IT HAS never been my fortune to meet a happy Guyanese. Except recently, on TV. I saw thousands of happy Guyanese jumping, bouncing, waving, celebrating their feats on the cricketing field. Along with three Pakistani-born players, one of whom, the captain, Imran Tahir, was weeping right there on the cricket field. I am not sure how much Tahir knows about Guyanese history, but he might have been weeping for all Guyanese.
I went to Guyana in my mid-twenties. There I met Martin Carter, Guyana’s most prodigious poet. He had been to jail, under the British, the British-imposed Forbes Burnham, and had written the following lines:
And there was always sad music somewhere in the land
like a bugle and a drum between the houses…
And so again I became one of the ten thousands
one of the uncountable miseries owning the land…
(I Come From The Ni---- Yard, Poems of Resistance, 1954)
Carter had been imprisoned by the British in 1953 and 1954, during Guyana’s independence struggles, had been part of both PPP (Cheddi Jagan) and PNC (Forbes Burnham) politics in the 1960s, and had been badly beaten in 1978, in a protest march against the Burnham government. In the latter, he was supporting Walter Rodney’s Working People’s Alliance.
I interviewed Carter at his home. I knew about the fascistic Burnham government, but I tailored my question with Socratic innocence. I was unsure where Carter’s political sympathies lay. “Mr Burnham has some noble ideals,” I said, “but it seems that the people have rejected them.”
“Well, whoever has told you that has seriously misled you,” charged Carter. He went on to list a panoply of sadisms enunciated and activated by Burnham. Against the Guyanese people. And he was charged, angry, fully upset.
Burnham’s rule over Guyana had brought endless suffering on the Guyanese people; he was a mock socialist, a tyrant, a sham. The people I met on the Guyanese streets, in Georgetown, were angry too, full of cussing (every two words were scu.. this, scu.. that), but were ever furtive, fearful, cowed, a chained people.
In Trinidad, at UWI, I lived on the same compound with Ronald Gajraj. He later became home affairs minister of Guyana. He too had been to jail in Guyana. He was a brilliant student, topped his law exams, had left his wife and child in Guyana to pursue his studies. He seemed to know Burnham personally, and he told of the immense weight of Burnham on the Guyanese people. Gajraj was articulate, could stand up, was a bit of a rebel in jail, but the rest of his countryfolk fell under Burnham’s thraldom.
And as if to prove Gajraj’s point, I was friends of a Guyanese family in Tunapuna, a father, his wife and two little girls. I visited them frequently to teach the children. They had exiled themselves, along with hundreds of thousands of others from Guyana. There were some who fled to Barbados, some to Trinidad, some to Canada, but the majority to the US.
These Guyanese were the refugees of the Caribbean; and the stigmas proliferated. Shabby, mean, scampish, beggarly, tricky, thieving; they had to be given blighs, rice for payment, by the Eric Williams government. This family illustrated the deprivations of ordinary Guyanese people, running down flour, tinned foods, toilet paper, currency, as if they were gold.
Later, I became an activist colleague of a Guyanese in exile. He was now a Trinidadian, his wife and two sons born in Trinidad, had built his castle on state lands and was ever progressing economically. He was close to Cheddi Jagan and his party. Was a soldier or bodyguard of some sort.
He told of the Stalinist tactics used by Burnham to suppress dissent. By the Burnham police and army. And of the response of Jagan, preferring, unlike Rodney who was assassinated by Burnham, using a former soldier in 1980, with a rigged walkie-talkie, Gandhian passive resistance. Jagan preferred to err on the side of peace, not violence.
My own lecturer and colleague at UWI was a Guyanese. Prof Gordon Rohlehr. And though Rohlehr was by nature cheerful, always willing to stop and talk, crack jokes, hum his kaisos, he took a dim view of Burnham. When I asked him about Burnham, he produced a long tragic discourse. He called Burnham "Odo." Not, I do not think, a derogatory nickname, but he said it in a derogatory way. Derisively and abashedly.
Caribbean governments, in Jamaica, Cuba, Trinidad, never spoke out publicly against Burnham. Despite his patent violence and devilry. Once he carried the imprimatur of socialist, or co-operative republic, this seemed to work for socialist-minded Caribbean leaders. The exception, belatedly, was Barbados.
Not only had Barbados been home to thousands of Guyanese refugees, but in 2020, when the APNU-AFC government tried every Burhamite trick in the book to steal the general election, Mia Mottley stepped in. She stood up for transparency, proper electoral accounting, justice!
I will not begrudge the Guyanese victory in the CPL championship. Or besmirch it. The victory represents, to me, a high point of Caribbean history. The transcendence into political and economic emancipation, ushered in by cricket and carnivalesque celebration and music. I see a people anxious to recover from Carter’s “ni---- yard” of yesteryear. A history of doom and political enslavement. Anxious to recover their dignity, nationhood, pride and élan.