeping and mopping. Now I never used to abuse Granny, but Granny is Granny. Granny sweeps. Granny mops. Granny will cook. Granny will wash wares. What d hell! Granny is Granny. If she asked you to do something, well that’s something different. She might say “pass a broom in the house, or wash out this wares nah,” but I wasn’t volunteering to do those things. So when I saw him sweeping and mopping I said:
“Aye, what you doing ?”
“Ah hadda help out Granny man.”
“What Granny go do, you can’t be doing Granny work?”
Then I saw him washing wares. I said “Aye boy what’s that one?” That was shocking. He said “nah, we hadda help out Granny boy.”
Then he said “It have a place that could save your life boy.”
“Boy, I not on no church thing boy. What wrong with you boy! I not on no God thing!”
“No it’s not a church. It’s a school."
“Oh shit. Worse yet. I don’t want no school!” I was twenty years - what you telling me about school?
He said “boy.”
I asked the most important question. “So, it have girls ?”
“Well yeah, I want to go!"
So he told me it’s SERVOL.
I said “SERVOL?!!!”
Having already passed the narrow entry age limit of 16-19 years, Mtima got a Local Government Councillor to write a recommendation letter for this ‘at risk’ youth. He was accepted into the Beetham Life Centre.
At this point in the interview, I asked Mtima about that precise moment in his life when he connected the dots to Islam. Funny enough, we digressed to a mini conversation about paying attention to signs from the universe. It turns out that throughout his life, Mtima was receiving these divine signs but only heeded them later in life.
“Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything is connected in life. Every single thing. My Uncle’s best friend was a Muslim. He used to trim us. He was a barber, well what the hell, he could have done everything. So he used to trim all the young boys on the Hill for free. But it used to come at a price. That man used to rinse out your ears with talk. Talk about living righteously. About not smoking. About not selling drugs. And listen. Because I wanted to keep my damn ten dollars in my pocket (I could buy two five-piece with that) I used to go by that man to take that talk. When it was time to pray, he would pause and tell us he’s coming back. But I never really knew much about Muslims. All I knew about was the Indian food. There were two times a year I used to get Indian food from the Ali’s and Beti. Christmas time - we go by Mr. Calendar and we got toys. I remember a time he made me feel really ashamed. Now because he’s my uncle’s friend, I had respect for him. I didn’t want him to see me doing wrong things. He made a comment one time. He said “boy, look at allyuh. Allyuh holding gun. I never hold a gun in my life.” I felt really ashamed boy. I was a youth man holding gun and he was a big man who never held a gun in his life. I really felt as though I was doing something wrong. That moment didn’t last long. After my hair cut, I was gone.”
That was the first sign.
The second came in the form of gentle cautions, with confusing utterances of Allah:
“A lady who used to take care of me when my mother used to work ended up becoming a Muslim. She used to live to the back of our house, by my grandmother down the Hill. I was accustomed to being by her when I was small, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. This man began courting her and used to come by for lunch. He wanted to know who was this damn youth man. He was a Muslim. When he realized my relationship with her, he kind of adopted me. That man used to see me anywhere and tell me “Allah has a plan for me.” And I used to say to myself “What the ass wrong with this man!” Sometime I was in a scene, right, and the man spotted me and said “Allah has a plan for you.” I said “What’s that one!” Once I was coming down the track by my grandmother and I had a gun in my bag. He was coming up and he stopped me, put his hand on my chest and say “yuh harden, yuh know” “Allah has a plan for you!” I said “What is this Allah thing? What going on with you man. What is this thing about Allah having a plan for me?” That man did that to me. When I became Muslim you know what that man tell me. He said, “Ent I told you that Allah has a plan for you!”
A gangster Mtima had befriended also pointed him in the direction of Islam:
“You know sometimes you hear stories about legends. This man was one. A freaking legend. People talked about him with awe. My bredren who I used to sell drugs with, started to move with this man. So I told my bredren to introduce me to the man. I used to go and meet this man every night by the Drag Mall in Port of Spain. We used to sit down on the pavement. He never gave me a gun, and never gave me drugs. I learned about melanin from this man. I learned the stages of childbirth from this man, from when the sperm reaches the egg and the different stages of the formation of the fetus. I learned about Islam from this guy. I used to get mad, telling myself “boss, I didn’t freaking come here for this boss. I ain’t come here for this.” This man taught me about black history. About Abyssinia, about Africanism, about this and that. I remember one night, people used to pass in cars and see both of us since Belmont taxis passed there. People would say “Well I didn’t know you and he does deal.” I will respond “yeah, me and he real good.” One night, we were talking, and hear what he tell me. He said “my son is too small to understand these things. I am glad I am sharing it with you.”
Mtima’s relationship with the gangster came full circle. After completing his studies at SERVOL, he started working there, where he’d end up teaching the gangster’s son.
“When he came to register, he came with his mother. When he wrote down his father’s name, I realised who it was. This man genuinely mentored me because his son was too small, and now, I had the chance now to pass on that knowledge to his son.”
Each of these mentors came into Mtima’s life at different intervals, reinforcing what their predecessor had said.
A Muslim. Mentor. It seems as though Mtima’s fate had caught up with light and purpose. He scraped together his good intentions and trudged along through life. Mtima was ready for big things, and it started with publishing a book of poems.
“I always liked poetry. I used to write love poems for my girlfriend. I used to hide my poems because poetry wasn’t accepted on the block. I used to buy my postcards; the hallmark brand. I used to say, “I could write better poems than that. So I used to write my poems and give meh gyul it as a gift. I wrote four particular poems to her, and then her friends used to come and see it and praise me. I used to say “what, that could be a scene." I didn’t know girls liked them thing. I was 16 at the time. But, I was selling crack cocaine and I was a big man at that point. I was running a block. I in drug thing, gang thing. So I didn’t want to be known as no love poet. I said it had too much death around me for me to be writing about how I feel. So I started to write poems about the dangers of drugs, gangs and guns, yuh know. To tell the story of what I was seeing outside. I did publish a book in 1996 called “Reflections- a compilation of poems by Mtima Solwazi.”
The works of African legends such as Mansa Musa, Uthman Dan Fodio, Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, Audrey Jeffers, and Beryl Mac Burnie, amongst others, consumed his world. A man rich with street knowledge came face to face with brilliant Caribbean and Islamic writers. His impregnated mind gave birth to one of his life's biggest accomplishments:
“I remember in 2005 for an Emancipation Day lecture in La Joya, Fitzgerald Hinds was the featured speaker. After I read my poem, which immortalized these greats and many others, he went up to read his speech. He kept on saying, “well brother Mtima already mentioned...and brother Mtima spoke about this. He kept referring to my poem. I was in the back of the audience thinking “But what the ass is this, if I don’t want to listen to this long speech, you could listen to a poem instead. So I went home, woke up my wife from sleeping, and I told her “Aye, I have an idea.” She was stirring. I said “I am going to write a newsletter. And I’ll call the newsletter “Reflections of Our Oral TraditionS. ROOTS. And that was the birth of the ROOTS Foundation. I ran a newsletter from 2005 to 2009, after which I registered the organization as The Oral Tradition ROOTS Foundation.”
Before ROOTS came into existence though, Mtima was sowing the seeds of higher education. University, that is. But for a former Remandee who pulled off the bare minimum CXC passes, entry into the University of the West Indies’ (UWI) School of Continuing Studies wasn’t going to be easy. Mtima started working at SERVOL in 2001 when he got wind of adult student certificate programmes at the UWI.
Shocked, Mtima couldn’t make sense of the term “adult student.” He’d never come across the term before. Told that experience will suffice for academic merit, he was still confused.
“I was completely locked off from academics.”
He applied to pursue Social Work courses. Mtima was however quickly reminded that his obstacle course was different from everyone else’s. First attempt - rejected. Second attempt - rejected. Undeterred, he applied and the third time was indeed the charm.
“I said “Whaaaat” I get in! When I start to see courses, a lot of it was similar to what I was teaching in SERVOL. I licked up them courses. I think my lowest grade was a B- or B+. Listen, I was getting A+ and A-. I get on bad in them courses.”
Encouraged by his success, he listened to his classmates’ discussions about “matriculation,” another unfamiliar term. Like his application to the School of Continuing Studies, rejection was like a deja-vu nightmare. Mtima got rejected twice; only to receive acceptance into University on the third attempt (perhaps 3 is his lucky number. 3 attempts at college entry. 3 mentors.)
“I remember one of the CSR reps in UWI - that man saw my journey from Open Campus. He’s so shitting proud of me. At every stage of UWI, he was always giving me thumbs up. “Aah boy!” “Good work!” “Keep it up.” He was just a normal CSR, but he’d guide me along, tell me what to do. I applied, I didn’t get through the first time, the second time, I got through the third time. Your boy ended up in ‘big’ UWI. I was shocked and frightened. I really wanted to do Sociology. But was wrongly advised by some student that they didn’t offer that to evening students. Your boy ended up doing Psychology. I in big campus now. Your boy start to get licks in he backside. Because I never knew that A levels was a bridge to University, so everything was entirely new. I was fighting up. I applied a lot of my experience and my knowledge of the streets in UWI. Your boy start to get Cs. Plenty Cs. I thought I was doing an exchange programme. “C señor.” I thought I was doing a marine project. Only Cs. Cs. Cs. So after the second year of struggling, it was time to choose your Major and Minor. Your boy wanted to declare a double Major -Psychology and Sociology. I remember the academic advisor laughed. She said you can’t do a double major. I said “why not?" She said “Your GPA is too low!” (This reminded me of Michelle Obama’s high school college counsellor who told her that she wasn’t Princeton material.) I asked “Well what can I do?” I looked at what was being offered. Your boy did a Psychology Major and a double Minor in Sociology and Criminology. When I joined the Criminology class, topics like “The Police and you” came up. Listen, I was the only one in my class who ever got locked up. Was in a courthouse. Knew about drugs. Well hear nah, it was only As in they backside! My wife asked “so why didn’t you do Criminology all the time? I told her “I didn’t even know that there was Criminology. Now I really was a dummy when it came to academics. So after I graduated with a Major and two Minors, I said it’s Masters now.”
Almost 30 years after leaving secondary school, Mtima Solwazi obtained a Masters Degree in Sociology. His application was once again met with resistance. Told that his undergraduate GPA was too low, he armed himself with his experience and wrote to the Head of the Social Sciences Department.
On this accomplishment, he laments “Don’t feel I just get this just so. Plenty of my friends dead. Plenty of them make jail. I went through hell for thirty years to reach where I reach today.”
Mtima resigned from SERVOL in 2015 and worked at the Citizen Security Programme (CSP), a violence prevention programme at the Ministry of National Security, financed partially by the Inter-American Development Bank. He left the CSP in 2019 and began focusing more on transforming his Foundation into an institution. Presently, the Oral Tradition ROOTS Foundation operates with three programmes - Festivals such as the Spoken Word Festival “Cascadoo”, intervention programmes with schools called “Abyssinia a Journey of Change”, and media outreach called “Beyond the Lens visual poetry.” He plans to implement an SOS-via-STREAM pedagogical model which offers an alternative to the traditional school curriculum: Save Our Students via Storytelling. Training. Reading. Entrepreneurship. Arts. Mentorship.
Mtima and I did this interview over the phone. When we started talking about the Foundation’s vision, Mtima’s confidence grew. The way he spoke to me changed. I heard his pride loudly through the phone.
“The next time we speak, we will speak about our institution. We will implement our SOS-via-STREAM pedagogical model with our three modules. September to December. January to March. April to August.
Mtima left the CSP in December of 2019, with the intention of expanding ROOTS Foundation in 2020. COVID-19 was a blessing in disguise as it accelerated his plans for the Foundation. “God is the best of planners, if COVID didn’t happen, our SOS-via-STREAM pedagogical model would not have been fast-tracked. We were forced to go online, and online is the only place to go right now. We ended up executing our SOS-via-STREAM project in October, and launched a Youth Peer Mentorship Programme in November. That only happened because of COVID. If it wasn’t for COVID, our Mentors would have been engaged in other activities."
Mtima has also been mentoring students at the Youth Transformation and Rehabilitation Centre (formerly YTC) since 2004. He incorporated his Foundation’s work into his YTRC commitments. At the time of the interview, Mtima was in conversation with someone whose company offers mentoring and was asked to come on board. He is also actively thinking about exploring Zoom sessions with students of the YTRC.
Wrapping up his story felt sad. I wanted to know more about this man. Opening up to me must have been hard, but he did it with such grace and bravery (and so much darn humour!). I asked if he had any advice for youths, specifically young men in trouble. His response was a real eye-opener:
“I want to first speak to the other - the adults and those who want to help these youths. Just be real with young people. Don’t mamaguy them. Don’t lie to them. Don’t try to set them up. Because that’s what they know on the streets. Realness. I told you a nine-year-old told me how to pay off police. You feel you could come around people like them and bamboozle them. So you have to be REAL with young people.
For the young people - trust the process. Whatever the process is. A lot of young people don’t connect with the word ‘trust.' Youths feel that their parents have betrayed them. Their girlfriend/man/partner betray them. Miss in school betrayed them. Betrayal doesn’t have to be Judas and Jesus. If a child comes to you and tells you “I peed the bed last night," and when you interrogate them in an accusatory way, that’s it. You could never ever ever get anything out of that child again. I know you’re a betrayer. Especially if you tell me “I ain't go tell anybody." It means you’re a liar. But why I want young people to trust the process, you will get people betraying you, but that doesn’t mean that the process is bad. In school, Miss or Sir might be an ass. But that does not me the school process is not working.
People are afraid to discover the truth. There is often so much pulling and tugging inside. We are all afraid to find out the truth. When I look back at my life as an adult now, doing the kind of work I’m doing, it was so sad that during my adolescent life I attributed masculinity to selling drugs, violence, smoking, drinking alcohol, and sex. That was sad eh.”
Mtima is eternally grateful for his mentors, his support system, and the Islamic Resource Society. Without their intervention, his transformation may have never materialised.
Mtima Solwazi wasn’t his birth name. He was born as Garth Edwards. During his time at SERVOL, he went on a field trip to the African Association (on the Eastern Main Road after the Morvant Junction). Upon his entry, a thought weighed heavily on his mind. “I never liked my name. I just couldn’t stand Garth. And Edwards, it reminded me of the Queen (of England).”
He told a woman at the Association that he didn’t like his name, and she asked about his qualities. “People said that I have a good heart and that I know a lot of things.”
And so he was gifted with three names - “Mtima” which means (“Heart”), “Nkosi” which means (“King/Master”) and “Solwazi” (Knowledge). He eventually changed his middle name from “Nkosi” to “Abdul Ghany”, which in Arabic translates to “Servant of the All-sufficient (Allah).”
And that’s the story of Mtima Abdul Ghany Solwazi.
(credit for photos- Sunbird Media)