Christmas in Guyana is a time when optimism for our possible futures seems most plausible. Suddenly, thanks to the influx of overseas Guyanese, there are thousands of us with all the education, skills and experience which seem absent during the rest of the year. Even people who left just a few years ago come back with success stories that put most other West Indian emigrants to shame. At Christmas time it is clear to even the most impartial observer that Guyana – the imagined community that extends beyond our borders – could easily reverse the decay of our lost decades. If through some unforeseen circumstance the talent we have exported was forced to come back, it is tempting to believe that the newcomers could overhaul our failed and tired institutions sooner that you could say “political power sharing” or “unworkable Westminster model.” By itself the money they could repatriate would probably revive the economy for a decade.
Christmas is also when our scatteredness – diaspora is far too solemn a word – becomes most noticeable. Also our myopia. The thousands who return from the frozen north invariably notice all the new buildings, bridges and other improvements which locals have learned to take for granted. For regular visitors these periodic assessments can offer a usefully detached impression of the ways in which the country in general, and Georgetown in particular, is changing. In good economic years conversation tends to drift towards the vicissitudes of West Indies cricket, in harder times it focuses on crime, the cost of living and the seemingly fathomless incompetence and cupidity of local politicians. Unfortunately, because news about American politics and culture has become practically omnipresent in the information age, the visitors frequently assume there is little worth saying about their own lives beyond updates on jobs, homes and the overall progress of foreign branches of the family.
It is also a pity that so few locals get to observe the eagerness with which the Christmas visitors arrive and the ambivalence with which they depart, for the change is instructive. On the flights in the joy is palpable. Regardless of religion or ethnicity, everyone is looking forward to a particular cultural detail – garlic pork, channa, a ham, ice-cream on the seawall, or a particular Old Year’s fete. Already buoyed up by the prospect of spending time with their nearest and dearest, many returnees also fly in with the happy knowledge that their suitcases and wallets are bulging with gifts that may be their family’s best news for a year. Come departure time, however, the mood is quite different. Not necessarily because anyone has been disappointed – though undoubtedly some have – but usually because it now seems even more mysterious that this country, despite vast natural wealth and a creative and instinctively decent people, remains the poor relation of Caricom, perennially unable to solve political and economic problems that would – at first blush – barely challenge an energetic mayor in a mid-sized borough of New York.
Although there is never a shortage of compelling theories as to which particular group has sabotaged the collective good, departure lounge conversations tend towards the subjunctive. If only there were less crime / corruption / violence / racism / despair / poverty . . . or, if only there were more hope, better schools, a stronger economy . . . we might come back. Frequently there is also some sort of thought experiment along these lines: If every Guyanese were forced to spend a year scrunting in London, Manhattan or Toronto, how quickly we’d all come to our senses, realize how good life here could be and fix these things – probably within a generation. But the optimism tends to fade with a boarding call, as the dreamers shuffle off to harder realities elsewhere.
Beyond the seasonal festivities, Christmas is a time to remember those who have passed away, particularly those who dreamed of a better Guyana. It is also a time for hope that the younger generation, however wearied by the political and cultural disappointments of their lifetime, may yet realize – in the words of the Obama campaign – that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” On a day whose significance arises out of Christian themes of spiritual renewal and atonement, Christmas ultimately offers us the hope that this country remains full of redemptive possibilities.