Eusi Kwayana: the great teacher at large

Dear Editor,

In this celebration of Eusi Kwayana on his 90th birthday, I wish to share some of the personal and treasured encounters I have had with this ageless man.

Only a few of the founding stalwarts of the freedom movement that began in the 1940s are still with us. Eusi Kwayana has outlived many a friend and foe and continues to work his passion, even as you read this. For his incomparable work, there is no paycheck at the end of the week, no fringe benefits, no sick leave, and no vacations. It seems as if dollars cannot measure the worth of such work, so priceless and so necessary. And this did not have to be. Mr Kwayana turned down ambassadorial offers of postings abroad (and the high life that goes with it), preferring to stay at home in the Buxton backland and presumably watch over the affairs of state from a private and non-paid position—the best, and perhaps the only way, genuine public service can be done. At one time I truly think he personified the conscience of the nation.

In America, as we get old we come to realize, it costs more to be dying than to be living. And it is worse for those who come here at an advanced age and do not have the resident work history that provides, in old age, some shelter under the national safety net. I often wonder how my friend makes out, and I continue to play the lottery and pray. And yet, I would say to the brother, man, you have gold; you and yours are truly one. There are not many unions that can claim the same fortune. Eusi gets a minuscule pension for his services in the National Assembly of Guyana. Occasionally there are royalties from the sale of his books. Also, there are always gifts from friends, his former students and well-wishers.

And the brother lives on, I believe, because of the good he wishes all, the purity of the thoughts that run through his veins, the never-failing vision he harbours of a better world to come, and a compass of moral and philosophical principles that guide his every move. Looking at Eusi’s example, I conclude that living for a purpose outside of your own contributes to longevity more than medications—which Kwayana hardly takes. He does do his daily walks and maintains that personal diet he has had since his early days in Guyana. The last time we met was about six months ago. As usual, we greeted each other with a mild bear hug. His body felt like tempered steel. I could not help noticing, bearing in mind his age.

More than once I have had to ask him over the phone for somebody’s phone number, address, or email name. He would right away give it to me. I would commend him on his interactive computerized personal database management system. “What’s that?” he would ask. Then he would explain he has it in his head. I have never met anyone with such a memory. I am several years younger and am no match for him.

He is to the folks of my generation the great teacher at large. He had words for events and things we did not understand. Every country has a body of quick quotes arising out of their history. A few that come to mind are: “The British are coming”; “They shall not pass”; and “I have not begun to fight.” As teenagers we recited passages from the Bible and words from Sydney King (Eusi’s former name) and others. We literally climbed onto house tops and competed for dramatic effect by shouting out, “This confounded nonsense must stop!” To outdo one another the more creative of us would add “damn” in front of “confounded,” or “now“ or “or else” at the end of the statement.

That statement was attributed to Sydney, who was a minister in the government in 1953. It was not exactly what he said, but the form quoted here is the accepted version. It was in response to the commandeering of some government vehicles by the resident governor in preparation for the suspension of the constitution by Her Majesty’s Government and a declaration of a state of emergency. I do not think any other of our quick historical quotes can match “confounded nonsense” in prominence and usage.

When Josh Ramsammy survived an assassin’s bullet and was going to appear as the main speaker at a meeting at D’Urban and Louisa Row, the whole of Georgetown came out. Eusi was the chairperson and introduced Josh Ramsammy thus: “The next speaker to address you, has just arrived from the dead,” and walked off the podium. Ramsammy was so taken aback by the introduction, he didn’t move for a few moments.

And take the duty allowance that members of parliament had granted themselves when general conditions of hardship were widespread throughout the country. It appears the base salary of MPs was legally fixed and couldn’t be increased. ‘Duty allowance’ was the loophole that made additional remuneration possible. The great teacher explained this allowance to the people. “And what is this thing called ‘duty allowance’?” he asked; answering: “It is an extra payment for performing your duty.”

At one time Kwayana received a subpoena. He chose the oath of affirmation rather than swearing on the Bible. The presiding magistrate inquired whether it was because he had no religious beliefs that he preferred the affirmation. Eusi’s reply sent a shiver down the hall. “Did you call me here to question me about my religious beliefs? Is this an inquisition or a court of law?”

The matter didn’t end there. The magistrate demanded of Kwayana that he reveal the name of the publisher of Dayclean. Kwayana replied: “Under no circumstances will I tell you that.” The magistrate did not give up. He told Kwayana that he could be held in contempt of court. Kwayana’s response: “That is a problem for you, Your Worship.”

I used to go about my business thinking how great those moments were at that time and in that place. There was more high drama on the streets in Georgetown than on the big screen at the Metropole cinema. Thanks to this timeless man, there was somebody to look up to and something to look forward for.

Only recently during the Rodney Commission of Inquiry hearings, it was pointed out that Kwayana wrote the party song for the PPP, the PNC, and the WPA. One commissioner was evidently puzzled as the impression was given by how the evidence was led that it was one song for all three rival parties. Eusi explained that it was three different songs and he wrote them at different times. The Chairman of the Commission, who has shown a sense of humour that contrasts sharply with the grave business at hand, remarked off-handedly and as an unofficial aside, “Did that [feat] make it into the Guinness Book of World Records?”

As you may notice, it is the words and deeds from this teacher that stuck with me over the years. Derek Walcott once jokingly asked Eusi, how come you can write so well and you neither smoke nor and drink. If the record is checked, Eusi Kwayana may very well be the most prolific Guyanese ever. He has been continuously writing since the 1940s. It is one of his natural callings. Dr Rupert Roopnaraine has given such a hint when he stated, “Kwayana’s collected writings … will astonish the world.”

For this 90th birthday, I mused on an appropriate gift. Our man frowns upon material things, so that was out of the question. How nice would it be to take him to Freedom House (headquarters of the ruling PPP), I thought. I would say to them, “This is Eusi Kwayana, one of the founders of the party.” And to a bewildered receptionist, I would help her out. “Yes, young lady, this African man, Cheddi and Janet founded your party. He happened to be in the area, and I suggested he drop in. You know, for old time’s sake, and check out the state of his creation from 65 or so years ago.” I would pay top dollar to see the expression on the face of the office manager, who at best might have just tangentially heard the name ‘Eusi Kwayana’.

A very private man, despite the very public role he played and continues to play, in the history of Guyana, Mr Kwayana shuns the kind of attention he might get from reminiscences of this kind. He would have no part of it. Yet, Voltairean-like, he will not say ‘no’ to my doing so. It is my right, he would assure me.

Brother, congratulations and many happy returns.

Yours faithfully,

P D Sharma



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