Stabroek, particularly around Demico, the bus parks and the market, is a hub displaying snippets of Guyanese life. It is a spectacle of vendors, shoppers, commuters, taxi-drivers, minibus operators and touts. Small businesses give the area much of its life. Mothers and fathers, the young, middle-aged and the old are all able to make a living in a Guyana that is still too far from a reality where all or most of its citizens can say they are financially stable.
The pavements are the homes or resting places for the forgotten, the rejected, the neglected, and the self-saboteurs. Men and women, dirtied and smelly, stay waiting for the day their time will come–it may bring deliverance, death, or both. It is an area that I often study and am fascinated by the drama that occurs there daily: vendors soliciting sales; taxi drivers seeking customers—and often overcharging; mini-bus touts and conductors competing for lone passengers, sometimes managing to tug some poor soul who probably is too tired or not confident enough to tell them to take their hands away; and overcrowded minibuses after 9 am, when school children are supposed to be in school, yet are seen ‘doubling up’ as they bounce to the latest dancehall music.
This week was no different from my observations. I headed down to the area because I was interested in the plight of the vendors who were ordered by City Hall to stop selling on the western end of Demico. In hopes of speaking with some of them to find out how they would manage, I arrived and walked into a dispute between a female security guard, identified as having a supervisory position, and a man. A vagrant was kicked by a male security guard for sleeping on the pavement around Demico. Witnesses related that the vagrant was not yet twenty-years old. They were all upset by the arrogance of the security guard who kicked the young man but what was even more unfortunate was that the female guard, to whom the complaint was made, instead chose to engage in a ‘cuss-out’ with the bearer of the news. One of the things she said was that she only had one son. I took it to mean that as long as her son was safe, she did not care about what happened to the sons of others. In her defence, she claimed that the man who approached her to report the incident used expletives.
However, it was eye-opening when many of the people who regularly occupy the area reported what often occurs with vagrants resting or sleeping on the pavements. They have cold water thrown on them, and they are kicked or beaten with batons. I was told of one incident where one had a lit cigarette placed in his mouth while he was sleeping. A male security guard, who said he refuses to engage in that kind of behavior, related an experience of telling a vagrant to move one day. The vagrant would not move and he could not understand why. Another guard shouted, telling him to throw water on the man, but he refused to do so. It was not until someone informed him that the vagrant was disabled that he understood why the man could not move. A few days later, the vagrant died.
Are all men equal? That is the question that was in my mind after witnessing the Stabroek area drama this week. There was a vendor in the area where they were asked to vacate. He was petrified that the authorities would see him defying the order they received late last week via a flyer to move by Tuesday last and that he would have to go to court. He was not sure what the penalty would be. However, within minutes of me being there, he disappeared. Another vendor, pushing a stroller with confectionaries, quite passionately announced that his people were in power and if the authorities told him to move, he would move no matter what it cost him. Had the order happened under the previous administration, he again loudly announced, he would not move. And the thought that often enters my mind surfaced again. How can we as a people ever become as powerful as we can be if, because we favour those in power, we refuse to fight or demand our human rights? Most of us might not be vagrants but just like them many of us are ignored, abused and are voiceless–imprisoned by party loyalty, we are destroyers of ourselves because we are gullible enough to believe promises that are never realised.
With security guards often facing discrimination, low pay and risky situations, it is a group that I respect. But the few guilty ones around Demico who treat the vagrants with such cruelty and disdain demonstrate how often though we may be a part of a marginalised group, we show no mercy to those who are less fortunate. The need to exercise power over those weaker than us trickles down. Out of frustration or conceit, we keep the cycle going.
Most of us believe that we would never face unfortunate circumstances, such as living on the streets. But many vagrants once lived normal lives. Before we take time to bully and hurt those less fortunate, we must always ask ourselves: What if the tables were turned? Perhaps many believe that the lives of vagrants do not matter because they contribute nothing much to the society. But I believe that there are many lessons to learn from them. They are there to remind us that life can be ugly and long before the end of it many of us are scarred and broken and are just a fragment of the person we can be.
Stabroek will continue to be one of my favourite places to take in the practices of the people who are there from day to day. The vagrants will continue to exist and unfortunately may continue to be maltreated.
In contemplating whether all men are equal, the events kept replaying in my mind–the security guards’ treatment of the vagrants, the order for the vendors to move and the man who proudly announced that he would face the consequences, unfair though they may be, because he endorsed those in power. I could not help thinking about that quote from Animal Farm, George Orwell’s metaphorical story about the hypocrisy of those with the power: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”