Almost eighteen decades after emancipation, the general condition of African Guyanese is not as encouraging as one would want it to be. Over the decades there has been a significant decline in the general standard of living in the community which has in turn led to a sense of alienation and frustration. A lot of the problems in the African-Guyanese communities have to do with the challenges that the African-Guyanese economy has had to face historically. In other words, the problems are structural.
First, we have to locate the challenges within the context of the colonial economy, which saw the African village economy as a direct affront to the interests of colonialism and at every twist and turn tried to undermine and marginalize efforts of self-activity and self-reliance. Second, we must look at it within the context of the ethnic competition — from decolonization to the present– whereby the ethnic demarcation of the Guyanese economy, itself a legacy of colonialism, has made economic progress in the separate ethnic communities a victim of the larger ethnic politics.
Although the decline in African-Guyanese communities is not just economic, I think their economic condition has a lot to do with it. The last set of reliable data from about two decades ago showed 43% of African Guyanese living below the poverty line. African Guyanese unemployment (13.6%) was above the national rate (11.7%). There is every reason to believe that those numbers have not changed—in fact things are more likely to have become worse.
African Guyanese are not well represented in the business sector. Most African Guyanese are employed in the public sector, which has seen the highest reduction of jobs over the last two decades and which because of structural adjustment pays less than other sectors, both public and private. More than any other group, African Guyanese work for others. The African Guyanese community has one of the highest rates of functional illiteracy and homelessness. They own less transported land than other races and live in the most run-down houses in both the urban and rural areas.
African-Guyanese have traditionally been located in the bauxite Industry, the public service, pork-knocking and the village economy, where farming, small business and vending predominate. Later, they dominated ‘trading’—bringing food and clothing for sale from other Caribbean countries. In addition to the above, education was an area of relief from poverty and social mobility. But over the last two decades bauxite has declined, and the public service stalled, thanks mainly to the IMF conditionalities and the ethnic interests of the PPP government. Wages have not kept up with the cost of living. Education and agriculture in the villages have declined.
I think the combination of the above is at the heart of the ‘crisis’ in the African-Guyanese community. In addition, the evolution of a culture of accommodation with ‘political bribery’ has led to a weakening of group solidarity, pride and dignity. Finally, the heavy migration has had a negative effect on the community. One of the devastating consequences has been the loss of role models who live day-to-day in the communities. Finally, one cannot discount the impact of some negative group habits, but these should be seen within the larger dynamics of post-plantation evolution among the formerly enslaved.
It is clear to me then that the emancipation of African-Guyanese has become a very urgent necessity for that group and for Guyana at large. There is definitely need for some form of affirmative action to correct the structural changes facing African-Guyanese, particularly in the business sector. Unless African-Guyanese can compete again in the business sector, that community would remain dependent and empowerment would be an elusive dream.
The government must muster the courage to implement policies and create institutions that cater to this particular problem. I appreciate that in our fragile ethnic environment, such a course of action is fraught with political risks. No doubt, the political opposition and the ethnic commentators would lay charges of favouritism. But I don’t see any other way out.
If African-Guyanese are to return to agriculture, then the infrastructure in the villages must be repaired or where they do not exist, they should be put in place. Another area in which investment should be made is the creation or improvement of small businesses. There is urgent need for a banking institution that provides low-interest loans. The situation with the vendors should be solved, so that their location offers them commercial benefits. They must be able to sell in areas where buyers traverse; confining them to spaces far away from the path of buyers is counter-productive.
Having said that, African Guyanese must understand that governments are important, the larger institutions of society are important, but it is only through their collective effort they can draw attention to their situation and thereby can begin to do something to repair it. Once you begin to do something to repair it, then you begin to put pressure on those who are in authority.