A shared vision
Many years ago, a primary school teacher in Georgetown divided her class into two halves on opposite sides of the room and placed a cardboard box on a table between them. She removed the box to reveal a large ball and asked the class to describe it. One half was adamant that it was a black ball. The other insisted that it was white. The teacher rotated the ball slightly to show the class that the ball was in fact black on one side and white on the other. Both sides were right. Or, in a sense, both sides were wrong. Each could see only one side of the ball and assumed that what they could see held good for the entire object.
We do not all look at the world in the same way; we view the world through different lenses. We can witness or read about the same set of events and interpret them in very different ways. Philosophers talk of competing realities. Sociologists talk of a clash of cultures. Historians talk of contested histories or versions of a story. In Guyana, we live in a land of competing narratives, competing versions, competing histories and competing ‘truths’. Mostly we can muddle along with this plurality but, occasionally, the narratives reach a pitch, a point of friction where they can no longer be subsumed in the general hum of everyday intercourse.
In Guyana in recent weeks we have witnessed the heightened interplay of different and occasionally overlapping versions and narratives. These versions of reality buttress very different perceptions and sensibilities, very different arguments and approaches and ultimately, very different proposals or ways of dealing with the issues at hand.
No-one among us has a completely clear understanding of what has transpired in Linden in the last six weeks. Every eye-witness account, every news report, every commentary, every letter written conveys a different version, a slightly altered angle. A public inquiry will help to establish the chain of events but it is unlikely that it will establish an uncontested version of the ‘truth’ of what happened. Such a thing does not exist in Guyana. We have competing versions of what has happened in the last twenty years, in the twenty-eight years before that and in many other spheres of our common life.
This, though, is the starting point, rather than the end game. A plurality of narratives may make for an untidy history but it creates ample space for forging a common future. It may be that we cannot hope to achieve consensus on the past at this relatively early stage in our history as a nation. Other nations such as South Africa and Australia have taken several generations to properly evaluate seminal phases of their own history. It may also be that, like them, we can only establish the most elastic consensus on what is happening right now though it is important to try to do this. This is the moment though when we need to start to construct a narrative, however imperfect, however imprecise as to who we are as Guyanese and what our priorities are as a nation.
Our politicians will have much to say on these topics. They generally do. They should not be allowed to monopolise the debate though. Ordinary citizens have started to step forward to describe what they envisage for Guyana. From these statements, these visions, we can forge a common sense of purpose and a clear path. If we fail to do this, every new chapter in our history will herald a fresh stalemate.
When we are embroiled in events our perspective may be clouded. Sometimes, we can see more clearly when we observe an event from a distance or after a period of time. One of the most documented events of recent times occurred about a decade ago on 11th September 2001 in America. Many of us watched the mayhem unfurl on our TV screens. A few lost friends or relatives. As America has come to terms with that day, an apparently overarching narrative of those events has taken hold there. To the outsider, there seems to be an almost alarming level of consensus in America on the significance of that day.
Yet, as a recent article in the New York Times about the National September 11 Memorial Museum showed, this perception of a dominant narrative about 9/11 is illusory. The museum’s multiple roles and purposes exemplify this. The museum “must simultaneously honour the dead and the survivors; preserve an archaeological site and its artifacts; and try to offer a comprehensible explanation of a once inconceivable occurrence. It must speak to vastly different audiences. And many of those listening have long-simmering, deeply felt opinions about how the museum should take shape. “Whose truth is going to be in that museum?” asked Sally Regenhard, whose son, Christian, a firefighter, died in the north tower.” Those in charge of curating the exhibits spoke of the complex and challenging task of juggling competing versions of what the museum should be. They had a clear sense, too, that the dictates of the moment might not stand and that some of their decisions might be unmade in the future.
We have a tendency in Guyana to be myopic about past misdemeanours, to become mired in present problems and to neglect to forge a coherent plan for the future. It is time now to rise above the blame game and the point-scoring, to put aside the politicking and the machinations. Those tactics diminish the seismic events of the last few months and reduce them to just another skirmish in a long-running battle. That battle will limp on indefinitely. It masks the real debate: what sort of life do we, as a people, envisage together?