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PEOPLE & THINGS: Political yard fowls

Peter Wickham

PEOPLE & THINGS: Political yard fowls

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Several years ago while I studied politics at the feet of Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford, I innocently enquired about the definition of the term “political yard fowl” since this term does not appear in any conventional political lexicon.
Sandiford was clearly amused by my enquiry and responded “It is the chicken that resides in the yard of a politician” which was typical “Sandifordian” humour.
He later explained that term evolved overtime because of the peculiar loyalty of what we have now come to know as “free range hens”. These birds are not caged but are unswervingly loyal to their captors who they never run away from.
Tragically, their loyalty costs them their lives because they will ultimately be eaten. Nonetheless they will not flee, even though they can fly. This was instructive since I always assumed that yard fowls could not fly. Instead Sandiford explained that they can and do fly, but never venture beyond the perimeters of the yard, largely because this is what they have seen their parents do.
He stressed that their loyalty had nothing to do with good treatment since some fowls are slaughtered in the full gaze of others and this does not motivate them to flee. The classification is therefore an appropriate label for some loyal supporters of one or other political party in Barbados.
Although the definition is clear, the identification of a yard fowl can be as challenging as another activity which we will likely hear more about shortly. Indeed one can say that yard fowls and pornography share much in common since we can really only identify a yard fowl when we see one.
Not too long after I had that conversation with Sir Lloyd, I joined a political party, although not believing myself to be a yard fowl. Like others I believed that the association would be prudent because I had something to offer (other than vocal support).
We assumed that our role as members was to contribute to the development of policies which we would could support since the broad philosophical orientation of the party was one with which we were comfortable. At no time did any of us believe that membership implied absolute or indeed enduring support since that would be “yardfowlism” and we believed ourselves to be above that.
Overtime I have had the opportunity to observe yard fowls up close and across this region and note some common characteristics. I am moreover compelled to admit that yard fowls are essential to the maintenance of this highly imperfect political system we have, or perhaps essential if any one political party wishes to remain in office for an extended period of time.
The search for the consummate yard fowl could lead one to a poorly educated and impoverished, afro-Trinidadian community called Laventille.
People there are fiercely supportive of the People’s National Movement (PNM) although there is little visible evidence of any benefit they have received for their support.
Very few of these yard fowls have improved their social status overtime but support the PNM in return for a T-Shirt and a 3-day a week job cleaning the side of the road in a programme called CEPEP.
No PNM leader has ever admitted their strategy of nurturing these yard fowls, but their simple strategy is obvious . . . keep them uneducated and they will (like the chickens) be far easier to manipulate allowing the party to focus on more difficult targets.
More recently, I encountered the Barbadian variety which is equally fascinating but for me considerably more irritating since, as I also once “belonged” to their political party. Two characteristics are predictable; these are the absence of “weight” in their arguments and an equally obvious unwillingness to see that which is obvious to everyone else.
The “brown leaf” is therefore “red” because the Prime Minister said it is “red” and if you can’t see that, it is because you support the other side. I often lose patience with such people because I am a believer in the virtues of education which should teach us to think.
If therefore we surrender our capacity to think we negate the contribution of persons like Barrow who made educational opportunities universally available.
As disturbing as such persons are, one has to remember the inevitability of their existence.
The architects of slavery understood that education was a most dangerous tool as once a man is trained to think for himself he is far more difficult to control.
If therefore one’s project is akin to slavery or simply difficult to justify, one will find the odd yard fowl useful.
I will, however, continue to have difficulties with the yard fowls’ assumption that my support for a political party could be won or lost on the basis of a T-shirt like theirs.
• Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).