I refer to Godfrey Chin’s letter, ‘More needs to be done to record the achievements of the small man’ as published in SN of January 27. I agree fully with Mr Chin’s counsel of wisdom. Any civilized community should be justly concerned to highlight the heroic achievements of its own citizens and commit these acts to the annals of its history for the benefit and upliftment of present and future generations.
Our unsung heroes are increasingly at risk. The chances of their stories being told and retold so that they endure or of their heroic acts being recorded for posterity are decidedly remote. It is a sad fact that media focus and public notice tend to be directed almost entirely to the antics and aberrations of the ‘big ones’ who enjoy most of the national limelight and informal debate.
But, they are a small minority. There is a socially, politically and economically isolated and forgotten 80-90 per cent of hardworking, honourable and resourceful Guyanese who rarely make the news unless of course they deviate. Nor are they dignified and humanized by popular chatter or even spirited, harmless gossip. Yet among these good people are innumerable unsung heroes.
One such was Christopher Stephenson, a resident of Tiger Bay. Mr Stephenson, a man in his mid-thirties, left his humble home on Monday, October 20, 1997 after preparing breakfast for his 4 small children. On that fateful day Chris, while preparing a modest meal for his children also attended to his dray cart horse.
After feeding his young ones he put them on his cart and travelled through Georgetown’s busy streets. The children were dropped off at school and Chris moved off in search of work. Around the same time a senior member of the Guyana Water Company (GWI) was on the phone trying to deal with a problem at one of the city’s manholes. As it turned out 2 water works employees were trapped in the manhole in South Georgetown at Sussex and Hunter Streets, Charlestown. The 2 men were stranded in the hole and had eventually fainted. They had obviously inhaled too much of a toxic gas called methane, a deadly greenhouse gas. Our unsung hero and his dray cart arrived at the scene roughly at the same time as a GWI vehicle. A noisy crowd had gathered and was engaged in speculation about whether the 2 hapless water works employees were still alive or had succumbed to the poisonous fumes in the underground hell − a virtual Dante’s inferno.
Chris Stephenson stood on the tray of his cart to get a better view into the black hole. In typical John Wayne, Randolph Scott or Clint Eastwood fashion Chris tied his horse to a post, steadied himself for action, then waded through the boisterous throng, some of whom were praying by this time and offering valedictions to the 2 men trapped in the bowels of the earth. A few GWI big ones having gathered at the hole were asking relevant but untimely questions. Chris eventually reached the hole and stared into the devil’s eyes. To everyone’s surprise Chris entered the manhole. One of the GWI managers made a theatrical gesture to try and stop Chris, but he soon disappeared into the devil’s jaws below the surface of the street.
Disregarding shouts from onlookers that he was descending into a reservoir of poison gas, Chris continued on his heroic mission. After reaching the bottom of the hole Chris Stephenson picked up one of the overwhelmed men, put him over his shoulder and staggered up the old iron ladder to daylight. Chris emerged a wreck of a man and deposited the survivor on the street to rapturous applause from the appreciative onlookers. Chris was perspiring profusely and breathing with difficulty. He sat up gasping for air and looking as though he had aged 20 years in 20 minutes. Then to everyone’s surprise and amazement Chris staggered back to the black hole and lowered himself back into purgatory ignoring remarks like, “Boy, res yuhself, yuh do enough already,” and “Man, wey yuh goin again?” Chris reached the second man trapped in the manhole. The man was close to death and motionless. Ambulance attendants worked on the first man and the crowd enthused about the bravery and sacrifice of a fellow citizen. Suddenly Chris Stephenson emerged with the second survivor who looked more dead than alive. A group of good working women raised a hymn in praise of God’s hand in delivering the 2 souls from eternal damnation.
The now expanded crowd was joyous and lavish with their praise of Chris Stephenson’s heroic deed. Their high-pitched voices reached the third verse of ‘Amazing Grace’ but faltered at… “This grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.” Through their singing they observed Chris Stephenson as he took his last breath and died a few feet from the manhole he had so stubbornly cheated of its death grip in all but one instance.
Christopher Stephenson’s heroic story was featured on a number of occasions on the Evening News and Tape 4 Stories during the past 11 years.
But more needs to be done to immortalize this great Guyanese hero. Apart from the obviously heroic nature of Chris’s selfless act, it must be noted that in life there are forces at work which use ordinary individuals for purposes far transcending the purpose of keeping these individuals alive. It is established by the fact that some men will go out of their way to help a neighbour or a complete stranger for which they will not be a cent the better, and indeed often many cents the worse, face dreadful hardship, pain, suffering and death.
Even the selfish pursuit of fame and reward does not nerve men to the efforts and sacrifices which are so eagerly made in pursuit of extensions of our power over nature.
There is no mystery about Chris Stephenson’s heroic act and his willingness to save complete strangers nor about his willingness to care for his four offspring single-handedly; both are based on unselfish love, the difference between them being that the willingness of caring for one’s own is necessary to the life of the self-respecting man and is therefore a personal act, whereas the other is an act for evolution, and therefore a superpersonal act. It is the stuff true heroes are made of.
Christopher Stephenson is a national hero. His name should be honoured and his heroic deed committed to the annals of Guyanese history and celebrated as ‘Our hero from Tiger Bay.’
F. Hamley Case