Close to Christmas, I was visiting a popular store in downtown St John’s, Antigua, searching for gifts when a woman suddenly flared up nearby. She was the thickset, sullen attendant at one of the main business outlets owned by the successful local descendants of a prominent Syrian-migrant family, the Shouls.
Loudly declaring her support for the then government of the United Progressive Party (UPP), with hands planted on her hips, she proceeded to prance about and shout angrily above the soft holiday music, forgetting carols and parang, and launching a fiery fusillade about “dem dam dutty foreigners” allowed to take over “awe islands.” Turning to look pointedly at surprised me standing across her, in front of a packed shelf display, she gesticulated with full fingers, and ranted about “all dem thousands Guyanese reachin yah to thief everything – from awe jobs, awe land, awe house, awe man…”
Taken aback by the unexpected line of poetry in the tirade, I felt my brown cheeks burning as I carefully put back the toys I had picked up. Debating whether I should publicly protest, “T’all: no, not me!” remind her about the real meaning of regional philogyny and the “season of goodwill to all men,” I wanted to say sternly in my best Leewards’ English Creole, “look yah (look here), ahnna true (it’s not true)” and cite the axiom, “even dutty water cool hot iron.”
I contemplated whether I should rely on another Antiguan adage about targeted motivation, “A word betta dan a wink fo a bline (blind) horse.” Or I could have pointed out that while I appeared “Guyanese,” rightfully, I was almost a tourist, having arrived recently and reluctantly from the other mainland Caribbean country of Belize; that I was happily married to a terribly troublesome Trinidadian, and that we were contributing generously to the economy, including by paying substantial rent for a blue bungalow owned by a long-time American-based Antiguan immigrant couple.
In my mind, I quickly ran over the ever-increasing expenditure list of school fees, utilities, groceries, gas, grass, swimming lessons…I waited. None of the supervisors cautioned her, all openly laughed, and a few even begged the lady to continue the performance in insularity. In the end, I decided in favour of dignity over derision, seeking refuge in silence and a slight smile, as recommended by a third proverb, “A no wantin tongue mek cattle can’t talk.”
I remembered that early encounter as initial reports trickled in of the disgraceful alleged thefts of the crew’s and passengers’ personal property by Guyanese firemen and first responders sent aboard the Fly Jamaica jet that crash-landed at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, in Timehri, early morning, nearly a week ago. The aircraft turned back in an emergency after developing hydraulic problems, shortly after takeoff, on its way to Toronto, Canada, A commentator sighed, “Ah Guyanese, boy ah know meh people,” another decried, “they make Guyanese citizens who are killing themselves working for a dollar look bad.”
Making embarrassing headlines for the wrong reasons, over a dozen members of the Guyana Fire Service (GFS) were questioned about the losses on the Boeing 757, ranging from expensive phones, cash and jewellery to colognes. At least eight of the firefighters were detained but later paid the station bail of $100 000 each. Widely reported news coverage of the thefts overshadowed the fact that 126 people were saved from what could have been a certain air disaster.
Fire Chief Marlon Gentle said that an officer came forward with some of the items prompting a wider investigation. Terming the act “a severe breach of all regulations” and “clear case of dishonesty,” he stressed “this would not be condoned at any time” and the (guilty) “persons will face the severity of the law to send a clear message…” adding “It is very depressing for this to happen to the Fire Service.”
Guyana’s Cabinet “strongly condemned as criminal and morally corrupt those alleged acts of theft and urged that the perpetrators be brought to swift justice,” noting “that not only did the accused cast a blemish on the reputation of the disciplined services but they have tarnished Guyana’s image.”
Businessman Invor Bedessee reported losing over US$1,000, an iPhone 6, chargers and a battery pack, while injured Davanan Sukhram described the escape, as “a miracle” and declared “Thank you God.” He told Stabroek New his carry-on bag containing US$5000 cash, and about Can$2000 in jewellery for his children had gone missing.
On receiving his family’s luggage, Jahmal Wiggums, confirmed in a public post, “Everything was definitely opened, and all pockets searched, and zippers/bags were all opened and searched thru (through), but we left no valuables worth stealing so no items seem missing.” Their three remaining bags “arrived Saturday and all items are still inside,” he wrote.
As mortified Guyanese reacted with disgust and shame, the memes started circulating on social media as well. A shaken Bedessee who is Vice President of the Ontario-based food service distributor Bedessee Imports Limited, shared a striking cartoon of a burning Fly Jamaica jet complete with numerous tongues of flame, and the telling blurb from a GFS truck, “Remember guys, leave the people and grab all the valuable stuff.”
Wiggums praised the plane’s pilot, Basil Ferguson for his deliberate decision to turn back while over Guyana, and for managing to successfully land the plane just short of a steep drop. “(Respect) and blessings to the pilot who realized something was wrong with the (hydraulic) system in flight and made the crucial in-flight decision to turn around before the plane got over the water. He came on the speaker and let everyone know that he rather turn around now because if they went any further they would be over the ocean and landing with no system would have been almost impossible without tragedy, if something were to occur. Upon turn around the plane also lost power while bouncing and parts of the plane inside and out were falling.”
On the flip side, “everyone was left to fend for themselves afterwards.” He recalled “an extensive run around” and “being told numerous things by different people, after 5 hours of standing (and only given a bottle of water, it’s 86 degrees here) everyone had to pay their own way back via taxi or public bus to family or friends. I have been speaking with the Canadian High Commission in Guyana as well as the rude (official at the) Embassy/Commission in Ottawa who was ABSOLUTELY no help said I can quote him in saying ‘he doesn’t know where anyone is, how they’re gettin home or when.’
Finally, on Monday, his family checked in on a Caribbean Airlines flight. “I feel such a big relief.” He urged his friends, “Please pray for safe take off, safer flight and a safer landing.”
ID made the mistake of telling a Trinidadian airport security officer “Good afternoon.” He took one hard look at her Guyanese passport and ordered an immediate electronic check and a physical pat-down for drugs. She had Panadol in her handbag.