A Narrative of Remembrance: Desrey Fox

(This is one of a series of weekly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with 20091226inthediasporaan interest in issues related to Guyana and the Caribbean)

Janette Bulkan, Stephanie W. Alemán
and Alissa Trotz

Desrey Fox will be remembered for many firsts – in academia, the sport of weightlifting, and in the cultural and creative fields. To the many friends and colleagues who met her at the Amerindian Languages Study Project or at the Amerindian Research Unit at the University of Guyana, or at the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, or at any number of Universities or conferences abroad, Desrey Fox was an iconic person. She was an Akawaio Guyanese who bubbled over with infectious enthusiasms for the study and recording and representation of the languages and cultures of Guyana’s indigenous peoples.  She also promoted bilingual education and more secondary and tertiary education for those nine surviving indigenous peoples with whom she identified.

Desrey was a larger than life person, who could not be confined by any one label. Desrey embodied the inter-mixing of Guyana’s ethnicities. Her maternal grandfather was the pioneering African Guyanese, F.W. Kenswil, whose book, ‘Children of the Silence. An Account of the Aboriginal Indians of the Upper Mazaruni River’ was published in 1946. Her mixed heritage perhaps best equipped her to step outside the narrow confines of ethnic ascription and to serve as an interpreter between the often uncomprehending worlds of coastlander and indigenous Guyanese. She symbolized that dreams were attainable and that it is perfectly right to hope. Desrey built bridges and then crossed them easily in both directions.

In an interview with Neil Marks in the Guyana Chronicle in 2006, when she was then curator of the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, Desrey noted, “No matter how high and low you climb, you are still an Amerindian. In the eyes of people, you are still an Amerindian. And the kind of ways in which they define you and look at you, it’s still the same way. It doesn’t matter if you have a Doctorate behind your name, the discrimination continues, I’m sorry to say, but it happens.”

These comments elucidated the ways in which Amerindian communities are made invisible by Guyanese coastal anxieties and preoccupations, and the fact that coastlander self-definitions depend in significant part on defining Amerindians and Amerindian-ness as inferior to themselves. Desrey’s proud and unequivocal embrace of her Akawaio heritage was an identification with Amerindian-ness wherever she went and regardless of the doctorate behind her name, a recognition that she was still an Amerindian, but it represented a radically different engagement from the coastlander association of Amerindian-ness as somehow lacking.  As we remember her life, Guyanese should also examine how little those of us on the coast, those of us who live on the narrow coastal strip we call home, in fact know, and that it is we who need to unlearn the arrogance that comes from limited and blinkered ways of seeing. It is a lesson to seek out forms of self-definition and identification that do not rely on relations of domination and marginalization but that are based on practicing humility, respect and sincere engagement.

Stephanie W. Aleman, an anthropologist who spent many years among the Waiwai, shares a narrative of remembrance for Desrey Fox:
Among the many ways in which Desrey might be remembered are two that come especially to mind through my own work with Amerindian people in Guyana and most especially with the Waiwai people of the Deep South. Through her own heritage and life accomplishments Desrey continually carried out relationships with Amerindian peoples and lent her voice to theirs through her own work and commitment to education. One of the more subtle processes that are continually being enacted all around us is that of Amerindian peoples from different villages, experiences and tribes encountering one another and learning from one another across the country and the Amazon more generally. Their ways of knowing one another and remembering one another vary, but the following narrative told to me by the Waiwai shows how deeply meaningful these relationships can be.

Desrey visited the Waiwai a few years ago and happened to be in the village when a young Waiwai girl died of fever. The Waiwai narrate how Desrey shared completely in the mourning and loss of this Waiwai child. She cried along with the parents and siblings. She mourned with the village and experienced their pain. The Waiwai remember this about her – that she shared these difficult moments with them and so this made her part of them. The retelling of this narrative by them when they talk of Desrey underscores their wish to make her into a real person, a being that exists in the world. This example of her interactive self, her ability to feel and relate to people and to openly enter into their sorrows is a memory of Desrey that both I and the Waiwai would like to preserve.

The second narrative comes from a young Waiwai woman who has been several years away from her natal village, studying and preparing to be a headmistress and return to the Waiwai village one day to teach. Naomi Ahña is about to graduate from Cyril Potter College of Education. She has spent countless hours away from her small children and husband attending school in Georgetown, and although she is not the only Waiwai woman to leave the village, she is the only one pursuing any form of higher education with plans to work within the Guyana Education system. As an Amerindian woman in Guyana, Desrey was not the only one to enter public service, but she had achieved so much in terms of her education that she became an inspiration to this young Waiwai woman. She recounted for me how Desrey would come to make speeches in assembly for the teachers in training and would speak to encourage them. With a difficult academic schedule and an often difficult set of living conditions, as well as separation from family and kin, the past few years of Naomi’s life have been focused on a better future. She tells me now that the talks that Desrey gave reminded her of what she could do for her village and that as a woman, Desrey reminded her of what is possible for Amerindian girls.

If Desrey’s comment, “They never let you forget you’re an Amerindian” could have been in reference to her Amerindian brothers and sisters, it was most certainly true. These memories from the Waiwai celebrate the life of a fully engaged and truly inspirational woman.” Desrey’s infectious enthusiasms and her accomplishments opened up spaces for younger women, indigenous men and women, in fact for all Guyanese. We join all her family and friends in Guyana and across the globe who mourn her untimely passing.

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