I’m a think-positive guy, not from some Pollyanna position, but largely because that’s how my mind works. In every place I’ve lived I’ve known people who are perpetual grousers – every time you meet them, whatever the occasion, immediately after the “hello”, they launch into the latest complaint, the latest project gone wrong, the latest big name caught with his/her hand in the till; the latest political shocker. As a rule, I avoid those people. They come up to me, I know what’s coming, so I find some excuse to move away. Fair enough, we have to be aware of what’s going wrong, and I’m willing to give you five minutes or so for that, but pretty soon I want the conversation to move, as the Jamaicans say, “forward, bredrin”. Consequently, in the songs or poems I write, in the plays, in this very column, while I do my share of grousing, most of the time I want the chat to be about ‘forward’ – about repairing, restoring, improving, introducing.
Lately, for example, as various intimations are emerging about plans to celebrate Guyana’s 50th year on our own, I find myself taken aback by several comments along the lines of “Celebration? What is there to celebrate? What have we achieved?” I’m not living in a cave; I despair over some of the things before us; just yesterday I drove through Montrose on some of the worst roads I have seen in my life; the word ‘roads’ doesn’t fit; what I drove on were passages. It rocked me. But you can’t let negativity consume you. If you look at our recent history and say we have nothing to celebrate, you’re just looking through one lens.
The moments of light are there. Look through that lens.
I look back at Guyana in those socialism years when life was rough. Coming here to play with Tradewinds I saw the deprivations first-hand – the astonishing sight of empty shelves in grocery stores, and long lines of people, winding round the block, waiting to get their ration of kerosene or gasoline. I remember the Pegasus, our country’s top hotel at the time, with toilet paper so scarce they would provide hotel guests with only half a roll when toilet tissue ran out. I remember the various banned items, and how some people with an import licence were getting rich bringing in VCRs which were almost impossible to get here. I knew one guy in West Dem like that; I used to drive by his fancy house with the new car in the driveway.
By the ʼ70s, the taxi bringing me in from the airport had holes in the floor; I could look down and see the road beneath. Essential foodstuff was in short supply. That those days are gone is certainly an advancement; isn’t that something to shout about?
Just this week, Ian McDonald has released a new book of poems called ‘River Dancer’. I have followed Ian’s writings over the years, and my take on this volume is that it contains examples of his finest work. Trinidadian literary pundit Kenneth Ramchand, who raves about this recent collection, says “the poems are imbued with passing and end of life”, and there is some of that, but for me the book is the careful voice of a man unravelling before us the strands of a life fully lived. The glories of love and devotion are here; the appreciation for the wonders of nature, in instances of such detail – in one case, a wayward hummingbird – that they stir emotion.
On page after page, Ian reaches into some corner of the lives of Guyanese, showing us the power of the human spirit in ordinary people resulting in extraordinary lives. For me, fresh from my passage through Montrose, Ian’s book, which arrived unexpectedly, served to lift the spirit – to celebrate. The thought subsequently came that there are other examples of that lifting that come before us all the time. Indeed some of the very persons making the “nothing to celebrate” assertion – columnists Alan Fenty and Freddie Kissoon come to mind – are themselves examples of value, of achievement, I would point to. That there are such minds among us, constantly writing (Adam Harris, Henry Jeffrey, Ralph Ramkarran, Abu Bakr) and activists the likes of Christopher Ram and Syeada Mandboh (where in God’s name do they find the time and energy?) is something to shout about. We have huge problems to fix, some of them approach daunting, many of them propelling us into despair, but it is not all darkness. If we look carefully, there are significant moments of light.
Nothing to celebrate? What about our sports teams successes in rugby, cricket (currently the Jaguars), and squash (Caribbean champions year after year), and, of course, Nicolette Fernandes, Lance Gibbs, Clive Lloyd, Carl Hooper. I remember like yesterday, standing before my TV in the Cayman Islands watching Shiv make his first century in Barbados and him suddenly bending to kiss the pitch. I was alone in the house at the time, but believe you me I was celebrating. Even if you’re not a sports fan, you should know the international impact made by that quiet country boy from Unity; some time during the 50th year take a moment to celebrate that achievement.
What I’m attempting to deal with here is a subject that properly requires a properly- researched book – I expect the bloggers will chastise me for examples overlooked – but apart from the bridges over our two major rivers I know I celebrate the end of those days when our roads outside Georgetown were almost totally made of burnt earth. I don’t know which was the more taxing consequence – the quagmire in the rainy season, or the dust clouds in the dry.
Sitting at the back of the bus on the roads that spiralled out from the Georgetown hub, you would have to brush off the dust when you arrived. I remember meeting my friends who had come up to visit me at Atkinson Field; when my Vreed-en-Hoop pal Jack Henry stepped out I hardly recognized him. Sitting at the back of the bus, his head (he was a coconut oil guy) was completely red from the dust; he looked like he was wearing an expensive hair-piece. In the rainy season, the trip would take 2 hours and there were some bad stretches where vehicle wheels had dug two deep channels in the road bed.
On a trip to town from Atkinson one day we were amused to see, blocking the way ahead, a Citroen motor car, known for its low-slung design, hung up on the hump between the two channels, wheels turning pointlessly in the red slush. I remember the airport road in the ʼ70s with stretches where the potholes were wall-to-wall. One of the Tradewinds guys, a Trini – you know how they are ‒ gleefully hit me with “Which pothole you taking, padna?” No more red-dirt roads is definitely something to celebrate; ask the people who suffered with them.
My exit door is closing, but I must mention the recently-opened Giftland Mall with its high quality stores, modern cinemas, friendly sales people at every turn, copious parking, and – if you’ve been there, you know ‒ a strikingly clean environment. No dust, no litter, no half-finished counters. If you really feel we have achieved nothing, spend some time at Giftland.
You don’t have to spend any money; just look around. You will celebrate.