Two dates to remember: March 6, 1997 and March 28, 2009; they mark the occasion of the deaths of Dr Cheddi Jagan and his wife Ms Janet Jagan. Every March we remember them and we relive their lives and reflect on their contribution to Guyana’s development with many events and activities in which tens of thousands of Guyanese participate across our 10 administrative regions. These include wreath-laying at Babu John and other venues, lectures on their lives, photo exhibitions and cultural events and the unveiling of monuments at varying times and in different regions.
Dr Jagan was born in the rural village of Port Mourant, Berbice, in the then British Guiana on March 22, 1918, the son of ordinary indentured sugar workers. Life was hard. Both parents worked in the canefield. And while his mother was illiterate and his father had little schooling, they both ensured that their son Cheddi had the benefit of a good education. Cheddi went on to Queen’s College. He found life in Georgetown different to the rural areas. He boarded with families.
Cheddi often had to absent himself from school to work in the rice fields and to cut and fetch cane. He also helped his mother maintain a kitchen garden and sell the produce from it. His mother allowed him to retain part of the proceeds for his share of work. Cheddi himself wrote that he learnt managing finance from his mother and leadership from his father.
Graduating from secondary school, Cheddi found it difficult to get a job, but his parents were equally determined that their son would not be a plantation worker. He went on to study Dentistry in the USA. He worked hard to help support himself, working at varying times and places as a tailor, salesperson selling patent medicines, dishwasher, delivering evening newspapers, as a presser in a laundry, an elevator operator, etc. He was a diligent student and his hard work earned him a scholarship for his second year at Howard University, and in 1938, entry into Northwestern University for a four-year dental program. He graduated with a degree in Dental Surgery in 1942.
In the USA where he spent 7 years Cheddi met his wife Janet, a nurse. They got married in August 1943 and the two returned to then British Guiana in October of that year. Dr Jagan and his wife Janet would change the course of our country’s history over the next six decades. Janet became Cheddi’s lifelong friend; a political partner who would remain in her new home Guyana until March 28th, 2009, the date of her death. She would become our country’s first female head of state in December 1997 following the death of her husband.
Cheddi established his dental practice in Georgetown in 1943. His wife Janet worked with him, and his dental surgery became a hive of activity. Through it, he connected with ordinary people.
Although he liked his profession, he kept looking for something more meaningful. Soon his name became a household word in the sugar belt and, it wasn’t long thereafter before he became attached to the labour unions in the sugar belt.
Those were the days when things were happening. World War II had just ended and had created difficulties in British Guiana and the rest of the region. The Labour Party had won the general election in the UK and many were openly talking about socialism. In 1946 Cheddi formed the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) which was labour-oriented, while Janet formed the Women’s Political and Economic Organisation. In those days, there were no political parties or mass political organisations. Dr Jagan and his wife Janet would later become the founders of Guyana’s first mass political movement, and indeed, would remain the leading political figures in the history of Guyana for the next six decades.
They worked hard and at tremendous sacrifice (insults, threats to their lives) to liberate the then British Guiana from British colonial domination. Later they would wage a 28-year-struggle for the restoration of freedom and democracy. Victory would come in October 1992 when Dr Jagan was elected by a majority of the Guyanese electorate as Guyana’s first democratically elected head of state.
His wife Janet stood beside him in all these struggles. Through their tireless efforts, our country did achieve much development in education, healthcare delivery, infrastructure improvement, housing, agriculture, governance, Amerindian land development, etc. Amidst all of this development Dr Jagan and his wife Janet stood out as international figures in the fight for peace, freedom, progress and prosperity. Recall, inter alia, Dr Jagan’s ideas on debt relief, his proposals for a New Global Order which were adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 14, 2002.
To speak of the late Dr Cheddi Jagan and Mrs Jagan is to recall and to reminisce on the lives, the work, the achievements and the contribution of a remarkable man of humble roots and his devoted wife to human development.