Guyana has a history based on European intrusion into the land of the indigenous peoples, their enslavement of African peoples brought forcefully to these parts, and finally, the luring of indentured labour from India, China and Madeira to work under very poor conditions and for minimal pay. Out of this melting pot of ethnicities was born a country boasting to be “One land of six peoples, united and free” in the words of our National Anthem, scripted by Archibald Leonard Luker – himself English, and an Anglican priest.
While acknowledging our diversity and even celebrating it, our National Motto: ‘One People, One Nation, One Destiny,’ seeks to cement in the collective psyche of our citizens, the idea that although our origins are diverse, we can only truly progress by working together in order to secure our own future and the future of coming generations.
Despite the referenced “unity” of our national songs and motto, that unity has somehow evaded us as a nation over the years, with our political parties divided along racial lines, which is possibly the single biggest hurdle for our country as we seek to live our National Motto, and in the process give some meaning to the question what it means to be a ‘Guyanese.’
Here at home it is not uncommon for the prefixes ‘Indo’ and ‘Afro’ to be affixed to the word ‘Guyanese’ to define a particular person or group, often without the ethnic identifier adding any real value to the description. In fact it is quite common to describe ordinary Guyanese by their ethnicity as the main identifier. In the process, the word ‘Guyanese’ has seemed to lose much of its value as an identifier as locals tend to see each other in narrow terms as fellow ‘Indo’ or ‘Afro’ and rarely as fellow ‘Guyanese.’
And while visitors to this country often marvel at the high level of hospitality that is shown by Guyanese to outsiders, it is an open secret among locals that Guyanese are not always sympathetic to their own when misfortune befalls them, even when this happens in a foreign country.
And possibly the greatest example of this was shown in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which devastated several Caribbean islands which were home to thousands of Guyanese. The initial response of the Government of Guyana was to announce a basic relief package for the countries affected as a whole; no comprehensive plan was announced aimed at affected Guyanese in those islands. What was just as bad was the lethargy of the rest of the population surrounding this crisis, as there appeared to be no immediate groundswell of public concern expressed by the populace which might have galvanised the authorities into a more effective response. And what was decidedly worse, was that many bloggers were putting forward the view that the affected Guyanese did not want to be evacuated, while others were of the view that persons should pay their own air-fare to return to Guyana.
The fact that one of the most hospitable countries in South America and the Caribbean should give such short shrift to its own citizens is probably not surprising to Guyanese themselves, but it certainly is in need of an explanation. In local parlance, Guyanese are ‘foreign minded’, but this statement, even if true, does not expose the root cause of this disconnect among Guyanese. What seems missing is an articulated theoretical construct of what it means to be Guyanese, together with the practical expectations of the rights and privileges that comes with being a Guyanese – whether at home, or in the Diaspora.
When the government finally had its Needs Assessment Team headed by Minister Winston Felix on the ground in the BVI, it found that the over 200 Guyanese that met the team were anxious to relocate; however, the team did not have answers to the legitimate long-term concerns of the Guyanese citizens. (It is not known whether the team took the opportunity to register the names, contact information, relatives in Guyana, and all other pertinent information from the attendees, as the fundamentals are often overlooked in such cases by Guyanese authorities.)
To put some context to this enquiry as to what it means to be a Guyanese, we understand that a country is only as strong as its citizens. The greater the population of a country, the greater is its potential for high production which can lead to greater development, including the ability to defend national borders. As its citizens spread into the Diaspora, close links with the home country can lead to the movement of foreign cash resources back home by way of remittances, aiding development. Countries with a large population like China have been executing a policy of exporting their nationals to other countries, and they continue to profit hugely from this.
In Guyana, the national outlook has been very weak for decades, and very little value has been placed on its citizens. It is a well-known fact that being a Guyanese does not entitle an entrepreneur or business to superior business concessions to expatriate business. Our citizens are not encouraged to know their rights and to demand fair treatment whether interacting with state agencies such as the Police Force, or any other organization, be it a restaurant or a clothing store.
Defining what it means to be Guyanese, suggests that one enjoys certain rights and privileges on the basis of the sole criteria of being born in this “green land of Guyana.” A Guyanese would be someone who pays his taxes and obligations to the state. A Guyanese would be someone the state values as critical to its very existence and its development.
If a Guyanese is valued by Guyanese, without reference to race, class, creed, political or other affiliation, then as a people and as a nation state, we will finally earn the respect of other peoples.
Respect of self must come first.