I unreservedly challenge, especially for the benefit of the young Afrikan mind, the stereotypes that (a) Afrikans are not motivated about acquiring wealth preferring to go after education; and (b) that we are lacking in the knowledge of commerce and entrepreneurship, as appears in a letter in the Stabroek News of August 23 (‘Did ACDA engage African Guyanese in the diaspora…‘). These time-worn slanders of the Afrikan are a cover-up for the structured discrimination against Afrikans which have now become institutionalized and are used to hide our success stories. Afrikan entrepreneurship is one of Guyana’s biggest success stories. The symbols of this success story are all around us. The ‘villages‘ Victoria, Buxton, Agricola, Plaisance, Den Amstel, Queenstown, Nurney, to name a few, every Afrikan professional, business person, academic, and the fact that Guyana does not have a labouring class that is uniquely Afrikan is due to our enterprise. It is an unqualified success and demonstrates Afrikan entrepreneurial qualities because it successfully countered the European stated intention and efforts to structure the society so that the Afrikan would have the status of the labouring class. The Europeans planters’ thinking, was to keep the Afrikans landless and without alternative means of employment and they will have to remain as plantation labourers.
Our mission was to free ourselves from plantation labour and the key to doing that was the acquisition of land. The Europeans failed to keep the Afrikans landless because we demonstrated a combination of determination and foresight. These we combined with an ability to take advantage of the economic circumstances and forces operating in the local and international environment to defeat the planters’ purposes. Their efforts at sabotage of our productive and commercial ventures also failed to relegate us to the status of plantation labourers. Our focus and determination in acquiring land is evidence of our entrepreneurial acumen as this is the cornerstone resource of economic development.
I rate the ‘Village Movement‘ as the greatest legal entrepreneurial activity undertaken by any ethnic group in the history of Guyana. It saw us produce a glut in the ground provision market by 1842. “By 1850 we had acquired land at the cost of over one million dollars in twenty-five communal villages and over 7,000 freehold properties in the proprietary villages, had spent was nearly three-quarters of a million dollars on housing and half a million dollars on land improvements a total of nearly two and a quarter million dollars.” We were to go on to acquire and develop approximately another one hundred and seventy villages. These monuments of our entrepreneurial greatness still stand, and neither time nor malice has been able to remove them.
Afrikan entrepreneurship in Guyana, exemplified in the ‘Village Movement‘ is of the social type and involves innovation in creating social value; it is not exclusively dedicated to the realization of profit. Walter Rodney sums it up well when he said that the village was not just a production unit but a place which ensured the reproduction of life. Afrikan entrepreneurship has an economic component which has faced institutional and structured discrimination from the outset. Although Afrikans have a presence in the Americas and especially in the Guianas predating Columbus and the arrival of Amerindians, our approximate 400 year sojourn as captured Afrikans has seen our economic enterprise face over three-and-a-half centuries of direct economic repression and sabotage in the forms of enslavement, colonial repression and now the free market liberal economy. The twenty-one year effort of the Burnham regime to correct this injustice was no match for the centuries of economic persecution which Afrikans have faced in Guyana.
Rev John Sterling wrote as early as 1835 of the Afrikans‘ rapid march to complete freedom. Though not referring exclusively to the Guianese situation he captured the Europeans perceptions, fears and response to our enterprise. Advising that something had to be done immediately about the Afrikan march to freedom because the well-being of the British Empire was threatened by it, he said “… in the short space of five years from the 1st of next August, their performance of the functions of a labouring class in a civilized community will depend entirely on the power over their minds…” He then advocated that education be used to ensure we had the correct moral posture in this “civilized community.”
In the quest to structure Afrikans as the labouring class, other economic, political and socially hostile policies aimed directly at thwarting our efforts of resources accumulation and allocation were utilized. Lack of access to the legislature; economic sabotage by the planters; state terror; discriminatory land, taxation, state resource allocation policies and credit policies were used against the economic movement which we had begun. Afrikan lack of success in commerce and business was not because of our lack of knowledge, but because as Dr Hintzen puts it “…blacks and coloureds who had begun to fulfil the need for middlemen … were selectively denied the credit …in favour of the Portuguese after 1840….in an attempt to prevent the development of a non-white entrepreneurial class.” The Royal Gazette on October 3, 1843 wrote “… it was the planters who guaranteed African economic strangulation through the use of their authority and control in the Court of Policy and the Combined Court.”
Though these efforts failed to produce an Afrikan labouring class the economic disincentives established to discourage Afrikan business initiative resulted in the productive and distributive sectors being populated by the Portuguese, Chinese and East Indian sections of the population while Afrikans found themselves in “… the largely urban based state sector, comprising the general civil service, including the security forces, and the relatively small public enterprise sub-sector and in mining, particularly in the bauxite industry.”
That these economic structures remain are observable, the explanation, centuries of structured discrimination against Afrikan enterprise not ignorance of business. Dr Melissa Ifill in her ‘Study to Assess Whether There Is Any Discrimination in the Award and Distribution of Economic Opportunities In Guyana‘ writes: “Members of the East Indian community are heavily concentrated in agriculture, hunting, forestry and the various service trades while the heaviest concentration of the African community is in the public service and mining and quarrying [as employees and not owners].“
The account of Afrikan entrepreneurship in Guyana is one of awe, a story of valour and of an unceasing effort to self-realize an ever increasing wholesomeness. This Afrikan quest to self actualize has led to the establishment of the soul of a nation and inalienable pillars of this nation’s existence. Our quest to self actualize our freedom, creativity and humanity has led to the establishment of free Guyana, this evolved into a more organized expression as organized labour, the founding the British Guiana Labour Union and the trade union movement. After this came our political expression centred around the People’s National Congress through which we continued to express our desire for freedom and a higher form of expression through the support for independence and republicanism. Today that quest of a higher form of self expression is calling for national unity and shared governance. At the least our entrepreneurship has demonstrated a people‘s capacity to surmount challenges on all fronts, economically, politically and socially.
What appears to be a preference for education over wealth creation is partly a response and resistance to this colonial objective; it is too, partly a collective cultural imperative. As collective cultural imperative, the pursuit of education has always been the sine qua non of Afrikan civilization; whether we are successful in business or not, it is a foundation in our society. So important is education to us that even as we were struggling with the dollars and cents expression of our entrepreneurial movement we were teaching every ethnicity in this nation. This quality we see replicated in Egypt where we taught the Greeks medicine, the alphabet, mathematics and philosophy among other things. This thirst for the gathering and transfer of knowledge led us to establishing the first University at Timbuktu and the first libraries housing the literature of the nation in Egypt.
As a response and resistance we turned to urban life and the professions after the stymieing of the village economy. We were intent on not being relegated to plantation labourers.
The evidence provided by the history of the Afrikan in Guyana does not support the thesis that we are lacking in the knowledge of commerce or entrepreneurship, nor are we averse to creating wealth but prefer to pursue education. It demonstrates that Afrikan underachievement in business and wealth creation is a result of the Guyanese socio-economic and political structure and not in the nature of the Afrikan. It came about as a result of the attempt by economic interests buoyed by an abhorrent ideological perception of the Afrikan which sought to structure a society in which the Afrikans were to comprise the labouring class. The evidence also evinces that legislators knowledgeable of the root causes of this deformation of the Guyanese society are the key to the eradication, not only of Afrikans being economically challenged but correcting the institutional bases on which this structured discrimination is allowed to continue to operate in Guyana.