Oral Traditions workshop at ROOTS Foundation Office.

Mtima Solwazi, 48, once deemed an at-risk youth and teenaged drug dealer who engaged in gang-affiliated activities is now using his street sense to save youths from trouble.

The founder and CEO of the NGO ROOTS Foundation is now a prison chaplain at the Youth Transformation and Rehabilitation Centre. Currently, he is in the process of transforming his NGO into a creative academy to employ youths to train other youths. He has been actively involved in youth and community development for more than two decades working with disenfranchised youth in high-risk environments and communities across Trinidad.

Solwazi, who left secondary school in 1988 with four Basic level CXC subjects is a post-graduate Sociology student of the University of the West Indies and holder of a Bachelor of Sciences with Honours in Psychology with Minors in Sociology and Criminology.

Solwazi is a former trainee at Servol and a former Community Action Officer with the Citizen Security Programme (CSP), a division of the Ministry of National Security.

He is the recipient of several community awards for his selfless dedication and continued commitment to youth and community development.

The self-published poet continues to use the spoken word poetry as a catalyst for social change through his spoken word Roots Foundation workshops.

Speaking to Sunday Guardian on Thursday Solwazi said “I was 13 years old in Form Three at Belmont Boys’ Secondary School and used to sell crack cocaine and marijuana from 1986 to 1993. There were a series of events that would have changed my world view of selling drugs.

“One of them would have been actually seeing the destruction of people and families before my eyes, people turning into sprangers or drug addicts who lost everything.

“I wasn’t comfortable living off destruction. I don’t know if anyone who bought drugs from me died from it, but I still felt I was contributing to the death and destruction of people I knew.

“I didn’t like it, but I didn’t know what else to do at the time. I felt I had no education, skills, or talent.”

He used to write poems, but that was it. At the time he didn’t know he had the latent potential or ability to be somebody else or to do something different.

Solwazi said when he attended Servol in 2001 he began to realise that as an individual he had value and purpose. The late Fr Gerard “Gerry” Pantin, the founder of the NGO and Olderson Josiah, the public speaking instructor at Servol saw those attributes in him and nurtured them.

The Belmont-born native said he did not understand what was taking place but he knew he could do better than selling drugs on the streets.

Garth Edwards as Solwazi was known before his conversion to Islam said his name change ironically first came about when he attended a Servol field trip to the African Association in Barataria.

The Director of Dawah and propagation, Islamic Resource Society said he never liked his given name since it was too European and he preferred an African name. He was given four names to choose from and he chose Mtima which means heart in Chewa and Solwazi which means knowledge in the Zulu language.

Solwazi said while working at Servol from 2001 to 2015, he held several different positions such as an ADP (Adolescent Development Programme) instructor, assistant coordinator, Beetham, Life Centre coordinator of the Spree Simon Life Centre in John John, zonal councillor.

He left Servol to work as a Community Action Officer with CSP (Citizen Security Programme) in 2015 where he said he was the person responsible for several communities in East Port-of-Spain, including Sea Lots, Beetham, encompassing St Paul, George, Picadilly, Basilon and Quarry streets, Desperlie Crescent, Gonzalez, St Barbs, Soogrim Trace and Belmont.

When asked what was the solution to some of the challenges youths faced in the country, the former CSP employee said all youths wanted was to be given an opportunity and should not be judged and measured by someone else’s standards.

Solwazi said he also lived by Servol’s philosophy espoused by Fr Pantin of respectful intervention; one cannot impose yourself in people’s personal space or private lives, attentive listening; pay attention to what is said verbally and through body language; lack of cultural arrogance; stop measuring people to your standards and principles; adopt a philosophy of ignorance, Fr Pantin always said to start from a place of ignorance.

He said the NGO Roots Foundation was trying to secure its own building, it was presented with an opportunity to obtain a 25-year lease from eTeck Park and any assistance would be greatly appreciated.

Solwazi said the NGO started as a bi-monthly newsletter to print poems from unrecognised poets, it was a space for people who loved poetry.