Usually I come to this space with a column percolating in my mind; occasionally something crops up that catches me. In recent days the latter happened when Alan Fenty’s column appeared questioning the value of our national motto – One People, One Nation, One Destiny. He wrote that the groups who came to Guyana “brought their distinctive behaviours from whence they came…and displayed their ethnic customs, habits, language; they were distinct, diverse peoples throughout slavery, indentureship, colonial rule, Independence and up to the present time.” He went on: “For example, 179 years after the first Indian contracted immigrants set foot upon Demerara and Berbice, their descendants still cling tenaciously to the history, religions and practices inherited from ‘Mother India’. I’m told that they ‘could not begin anew’ in the Caribbean-Guiana vacuum they found. (Where the earlier ‘native hosts’ made them feel alien – and, some claim, still do.) The other majority – African-descended – can claim everything the world has to offer….I say accept and respect cultural differences and life-style preferences, even within a group. We are different. That’s good. We are only ‘one’ in mottoes and on paper.”
Mr Fenty is a modest man who shrinks from praise, but the point he is making here is very significant for Guyana. Particularly in a time when we make noises about “social cohesion”, our national motto is a hollow statement. Indeed, it is a source of constant astonishment to me that this “one people, one nation, one destiny” shout continues to be made when it is patently false. I have long argued, and will so continue, that in fact the diversity we seem so anxious to blind ourselves to is actually the strength of Guyana. Indeed, if you push me to give you a single positive word that encapsulates Guyana, I would say “diversity”; it is our hallmark. The presence of that “Mother India” Alan Fenty refers to is something I value very highly as part of my nationalism, likewise the abiding presence of African and Amerindian cultures here, and the influences from Europe, and a few from China, we have chosen to retain.
We have a combination here in Guyana that is unlike any other on earth, and while I understand the anthropological forces at play in ethnic behaviours, I continue to see it as unfortunate that we seem bent on denying the various strains of which we are composed by asserting that we are “one people”. I am embarrassed and annoyed whenever I encounter it. Guyana, and the Caribbean as well, is a kaleidoscope of various strains and we should be celebrating that we have such a mix instead of appearing to deny it.
Indeed, as I have previously said, Mr Fenty’s comment should lead to the establishment of some discussion forum (Professor Griffith, are you there?) to discuss this topic.
Coincidentally, in the same week of Alan’s comment, we have our legendary former WI captain Clive Lloyd telling Simon Lister in a recent Cricinfo interview: “Being captain of the West Indies was difficult.
“England is one nation. India is one nation. We have a plethora of islands and different cultures and backgrounds. Barbados is not like Trinidad; Trinidadians are not like the Guyanese. The Guyanese are different to the Jamaicans.
“So to mesh all these men together, you have to get the trust of the players. And, of course, this sort of trust can only be earned over time.”
Four days after drafting the words above, I ended up in a signal evening in the National Park for a presentation by the Protected Areas Commission celebrating its 5th anniversary. Signal, in that in a time when so many traumas about Guyana confront us, the elaboration of the mission and the aims already accomplished by the Commission (under original Commissioner Damian Fernandes, and current Commissioner Denise Fraser) was like a light coming on for me. I wrote a column a few months back entitled ‘Why we stay’ seeking to unravel why, with so many Guyanese migrating, so many remain, and one of the reasons cited in that piece was simply the power of our landscape, and principally our hinterland. The Commission presentation on that lovely evening this week reinforced that landscape point in a striking way, with a combination of printed matter and a variety of speakers, and one of the highlights was a superb 3-minute video, funded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) shot by Zach Montes of Origin Media (USA) and additional videographer Alex Arjoon of Guyana. The video was built around an informal interview with President David Granger, obviously in a very gregarious mood, as he conveyed his bond with this landscape and his interest in the Commission’s work. Signal for me, as well, in that President Granger stressed the astonishing variety of landscapes we are blessed with in Guyana.
He emphasised that although collectively beautiful, the various Protected Areas were distinctly different from each other; with my mind already caught up in the national motto topic, it struck me that perhaps here we had the ingredients of what our national motto should be presenting. I realise I may be intruding on someone else’s remit here with this point, so let me just leave this as a passing thought, based on my previous point but building on what the video conveyed.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a motto reflecting the diversity of our people; the diversity of our culture; the diversity of our landscape, and, ultimately, the diversity of our aspirations? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a motto that we could all happily stand up and proclaim as reflecting who we are? One that whether Indian, Afro, Amerindian, European, Oriental, etc., would leave us embracing it as “That’s Guyana”?
Finally, all of that, with a bow to Alan Fenty.