Saturday, 7 September 2013

Spirits in the Guianas: a journey and alignment: Part II

Continued...(please refer to previous post to follow the Shout)

“This is Guyana”: racism and culture

What does “respite” mean in the context of Guyana? If it is a search for relief, rest and relaxation, it is indeed possible to have these. The weather is wonderful, the sun gloriously energising, and even when it rains, you feel rejuvenated, renewed and soothed by the heavenly showers lashing against windows and zinc roof tops. Every night you can party and drink quality alcohol that’s cheap, even for the locals (Banks Beer, El Dorado, XM Rum etc); you can eat succulent fruits like mangoes, pre- peeled and bagged sweet pineapples, papayas that fall lustfully into your mouth like the impassioned kiss of a lover; and what of the food you’ve not laboured over stove to prepare (cook-up rice, pouri, roti and pastries, curried something, chow mein, any sort of vegetable/Ital stew or soup) – you feel your waist expanding, but when you return to London, you’ll be right back on the treadmill. So don’t simply eat – say yes to every offer of something and gorge.

You can stroll through the pretty promenade garden, and if there’s time, the botanical gardens near the zoo (we never made it to the latter).
You can delight in the carefully constructed fruit orchard that an elder cousin has lovingly cultivated in his retirement, where the coconuts, bananas, passion fruits and soursaps are at your reach. This must be paradise; you can believe this much for now.

Street vendors competing with the resonance of soca, reggae, “oldies” and the pre-eminence of 90s pop tunes that never seem to get old in the Caribbean (croonings like “How do I…” by LeAnne Rimes – and anything by Celine Dion) lend a vibrancy that we didn’t hear in the streets of Barbados. And chants like “rat pieson, rat pieson (poison), “tas’e and buy, guinnip, guinnip, tas’e and buy,” “check yoh baddy weight,” “chips, chips, plantain chips” clamour, almost comically round the city as hustlers try any means to improve their lives. Ladies nearing retirement trying to sell us chocolate biscuits or chewing gums were particularly persistent in what seemed to us a sad, desperate endeavour. We pitied the desperation straining their eyes and wondered at this gruelling hustle so late in their lives.
You can join the Sunday lime by the Sea Wall, eat more fried Bangamary and plantain chips (never being tired of the treat), enjoy the museums like Castellani House where the best of Guyana’s art (especially that of Phillip Moore) is displayed and you don’t have to jostle with other tourists to appreciate it (actually you wonder how come there are no other tourists at the museum). Across from Castellani House stands the proud monument of Cuffy, leader of the 1763 revolt against British enslavers. Some work has been done to give the impression that he really is considered a national hero, but curiously the information centre, opened in February this year was closed despite Emancipation being only weeks away. Though we longed to “see the sights”, our tour of the museums and monuments was a passing of time until we could make it to Suriname and Venezuela. This was not coming fast enough for us. It’s not so strange that we were eager to leave Guyana so soon after arriving because we knew we would return and continue touring.

But in truth our eagerness to make it to Suriname (Venezuela now seeming more remote and impossible to get to) stemmed from a sense of disappointment. Unlike the relaxation in Barbados, “respite” as we experienced it in Guyana felt somewhat tainted. In Barbados, as a tourist you embrace the quietness, the ease of the island – the tag of relaxation works. Of course, it’s difficult to call oneself a “tourist” in the country of your birth no matter how long you’ve been away. We would naturally see Guyana in different light, and be more critical of what we saw. It’s rather like comparing your house to someone else’s; especially if that someone is ruthlessly organised and tidy – and you’re not! You rush home and wish you had the ability to put yours in the same order. For you cannot understand why yours is always messy. So it took some time before we admitted it, but no time at all to observe that Guyana is “tainted” by racism, corruption and lack of vision by the government (and opposition) that would enable the country to have its own saleable tag. That lack of vision is insidious, affecting the entire society. Whilst there are different peoples in Guyana (six the tourist brochures and history books proudly promote) there is the sense that there are really only two. The bridge between African and Indian Guyanese is ever expanding. And it was disgusting to feel it in the air, competing with the blocked gutters and reflecting their foulness. The stench in Georgetown is symbolic of the corruption and racism that is pervasive in a country that could otherwise feed and inspire the Caribbean with its abundant resources, including that of its cultural diversity.
Instead there is a palpable struggle of Africans and Amerindians for cultural and political autonomy. The Amerindians are mostly invisible. Last time I was there, this seemed to be changing but this time I didn’t see so many in the town or certainly in places of business (shops, market stalls), museums and banks. I know traditionally Amerindians reside in the interior but that in itself troubles me – rather like the way (Indian) Americans are kept on “reserves” as relics for tourists or artefacts to be preserved, receiving government (and international) grants that keep them in their corner, and therefore not incorporated politically and culturally into the State. So comparing the ease of Barbados, and conscious of the earlier warning about Guyana, my niece and I found ourselves refraining that “this is not Barbados.” At first it amused us. Then it sort of haunted us and made us miserable. Thus would be the mixed-feelings of our time in Guyana. Inside I think my spirit was contorted as I was in the midst of an “unplanned purpose.” Barbados does not have to deal significantly with racial diversity, since the racial majority is African. And we might have readily accepted this cultural difference between the Bajan and Guyanese experience but our trip to Suriname further confirmed how entrenched racism is in Guyana. Our brief time in Suriname led us to observe that (at least from the superficial haze of a tourist) racial and cultural diversity is appreciated and respected there.

If culture is the essence or “spirit” of a place and the fullest expression of its people, their shared values, traditions/customs, respect for – actually pride in their country and themselves then it’s not clear how this is collectively embraced in Guyana. This is despite the various festivals like, Emancipation (1st August), Linden Town/Amerindian weeks, Mashramani and Phagwah. Rather racism seems to be an artificial cultural construct that replaces a sense of collective spirit and pride. This ultimately limits the capacity to be creative. When a country is being perpetually moulded in anti-human practices such as racism, (as well as violence and corruption), collective vision is naturally impaired. Spiritually, there is confusion – misalignment – as opposed to the precision (order) that comes when everyone shares the same cultural objective, the same aspiration for their country. In The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Malidoma Somé is more forthright: “it is an illness of the collective psyche when different cultures don’t understand one another. The history of humankind is plagued by this psychic disease that has caused much pain and disappointments in the world” (1998, 30). I’ve emphasised the words “illness” and “psychic disease” to highlight the deep psychosis of a racist society, how it fragments, stagnates and blights development, individually and collectively. This deep psychosis is a sign of the unconscious trance from which I sought to escape in the UK. After all, my first experience of racism was when I migrated to London in 1980. I was not blind to it in Guyana, just too young to recognise it. Racism is alienating, adding to a feeling of being in constant exile and spiritually unstable.
In Guyana, as elsewhere, cultural production, like art and literature is dependent on budgetary considerations by the Ministry. Literature, fine art and sculpting have traditionally been dominated by African-Guyanese. We were told that there is a lack of support for local artists. But despite this apparent lack of support, art is wonderfully alive! It’s on the streets, mostly, as the artists along with other hustlers try to improve their living. This is the situation with the Main Street Group of artists, and even, Daniel, the Calabash artist who has been trading outside Guyana stores for years; not without being pushed around by the management who seem to regard him as scum. There were some signs that Guyana would not be properly represented at CARIFESTA, hosted this year by Suriname. But 50 members were sponsored by the government to attend and proudly embrace the theme: “Culture for Development: Celebrating our diversity and promoting the central role of culture in economic, social and human development.” One of the Mainstream artists, whose sculpture would be exhibited at CARIFESTA, told us that because he had to pay for it himself he could not afford to go. Whilst there I read an Editorial in Kaieteur News in which the government was being criticised for sponsoring (on paper) the delegates but not paying for them to go. The article stressed that “what history has shown is that to the extent that people can identify with each other, they will cooperate and produce much more energetically. A common culture is what makes people identify with each other. In our region and in South America as a whole, for too long we have been divided by our heritages of being appendages of competing European empires. But through initiatives such as CARIFESTA we can begin to appreciate that we have more commonalities than differences.” (July 7th) Rousing, yes, but those differences were glaring in the Guyanese sunshine, without any indication that there was desire to seam the cleavages.
A local writer complained about nepotistic practices within the government. We can decide for ourselves from this account: the Caribbean Press, headed by Professor David Dabydeen selected a book for publication, written by young Ashley Anthony, daughter of Dr Frank Anthony, Minister for Culture, Youth and Sport. The Press receives its funding from this same Ministry. The writer also explained that some of the Press’ publications were previously published by Professor Dabydeen under a different publication, thereby earning him further royalties. Proving nepotism is always shoddy but speculations are leading. What is perhaps mis-leading are the names of the Minister and his daughter (the are East Indian). In Guyana, Africans tend to have English names, but the majority of East Indians have traditional names. A broad sweep of the members of the cabinet reveals that they are mostly of East Indian heritage, but the odd Anglicised name gives the impression of inclusivity. I’m suggesting that every sphere of Guyanese society bears the signs, sometimes subtle but mostly blatant of racism instead of being one that promotes progress, creativity and respect for its cultural diversity.

A kind of Apartheid: some examples

• At Lenora Market (on the West Bank not far from Den Amstel) about 90% of the stalls are run by East Indians. The village itself is dominated by East Indians, just as Buxton has been historically dominated by Africans; its neighbour, Annandale by East Indians. A friend and Buxtonian told us that he grew up in this kind of Apartheid system in Guyana (in the 50s/60s) which most people took for granted. During colonialism there were places (like in Mackenzie) restricted only to Europeans (British).
• In the local Banks, the majority of employees are East Indians. Head/ supervisory roles are held by East Indians. Where an African is put in charge or operating a till (or dealing with money) an East Indian is put beside them (overseeing the process) signalling that they (Africans) cannot be trusted with money.
• At the African Heritage Museum we were unable to support the pitiful “tourist shop” or make a donation to keep the museum going, because there was no cashier. We were told that if we wanted to make a donation that we should write a cheque which would be taken to the Ministry of Culture under which the museum falls to be processed. This is obviously absurd. Africans working at the Heritage Museum were careful with their words - at once condemning then hauling back their complaints - suspicious that we might be spies secretly working for the government. The depressed, sickening sadness in their eyes spoke of the kind of society they’re living in, and the fear they had of losing their jobs for speaking out.
• Security work and police force are dominated by Africans. African women are especially used as the front face for security, because we were told this was the most accessible opportunity for work.
• Most businesses in the City are East Indian owned. Africans may be employed but as cleaners, or security. At Buddy’s Chinese Restaurant, for example, which is curiously owned by East Indians, an African youth was employed as a lift operator. This reminded me of footmen or boot cleaners back in the minstrelsy days. An African woman was employed to clean – not set - the tables. An image of subservience in an already servile environment bubbled in my mind and disgusted me.
• At Slashmins Resort – East Indians are “inside” in numbers – Africans in the main spill into their own “lime” on the “outside.” This is understood to be because those outside, including one and two East Indians and Amerindians do not want to pay to go in. But for us it spoke of a racial and class divide. The outside lime was pumping with music and had a different liveliness that attracted many more people. I believe there are now charges to take part in the lime, mainly to use the car park.

And so it went on, all around us. Whether we were consciously seeking it or not, we were soaked in this foul air of racism. We longed for it to reveal its deeper expression but sadly culture in this context was mostly hidden and seemingly superficial. I found myself deliberately supporting the few African stalls, or shops; getting into taxis when I could see the driver was African. In this context of racism, self-preservation became necessary and “race-first”, the Pan-Africanist mantra a practical reality. That more worthy principle of humanism lurked in the shadows of my tormented spirit. Reader, I hope you’re still with me because the signs I mentioned at the beginning of this Shout are still relevant. At this time in the journey they are bearing heavily on my spirit.
To be continued - next Shout

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