Our famous Guyanese singer Dave Martins recorded a song in which he asked “Where are your heroes, Caribbean, show them to me.” For other territories in the region identifying and unanimously agreeing on their heroes should not pose much of a challenge. However, here in Guyana we seldom find an individual to whom we can award iconic status, and who is not regarded controversially among the mosaic of people in our country. Our society, politically polarised as it is, has never allowed even deserving sportsmen and women, legal luminaries and stars of other professions to escape the political painting and tainting, and to be duly recognized as national, monumentalised heroes and heroines.
If we go to the emergence of this political polarisation, there will always be two persons about whom the chroniclers of our history will find much to say. The period immediately before and after Guyana’s independence was graced by two political giants, Cheddi Jagan and LFS Burnham. These gentlemen made such indelible marks on our political landscape that long after their deaths, mention of their names can still trigger deep emotions among their followers and adversaries – and their children’s children, who have virtually no knowledge of the individuals.
The politics of Jagan and Burnham, for many in Guyana and abroad, seemed overly ambitious for their time, yet these illustrious sons were able to motivate the oppressed in ways that no other has done since. History records that in 1955 their departure in different political directions unwittingly spawned the start of divisive politics in Guyana. Yet for all that has gone before, large sections of our society still accord them the respect of trailblazers who left political legacies that allowed the parties they led to continue to capitalize on their names, and to remain dominant. We must also accept that the interpretation and ascribed intentions of their brands of politics, and their role in Guyana’s development will still remain controversial and debated for some time to come. Burnham and Jagan will never be regarded equally by all sections of our society. Nevertheless, they were instrumental in crafting the Guyana we have inherited, and should be treated accordingly.
But how have we honoured these gentlemen? “We don’t see any statues in your streets,” Dave Martins sang. At no time before could we accord these two leaders their rightful place in Guyana’s history, simply because we had not the political will to do so. This reluctance itself must be seen as a manifestation of our history of one-party rule. That has changed, and this coalition government offers a window of opportunity not to be missed.
Many would agree that we have had enough of monuments that memorialize the inhumanity of slavery and indentureship, and the rebellions fought against them. Remembering these tragic and dastardly systems of exploitations is very important, but it is also equally important that we move forward. It is time we honour those who too would have contributed to building the modern Guyana, great men and women who we can recall in living history.
The people who walked the streets with Burnham in his heyday are almost gone from amongst us. Jagan, having outlived Burnham by 12 years, still has a large number of living comrades. It is the duty of this younger generation that made possible the changes witnessed in 2011 and 2015, to allow the much older followers of Burnham and Jagan the honour of seeing their two heroes immortalised before they too pass to the great beyond.
And how do we rightly honour Jagan and Burnham, these sons of Guyana’s soil? Certainly not by renaming anything after them, for our history will tell us that even though we have been ‘going metric’ for well over thirty years now, we are still buying things in pounds, feet and gallons; and even though we renamed the main airport as CJIA, people are still “going Timehri” today. So when we propose to rename the Promenade Gardens in honour of President Burnham, forty years from now people will still be going to the “Promenade Gardens”. It is just that that is “how we stay”! Let us stop the renaming, and give these two presidents’ names to new things synonymous with whatever were their unfinished pursuits or wishes.
If we choose to monumentalize these past presidents we should do so with things and places uniquely identifiable with them. For example, if we choose to create large statues, let them bear true resemblance to the individuals, and not be some form of abstract art. A nice place to put one statue, if we go this route, is the point of entry to Georgetown, east of the Russian embassy. Let us have their offspring, other relatives and ardent followers be part of the whole process.
If we choose to honour them by other means let us ensure that what is done is relevant and satisfies the wishes of their relatives and followers. For instance, since Burnham was a respected lawyer and orator, whenever we do get down to creating our own independent law school, why not name it after President Burnham? The new specialty hospital at Turkeyen can be named after Dr Jagan, even though he was a practitioner in a different branch of medicine.
I am just throwing out some ideas here, but we need to have a special committee seriously look at how we honour our past leaders and move the process forward, well before the opportunity to do so is lost to us.