Fading memories

Over the course of the last few weeks, between 17th February and 11th March, to be precise, a trio of Guyana’s sons, Dr Mohamed Shahabuddeen, Wilson Harris and Dr Harold Drayton were called to higher pastures.

Most of the younger generation – thirty and under – had never of them before their passing, and probably didn’t bother to read (or for that matter, couldn’t be bothered to read) the outpouring of tributes, letters, commentaries, and obituaries that have appeared in the media recalling their lifelong contributions to Guyana and the world at large, which were delivered at the highest level of excellence.

Dr Shahabuddeen rose from abject poverty as the son of indentured labourers on the Essequibo Coast to the pinnacle of the legal profession. His climb through the ranks included appointments as Solicitor General and Attorney General of Guyana, before becoming the first person from the Commonwealth Caribbean to be elected to the International Court of Justice, where he served as a judge from 1988 to 1997. He also rendered service on the International Criminal Tribunal for both Yugoslavia and Rwanda. A prolific writer, he published dozens of papers on the law, and four books on Guyana, including his famous From Plantocracy to Nationalisation.

Wilson Harris is among the best writers to emerge from these shores. Poet, playwright and novelist, Harris departed a few days before his ninety-seventh birthday, leaving behind an enormous body of work that has captivated a large following in the world of letters. Drawing heavily on his seventeen years as a government surveyor in the hinterland of Guyana, Harris was renowned for his original innovative approach to writing; his rather complex novels were not easy going for the casual reader. His revolutionary works, including his initial book, Palace of the Peacock, brought a new face to the writing of the English novel, and among his 26 novels, were nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Dr Harold Drayton, then Technical Advisor to the government on Higher Education, oversaw the establishment of the University of Guyana in 1963. In the relatively short time span of ten months, including the period of the eighty day strike, Dr Drayton’s resourcefulness played an important role in the transformation of the idea to the successful opening of the University of Guyana in October, with night classes at Queen’s College. Dr Drayton served as the university’s inaugural Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Biology, and was one of the few lecturers who served the then three faculties at UG. Dr Drayton would render eight years of service to UG.

These brief snippets do not even begin to provide an insight into the lives of these famous mudheads. Their international accomplishments are vast and too numerous to mention for this forum, which has also not taken account of their political choices and roles.

Sadly, here in Guyana, we as a people appear to have no interest in our heritage, preferring to toss it aside or sweep it under the carpet, as if it never existed. Every day we are encountering more examples of this crude lack of appreciation for our diverse culture. When will we awaken from this deep slumber?

When will we begin to document the contributions of our outstanding figures, both the good and the bad, and compile a thoroughly researched National Dictionary of Biography? Or, do we prefer to ignore these contributions and hope perhaps the next generation will start the process?

In a few years, the names of these sons of the soil who excelled at the highest levels of their chosen professions and on the international stage, will surely have faded from the memories of the Guyanese people, along with the names of other sons and daughters who have contributed to the development of our country.

George Bernard Shaw once suggested that if a nation wanted to honour one of their own, they could do so by naming a street after the person. Perhaps we could consider this for new streets, since with all the new developments blossoming, there is ample room and opportunity for this.

Should we choose to go this route, we should not be renaming, the atrocity meted out in New Amsterdam being the most egregious example of this, where traditional street names were replaced with the names of politicians.

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