10 Minutes with Prime Minister Mia Mottley

Many months ago, I was told about an opportunity to interview our Prime Minister, Mia Amor Mottley. My editor was not sure exactly when this would happen, but with her usual enthusiasm she assured me it would. I was told that due to her busy schedule an interview might have to be squeezed in where possible and I’d need to remain prepared. Finally, late on a Friday evening we get the call that the interview could happen the following Monday while the Prime Minister was in transit—I’d have just 15 minutes.

Monday comes, as does the 10:30 a.m. scheduled time; then 11 a.m. Eventually, the personal aide to the Prime Minister informs us that she has yet to deplane and our interview might not happen today, but she added: “We could keep our fingers crossed for another day.” I offer my phone number hoping that Madam PM might have a free moment to call and answer a few questions; maybe her flight would be delayed. I’m not really hopeful. When I’m not writing, I teach, so I head off to class and set up a photoshoot with my students. Models are ready to go, and then, as I’ve given my final instructions, my phone rings. Prime Minister Mottley is on the line via WhatsApp! I scramble up the stairs helter-skelter, phone at my ear, laptop precariously balanced in one hand, praying the connection doesn’t fail, and it does, but not before I get a more stable contact number. I call back. Game on! She answers the phone, her voice that mellow baritone familiar to most Barbadians. I introduce myself and we begin.

It is approaching my favourite time of the year, Madam Prime Minister. Tell me what is Christmas like for you, and what’s your favourite dish.

My father’s pepperpot; but also I like ham. I only have ham twice a year but it is good when I do. When you have too many things you learn moderation, so only twice a year. I am the ham cook in the family. I cook the ham home in dates, prunes and beer. My father does not allow anyone to cook in his kitchen, so I cook the ham at me and bring it over.

Where, regionally or internationally, do you like to visit at Christmas?

I love the Caribbean. I have spent a lot of time travelling but I have never spent a Christmas outside of Barbados, even as a child. I have a lot of family in Trinidad so I’ve spent some time there but I like to be home at Christmas. Now that you are Prime Minister how will the Christmas season be different for you? It will be the same as before. I have always spent December among my constituents.

But won’t that be difficult?

I won’t be able to spend as much time, but as always I will be among my constituents. I spend the majority of my time in my constituency. I make that time to be on the ground until at least the 23rd. Luckily, my family understands the demands.

You have to keep focused. I learned, from a child, that regardless of what you do people will have an opinion. I remember the saying “to thine own self be true”. That does not mean that things won’t get to you, but you cannot carry those things with you; you can examine it, but you have to move on.

What are the Mottley Christmas traditions?

We stay up late on Christmas Eve night and I deliver presents to the godchildren. The adults can wait but I go to the godchildren. She laughs—a deep, rolling tone that often makes everyone around chuckle as well. Our interview is interrupted on several occasions as she is stopped while walking through the airport, every person offering a greeting and has that greeting warmly returned. Eventually, it stops and she apologises, then returns to our conversation. I turn toward the recent election.

This election was hard fought and, in the end, took a turn toward the personal. How did you manage to not let all the personal attacks get to you?

You have to keep focused. I learned, from a child, that regardless of what you do people will have an opinion. I remember the saying “to thine own self be true”. That does not mean that things won’t get to you, but you cannot carry those things with you; you can examine it, but you have to move on.

What is a typical day like for you?

(She laughs) Again, the phone, always the phone. But I keep my eyes closed for at least 15 minutes after I wake up and I try to end my day by 1:30-2 a.m. Usually, about 2 a.m. I call it quits. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, something always comes up. Invariably, there are times when you have to think about policy afterhours, but that is the nature of the job.

What was it like in those moments when you first learned you had not only won the election but swept all the seats in an historic political upset?

A humbling experience. It wasn’t really my victory but a victory of the people. Barbadians were taking back their power. They wanted to rebuild their country and the scale of the mandate was enormous. In that moment, it was your responsibility to take care and if we had disappointed the people again after they had been so disappointed previously we would have lost an entire generation of young people. I’m not sure we could have recovered a large part of that generation. (She pauses briefly). We are in the middle of a difficult time.

What made you want to enter politics?

I always knew from young that I wanted to represent people and I wanted to help people who had no voice. I don’t like injustice. The Caribbean has wonderful stories and we have to tell our stories. I think the world will listen. We live in a region where all types of people have learned to coexist, not always without rancour but peaceably. We have a story to tell of how we have done it. We are also on the frontline of the world’s greatest threat—that is, climate change. I hear the gate agent announcing flights through the now less than clear line. I know my time is up but I have one more thing to ask.

Can we talk for a minute about that viral image with Lil’ Rick?

(Rumbling, infectious laughter bubbles up). That is unlikely to happen again, but he was singing an appropriate song and it was just a moment. (The gate agent makes another announcement which completely drowns out what she says next. I cringe but press on.) I used to manage musicians and David Thompson and I were probably the first Crop Over children and our relationship to the festival is personal. (A wry chuckle)

Were you always this way? So accessible?

We grew up in Eagle Hall and even when we moved from there, not much changed with the way we interacted with people. If we wanted to do things, we had to do a lot of things on our own; we caught the bus, we knew people, and we had a wide circle of friends. Politics is tangential to this. Everything that I’ve done I enjoy. I hear the gate agent make another announcement; I’m well past my time. With that I thank her and wish her a safe flight.