It is a part of human nature here and elsewhere that we sometimes deal with contentious issues by adopting a position of delusion, so as not to deal with the unpleasantly real factors involved. This past week, for example, in two separate instances in the local press, we are hearing once again the assertion that the so-called “ethnic divide” is not a natural condition in Guyana but was created by the politicians to garner votes.
We have heard this statement before, and we are likely to hear it again, but whenever it is pronounced it is clearly a case of persons completely deluding themselves. While there is no doubt that various political luminaries here have taken and continue to take advantage of our ethnic split, to say that our politicians created the split is absurd.
Mankind is inherently a creature of ethnic identification and, consequently, division. It has been so from the time of the caves, and even a casual reading of anthropology will show this. From the time we became upright, we have been creatures of groups, seeking security and existence within the group, and banding together to exclude outsiders.
The result has been the generation of different cultures each with a set of its own behaviours and values that become paramount. Indeed, culture is seen as the most powerful psychological force in the world; within it, people are connecting with values and attitudes, developed over time, that they consider the best choice for successful life on earth.
These are powerful connections, and in simple terms, since these formulas differ widely, they create cultural conflicts when they confront each other through historical shifts – conquest, amalgamation, migration, etc. The conflicts remain benign in a country where many different cultures co-exist (for example, the USA) since none, on its own, has enough leverage to rule, but when there are two major groups, with power attainable for each, the condition becomes inflamed.
Anyone who grew up in Guyana has to be aware that an ethnic divide is part of our existence. It was not introduced here by any colonial power; it was not generated by any scheming politician.
It is the natural consequence of two ethnic strains (two tribes, if you will) each with different cultures and values, initially brought here for economic reasons, and each leery of each other. Anyone living here pre-independence, without blinders and earmuffs, must have been able to see this diffidence, this difference; although not displayed in daily confrontation it was a latent condition, clear cut and well-defined.
What inflamed the condition was the emerging political reality, as independence loomed, that power was there for the taking by any one of the two groups. Ethnic strains, wherever they live, run deep and the latent divide was clearly apparent to the potential politicians who took to fomenting the divide to propel voters to them.
They were not unique in this approach. History shows us that wherever the numbers produce two major groups, fractious politics along ethnic lines follows.
When we assign Guyana’s ethnic shift to colonial overlords or to our own aspiring politicians, we are only kidding ourselves.
From the 1950s, when I was a youngster in this country, I was aware of our ethnic strains. It was obvious.
The condition was alive long before politicians stirred it up, and it continues to this day. We can see it sharply displayed in the behaviour of the thousands of our people who have migrated to other countries. Comfortably placed in a country such as Canada or the USA, for example, we continue to behave as ethnic creatures in the new land.
Away from political and other influences, completely free to do as we wish, we continue to follow the pattern of man in clinging to our ethnic unit. In the Guyanese sports clubs and cultural groups in North American cities, the division holds.
In the entertainment events put on outside, featuring this cultural performer or that, the division holds. In the selection of employees for a particular business, the division holds. It is there in the ethnicity of the guests in various social functions according to the ethnicity of the host – the division holds. No politician is pushing it, but the division holds. It is ingrained, and we are guilty of fabulation and even self-deception when we contend it was foisted on us.
Of course there are some exceptions of individuals bridging the cultural divide in various experiences – marriage; business; social relationships; etc – but such departures are in the minority; the majority of the people in those two dominant groups maintain the divide.
The consequence of this division may be tolerable, or even insignificant, for the Guyanese in an adopted country. In the homeland, however, it is front and centre; it influences voting and political alliances; it influences choices of government posts, the businesses we support and the choice of whom we invite into our homes. Ultimately, in all its ramifications, it is a source of dismay and even dejection to many, and remedial strategies and efforts must be sought. However we are not going to make any progress in this effort, if we continue to deny the real nature of the problem by foisting it off onto some other platform of blame.
It is mankind’s way to dance to the ethnic drum, and history shows us that the pull is almost irresistible.
The ideal, of course, would be for us to embrace the fusion and to dance joyfully to two contrasting drummers, but the world press is awash daily with news of failures of such hopes.
The Palestinian/Jewish conflict now over 70 years old with no end in sight; the carnage in Syria and other Arab countries with the frequent Sunni/Shi‘ite struggles for power; threats of an ethnic split in Bangladesh, itself a country that emerged from a split with Pakistan, and Pakistan itself previously created from a murderous split from India; the examples abound, all of them trenchant.
The history of mankind is one of conflict, in varying degrees, whenever there are two major ethnic (or religious) groups competing for power. It is a fundamental fact in the pathway of man, and it is in play here. It therefore behooves the erudite ones among to give up this hollow assertion that others are responsible for our division.
As the Bard’s famous line, spoken by Cassius, puts it: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”