Being Guyanese

Several years ago, at a Tradewinds night in Orlando for the Guyanese American Cultural Association of Central Florida, I gave a speech on ‘Being Guyanese’ that went around the world online and appeared in the Chronicle here. This week on the occasion of the Diaspora Conference here, at the Princess Hotel, I gave a shorter version of the speech to that group, which I offer you now below because it still applies.  So it go.

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The work of every artiste who moves from superficial to originator, is the result of observation. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I started observing at a very young age; living in Vreed-en-Hoop; going to school at ‘Main Street’ and ‘Saints’ in Georgetown; coming home every day on the ferry boat, with my sports model Rudge bicycle with the handle turned down: Remember that? The turned-down handle like a racing bike? My bike was a constant. Remember that? Constant? Guyanese know what is. I remember when the three-speed bicycles came out in Guyana – I’m going back in time here – and those bikes made a soft ticking sound as they passed.

Remember that? Tick! Tick! Tick! And when it came out, it was all the rage. This one happened in Vreed-en-Hoop: A girl, standing by the roadside, waiting for a bus; a fella is going by on a bicycle and she asked him for a tow. Not a toe, you know .,. a tow. So the fella put her on the crossbar and they’re going along. But suddenly, she turns to the guy and says: “But wait a minute, I ain’t hearing no ticking!” He says: “This is a constant; it’s not a ticker.” The girl says: “Wha’! Put me down! Ah gon wait for a ticker!” Those are the kinds of things writers remember, and here I am, 50 years later, telling you that story to make a point.

As I was thinking about coming here to talk to you – a group of Guyanese, like so many outside Guyana, who have made substantial lives for themselves away from the homeland – it occurred to me that there are two major factors operating in the successes we see in people like you in the Diaspora. The first factor, and this is an obvious one, is the new homeland itself (the Orlando, Toronto, New York, London, etc) where new experiences, new vistas, have broadened us and stimulated us. We are all enhanced by life outside Guyana, and particularly by the experiences of our chosen careers.

If you think about it, each of you has a similar story; there have been changes in your life that resulted from the path you chose outside the Caribbean in directions you never dreamed of. We don’t often see it as something to be grateful for, but I’m suggesting to you tonight that you should; and I don’t mean in the material sense. Living outside has given us more span. It has made us more aware, more sensitive, more ambitious. It has moved us from the country bookies, like myself, to people who are now comfortable in more sophisticated circumstances. Look where we come from and where we reach – my friend Vibert Cambridge is a PhD, a professor at Ohio University. Our horizons have been expanded by migration.

In these cities of the ‘outer world’, as Guyanese would say, we learned a lot of ‘ations’ – like application, dedication, speculation, innovation, and, one of my favourites, be-on-time-ation. As I said in the song ‘It’s Traditional’, no more of this buying an expensive watch to see how late you coming late. We learned. We learned fast. We jumped in with the rest of them and held our own.

So when you examine your success story, to be fair, we must give credit to these places we came to. That’s the first piece, it’s a vital piece. However, it’s not just the place we came to; it is also the place we came from, and it’s unfortunately true that we sometimes forget that second piece. The reality is that where we came from had a lot to do with how well we’ve done wherever we went. It may not have occurred to you before, but it’s true. The qualities that helped us succeed abroad were forged in that homeland behind us; in the culture in which we grew up; where we learned perseverance; where we acquired our sense of humour; where we learned to deal with setbacks; to be ingenious, to make do; to invent.

In other words, it is the qualities ingrained in us, imbedded in us by the Guyanese culture that underpin the success we have made outside.  Guyana has put a stamp on us with this vibrant, colourful, humourous, optimistic culture that sets us up to succeed when opportunity comes.

Now I know there will be some who reject what I’m saying; who feel Guyana has given them nothing; and they owe Guyana nothing. I hear them. I hear them loud and clear. They haven’t gone home in years, but I also see these same people Saturday morning in the Caribbean market buying their curry powder and their hassar; and I see them in their house parties grooving to soca and reggae; and I see them in their Dockers pants in the roti shop; and Christmas morning in their fancy house they still have garlic pork on the stove. And if you give them two rum they end up telling you of the champion cashew tree they had in Forshaw Street.

Wherever we wander, our Guyanese culture sustains us and fortifies us. It comforts us. When we have a hard time at work or with a client, we silently tell the man about he ‘beetee’ and the pressure ease.

When we girlfriend give we a hard time, we put on ‘Sahani Raat’, cry lil’ bit, and feel better. When family come to visit, is roti, and pepper pot, and cook up – KFC put one side. You walking down the street somber, you run into a padna. “Oh score! So buddy, wha giein on!” And just so, a smile on your face. I know a Guyanese working on the Dew line in Alaska. He say:

“Dave, Christmas, I drop a garlic pork pon dey backside; um almost melt the glacier.”

And the other thing to notice is that the culture endures. It does not fade.

The politicians may stumble, the economy may be struggling, but our culture stays strong. Even when there is madness about, as there is now in Guyana, in the middle of all that, the culture continues. You have it here with you, in this hotel tonight. You have come all that way, and your culture has come with you. It will never leave you, as you will never leave it.

Yes, we should be proud of Orlando and New York and Toronto and all the other arenas of our achievements. But we must be proud of our beginnings, too, and be proud of the culture that produced us. At the core, wherever we are, it is the essence of who we are. In the diaspora or here, it’s Guyana.

As the song says:

“Mary and Paul up on the seawall, is we own.

And the gal foot fine, but Lawd, she behind is we own.”

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