Thursday, 24 August 2017
I arrived in Guyana one week after the Camp Street Fire that burnt down Guyana’s infamous top security prison. Located in the city centre, against better advice and calls for decades to relocate it, this was the most major of several calamities befalling the prison. Many before this calamity, and since, have suggested relocating it to the Linden Highway where there is sufficient land space to accommodate it. The original construction was ordered, I read somewhere by Queen Victoria 133 years ago. Her ghastly statue remains, as do many other symbols (physical and psychological) of colonialism, dominant outside the High Court. That says much. British Law and what else persists in the way Guyana is governed.
The reason, we're told, for keeping Camp Street Prison so close and personal in the lives of local residents has something to do with proximity to the Supreme Court for those on remand to get there quickly. The fence is hardly high enough to prevent missiles of goodies and baddies to be lobbed over it. There is a sign on one side of the wall prohibiting contact/communication with prisoners. This is surely a parody that justifies the need to move it elsewhere.
By now citizens of the world ought to be aware public inquiries, following some state disaster are costly and often wasteful. Governments rush to order them after a major tragedy to appease its public that justice is being efficiently served. An inquiry was conducted after the 2016 fire at Camp Street in which 17 prisoners perished. Recommendations were made but not implemented because it would be too expensive to do so. A year later and another major fire that will once again start the chain of events; another costly inquiry, more recommendations, with the likelihood of there being no satisfactory outcomes.
Let me back up a bit
On 9th July my cousin sent me a WhatsApp message about the fire. Had I not seen it on Facebook? I had been to the river doing a ritual, so was on a good vibe (no social media) that day. When she shared pictures of the blaze, it became difficult to breathe. I was afraid for my brother who had been at the prison for the past three months. He was remanded there, charged with ‘possession of narcotics with intent to traffic.’ Weeks before in London I had bawled with the nation over the Grenfell Tower Inferno, for which ‘authorities’ have yet covered up the numbers that were consumed by it. We know the toll could never be 80, a figure they dragged out over weeks and have neatly squared for our consumption. I feared my brother might be a victim of the Camp Street fire and didn’t learn of his safety for a rough, sleepless 48 hours. I couldn’t tell our mother, she was already on a prayerful mission to get him released from there. We learnt that the authorities had decided to divvy the prisoners between Berbice, Timehri and Mazaruni. Eventually many were transported to Lusignan on the East Coast. I eventually learnt that my brother was among those.
Let me back up a bit further
My brother and I, as all siblings do, disagree on a number of things. He has been a Rasta since youth, smoking weed, as I did in my youth. He defended himself previously in the Courts in London and had never been incarcerated for possession with or without intent to do anything there. That changed when he returned to Guyana. A few years ago he was sentenced for three years for selling marijuana. It tore our mother up – in her twilight years having to deal with that stuff was too much. She is strong, however, praying through those trips to Mazaruni on the wily speed boats to visit him, and later to Berbice to where he was moved. My brother has had dealings with Guyanese police with regard to marijuana countless times. So when we received the call on this occasion that again he had been arrested to say I was angry, my mother frustrated would be understating our feelings. I can’t go on about how much and for how long before that anger turned from him to the stupid legal system that imprisons people for minor offences like possession or even selling Marijuana; when in a hot minute this will be made globally legal. My brother was refused bail at his first Court appearance. New court date served. Bail was refused again. Each time he went he appeared without a lawyer, since he is capable of speaking and defending himself, and ultimately since he believes by reason of his faith and culture that there is no legitimacy for locking him up for marijuana possession or trafficking. It’s not cocaine. It’s not large quantities. In this case, when we eventually got to speak, he said it was no more than 3 ounces.
Liberalise or legalise it
When I last saw my brother, in October 2016, he had been singing a tune I didn’t pay much attention to. He believed the government, spearheaded by David Granger especially, were going to ‘legalise’ marijuana. I’ve since learnt that ‘liberalising’ the law on marijuana was part of the coalition mantra, earning them relevant votes from young males and particularly from among the Rastafarian community. My brother is a Rastafarian who has naturally been championing the protracted global call for legalising marijuana, so it seems he ran away with the idea espoused by David Granger and the Coalition government that they would free up the herbs. The pre-election promise, it appears, is yet to be fulfilled because numbers of young (mainly) African men and Rastafarians are targeted with arrests for possession and smoking weed. These charges account for disproportionate numbers of prisoners at Camp Street. And on remand. A friend relayed that on winning the election in 2015, Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’ track was played for the Coalition’s victory celebration, he noted no less that Marley’s memorable tunes were compiled with a pen in one hand, a joint in the other.
When I arrived in Guyana I learnt that a Rastafarian Conference would be held at the University. I went. It was sparsely attended but there were some worthwhile presentations. I saw the near end of one that spoke about the relationship between reparations and repatriations – the latter needn’t be literal but should be contextualised as reclaiming history and decolonising the mind. I missed the one on ‘decriminalisation’ of marijuana as opposed to ‘legalising’ it. During Q&A I learnt though that this was based on the assertion that the Rastafarian community (he was referring particularly to Guyanese, but the Conference appeared international in scope), were not organised enough in terms of readiness for legalisation. Legalising the trade in marijuana would open up the investment potential to anyone. Those with resources, inside and outside of Guyana could easily purchase lands to accommodate the development of an industry that could see Rastafarians outwitted in their own back yard. Eric Phillips, director of African Cultural Development Association (ACDA) presented passionately about the same lack of organisation when he said that despite calls (he mentioned from the Government) to tell it what the community needed, no proposal had yet been made. This could, he was suggesting, include a proposal for acres of land on which to farm. This needn’t be as per individuals vying for small house lots or even farm plots but as a considerable collective. I had the cringing sense he was scolding the community like a school master might. He seemed frustrated, but I can’t speak to the intricacies of his apparent vexations nor the response (or lack thereof) by the Rastafari community.
I kept asking myself why after the fire and knowing that many of Camp Street’s prisoners were there on marijuana charges this community had not stampeded the government offices demanding immediate release, not on bail, but with charges dropped of those prisoners on remand for pitiful amounts of marijuana. I know it’s a legal issue, but really, what kind of 'legal?' Fair, just? I couldn’t understand the hush, either, and the lack of mobilisation and organisation by anyone actually in demanding something radical is progressed after this new fire, and especially after there were recommendations from the last one that were ignored. The business as usual thing bugged me. I am not amused by the chorus ‘this is Guyana’ that excuses all kinds of lawlessness and stupidness.
In London (even bearing in mind cultural, social and economic differences) Grenfell residents and supporters stormed the affluent Kensington and Chelsea Council premises demanding answers since the Council was culpable and had to be called to account. They had been warned about a possible fire by a residents group but ignored them. Likewise, the Commissioners of the previous inquiry after the 2016 Camp Street fire had, according to Guyana Chronicle “noted that repeat offenders have increased by over 100 per cent, “indicating not only a waste of taxpayer dollars but also the need for a more comprehensive and structured partnership within the wider justice system.” Clearly, something had gone and had been going terribly wrong for some time. Why wasn’t the moment seized to challenge the legal system that disproportionally criminalises African males, especially where the charges are related to marijuana and by inference therefore for choosing the Rastafarian way of life? The silence continues.
They’re rebuilding Camp Street?
I prayed before travelling to Guyana that I wouldn’t find my brother in prison. Whilst at times we disagree on things, I’d challenge anyone who thinks they can condemn him for his beliefs and even his actions. My issues with him and what I consider a kind of obsession with marijuana (despite its cultural/social/religious significance and health benefits) has as much to do with my spiritual growth as that of my brother’s. When a mother, an elder is heartbroken because her son, not a child, a grown man with children of his own faces the prospect of imprisonment yet again for the same offence one has to ask whether it is really worth it. It seems so to him, whether I/we like it or not. In any case, I had hoped he’d be released, even if this meant he’d be given community service. He had a court date on 20th June. The magistrate didn’t give him any hearing but instead cancelled the session and gave him another date, thereby putting him back on remand, with the near possibility of him being a victim of the fire that took place on 9th July.
Having arrived in Guyana, a week before the Diaspora Engagement Conference, and one after the fire, I visited the site. The fire had indeed flattened the wooden part of the prison. Only the two concrete buildings remain. Work men and machines were labouring on the sandy site, smoothening it with no trace of debris (perhaps bodies – my mind overran!) visible. My cousin was with me, “what they doing to this place,” he asked one of the workers. “Rebuilding it,” the workman said, sadly, his eyes looked deep into ours as though he wanted the weight of those words to penetrate our souls.
The Police mess across the road was also burnt, but being concrete is reparable. A nearby house had caught fire; cables looked ominous and now useless as they too were caught by the blaze. It was a Sunday, naturally it was quiet. But this quiet was not natural. Small children watched us as we walked the perimeter of the prison, their eyes and those of the odd parents/older family members we saw looked sad. Or was it shame I was seeing? For when at last the locals might have felt freed from that blight in their neighbourhood they were instead faced with the horror that the site would be rebuilt to once more contain the most violent members of the wider Guyanese society. A smaller fire had taken 17 lives a year previously, it was, therefore, difficult to accept the official report that all 1018 prisoners survived the blaze.
What follows is based on a conversation I had with my brother after I paid a supposedly ‘reduced’ bail (when there had been no issuance of any in the first place) that has given him a hint of freedom.
3 ounces of Marijuana - bail denied!
The story goes that my brother's neighbour was robbed. In their routine investigation to find out if locals knew anything about it, they came to my brother’s home, discovered his bagged out weed and arrested him. Bail, as he had expected and messaged me in London to hopefully secure somehow through my at the time vexed face since we didn’t know where else we’d find it, was denied. He had to go to court.
Prior to the fire, my brother had been trying to secure bail, each time the magistrate said ‘No bail.’ The fire provided the exigency for the court authorities to award reduced bail for ‘minor infringements’ and since many of those in Camp Street were there for petty crimes, the Coalition government’s pre-election promise to liberalise the law on marijuana became an inconvenient imperative.
The wanted escapees
Source - Guyana Chronicle
‘Smallie,’ or Mark Royden Williams, dubbed the ‘mastermind’ of the prison break is a Rasta like my brother. He didn’t (at least at this time) eat salt. And as my brother had been working in the kitchen, he was put in charge of cooking meals for all those prisoners who didn’t eat meat and ate only Ital. My brother is an excellent cook. He said that ‘Smallie’ seemed to be 'running things' in the prison, for example, making demands on the guards and officials for whatever he wanted. This was mainly around his meals. If they scrimped on seasonings, so that meals were made without tomatoes and adequate seasoning, he refused to eat it. The officials scurried to find requisite items and a new pot of meal was prepared.
According to my brother, the first attempt to escape by the means of setting alight the prison was last year. That plan was foiled. Allegedly a known official was overheard saying ‘let them’ (the prisoners) burn!’ Obviously, there’s no way of verifying this. The 17 who did burn were in this instance being avenged, at the same time as there being a renewed plot to escape. My brother said some of the prisoners who had escaped last year’s fire were traumatised, some coiling up in foetal postures when relaying the story to him, turning their backs from the terror of memory.
The fire was possible because the guards were docile and sleepy, particularly on a Sunday afternoon, either from overeating, drunkenness or weed smoking. Once ‘Smallie’ and the main actors in the break out had overcome the guards, by means of struggle, including chopping an important figure (whose title now escapes me) as they went along, a sight my brother said he had to turn his face from seeing, they released other condemned prisoners. That ‘figure’ (the ‘OC’ I believe, but don’t know what it stands for) was detested by the prisoners as he was cruel. The ‘plotters’ made sure the prisoners were safe before setting alight the prison, in strategic locations. Some of the male prison guards ran from the prison leaving their female counterparts to face not only the fire but the prisoners. As the chaos ensued, my brother and other prisoners made it to the gate, awaiting transport across to the mess, but this too was soon set ablaze; from that frightful scene too the prisoners were later transported to Lusignan. ‘Smallie’ and accomplices were long gone. Given that they were high security offenders, who are still on the loose, I am astounded by the silence. But I don’t live in Guyana and some things I naturally won’t be able to get my head around. In any case, my brother surmises that there is some kind of vendetta yet to be fully played out between the escaped condemned prisoners and the Chief of Prisons, Gladwin Samuels.
I was told, on a separate occasion by an ex-policeman, who had left the job because of the corruption it carried being part of that system, that the other ex-policeman (Uree Varswyck/e?) who had escaped with Smallie, had also become hardened by his experiences on the job. He, being well trained from overseas and having ambitions beyond his present rank was tasked with training (with drills etc) other officers and sometimes senior ones. There arose acrimony between him and these senior officials who couldn’t handle his (as a junior with more experience) ‘orders’ and would challenge him and make life hell for him. He decided to quit. But this didn’t stop the bullying and eventually charges, the ex-policeman said were trumped up led to his arrest and imprisonment. Again, there’s no way to say which of this is true and which myth. But Varswyck too raged and holds a vendetta – and is now on the loose, with his skills as a trained killer intact.
The conditions at Camp Street
Cramped and stink! My brother reckons the numbers detained in this hell hole superseded the figure of 1018, pushing to more like 1200 or more. When he had arrived at the prison, he was expected to sleep 3 men to one small bed. He bought some material, as did others and made himself a hammock, sleeping above other prisoners like big bats.
When he got the job in the kitchen he said it was disgusting, roach infested (though I can hear the shrewps that this is nothing when these vermin are sometimes seen in homes and hotels!) But it’s the image of this blackened, stink mop with which he was expected to clean the kitchen that stays with me from our discussion after his bail release. He bound his belly and began scrubbing the mop with his bare hands. Now my brother is super scornful so I can’t even imagine him doing this, and don’t think I could have done it myself. But he said, when other kitchen hands saw him, a Rasta do this, they too followed suit and began to take active/conscientious part in trying to clean the kitchen.
Prison officials were deliberately retaining government supplies meant for prisoners, whether this was seasonings for the food or the quantity of peas and rice supplies.
There was a business racket in the prison, with profits of 300-500% compared to outside for items like the many mobile phones being sold there. These profits and trade are shared between prisoners and officers. The usual sum for any small payment (bribe or goods) might start at $5000. A credit system operates in the prison and is the means by which items are purchased. For example, a family member on the outside tops up the prisoner's phone with credit which they can use to trade for necessary items, but one might suppose this is current in other countries around the world.
The bail release
On the Monday morning after I arrived in Guyana, I called Lusignan prison, thanks to contacts friends in the UK had in the police who had given them an officer’s details. The senior officer to whom I spoke sounded understandably stressed and asked me to call back a few hours later. When I did he advised that my brother was due for bail reduction and if we/he was ‘desirous’ to pay this he would find out how much. I found out the following morning it was to be $65,000. He instructed me how to make payment to secure my brother’s release.
I went to Brickdam at Prison Headquarters and collected the bail release form. I then had to take it to the magistrate court. As I didn’t know exactly where it was, an elder woman and daughter who were headed there walked with me to show me. The daughter said her son was also at Lusignan. He was taken to Camp Street following his arrest a few weeks back for alleged armed robbery. They said it was a trumped up charge by a police officer who was having an affair with her son’s child mother. The police officer had wanted the son out of the way so he and the child mother could be together, so he contrived this armed robbery which supposedly took place 2 years previously. She also related that her neighbour had once been arrested and served 3 years for having a small marijuana plant growing outside his yard.
The miserable official faces at the magistrates' court looked like zombies propping up a tardy system that was oiling itself from the substance of their human energy. Behind their bars and uniforms, they seemed scornful of those on the other side. The young female police (there were a lot of young police offers I noticed and many African – this as compared with the numbers of young East Indians behind counters at the banks) who searched my bag as I entered the court yard did so with the life and conviction of a limp bird. She too, it seemed to me was doing some kind of time, food and home longed for instead of those hours in the heat and contrivance of a justice system.
As my brother’s case began in Linden, they couldn’t find his file or ‘Case Jacket.’ As there is no computer system, one of the clerks looked exhausted as she contemplated how long it would take to locate it. Eventually, they realised it was over the river, I would have to return in the afternoon as someone had to manually bring it across. I returned as instructed but was told the magistrate who would have to sign the bail release form had left for home - this was at 2pm. I returned the following morning, at 9.30am as the helpful clerk had advised, where upon she said she would ensure it was signed when I arrived. It wasn’t. I waited. One hour. I waited. And noticed that a number of people had been moving in and out and I was still waiting. At one time, by myself in this miserable antiquated place. I got vexed. What was taking so long? Like clock work in Guyana only when we perform like we really mad and gon tear de place down can we sometimes see movement. I said to the clerk I wasn’t blaming her. I had things to do. I have been patient. Where is the magistrate – and this was a genuine question, I wanted to see the face of authority that would be responsible for signing this document and perhaps challenge them as to why he wasn’t issued bail previously. I told them the magistrate needs to sign the form then as I’d come a long way to deal with the matter. It was returned within 10 minutes. I rather regretted not getting that chance encounter with the magistrate.
I had to find a policeman for the next process. I located one who would go to Lusignan and bring my brother to town. This young man also looked pained as though the weight of the work disturbed his soul. And indeed, he would relay to my brother that since joining the force, he had once been arrested (I can’t remember for what), but the ‘case’ was thrown out and he was restored to his job. But now with the pain of what it means to be part of that system enshrined on his brow. My brother had been given a new court date. It was on the day I was presenting at the conference so I couldn’t go. He showed up. The magistrate gave him another court date. It is a livelihood that comes with its risks. And though pride or something else might make him appear as though he's weathering this new storm in his life pretty well, I think it's taking a mental toll on my brother. I know it is on my mum and if I too could crush my pride, I'd say me too.
It's beyond the purpose and limit of this article to record how many conversations I had with random people about police stopping and arresting young African males mainly for petty marijuana 'offences.' Guyana, I know is not the only country disproportionately imprisoning African males. Time also doesn't allow me to consider the racketeering in the prisons, the sense that imprisonment doesn't seem to be about rehabilitation or essentially justice but something else I can't figure and why despite so many complaints about how the police themselves show scant disrespect for the law, taking bribes that prop up their salaries are they allowed to continue this racket with impunity. I hear the chorus, it's a familiar phenomenon, state instruments protected/protecting itself and forgetting the public service fact of being sworn into the roles.
Conditions at Lusignan
They were put in a field, all types of offenders bound together. In the Camp Street chaos, according to my brother, most of the prisoners who left there had weapons on them because they had not been searched in the transfer. Fights between prisoners and even murder are part of the prison system. My brother says one murder took place when they moved to Lusignan. The officials originally hadn’t been giving the prisoners food – though they were being brought supplies. This was made expedient by the social media images of prisoners slaughtering a cow (I think some other animal too). When he was able, my brother called my cousin and told her about the slaughtering of the animals. He said when they start killing the animals (he being Rasta wouldn’t have been involved in this) one of the cows came up to him, with sad eyes as though saying ‘ow, ow, tell dem na kill meh, na kill meh!”
They didn’t have coverings to prevent exposure to sun and rain. Eventually, some kind of make shift thing was erected. And of course being in a field it was not long before we learnt that 13 prisoners had escaped from Lusignan. This was the day the Diaspora conference began when I watched President Granger make for the exit to deal with the situation. 7 of the prisoners were caught but the first ‘original’ escapees, including ‘Smallie’ and his fellow, condemned prisoners and now these from the field in Lusignan on the East coast, casting new shadows and textures of silence on the city as people continue the daily grind of surviving.
Thursday, 17 August 2017
The theme ‘Dreaming Diaspora: Doing Diaspora’ sounded fluffy. This wasn't the reason I didn’t initially want to go to the conference. I knew I couldn’t afford it! From the outset, I understood that it would have to be self-funded, given that I’m not attached to an academic institution, but am independent, based in the UK, where average travel fare to Guyana would cost £700. But in July! Double that. I decided I wouldn’t go. It kept pushing me to attend, however, and finally, I agreed I’d find the funds and go. My decision to finally go was due in part to a sense that there would be few if any presentations on culture. I was right. Even so, what could I really contribute? When the current administration took office, ‘business’ for developing the economy was its focus; our High Commissioner here in the UK was formerly in business. I saw a future in which the arts and culture were forced off centre as the poor cousin of advancing the nation’s economy. My paper/presentation would highlight that culture is the bedrock of societies and should not be sidelined since it is issued from the peoples that make up our communities and societies. What culture needs in order to contribute effectively to economies is for the government to institutionalise processes for creative industries to develop and thrive. As they do in the UK and elsewhere, ‘inward investment’ is necessary, along with securing music (where we at with copyrights?) and consistent education programmes.
The conference opened on Sunday 23rd July with a reception. Some anxieties about feeling out of place among the suits and business people dominated. One of the first people I met, who settled some of my misgivings was my cousin, Michael Brotherson. He works in the Foreign Office, headed by Karl Greenidge, the Minister of Foreign Affairs whose absence did not go unnoticed. I was surprised but had no choice but to rise to it, when Vice Chancellor Professor Ivelaw Griffith asked me along with others to say a few words about the conference. I waited my turn, all the while styling anxieties about what I’d say. I was the last to speak. Thankfully the speaker before me, Paul Tennassee (University of the District of Columbia) had closed his remarks by introducing a young poet called Keon Heywood, who performed a wonderful piece about Guyana. The springboard was easy; he’d allowed me to highlight the importance of culture and arts in all our engagement about how to develop Guyana, to remember that culture too is business and key to our humanity. Professor Griffith did an intriguing thing giving me that momentary platform, totally unprepared as I was. After I spoke, he was able to confirm that as well as the newly developed Business/Enterprise Unit at the university there were plans too for developing the Arts. I knew of this in any case from previous conversations with the Vice Chancellor. I would embrace the conference with confidence now and appreciate that I had a place there.
The Papers and Presentations
It was impossible to attend most as I’d hoped but that’s the nature of conferences. I read a sour note on FaceBook that some of the presenters sounded as though they’d swallowed a dictionary. It was perhaps difficult for this observer to appreciate the quality of the papers and that it was a conference initiated by the University where one would expect the calibre of contributions I saw. What was lacking was sufficient time for us to digest and question the presenters and also better rooms to better facilitate the PowerPoint slides. We ran way over time the first day of the conference, which was due in part to the opening formalities that included a Keynote address by President David Granger. The fact that the University had sought to include the government as well as opposition leaders marked its intention to have far reaching inclusion and obviously to highlight the important role each need to play to engage the diaspora effectively if we are serious about development.
There were excellent, if hurried papers from the Theme: ‘Engaging the Diaspora’ – which included methods relating to policy development to utilise the potential of the diaspora; entrepreneurship and investment possibilities that move beyond remittances and establishing a methodology for researching the diaspora; Building Partnerships with the Diaspora Theme saw papers on creating a ‘multi-dimensional Process for engaging the Diaspora’ and exploring the reality of the resources (skills based and financial) of the diaspora. A paper I enjoyed was on the government Green State initiative, pushing for us to explore and implement renewable energy as an industry, delivered by Gary Best. It’s a commendable initiative but my misgivings about the oil exploration and development make it difficult to be convinced about how the two will mesh. I caught only an enticing tail end of ‘Mimicry and Fantasy in the Diaspora: the view from Richmond Hill in New York’ by Dr Dhanpaul Narine but others said it was a treat.
My presentation was titled 'Embedding Guyanese Culture' and showcased a few organisations/initiatives based in the UK, Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, Huntley Conference, Guyana UK Sports and Development Association, Way Wive Wordz and 'Guyana Speaks!' It emphasised the need to institutionalise/embed culture for it to effectively matter in development strategies. It was well received, though time didn't allow for any questions following.
It was several times noted that the Diaspora contributed around $US450 Million in remittances, with the majority of Guyanese located in the USA. Although the US based Guyanese dominated, I was actually really impressed by the enthusiasm, initiatives (educational as well as business related investments) and experience they amass. For example, Dr Vincent Adams, one of the appointed Education Ambassadors has 30 odd years’ experience in oil and gas. He will be lending his skills in a mentoring role from the University.
There were, at times tiring rounds and key notes by government Ministers and representatives. Gerry Goveia, buoyant but for me exuding a businessy arrogance that grated, was there to speak on behalf of the Private Sector. He said some things about the business community going and demanding x and y from the government, forcefully it seemed. Gail Texeira represented the opposition and seemed to be citing statistics about increased migration, as though this was consequential to the new administration and not a process inherent to Guyana’s progress (or lack thereof) throughout its nationhood. I didn’t hear connections being made here either with the zealous dishing out of 10 year Visas by the US Embassy.
The Foreign Office was tasked with serious questions from the floor following a presentation by Michael Brotherson, who was there in place of Karl Greenidge. The Diaspora Development Policy document or strategic document was the issue. It seemed this had been ‘in process’ for far too long, wide consultation with the diaspora missing; the possibility that Mr Brotherson, responsible for its advancement hadn’t clapped eyes on it. I felt it for him; those US delegates were not letting up. And rightly so.
I wish I could say something about the Minister for Education’s presentation. Either by this point in the day I was tired or it was flat and unimpressionable. Words were said, lots of graphs and seemingly well-organised charts and things but I can’t speak to the substance of Minister Nicollette Henry’s discussion, which was unfortunate. On the other hand Cathy Hughes, now Minister for Technology (the title might not be totally accurate) was vibrant, acknowledging some of what our young people are developing, discovering and needing investment for. Animation seems to be big. There is a Guyana Animation Network, which collaborates with Trinidad and Suriname. Ms Hughes noted that Animation could be done more cost effectively in Guyana than some of our neighbouring countries. I can’t verify this but think the opportunity worthwhile to bear in mind.
Ambassadors from Mexico, China and India attended the conference and presented on their respective country’s success at engaging its respective diaspora. Again the policy issue crept up because countries like Jamaica and Haiti all have one – Jamaica particularly, we were told say the ‘diaspora is an extension of itself?’ All this to beg the seriousness of the Guyana government in making use of its diaspora. David Lammy, our MP for Tottenham flew in to give a keynote. He did so with the use of charm and some comedy but seriously noting that if the Guyana government was serious about development with its diaspora’s contribution it should consider why children born to Guyanese parents outside of the country aren’t automatically Guyanese too, as they would elsewhere be regarded citizens through heritage.
In fact, a bug bear of one of the delegates was our use of the term ‘diaspora.’ He was suggesting we switched to the term ‘Persons Of Guyanese Origin’ (POG) which might be less confusing to Guyanese generally and broadens identities linked to Guyana. ‘Come backee’ was also questioned as to its appropriateness, despite being culturally in circulation a while.
On the question of oil.
I don’t remember when exactly the oil discussion took place – though one of the papers was on this – but someone asked about the contract. They wanted to know where we could find it. I confess I’m not in favour of the oil industry development. There have been too many instances in my life time where this has proven to be a nightmare and destructive force to small countries forced to give unfavourable terms to multi-national corporations that have more wealth than those resource rich countries they exploit. What undeniably happens, as I recently read in the case of the small African nation of Equatorial Guinea (though what kind of ‘small’ we mean is another discussion) is that sickening, corrupt contracts are made with the so-called leaders whom the corporations give whatever revenues are yielded to directly whilst the mass of the population starves, the country continues in underdevelopment. Why should Guyana be different? In the Equatorial Guinea example, this disgusting deal was made with Exxon Mobil who directly paid money into the President’s bank account. Why does our government have faith that Exxon Mobil would grow moral fibres just for Guyana? Okay, so it wasn’t this administration with whom the contract was made. We were told at the conference that the contract was made with Janet Jagon in 1999, during her brief term as President. When administration changed in May 2015, British lawyers advised the government that owing to our border dispute with Venezuela it should be cautious about what goes out to the public. This is shocking – that Guyanese actually don’t know what’s in the contract. Further, former President Bharrat Jagdeo in 1997 added a non-disclosure clause in the petroleum Act. And something I didn’t catch properly about the ‘licensee being the one to give permission for disclosure.’ Someone who was there can authenticate the correct note. None of it should sit well with us. Put simply, we can’t see this contract. In the first place if this was made with the highest person in the land who has absolute power, then we can only move our mouths like we’re circulating saliva but can’t do anything to change the course of action weighing on this impending industry, positively or not. An industry that some at the conference, I couldn’t help noticing seemed entirely assured would bring great wealth to the nation. It seemed too that this industry would be so economically transforming for Guyana that we might as well get rid of bauxite, sugar and rice. There is a despairing sense that this winding down of same has already begun. I can’t see when disclosure would come since the border issue with Venezuela has been long. It’s being put before the international community at the end of this year, in any case.
We were further told about the 50/50% division of profits from oil revenues with the stomach churning caveat that this would be after the cost of investment had been accounted for. In other words, it would really be (if I understood the thing properly) 75/25% initially. How long this would last I didn’t hear. I hope at heart many of us were concerned about Guyana's sovereignty and its development otherwise the blades of grass Venuezla claims will pale beside the probable ravages multinationals like Exxon Mobil are capable of imposing on 'small' countries.
Where were the Young People?
Any major gripe I have with the conference is that there wasn’t a contingent of young people present. I didn’t see any from the University doing a presentation or from the wider community. I communicated with a young man, who was a Civil Engineer teacher at UG who had brought a few of his students to the conference. I would have liked to see a panel discussion, chaired by and comprised of young people. This issue was raised on the last day and hopefully the feedback was noted along with others for organising future conferences. Importantly, there was a suggestion to develop a diaspora conference for young people. Perhaps the cost was prohibitive, if students were encouraged to attend, at $US50.
However, the Conference did offer an opportunity to engage with the community, including young people. This was the day to ‘give back,’ where delegates could take on a volunteering activity within the community. I went to a Youth Volunteering Day, held at Umana Yana. It was great to see young people engaged in development efforts aimed at supporting educational and social needs of other young people. There were groups pitching their ideas for development to a panel of judges. The winner was one that had developed an app called Maths Guru. I met some Youth Ambassadors. They were sponsored by the US Embassy to go to the United States for three weeks, take part in youth projects which they would return to Guyana and repackage in some form to offer to Guyanese youth. Most of the ambassadors were selected from Queens College. One, Visharnie, a previous QC student, bright and focused worked for the Guyana Chronicle and invited me to do an interview for the paper. This interview focused on culture, its lack, its potential in Guyana. She surprised me (pleasantly) and reinforced why I thought we needed the presence of our young people at the conference, by cutting to the chase and asking about the impact of cultural imperialism on the way we do or do not embed/institutionalise initiatives to promote, advance and centralise Guyanese cultural identity.
At some point the fact that the majority of attendees were African Guyanese was made. It is a disgusting, shameful reality that events initiated to encourage wide participation when lead by an African Guyanese often results in a lack of involvement by Indian Guyanese. This has been my experience for years. I can’t speak to the ravages of the 1960s when the mud and blood were slinging both ways but in my lifetime I’ve observed efforts by African lead organisations to be inclusive of all the ethnicities. One of these is the Guyana UK Sports and Development Association, which organises a folk festival every year (for the last 20). This is for all Guyanese to take part in. But Indian Guyanese stay away. This has been the case no matter which administration is running the country or the ethnicity in the UK’s case of the High Commissioner. Of course, I can’t speak to events organised by Indian Guyanese or other groups where Africans are actively sought to attend? How would one know in a divisive society as ours? I know that I’d sooner see African Guyanese participating in the variety of festivals, donning clothes to reflect than I would the other way around. But that story is tired. A refresher to this came at an Emancipation event (I’ll blog separately on this) where Prime Minister Nagamootoo wore a dashiki, so too all his body guards.
An article by a Guyanese of Indian heritage suggesting that those Indian Guyanese who attended the conference were there for cronyish benefit was stupid for too many obvious reasons. The writer was there – looking, she suggests for her mattie and when seeing few, thought she was in the wrong place. Her comments remind me of a forefinger straining forward, an action which forces the thumb to invert backwards. The lack of representation by Indian Guyanese has nothing to do with the University since it’s an institution for all Guyanese, neighbours and international community. Invitations were far reaching for this reason.
If that writer’s comments can be described as stupid, John Mair’s comments (in an article he wrote about the conference) were insensitive and equally foolish. Firstly, he bemoaned being a ‘token white’ – if that’s how he chose to self-identify that’s his shame. In truth, did he expect organisers to rally minority numbers of ‘white’ (European/English/Spanish/Portuguese) Guyanese to satisfy some quota? As for renaming the ‘diaspora’ – ‘dire-spora’ – this suggests he really is ‘token’ that he is not one of us – however way we want to identify our connectedness with Guyana. When he referred to the President’s attendance with his ‘gang’ I was reminded of his paper (he presented same time as I) on the so-called ‘Guyanese Mafia’ a term he wants to have on record as his. Baroness Amos beamed one morning of the conference from a pre-recorded video and said Prince Charles had coined the term. I can’t stand it. Worse than this, however, and snakey too was his comment that the conference was a ‘coronation for the Vice Chancellor.’ The Vice Chancellor was hands on, but he didn’t ‘chair’ everything as Mair reported. This was a disgusting exaggeration. The Vice Chancellor tried to attend as many of the panels as possible, moving from room to room as we, the delegates were. Mair got personal about the VCs bowties too, though I couldn’t work out whether it was an endearment or slight. He might reflect (?) on his own curious eccentricity of writing as a pseudonym as well as in his own name in the same article; in other words referring to himself in the third person. He might chew on the hating notes in his paper, which probably have more to do with punctured privilege and realisation that when he's in Guyana, he is a minority than anything else.
The cultural finale on the last night was disappointing. There was an attempt to be inclusive here too – something East Indian, Chinese, Indigenous and well – Dave Martins! We only live in some fickle hope that ‘inclusion’ might mean we don’t separate like this but revere and creatively demonstrate our coming together, attempting to ‘one people’ in a way I've observed Surimamese handle the diversity issue. Keith Waithe, the University’s Artiste in Residence had promised us something special, that we’d get the chance to dance and do weself. He would give us, one supposed a bit of something we might connect with African Guyanese. That didn’t happen. Unfortunately, the group of musicians he’d organised (comprising Rukiza Okera, Larry Bartley, Chris, Buxton Fusion and Helen McDonald) didn’t pull it off or even together and appeared to be rehearsing. I think it was unnecessarily elaborate, in any case. What would have worked in my humblish view is an array of drums. This would have sounded a timely note for emancipation, which was three days after the conference ended. The might of the drums would also have been appropriate to follow Dave Martins house tearing down act which had overrun and preceded Keith Waithe et al. And yet here too there were some comments about a lack of diversity on this night. And on and on the racist bile prevails.
The Investiture – of the Vice Chancellor Ivelaw Griffith
(photo from Guyana Chronicle; see their article on the 'installing' here)
I thought I could have ducked this programming of the conference. I didn’t know how ‘formal’ the thing was, didn’t know what an 'investiture' was. I went and it really was pomp, as I now realise these things are. Felt woefully underdressed in my newly purchased UG and DEC tee - merchandise I was glad to support. The President, Prime Minister, other Ministers, UG Chancellor, UG faculty members and Deputy Vice Chancellors (I was surprised that there were more than one); guests from different parts of the world and their respective universities all there to see the installation of the 10th Vice Chancellor to the University of Guyana. I can (outside and inside the event itself) see and hear the cries about it because it is change. What I can’t witness more directly are the sneers by those who think the diaspora (Professor Griffith representing) are taking over. I’d have to be resident proper to appreciate that aspect and the quarters whence it cometh. For whatever reason and however it was made possible, who can really envy the Vice Chancellor the role he accepted? Anyone who merely dreams, I suppose.
Finally, I had to acknowledge it was worth being present at the conference because it gave the occasion to get to know other Guyanese living outside. Whatever the reasons they attended the conference I got a sense that there was a serious commitment to helping Guyana to develop. We have between us earned extensive skills in all fields that can contribute to this process. And many have been trying for years to find ways to ‘give back.’ We could all lament the seemingly deliberate closed doors and bureaucratic instruments that have stopped our collective/individual efforts – be they to return and teach, set up sports clubs, contribute hospital supplies, rebuilding schools, supplying schools with computers/books, facilitating literacy initiatives, wide ranging business enterprises (using local produce/services), helping to alleviate mental health and other medical issues, domestic violence, particularly against women and so on. It was noted that many of us (I am one) who left Guyana didn’t do so by choice. The sense that when we come back we’re seen as ‘stepping on toes’ is something we learn to live with. At least I have. The conference organisers didn’t consciously enable those present to make connections with each other, by say making it part of a programme/morning or afternoon; that had to be organic. It would have been good to have a sense of who was in the room, but with our last minuteness (mine included) that might be a stretched expectation. The chance to get to know Guyana was programmed, I’ll write on this in another post. But this would have served as an opportunity to connect.
We can measure the success of the conference in so many ways. I choose simply to refer to its inception. It had to be dreamed up, in the first place. Then believed possible. Who would dream only and not attempt the practical steps to realise their vision? So although the theme appeared philosophically fluffy to my ear and mouthing and laughter at times I fully appreciate what has been achieved by this initiative, which began with a dream or vision. One of the outcomes was the launch of the Centre for Caribbean Diaspora Engagement. Another was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Guyana and University of the West Indies. The Investiture, too, set a new standard, like it or not. The conference brought together people who would otherwise never be seen together because of our respective interests. And we don’t have to like each other, nor share the same ideology. We need as a start to recognise that the University has attempted in this initiative to be a mobilising force, and its new Vice Chancellor seems serious about the business of running it with the necessary contribution of key players, just as elsewhere Universities are developed, maintained and become important instruments through which the moral, philosophical, political, social, economic and cultural values of a nation are progressed. Many of the delegates are the University of Guyana Alumni, perhaps attesting to their interest and genuine desires to give back. Success then is what we make of it – and my gratitude to the Vice Chancellor and team for organising this first Diaspora Conference is fully expressed here.