The experience of living in Guyana is the experience of living through a series of contradictions. We live in a country vastly rich in resources yet the multitudes live in terrible poverty or just manage to eke out something resembling a dignified life. We live in a country that could swallow up much of the Caribbean Community yet we all compete with each other for square footage on the coastland. We live in a land of many waters but can’t get potable water in our houses. The contradictions go on and on and many of us are too, too familiar with them. In this moment we are faced with a new contradiction. Change is coming. It is assured. It is not inevitable.
The signing of the Cummingsburg Accord, which forms the foundation for the pre-election coalition between A Partnership for National Unity and Alliance for Change, gives us further assurance that not only will there be a change of government come May 12 but the beginning of a change in the circumstances of this country and of its people. Even before the signatures were affixed to the document the writing was on the wall. But change – change of government, change in our society and societies, change towards a more equitable economy, is not yet inevitable. Change will never be inevitable, never be a sure thing that we can bet the house on until we as the people of this country understand what it means to be “we the citizens of Guyana”.
As Guyanese we have failed to understand that citizenship does not begin and end in the “Place of Birth” field on our birth certificates. As Guyanese we have failed to understand that democracy is a way of life, not an exercise to be carried out every five years (barring prorogation, of course). As Guyanese we have carried on too long with the farce that national unity is found tramping down the road in a Mashramani band. But what does citizenship and democracy and national unity mean? I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to declare that I know, definitively, the answers to these questions. I have some ideas and perhaps a line of inquiry that can help to move us towards a better understanding of these concepts.
Social media users over the last week or so may have come across an initiative called #MoveForward. #MoveForward is an incredibly simple campaign with an extremely powerful message: the youth of this country have spent most of, if not their entire lives, under a PPP administration and all they know is economic, social and cultural underdevelopment. These young people consume media across the spectrum, some even have had the opportunity to travel abroad and they can say without fear of contradiction that our country has not only been left behind but continues to slip further and further back in the race of states to develop the people, institutions and infrastructure within their own borders. These young people have no time with ‘jumbie politics’. Their memories and concerns don’t stretch back that far (and the few who have feigned
knowledge have been caught in their flights of imaginations and brought to task by the online community). So, does national unity mean forgetting the past? No, it means acknowledging the past. All of it. I’ve heard it said that any telling of any history can never be totally objective, that there will always be intrusion of the writer’s or speaker’s personal feelings, tastes or opinions; their particular point of view on the world and how the world revolves (and around whom or what forces). But what we’ve been fed over the last several years is not history but narrative; for the most part a series of bald, malicious half-truths and none-too-clever concoctions.
National unity, or maybe ‘national maturity’, means being able to look at our past – the successes and the catastrophes, the proud moments and the painful, not only how we have been wronged but how we have wronged others – as an opportunity to improve ourselves both individually and collectively and to move forward, not with a guarantee, but with better odds of getting ‘it’ right, for ourselves and for our children.
Democracy is not a ballot paper or an ink-stained finger, alone. Democracy is not the politician that we love to malign so. The act of voting is to democracy what consummation is to a marriage: an essential and exciting act but not the sum total of the relationship. Yes, democracy is a relationship. It is a relationship between the citizen and the State and all its organs. By the way, the government of the day is not the State, it is only a temporary caretaker, someone you lend your car keys to for a few years. More than a state of being or a set of institutions and rules, democracy is an aspiration for the voices of the entire people to be heard and accounted for. Democracy aspires to have people’s voices matter.
The citizen understands this in his/her core, even if not explicitly. The citizen does not abdicate from their entitlement to respect and to dignity and to a responsibility, if not to their fellow countrymen, then at the very least to themselves. We have roughly three-quarters of a million naturalized Guyanese within these borders. We do not have nearly as many citizens. Citizens exercise democracy, if not through traditional means then they create their own means. Citizens seek national unity, even if they do not call it by this name.
Again we find ourselves at a critical juncture. We have an opportunity, not to right all wrongs but to start the knitting back together of this country that has been wounded and torn apart and never given an opportunity to heal and mend. We have an opportunity to turn a corner, to end one age and begin another. We have a choice! We have a vote. We must find our voices. Our vote is our voice, is our choice as to what sort of future we want to move towards. Let us move forward.