Wednesday, 27 December 2017
I’m sharing this following my facebook post bigging up this version of the traditional Guyanese dish. A few people wanted the recipe. The idea is not mine. But once I learnt it was possible to enjoy this seasonal dish as a vegan I've made it ever since. In Guyana, vegan/vegetarian pepperpot is made with soya chunks, which is how I used to make it but I don't like too much soy products in my diet, so I prefer to use ground provisions. Rastas call it Ipperpot – which I’ve not tasted, presumably it doesn’t have salt in it, making it Ital(perpot).
I’m rubbish at measurements and sticking to any recipe! So I’ve cheated and found items from a meat version, adapting so you get the idea and of course I’ve substituted the meat for the ground provisions.
Selection of provisions to include:
Sweet potato (say 2 medium sized), Irish potatoes (about 2/3), cassava (half a large, or 1 small), yam (I use puna, so which ever you prefer - half large), green plantain (a large one), green banana (2 small or one large), eddoes (about 2-4). Cut these into small chunks to your preference.
NOTE 1: if the consistency isn’t thickening, which it should with good cassareep, I usually mash up some of the Irish potatoes and/or one of the eddoes.
1 cup cassareep (the ‘cup’ thing depends on the quality of the cassareep – aim for one that is authentic - I know I know – but the one I used this year came from the POMEROON – hurray…and was fab!)
Mushrooms - 1 punnet of oyster mushrooms, a half punnet of chestnut mushrooms. You can also use a few dried ones. Cut them in halves/quarters depending on their sizes
2 cinnamon sticks (again, this will depend on how seriously the sticks smell of cinnamon as the spice is important – you should get its aroma. In mine, I add about 3 large good ones)
Orange peel (as the season approaches get quality oranges – yes ortanique have fab flavour – cut in squares to keep the peel. I use the whole skin of one. If you don’t have great
About 4 cloves garlic (chop finely)
4 wiri wiri peppers (cool if you have these, which are from Guyana and usually kept whole . But I use 2/3 scotch bonnet ones – you can go hotter – chop finely after removing the seeds)
1/2 cup brown sugar (I used the soft dark one)
1/2 tsp salt (or to your taste, you can add stock cubes too – vegan of course)
8-12 cups water (be flexible, obviously you might have to add more, but start with less than too
Few sprigs of thyme (about 3/4 tablespoon of crushed fine leaf from Guyana is my preferred)
Sprinkles of Black pepper (as you would any other large pot of stew)
6-8 cloves (some keep this optional, but I like them - though it can be annoying when one lands in your mouth!)
2 small onions
2 spring onions
2 Table spoons of coconut oil (or as you prefer)
• Heat the oil in a large/deep pot
• Saute all the onions, garlic,
• Then add all the other ingredients, leaving the water till last. B
• Bring to a boil till the provisions are soft and edible.
Note 2: Check the consistency, which should be thick, not like molasses but not runny. Check the colour, it should be deep and dark. Taste should be hot, sweet, bitter, savoury, spicy (cinnamon, cloves, orange peel should be strongly hinted) all at the same time! So not too much of either. The smell should be distinctive especially of the festive spices. If you know the meat version, your aim is to mimic this.
• I remove the cinnamon sticks, orange peels and if you used the big sprigs of thyme (instead of shredding) remove these too (some fastidious folk can’t deal with picking them out of their plates when served – no names given up!)
Note 3: I cooked this couple days before Christmas. When I reheat the provisions don’t crush up so don’t worry about this happening.
I think that's it! You’re good to go. All you need to make this extra special is the homemade bread.
Tuesday, 14 November 2017
He dreamed of having his own plot of land, I saw him in this image.
In the interminable circle of life we are charged with Purpose and unique Destinies that we forget during our many transmigratory experiences or movement from life to death. Memories and dreams, among other triggers serve to help us remember our Purpose, which we should recognise as Divine. That recall – or realignment with our Purpose gives our life its vital force. That vitality is withered or dimmed by many necessary, though functional distractions – work, family commitments, the burdens about our finances and fears about how to eat and clothe ourselves and so on. These overwhelming distractions leave us little time to Pause and be Still enough to tune into our Self – I mean as an active intuitive pursuit aimed at accessing some point of entry relevant to fulfilling our Purpose. Another trigger is, therefore, Meditation – which, if practiced consistently, can attune the heart to its many lifetimes and Soul journeys.
Francis found moments to meditate or rather those moments found him. During our time together there was always a far-off sadness in his eyes that made me believe he was searching for something that was always eluding him. I believe this has something to do with the loneliest endeavour to find his true self, to realign with the Purpose and the reason for his life, his vital force. I think what eluded him, what he couldn’t see was that the thing he searched for was determined by his willingness to activate his Spiritual Intelligence over and above the constraints of ego consciousness, which was burdened by bitterness and negativity.
In Ancient Egyptian cosmology, Ausar one among many deities is the God of the Underworld – or that transmigratory moment simply interpreted as death. Ausar represents the ‘Divine Self’ which the individual or mortal must aim to Realise (or manifest) by practicing Maat (she’s another deity in this cosmology who stands for Truth, Justice, Balance, Order, Harmony, Morality and so on). Another way to think of it is the practice of Ethical Living. That effort to attain Divinity is a quiet, lonely but necessary pursuit. That effort, the pursuit and ultimately the realisation that one is Divine is no easy thing. One’s divinity is stripped of all false impressions generally conveyed and obeyed in the vigorous expression of the Ego or the Personality. In Kemetic tradition, the Divine Self – Ausar - is an Indwelling Spirit or Intelligence. It is sacred because it is regenerative – meaning it transmigrates (from death to life to death to life and so on). We can think of it as resurrecting or reborning after returning to the ‘underworld’ as symbolised by death or dying. It’s a motion not unlike that of the Sun Rising and the Sun Setting – which process is eternal.
The ultimate Purpose of life then is to manifest one’s Divine Intelligence by consciously contributing to a much bigger picture than our Ego or Personality allows us to recognise. Divine Intelligence manifests by wilful adherence to the call, however loud or quiet, to serve humanity, toward its prosperity and its productivity, its peace, its love, its continuity.
Maat - anciety Egyptian deity represents truth, justice, balance, order, harmony etc - 'ethical living.'
Set an ancient Egyptian diety - opposes Ausar and Heru; represents a dark force - force of destruction.
I was briefly married to Francis Andre Stoby but I believe our meeting in 1995 when I first returned to Guyana must have been required. That period of my life and I feel for him too, was the most spiritually awakening. He had told me early in the relationship that someone - a sort of reader had told him he had a dark cloud hanging over him. I had many occasions during our relationship to observe the power this cloud held over his life. Francis seemed to abide under it; he was consumed by it and often found ways to repress himself because of it. It was an intuitive obsession he was vaguely aware of. I think of this dark cloud as a negative projection that overshadowed the Spark of Light that would have enabled him to perceive his Divine Self. I believe he knew but underestimated the greater power of his Spiritual Intelligence. He’s not alone in doing this by any means. We all fall short of taking seriously the importance of being self-aware and accepting that life can never be lived fully without recognising the importance of certain principles or codes. Clear signs gifted to us in dreams or some well-meaning advice, from elder, friend or family we take for granted, these are discarded from our conscience because they do not fit our expectations and what our Ego determines it wants from us.
In every life there is a consistent interplay between Divine Intelligence and Ego Consciousness. Let’s think of this as Sun Rise and Sun Set. One illuminates the other overclouds (makes 'dark'). In Francis’s case his Sun Set (or Ego) reflected self-destructive impulses for which he would resort to expletives and describe how ‘eff up’ his life was. Sadly he believed this – and always carried the expression as a badge or true sign, when all the while it was his Sun Set, a moment that would move into a next moment, especially if he learnt to self-direct his consciousness to think of and see himself through the spectrum of a particular light than a particular pervading darkness.
Activating his Spiritual Intelligence is essentially an act of Resistance – defeating the Sun Set if you like – thereby changing the projections about the dark clouds. In this way he might have fought a different kind of fight, we might have been exposed to a different outcome of his struggles. He might have fought harder to keep breathing. By this I mean that breathing as a conscious act of working the breath in a deeper, rhythmic sequence to make possible the spirit of longevity and of overcoming. Instead, he flouted his Power on shallow breathing, being puffed up and angry, becoming bitter with life and ultimately with love, thereby adulterating the dark cloud.
When he was at his best, his Sun Rise, Francis was funny. I believe it was his sense of humour that endeared him to me when I first met him. I recall laughing till my cheeks hurt. The day we were married we had organised a meal at a hotel off Main Street. The whole thing was intimate, only nine of us were there. When we finished eating one of his friends, I think it was his best friend Troy started to call for the customary speech; “speech,” “speech,” “speech,” others joined in, “speech,” “speech.” All eyes fixed on Francis. He scraped his chair back with flamboyant effort, stood up with a measure of confidence, looked long at each of us as though summoning the nerve to speak – then said, “tanks,” and sat back down.
Francis was a dreamer. By this I mean he dreamt a lot, and we enjoyed nothing more than exchanging our dreams. Dreams were like a connecting force between us. Sometimes he woke up with the dark cloud (the Sun Set as opposed to the Rise) impacting the whole day. He would be far off, in some unreachable place as though he was still experiencing the reveries of the subconscious realm of dreams. He might assume that vacantness for a few days. But then his spirits would suddenly lift because he had learnt that someone had died – the reality confirming what had drawn the dark clouds for those few days.
Literal dreams in the truth of his heart took the form of his desire to have a plot of land of his own. I cannot say if he ever achieved this but I know that whether they were big or small dreams executing any plan to make them come true was not his forte. He didn’t seem to trust himself fully. He had an abiding habit of flakiness and some wayward determination to press a self-destruct button. But I understood it as part of a deeper, ever elusive search. I understood it because it was perhaps the reason why our paths crossed in the first place, for my fingers were obviously not far from that same button. I don’t believe he was naturally cruel, but the lack of self-trust and self-love meant his kindness was sometimes masked by a tendency to overexpose his demons. I mean to say that he distrusted his own light and consistently denied himself the fullness of experiencing joy. And the dimness of his life, when he allowed the overshadowing dark clouds to prevail were visible, to any who met him in his very sad, distant eyes.
Francis taught me how to value family, something growing up in the UK I had taken for granted, or rather had given little thought to. He adored his father, Edward Stoby with whom he will now share many moments of laughter and musings on the other side. His father, we can be comforted to know is the ancestor whose hand will be leading him through the dark valley to meet many more of his ancestors. His face always lit up when he saw his father coming to join him at the barber stand or spot by big market where he used to cut hair. I knew Francis got his sense of humour from his father, who would say to me each time we met – “he does ram good?” crashing into boyish laughter and leaving me blushing terribly.
If there was any true love of his life, at least when I knew him, it was his son Giddel. I think much of the sadness Francis nurtured had to do with missing his son, or feeling some kind of failure or loss at not being there for him. He wanted to be a good father, maybe develop the kind of father son relationship that was really about friendship. When Giddel left for America, I think Francis was heartbroken. He treasured a letter Giddel wrote to him sometime after we were married. It says: ‘Hi Dad, how are you? As for me I am trying to be a good boy. I am trying to bring my grades up. I received your card and your pictures. You looked nice in your suit and your wife too. I wish that I had been there to bear your ring. I am sending you a school picture of me. I hope you like it.’ It was signed, ‘love, Giddel.’
That sense of heartbreak was also felt when he spoke of his mother, Loretta Stoby who had also migrated to America by the time I met him. I think Francis was deeply affected by the feeling that people he loved were always leaving and he was always saying good bye. I would add to this a few times before we married. When Francis spoke about his mum there was a clear impression that she was the family matriarch. There seemed to be a collective feeling of loss when she left but there had been such a close bond between their large family, well known in the Mocha Arcadia community that they held themselves together very well.
I never heard him speak badly about any member of his family. He loved each of them for different reasons, as far as I could tell. Godfrey, his elder brother, I hardly knew but when I met him seemed quiet and calm. I think Francis enjoyed reasoning spiritually with his brother Oral, and on matters of culture too. He certainly had much respect for him. He worked with Errol at the barber ‘outpost’ or whatever that spot was called where we met. He spoke protectively of his youngest brother Eric and though I hardly knew them I was impressed by his efforts to keep in good communication with his two big sisters whose names I can’t remember. It was marvellous to me to observe the way Francis tried to have a special relationship with his family. There was certainly something of a special affection between him and his niece Dorette, but he was so fond of all his nieces and nephews for whom he would bring treats when we visited.
In truth, Francis was a people person despite the ugly dark cloud that prevailed over him at some stages of his life. I loved observing the way he radiated as he walked through town, greeting everyone, hailing up brothers and shouting ‘aright aright’ to sisters, sometimes with a tinge of vexation that he did seem to know everyone and so couldn’t hide should he even wish to do so. The smile and hailups were real, however, and I think he missed this kind of kingly character when he came to London. At this time the cloud weighed in as though it had been repressing a pack of demons awaiting this precise moment to seize their freedom. Before this, I had observed that Francis had what seemed like a natural charm that made him loveable to everyone who met him. Certainly, there would have been a serious contrast between the community spiritedness he experienced in Guyana, Georgetown and Mocha particularly and the isolation and loneliness of being in London. I wanted him to come to London and at first he might have wanted to but he never really believed in the illusion of that dream. Sometime after our marriage ended he returned to Guyana. I saw him for the last time a few years ago when I visited. His locks were long but not as lush as they might have been. He looked sad to me and a little beaten, though he was pushing a smile. The charm, at least its effect on me had long worn off and been replaced by something I couldn’t quite name, but which caused me to cry bitterly after seeing him that last time. He was cutting hair not far from the very spot I’d met him over 10 years previously. It was a cycle and perhaps I wondered at the worth or futility of it.
Despite the continuum that is life and death each light when blown out is either a fleeting or significant loss to the community, especially when it manifests from bitter circumstances. One expects death to be a natural thing and in African cosmology when a person dies young it’s considered a tragedy, a severe sign of something gone terribly wrong. The burden on the family and indeed the community is immense only if we do not acknowledge the lessons each person contributes to the greater understanding of the continuum of loss and return; that indeed the Sun Sets but it must also Rise again and again.
My mother, whom Francis was fond of and called ‘Lucille gyal,’ said she had learnt a dream sign from him. He had told her that anytime you dream of dead fishes it’s a sure sign of death. She had such a dream on the night of 1st November; she said she didn’t like the sign, that it was Francis who had told her what it meant. Later that same day we saw two large black flies in the house; no windows were opened - we avoided thinking what we had known previously from this sign. I know each of us can share many stories about observing such signs in the years and months leading up to the news on Thursday 2nd November that Francis had passed. Were we comfortably in tune with our own Divine Intelligence we might have found some meaningful way not only to interpret those signs but to better warn Francis to be mindful of the steps he was taking to walk his journey.
So finally I leave you with a dream I had of Francis in 2001, the year we separated. Francis is looking out toward the Setting Sun. It’s a beautiful image of him – he’s looking sombre and reflective. He’s in a kind of dark shadow with a pervading darkness all around him. I seem to be watching him from a distance. When the Sun finally closes, he goes to bed. I go to bed with him. We hear a door slamming back and forth. He tells me someone might get locked out. I get up to go and warn whomever that they might get locked out. I actually rise from the bed as if going to do so which is how the dream breaks.
Francis Andre Stoby, you have seen the last physical Sun Set and the Last Sun Rise. You, who are a son, a father, a brother, an uncle, a friend, a lover and at one time my husband. You have been our joy, our pain, our laughter and now our tears. Your door here on earth has finally closed but you’re going to a place where there are no doors in your father’s many mansions. And as your brother Beres Hammond would sing, you will no longer get tired where you are, you’ll never have to go to work, there’ll be no one knocking at your door, disrespecting the no disturb sign, no baby crying, no horn blowing, no more noise Francis, no more pain, just all the time to blaze and be on a peaceful medi with the purest grade you’ll ever enjoy. So gear up and navigate yourself well for the eternal journey. For it is only a matter of time before your Sun will Rise again in glory through the Power of your Most High Jah Rastafari.
Michelle Yaa Asantewa
(formerly Michelle Stoby)
He will be laid to rest today 14th November 2017
at the Cemetry in Mocha, Arcadia, Guyana.
Friday, 3 November 2017
I might have let it go, these automatic writing bursts I have from time to time but recent challenges have urged me to try to understand what we mean when we speak loftily or basically about Love. And despite this urgency I would have tried to let it go - accept that the expression and understanding is simply in the experience - a thing one can't always explain but I received news yesterday that my ex-husband had died. He was 48. Ours had been a brief and seriously troubled marriage. I had loved him but could not help him as I had hoped. There was joy at the outset and as our youth would allow us to display. But he was tortured and seemed deep down to despise joy. His soul seemed to yearn for former tragedies as though these were defining to him. The morning I heard the news of his passing I had mused a little on love as here follows. I can't attribute this to him, but certainly to a moment that has reared so much of the past I thought was somewhere far behind me, but is yet near and always present. It is also about the constancy of the absorbing Power of love - without which our lives mean nothing.
“Love is a divine Mystery...”
Love reveals its magnificence in the intersection of Pain and Joy. It is uncompromising in force and its will to perpetuate itself. Its design is never destructive - purposeful, deliberate but not destructive. It seeks always to reconnect disparities of emotions along the journey. It will generate pain and hurt but I don’t think it’s wilful but those natural propensities within it enable that appreciation of joy. The kind of joy that lasts as long as a wish and certainly not forever. It’s an unseen, formidable power and ungraspable by ordinary or mundane impulses. One must strive for it through channels of mediation – I suppose - and one’s readiness therein to explore its secret mystery. Love is neither end nor beginning as gestures sometimes convey. It's neither intermittent nor eternal - meaning it’s not some kind of static thing. It is flux – but not whimsical either as it might seem. It is bold courage and fragile opposition to that. It is the experience of aliveness and loneliness. It’s a great and worst secret. It elevates self-mastery and for that unceasing in its accommodations. It is some kind of yearning, deep and high. Whether Pain or Joy, love cannot be avoided. That would be a woeful digression of our capacity. It cannot be avoided for comfort, sentiment nor some easy superficial life. Love – I think is about the capacity to experience life in fullness - I really don’t mean this sentimentally but essentially. It’s the Will to overcome, no matter how severe the degrees of torments castrating efforts of becoming, of being, of creating. And actually standing out or away from familiars, distinguishing the self in the sum of those dear to you. It is the force that denies wilful oppressions of the Soul. And so perhaps we might accept it as the Soul’s comforter, harmonising complex experiences of erring digressions much to our ego’s delight. It’s no easy contest – any permeable denial of love. Eventually one must yield to it, this is the erstwhile challenge and beauty – why not – of love. I don’t mean to formulate delusions about it – it’s not perfection – that too is sentiment and folly. But I sense it is some type of accumulated and collective experience humanity has ever endured. It’s not desperate, nor simply Divine. Love is the Power that makes anything advance, especially for the spiritual creative – since that is God-directed – and so manifests the quality of its Diviness – and I’d venture why it has endured. There can be no experience without struggle – where one assumes only postures of smiles and laughter. In fullness love is a boundless transmission and replete with solutions otherwise overlooked by careless observation. In those frequencies of Joy one experiences a transforming emblem of light mediated in the channel through which love soars. That light must be activated in the mode of intuitive Wisdom and Peace – for I think it’s there the sanctity of love takes form – not only form but from here it also derives its strength. Love and Truth are variables of this lasting light – they are the arbiters of balance and harmony. The ‘Divine Mystery’ of love then is a Commanding Power enabling facets of individuated experiences that articulate collective extremes. The All – the God-sign rebounds from it, regenerates its dynamic to give generously of Itself. Love is therefore an unlimited source as many philosophers and artists have always expressed. Love, I say cannot be denied nor avoided no matter how wilful its attempts to hurt. It is Pain, it is Joy, it is experience, it is life. It is everything, and I cannot say finally that I’ve found any meaningful way to live my life without the particularities of this Power.
Tuesday, 12 September 2017
A collage of the picture post on Big Smith's Facebook page
Some of you may have read my last blog post about my recent trip to Guyana which was a personal account related to the Camp Street Prison fire and my brother being caught up in that tragedy. What follows is first an attempt to bring to attention and thereby clear up 'misconceptions' and 'misinterpretations' about my brother’s involvement in ‘harbouring’ the escapees Uree Varswyck and (Mark) Royden Williams. Second, in doing so I hope to make clear that some elements of the Guyanese media owe the public a much better duty of care to ethically report facts rather than perpetuate sensationalism that burden the collective Guyanese psyche with trash, violence and wanton disregard for the loss of human lives. It might best serve the reader to read the previous blog post as the two are linked and I won’t have space for repetition – this already will be like some kind of necessary sermon.
Friday 1st September - the phone call
I woke up that Friday morning acknowledging that since my return from Guyana I had been feeling distracted, unfocused, unsettled. I was aware my brother was due to appear in court on 6th September for the marijuana charge which had landed him in prison and subsequently caught up in the Camp Street Fire on July 9th and for which I had bailed him whilst there for the Diaspora Engagement Conference. I can’t say if this was the reason (at least not soley) for my feeling unsettled and distracted but I marked the feeling.
Later that morning my cousin called to say that there had been a shoot-out in Linden between the escaped ‘bandits’ and police; that this was on the news and on social media (Facebook); that it had taken place at my brother’s place in Amelia’s ward. It’s impossible to describe what went on in my body and my mind in that moment, so I’ll not try. My mother was in the room when we got the call. I was just about to go out, so advised my cousin to call back once he was able to confirm the ‘story.’ I was trying not to think my brother had lost his mind and had told the prisoners, with whom he’d been cooped up in the stink Camp Street Prison (as he’d described it), where he lived.
My cousin called back saying – ‘it’s true.’ He had seen the video, which by now had circulated on facebook, of my brother’s little house in Amelia’s Ward featured on a report by Travis Chase.
Some years ago I made a conscious decision to limit my use of expletives. But before I’d even seen the video and because my cousin would not make up or embellish a false report I went a little outer body with my curses. For those few hours, I thought my brother had lost it. He had over familiarised himself with the prisoners and for reasons only he could explain found compassion for them enough to offer them refuge when they made their way to his house. Had he planned it prior to his own release?
I had dared imagine if the thing was true that the escapees he was supposedly helping were those who had maybe fled from Lusignan, maybe ones imprisoned for minor charges as he had been. But when I heard that the escapee who had been shot was Uree Varswyck – the expletives turned to art as I unleashed my utter vexation and the anger that I’d be the one to have to tell my mother about the seriousness of the charge my brother would face.
My brother on the land in Amelia's ward
5118 Central Amelia’s ward and the blue and white house
A friend shared a news article of the shot Uree Varswyck which I now had to process was real, and that this shooting took place on a joint plot of land my brother and I bought over 20 years ago. At that time it was all bush and big trees. We were among the first people to be given land there. I was a student at the time, neither my brother or I had/have money to build on the land, but were told by the Housing officer (can’t recall his proper title) to make sure we built something ‘proper’ there because they’d earmarked that area as a front facing well-to-do street. He must have imagined we could do something ‘proper’ there as we were from ‘outside.’ In any case, we cleared it down, sprinkled our high wine and ting to hail up the land. We were helped by the very cousin (a young teenager then) who had called to let me know the extent of the story. We were proud that this was not inherited land that was tied up in historical disputes but our very own and finally transported (as of 2015). When I heard the story and realised that blood had been shed on this very spot my heart became heavy. Why of all the possible places in the whole of Guyana did this act play out on the land that we had bought? I was later reminded that Guyana in its most violent and negative expression is really what it is through blood shed and conquest. Somehow this little portion of land had come to share in the violence that proliferates, of course along with the sure signs of peace.
My brother’s house is the small blue and white cabin (really) that’s almost diagonal to where the Amelia’s Ward police outpost is located. The two are separated from direct view by bush and trees. It’s wooden, unlike other big houses that surround it, that are made from concrete. It was not meant to be a permanent residence but it’s my brother’s home, until such time that he’s able to build a different house there.
When I was finally able to watch the Travis Chase video wherein he was interviewing the Police Commander about the shooting, I thought I was in a nightmare. I watched as though entranced. Only weeks previously I had been to the house, the day I had paid my brother’s bail. It was the last time I saw my brother. The Commander responded to Chase’s questions with cool composure, he was careful, I observed, not to give too many details because clearly investigations were ongoing. But I watched, my stomach disappeared somewhere and heard him say that Uree Varswyck was shot and killed in an exchange of gun fire with the joint forces, that Royden Williams was there too but had again escaped, that they had taken a man in custody. He told Chase that investigation was ongoing about whether this man – who lived at the property, was involved in aiding the escapees. Royden Williams too? What? Had my brother lost it for real?
Then I watched, in silent anger, as Chase trampled around this ‘crime scene’ (!), scaled the cut out wire mesh fencing, landing no doubt where the dead body of Varswyck had earlier lain, trudging around to the back of the blue and white house, edging his camera into it to give viewers WHAT exactly. It didn’t seem, he said, almost under his breath that the escapees had been there for long, then he hopped back through the opening, turning his camera to a bag of tennis roll the escapees had allegedly dashed in the shootout. The back door to my brother’s home was left open all the while, his bicycle (now gone) was bracing against the house. Those who know this house and the Rasta who lives there would be left with the impression of his complicity in aiding the escapees. They were not alone, for I knew my brother knew these men from his Camp Street experience. I know my brother’s heart too. I wanted to believe that they might have forced him to aid them, he would have no choice. But a part of me felt that my brother would maybe have sympathy for them too. In truth I was thinking all kinda ****. Yet, there was a beacon, flimsy as it was, of hope. My brother’s name or image was not in the reports. There had to be a damn good reason why. A reason that yet might save him.
My brother in the times he wore blue robes outside his house
I had to tell mum
Like most working class and single mothers, my mum has been through a lot; her own experience documented in my book Mama Lou Tales. Each time she experiences a new tragedy, she would call her prayer friends at Unity (school of Christianity) to ‘uplift her in prayer,’ and she would grow stronger, spending every moment in prayer. She prayed for everyone, feeling that her children are not only biological.
It was after I had watched the Travis Chase video that I lugged my body into her bedroom and broke down. I couldn’t tell her actual words then, I just bawled, bawled as though my brother had died. And that was precisely what my mother most longed to find out – if my brother, her son was alive; she did the Guyanese lopsided questioning – ‘Orien is alive?’ to which I shook my head, yes. Then I persisted in bawling, finding it impossible to actually tell her that he was taken into custody. This she would learn when my tears were spent and I could speak.
A few hours passed between us consisting of varying emotions - ‘if that’s how my brother wants to play like he is big criminal there’s nothing we can do; that’s it’ – to me trying to find a defence that the system had to answer why someone would go to prison for a minor offence and end up facing a more severe one upon his release, albeit on bail. Had my brother himself, having associated with the hardened criminals become hardened? It wasn’t making sense. But this argument was running around my mind. He should have been released sooner if the system had worked as it should. He should not have been denied bail countless times, since 20th April. That is tantamount to victimisation, straining his emotions as well as putting a financial burden on his family. It was serving as some kind of pseudo punishment, psychological as well as physical. At least by now I had stopped cursing.
Mama Lou, her faith tested
My brave young cousin
He lives not far from my brother. He was the one who told us the story. He said he’d go to the house and find out what he could after the scene had been cleared of the numerous police. I was grateful to him from that moment. He said he walked by the house observed the numbers of police so didn’t push up himself to let them know he was related to my brother. In another world maybe, but in Guyana, he felt he didn’t want police to implicate him too.
On the Sunday his conscience stirred him and he made the decision to find out where my brother was being held. He kept thinking that there was no one else in the family that was going to find out. He had not too long seen my brother, who had just had his liberty, now he couldn’t believe he was experiencing this bitter fate. He learnt that they had my brother at Mckenzie station. He had not been given anything to eat since the early hours of Friday morning when they had taken him in. My cousin called to ask what he could give my brother to eat (being Rasta he knew this wasn’t any and anything). He took him food based on what I told him. He was told by one of the officers that my brother had been ‘cooking for the escapees’ and ‘charging their phones.’ Stones fell into my stomach. If that was true, I couldn’t see how, save mystics my brother would get out of this. They had told my cousin that my brother would have to appear in court the following day, Monday.
My cousin became braver by the minute. He went to my brother’s unsecured home to secure it. He noticed the bicycle had been taken. The back door was still open. He locked up the house. He said he wasn’t afraid of having walked on the spot where the dead man had been. I said ‘good’ for there was nothing to fear. I forgot to say earlier that this was the half of the joint plot of land that is mine. By now I had learnt that Uree Varswyck was also known as Michael Gordon, my birth name is Michelle Gordon, the name in which I had purchased the land. The spiritual and mystical/spiritual aspect of this human story was taking hold.
The following morning, my cousin called early. I could tell that like us, he had not really slept. His beautiful conscience was sparking, like the rising sun. He said he realised my brother would need clothes, toothbrush, yet more food. He’d go to the house and get clothes and toothbrush, then go into town to get food for him. This he did and made swift his movements to catch him in time before his court appearance. When he got to the station he was told that my brother would in fact not be going to court that day; that they didn’t know when he would be going to court. I knew that I had to get a good lawyer for my brother. I was confident he could represent himself for the Marijuana offence but this was serious and he needed credible representation. I hoped we could find a human rights lawyer (I was told there aren’t that many in Guyana) who might be sympathetic. A few inquiries led to Nigel Hughes, whom I contacted, my mind all the while trying to summon the money out of nowhere to pay for any lawyer. I had called one who was local to Linden. She had given me the name of another since she was representing someone else for the same offence. That lawyer’s name was Gordon Gilhuys, but I didn’t get in touch with him. The ‘Gordon’ name was throwing me in this by now providential narrative. I had asked the present lawyer who could speak with my brother, she said only a lawyer – they wouldn’t allow family to communicate with him because of the nature of the crime.
The BIG SMITH Facebook Post – ‘"PRIEST" WAS HARBOURING ESCAPEES’
Items allegedly recovered by police that the escapees had; this was one of the photos in the Big Smith post of facebook, which served to give the impression they were recovered from my brother's house.
My emotions were intensified with chest burns surfacing when I saw the facebook post by ‘Big Smith’ with the title ‘’Priest’ was harbouring escapees.’ There was a watermarked image of my brother on the post along with photos packaged in a way to verify the title and convince readers that my brother was guilty as per this social media facebook charge. His name – Linden Orin (incorrectly spelt) Gordon was printed. His address, which by now we knew (from Chase’s video) – 5118 Central Amelia’s Ward there too – actually here are the details (cut and pasted exactly) Big Smith posted about my brother and the case:
“Police sources have confirmed that a "Rasta Priest" Linden Orin Gordon, age 52 years a Rastrianfarian Priest of 5118 Central Amelia's Ward, Linden was ensuring that prison escapees Uree Varswyck and Mark Royden Durant/ Williams had everything they needed to make them comfortable while hiding from the law.”
I was astonished that this post was in circulation – with all my brother’s details big and bold on facebook for his friends, family and the larger Guyanese (local and in the diaspora) to see. Most of us aren’t discerning. What we see is what we believe. But something about this post stank. Why had no other report provided all this detail? The post was affirmative. The pictures, the words conclusive - my brother had colluded with the hardened criminals – was harbouring them. That is how it was deliberately constructed in this post. I contacted facebook to ask them to take it down. But they wouldn't because it wasn’t inciting violence, nor showing disrespect to women and so on. Against better judgment I read some of the comments:
‘Rastaman ... whuh yuh really deh pon big man? De fiyah gonna Bunn yo now dread’
‘A true Rasta don't mixed up in stuff like this’
'Rasta, like you been smoking High grade, if was cheap weeds you would have focus on the right ,to call the police to capture those criminals. Rasta, sorry meh brethren but them ahfee buss you dreadlocks.
‘He needs a fifty year sentence: let him die in prison…’
There were a few hearty ones:
‘Everything is in God 's hand this is not the time to blame anybody.'
'All we need to do is keep praying.’
Ok, so I shouldn’t have been reading these but I was all over the place emotionally. I contacted Big Smith privately to ask him to take down the post because the investigation was ongoing and nowhere else had my brother’s name and image been released. I said his post was sensationalising an already complex and sensational story. I inferred that he was doing this for likes and comments. I couldn't see how the post was accurate, especially if we were to believe the remarks by the official on Travis Chase's report. It would also be fantastic that my brother was providing the escapees with food like those presented in one of the pictures supposedly to ensure 'they had everything to make them comfortable.’ His response was that my ‘approach’ was ‘disrespectful’ as it affirmed he was positioning it for ‘likes’ and ‘comments’- he had never before nor would he now take instructions from anyone and especially in the manner in which I had approached him. I tried to appeal to some human element by saying that what he read in my ‘tone’ (his word) was ‘distress’ which the family were feeling from the post, especially my 85 year old mother; that though it was a ‘public interest’ story (his argument and reason for putting it out there) it was indeed sensational (the way he had packaged it/my interpretation) and it was also, I said to him a ‘human story.’ By this I meant broadly that as well as the perceived actors – the ‘Rasta Priest,’ the dead Uree Varswyck, the on the run escapee Royden Williams, all families (victims of their violence as well as theirs) and the Guyanese communities being impacted, as well as those others who were legitimately whether forcibly or not aiding the escapees - all were caught up in the violence, pain, hurt and grief.
Big Smith argued that the reason he alone had the image of my brother was that he sourced it before others, had watermarked it preventing other reporters from being able to use it. I want to say thank god for that, but I can’t. You see, if one surveys his page now, you’d see that of all the recent posts this one was shared 466 times. The one presently that has more shares (497) has pictures of a man – ‘bandit’ shot with bullet wound exposed and bloodied t-shirt beside him. Persistent images of violence made me stop reading the Guyana dailies as much as I once did. Now it is that Guyanese near and far, family, friend, and foe of my brother were instantly turned judge and jury. I felt cold inside, wondered how we’d come to this, but I must face the reality that for many of us this window to the world is all we have; this moment to shine is all we’ll ever experience. I share this experience in the hope that the many followers who followed and like Big Smith's page, who shared the post with their friends and followers will likewise share this post, which might go a small way in remedying the defamatory damage it solicited. It is true my brother is no saint but who would dare stand beside him and boldly declare him a sinner?
Big Smith's page is very popular with Guyanese home and abroad and recently reached this landmark
Its synonym is ‘coincidence.’ My brother would also call it a ‘fluke’ when I was finally able to speak with him. I knew that his word was the only one I’d believe about what went down that fateful Friday.
Over and over we kept playing it in our minds (my mum, best friend, my cousin), that if there was a ‘shoot out’ and my brother was aiding and abetting the escapees how was he not shot too. How was the house not shot at? Where was he when the ‘shoot out scene’ was taking place? Why had we not heard his name (other than a facebook post) in the official reports?
It was the same day, Wednesday last, and just over 72 hours of detention in the police station that myself and Big Smith were in a futile dispute about the defamatory post, which he refused to see as such since he had been swift to the scene, gathered (in the public interest) ‘facts’ that amounted to my brother’s collusion with the escapees. I woke up that morning and went into prayer. There had to be some reasonable explanation why the tragedy was at my mother’s heart, why my brother had just missed losing his life in the hail of bullets at his door step.
Though I had intended to pray foremost for my brother, words wandered first towards the dead ex-cop whose name ‘Michael’ was the male version of my own – its meaning – ‘one who is like God.’ I prayed for his spirit to rest in peace; after all, as my mother kept repeating, he was some mother’s child too. That he did not begin his life in the violent way it ended; I prayed that in death he’d find some kind of peace. I prayed too for the man on the run – Royden Williams. My spirit was tapping into what he must be going through – yes – he’s this big murderer, having the Bartica massacre (not massaccar as I saw it spelt on Big Smith’s post) on his head and for which certainly he will meet his own death soon. But I was praying for him to find peace with himself, after all he too is someone’s child (and also a child of Guyana), he too would be experiencing all kinds of emotions and perhaps somewhere inside himself repenting. And then, as though there had been a necessary twist in my heart I finally found a way to pray for my brother. I prayed that the truth of the matter would out itself without delay. It could not be otherwise. I called on all the forces, his guardians, our ancestors to work on his behalf.
When we were alone, and my mum marking only two (instead of the gathered three) we decided to pray together. I had been trying to prepare my mother for the worst outcome (though I didn't really know what that might look like entirely), hoping to spare her shock borne from the idealism that magically the case would flee. Mum, I’d said,’ Orien is going to do time for this.’ She wouldn’t have it. ‘Why?’ she asked. Because if he was ‘cooking for the prisoners and charging their phones’ I can’t see how he’d get off from that. She held her peace. She had not yet cried openly to me, I believe I saw tears spring on one occasion but they retracted without fully falling. After our praying energies were spent, we wanted to rest. Within the hour, however, I received a call from my cousin saying he would call me back to speak with my brother. What? Speak with my brother? And he did. But he actually put my brother on video call, from the police station, where I saw my brother’s bright face, beaming. ‘Don’t listen to what they say on Facebook,’ he said, ‘I wasn’t helping dem man, it was fluke, happenstance, I didn’t tell dem where I live…yoh mad.’ I was struggling to believe I was really speaking to him. Seeing him. He was handcuffed, in the process of signing a statement to the effect that the prisoners had indeed stopped at his home that night, but not by his design. He had not been harbouring them. And, my brother was shouting over the phone - ‘the boy who was shot, his father’s name was Orin Gordon.’ That caused a whole heap of confusion when they took him into the station. I didn’t know if my brother knew that the ‘boy’ as he called him was also called Michael Gordon. For now our two names (Michelle/Michael and Orien/Orin Gordon) were entangled in this unbelievable narrative.
I took the phone so my mum could see her son. Her cheeks elevated. He assured her there was nothing to worry about. He was chuckling his familiar easy-going chuckle. My smile must have been enormous too. When I told mum about the ‘coincidence’ of the boy’s father’s name being ‘Orin’ she was like WHAT? And this went round and round in her head, as she pondered if there might be some mystic connection indeed.
A short time after I received a message from Big Smith:
‘Ms Asantewa good afternoon. I did some consideration with respect to our conversation this morning via this platform and given much of what u would have said, i habe decided on a few course of action. First and foremost would be to extend an invitation to your brother to speak with me in relation that this issue if he so desires which would allow him an opportunity to clear up any misconceptions that myself and others may have or might have reported in relation to his arrest last week. Please feel free to respond or contact me on 6009747 or 6226730’
I elected not to respond. I would, however, attempt to write a comment on the post (it’s cut and pasted here, my typos too):
'My fellow Guyanese I have delayed commenting on this post and this is only a brief one because it has been disturbing me since seeing it last Friday. I wondered at some of the comments; whether any of those commenting took time to verify any part of this story; from the title - 'PRIEST' WAS HARBOURING ESCAPEES" to the BIG SMITH watermarked image of said 'Priest.' His name too was posted, photos carefully arranged to give you a perfect impression, one that frames the narrative of complicity against him - I wondered if this didn't seem staged. There were some humane considerations - some comments acknowledging that they 'know the priest' but the extreme condemnations citing that 'he is as bad as the escapees,' that he should 'die in prison' and so on leave me very concerned about the healthiness of the collective Guyanese mind. There has been no mention of the 'Priest's' name in the official news. There has been no release of any pictures of the man who police took into custody in pursuit of their investigation following the shoot out in Amelia's ward. Did no one of the many commentators on this 'platform' take time to consider whether this VERSION of the story was true? Was it perhaps enough that this tragedy was not presently at your door step, affecting your heart, causing distress to your family, especially your mother? The 85 year old, Mama Lou, my mother whilst praying for her son, the 'Priest' to be freed from the LIE of this situation also prayed for the soul of the Uree Varswyck (the shot escapee) to rest because it had clearly been tormented in this life time. Perhaps when he meets his maker, the certain and more righteous JUDGE he will find answers about why it was he lived and died through violence. And were you to learn that the 'Priest' DID NOT ENSURE THE ESCAPEES HAD EVERYTHING TO BE COMFORTABLE WHILE HIDING FROM THE LAW' would your heart ease up a little in its judgement without proof, without due diligence to the fact? I am so so sad that our lives are riddled with the need to point harsh fingers, rather than extend an arm to embrace. Were it so we might begin to see a different view from our window. I salute all those who took some time to temper their considerations about the 'Priest,' life has interesting ways of testing our faith, integrity and love.’
Big Smith bounced back:
‘Michelle Yaa Asantewa you would appreciate that we spoke extensively on this issue. I did among other things pointed out to you that I was the only journalist who managed to secure the photo of this gentleman (the priest) and that is why he was only published here. I further pointed out to you that is it not common practice for media house/journalists to use on their medium, an image which is already watermarked like in the case if the "priest". I am a bit taken aback with your assertion that this might have been staged because of the layout of the images on this page. It was not state. At the time I posted these images, all other images except the one with your brother was already out there. At the time of me posting this, those images and incidents which unfolded in Linden (except the priest's image and his name etc) was old news so with me having updated information, which included the priest and his name etc, I decided to lead the story with that as the rest of information was already out there. I did not see you mentioned anything here about the priest being placed on bail pending legal advice which the police are awaiting.’
I am yet to perceive anything verging on compassion and acknowledgment that this post was every kind of wrong.
A picture of my brother as a young man my mum and I found as we prayed for him
Within the hour of seeing my brother on the WhatsApp video, my cousin shared a picture of him at home. He had been in the lock up over 72 hours. He was not charged because there was no evidence that he was harbouring the escapees. Yes, they had asked him for water – he gave them. Then pulled himself back into the house. They had guns. Yes, they had asked him to charge their phones, he complied. They had guns. He asked the officers at the station who questioned him, what they would have done in his position. What would any of us do? Sadly Big Smith’s source fed him information that again made him arrogantly sure that he was reporting facts. My brother was not ‘put on bail’ for this offence. Why would the police issue bail for such an offence when my brother had been denied bail for intending to sell 3 ounces of marijuana - a case still ongoing? I wished he'd thought through his response. I have nothing against Big Smith or any one trying to do our Guyanese society some kind of justice by bringing real life stories to the people. But I couldn't help but wonder where were the ethics and good practice taught him on his journalism course? I sincerely appeal to him and others to be more careful and considerate in their manner of reporting. To check, double check, verify and extend human compassion at all times if we are to ccollectively change the script of lawlessness and indecency permeating the Guyanese society - indeed our world. I feel a sense of shame and remorse that it is likely repeated several times over, without any serious effort to stop it. I couldn't help marking the lack of humanness in rushing to put out a ‘public interest’ piece without ensuring he had been correctly plied with the facts by his source, obviously from the police.
My cousin in selfie with my brother after his release
Faith and providence
He stood his ground because my brother was confident he knew his truth. He’d prayed as my mother had taught him words to affirm – that ‘only good can come.’ She was at the same time affirming those words and her favourite ‘leave it to God, - Divine Order.’ She kept saying that the boy came home to his father (Orien/Orin) to die. She saw my brother in his spiritual guise as the boy’s spiritual father since they shared the name. In the Amelia’s ward area my brother is known as a priest, some call him Moses. In the prison he’d cooked for Royden Williams, who ate ‘ital’ (no meat, no salt). They called my brother ‘blacksip’ (something to do with the nature of the ital food he prepared). I always see him as a bird – though never always free – like those pet ones he has in cages. He remarked that there were no bullets fired at his house because the police were being careful to contain the incidence of misadventure by wildly shooting.
The night of the shoot out
My brother was in the house. He heard a car stop sharp outside. He came out and saw his fence being scaled by the escapees (then he didn't know who it was). He asked who was trespassing into his property. ‘Rastaman we don’t want any trouble,’ came back the reply. They had moved round the back of the house. Royden recognised him – ‘sip (short for ‘blacksip) is you?’ Then ‘is heh you living,’ in what my brother said was a kind of scornful tone since the house is rudimentary! My brother recognised them as the bad men dem from prison. NO! Yall cyan stay heh, heh hat like fyah, look da police station deh jus down deh,’ he told them. ‘We just waan lil water and charge we phone.’ My brother gave them the water, took their phones to charge then hauled himself back into the house. I can’t imagine what kinds of beats were pounding his heart. He felt, not least in hindsight but also at the time that he’d given them sound compassionate advice if they were seriously trying to flee – to get the hell away from there. They stayed, however, waiting for the driver who had promised he would check out the road block at the head of the entrance into Linden, then circle back and pick them up.
He had moments before handed the escapees back the phone, pulled himself back into the house, when my brother heard the car pull up again outside the house. The escapees presuming it was just the driver went to get into the car when police jumped out and the bullets were exchanged landing primarily at the now dead Uree. It’s believed he had pulled his gun on the forces. Royden, meanwhile had fled. The police then shouted for whosoever was in the house to come out. My brother did so with his hands above his head and was taken into custody. The driver it seemed from the perspective of the escapees was not to be trusted, but for some reason they really did.
When we finally spoke my brother, like me was perplexed that these escapees didn’t think to flee beyond the urban population. Why were they not far into the interior, nearing some border? Why couldn’t they have made the bush their shelter (eat off the land if necessary for the rest of their lives)? It’s an interesting analogy that whilst Guyana has so much land, the majority of us club up close to the coast and each other as though afraid of the deep, free land where we might live alone from the main. For the escapees there seemed to be no difference. Why too were they headed back towards Georgetown the hotter fire from whence they’d fled two months prior? It’s crazy trying to get our heads around it.
We must live, therefore with the probable providential explanation, that some destiny more far reaching/seeing than our eyes was played out that day. It was the way Uree had to return to the dust. It was the way his violence would end, his adventure on earth terminated. My mother expressed a vague wish that my brother might have spared a moment to bless him and say some soothing words to his spirit, which she maintains must have ventured to be home with his father and there finally to meet his maker. I'm sure my brother did what he had to in his way. Indeed, the killing marks a veritable alteration in my brother. He had to step over the dead man’s body to give himself over to the police. That act, according to his rite as a Rastafarian meant he would now have to shave his locks and start afresh. I think this is somewhere in the Bible. Either way, we delight in giving thanks that my brother’s life was spared once more. For as a priest (linked in Rastafarian terms to the Levite priesthood/tribe in the Bible) his spirit and faith is strong. Thus cloaked in the protection of our ancestors, particularly my grandfather who was known among other names as ‘Aaron’(the Levite brother of Moses), my brother’s name is linked to this tragedy perhaps as a sign of some greater works he has been put here on earth to fulfil in his spiritual capacity and the priesthood he claims.
My brother as he looks now, head shaven as part of his Rastafarian rite after seeing the dead.
I end by saying I do not take it at all lightly but recognise the providential synchronicity and meaning encoded in these words from Numbers 18 in the Bible (NIV), “the Lord said to Aaron, “you, your sons and your family are to bear the responsibility for offenses connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons alone are to bear the responsibility for offenses connected with the priesthood.” Martin Carter’s name will ever be called in acknowledging that ‘all are involved,’ the ‘sanctuary’ is for us all to nurture, protect and maintain. Daily we’re seeing lives cut short by sickness (physically and mentally), most harrowingly by disasters both man-made and natural (like we're now experiencing with Irma), it’s high time we all bear responsibility to the truth, to live lovingly and respectfully with each other, to think of ourselves as our brother/sister's keepers, instead of pelting stones at each other’s hearts. There might yet come a day when we see something resembling a longed for peace in all our lives. But that achievement can only manifest when collectively we accept the responsibility to clean up and correct the atrocities that continue to be committed against the golden sanctuary.
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.