By Marlon Bute
Clem Ballah was a true friend to me. We were generations apart but he invited me to his Scarborough home many times when he was stationed at the Toronto Consulate. He also visited my home in Ajax. It was with Clem, that I first visited Caribbean Stores where he went to buy fish, okras, green bananas, eddoes and so on for one of his Saturday evening cooks.
With friends gathered in his home, we ate, drank and discussed all sorts of issues. I was a “ comrade” then but I wasn’t aware that politics mattered in the friends he had in Toronto, and those Saturday limes.
Years later, when Clem went back to SVG, and acted as part time host for Shake Up and other ULP talk shows, I would call and dig into the ULP. I was no longer a “ comrade, “ then.
He never once cut me off as was frequently done by other ULP hosts. And when callers would try to attack me, Clem would expertly divert them or dismiss them with a chuckle.
I don’t think I have met a more easy going and unassuming fella. Over 6ft tall and well built, his walk was as effortless as his ease with people. I liked his mind. I liked talking with him and he had been an excellent resource for information while he was in Toronto. I was aware of his intellectual capacity and his outstanding professional career before he became Deputy Consul General. He was one of those progressives of his generation that had been buoyant with ambition and patriotism and who had prepared themselves early to build SVG in diverse areas.
It was April 2003 when I first came to Canada. Spring had already set in and the banks of snow that had been piled by the snow plowing people in plazas and on the sides of the streets were becoming smaller each day as the sun set its rays on them. The cedar trees behind my sister’s house were losing their crisp orange leaves and in their place were appearing soft green leaves. The grass that had been asleep during the long wintery months were now awaken and seemed intent in competing with the trees that overlooked them.
It was on one of those days when the sun had stuck its head out and shone gloriously, in a manner sufficient to stifle the still lingering cold days of the previous winter months, that Clem had journeyed to Ajax to pick me up. We had spoken by phone on previous occasions since I had moved to Canada, but it would be the first time I was seeing him since I had left SVG.
I was on the porch waiting when he pulled up and flashed a warm smile. I was happy to see him. That day was the start of my frequent treks to Clem’s Scarborough home. Some Saturdays he picked me up, but it wasn’t long before I had bought an old jalopy and was able to drive myself to and from his home. I liked hanging with Clem and his group of friends because we were all, mostly Vincentians but certainly, we were all Caribbean people who had lots of stories to share of our Canadian experiences.
As the newcomer and youngest member of the group, I listened intently to Clem and others, eager to get my feet planted.
Throughout, the time that Clem was at the Consulate, he was a friend, a mentor, a comrade and he was a consular who had on occasions given me glowing references. He also had cause to assist me with an exceptionally delicate matter that had embroiled me and which is yet, one of the worst experiences I have had to deal with while on my sojourn on earth. It must have been 2005. Its particulars were never publicly divulged even after I had become a strident critic of his Unity Labour Party. His discretion in the midst of my relentless opposition to his party was testimony to the professionalism with which he conducted his duties at the Consulate, his integrity and decency as a person, and his loyalty as a friend.
Clem always treated me as his equal, although as a poor and unsettled young man, who had had to leave his young family to look for opportunities abroad, that I might have easily been dismissed by others, as not worthy of their time, and especially, the kind of hospitality and friendship that Clem showed me.
And as time passed and as I began to find my way in Canada, I came to entertain Clem, his family and distinguished friends at my home.
In the rough and tumble of Vincentian politics and in the often hostile battles for the seat of power, Clem did get a few jabs from some of his detractors but I can’t recall that Clem ever took to name calling or the kinds of vitriol that others have used to frame their opponents. Clem kept it clean. He was easy breezy no matter what came his way.
I would miss Clem. I think he had a good life. He served SVG well. Somehow, I still can’t help but think that at another time, under different circumstances, he would have served even better than he did.
My heartfelt condolences to Clem’s wife, his children, his friends, his comrades and to SVG. A gIant of a man has gone to join the Ancestors. And I imagine that they sent for Clem to show them how to take it easy. Easy, Clem.
Thanks for your friendship when I needed it most.