The majority of pioneers and staff at the GNS centres were volunteers

Dear Editor,

There continues to be discussion surrounding the worthiness and operations of the now defunct Guyana National Service (GNS). A constant focus of discussion is the former Diwali Queen, Mahadai Das, who was a volunteer in the GNS. In fact, she was a volunteer Trainee Instructor, even before there were volunteer pioneers. My abiding memory of Mahadai was during what was called the ‘Great March’ from Kimbia to Georgetown in 1975. I remember trying to persuade her to travel in a vehicle to save her blistered, bloody feet, which condition she was making worse (after covering some 90 miles) by walking in slippers. She tearfully refused and completed another thirty five painful miles to the National Park. She had not wanted to abandon her comrades. She was as intelligent, talented and tough as she was pretty. It is difficult to imagine anyone taking advantage of her.

On the question of the compulsory nature of the GNS, it should be pointed out that the mandatory elements were the few hundred third year university students; some nurses (for one or two six-week courses before the latter were discontinued;  heads of our foreign missions (required to be ‘exposed’ to one week of field work – at Kimbia in my time, but I think they went to other non-GNS interior locations during other stints); and members of the New Opportunity Corps (we accepted volunteers there too).

The tens of thousands who were students and teachers in the Young Brigade and National Cadet Corps, Special Service Corps (of volunteer professionals) or pioneers and staff on the GNS centres starting in 1974, were there voluntarily. In 1974, there were 4,000 applicants for the 600 places we offered at Kimbia. The team headed by Lawrence Arno, Faye Wilson, Maureen Bryan, the late Barrington and others had to use family size, geographical spread and other criteria to select the first batch. Indeed, Kimbia had to be expanded rapidly to accommodate 1,200 youth and staff.

As far as President Burnham was concerned, his commitment to the GNS – and what it could achieve in building national unity, instilling discipline among our youth, and being a catalyst for development, settlement and defence of the hinterland – was total and unequivocal. I honestly believe that the GNS was his favourite uniformed service.

Burnham had had issued policies of “No Sex” on the centres. I preferred sexual education and harsh penalties for exploitative relationships between senior and junior ranks as well as between staff and youths. Abortion terminates an unwanted pregnancy but does not equal rape. We had regular, some very embarrassing ‘shoot outs’ on centres, where youths complained about everything possible, and many people spoke to me freely about personal matters. Rape or sexual abuse, however, was never a topic.

I would like Ms Luck to step forward and clear her name (or confirm the allegation) of the ‘researched,’ continual rape charge. I was personally involved in the incident surrounding the end of her GNS stint; it had nothing to do with anything sexual but about her father’s behaviour at Kimbia as a politician.

Burnham set the example with his own family. He insisted that all three of his older daughters serve in the GNS. I was present in his office when Annabelle Burnham called from Trinidad and was told that she had either to complete her National Service stint in Guyana before she received a scholarship, or she could have her education paid for privately, but not by him. Annabelle was stationed at several GNS locations and was part of the group of staff and pioneers who walked over 130 miles from Tumatumari to Georgetown, during the Second Great March.

Francesca, a younger daughter (also now a doctor) attended one of the most demanding military courses run by the GNS. Specially selected volunteers camped out in the Kimbia Savannahs, drinking from the creeks and using outdoor toilets for the entire six week programme. She even suffered some damage to her knee on one of the rigorous exercises. These groups were part of the paramilitary units used to protect our border with Suriname.

As far as I know, Burnham never intervened in their activities and never requested special treatment for them in the field. His subtle and then direct requests for Roxanne (the wife of then Minister of Health, Richard Van West Charles) to receive specialist remuneration, because of her language skills and computer training, were turned down (at least while I was Director General) and she continued to receive the regular pay of a lieutenant. Burnham was not amused but did not try to overturn the ruling. All three daughters served with distinction and enthusiasm.

For me, it was not the centres that were built and the disciplined structures that we operated under that live on in my mind. It was the joy that young men and women from all over the country felt in forming friendships across ethnicities, sharing their experiences in their music and dance; it was the exposure of both the uncredentialled and the better educated urban and rural youth to some of the most modern production techniques – in light industry and agriculture; and their learning to work hard and in teams, while finding creative solutions to difficult problems under conditions of stress and isolation. These lessons cannot be unlearned.

It is difficult for me to be objective about the GNS experience. Some four years ago, a professor then at the University of Guyana told me (in the presence of others) at a cultural symposium in New York that the absolutely best year of her entire life was the year she spent in the GNS. (I hope that I captured her enthusiasm. She had said then that I could quote her quite unsolicited testimonial.) She was not a volunteer. That person was the late junior Minister of Education, Dr Desrey Fox.

I was very impressed on visits to the National Service operations in Tanzania and Zambia, but even Presidents Nyerere and Kaunda respectively thought and said, when they visited Kimbia, that Burnham had improved on their models. GNS suffered, as did every other institution in the country, once the economy slipped (GNS, was for a period, a heavy foreign exchange user). We had a good thing but did not know it.

Mistakes of overreach and inexperience were made, but it is a pity that the international financial organizations frowned on financing one of the best organizations Guyana created for breaking the cycle of suspicion, indiscipline and ignorance that continues to dominate our overly coastal life.

Yours faithfully,
Desmond Roberts (Colonel rtd)
Former Director General

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