After migrating to Canada in the late 1950s, I had been back to the country starting in 1967, when Tradewinds music became popular and while the visits were short – usually two weeks – they were regular, sometimes twice a year. Consequently, I thought I knew the place – after all, I had grown up here. It was a shock therefore for me, when I did return here to live 9 years ago, to learn, among many discoveries, that following our independence many of the fundamental systematic approaches to government and business were somewhat lacking here. It’s a safe bet that most of us are aware of the furor that has erupted in Guyana following the recent no-confidence motion in the Legislative Assembly that saw one Government member voting “yes” when his turn came. It was a development that caught many by surprise and has brought a variety of discussion in the press and on social media but also generally among Guyanese, both here and abroad, and even among our various friends in the region, and rippling through the outpouring one notices that this question of our lack of systems, not only in government but across our society, has come to the fore. Indeed, several prominent voices here are suggesting that the development in Parliament reflects the feeling that much is wrong in the nation – the racial divide is often cited – and even the head-on position that the contentious vote should be seen as signaling a step Guyana must take to fix what is wrong. If that is the consequence of the disruption, then it would indeed have been a forward step, and several prominent voices among us – Nigel Hughes, David Hinds, Ralph Ramkarran, Christopher Ram, Henry Jeffrey – have made exactly that point.
I will leave discussion of the political consequences as the remit of others more equipped for that than I, but I speak purely as one of the rank and file on the ground who are affected directly by this matter of standards which, by the way, some of the more erudite are indeed addressing. An engagement with this matter began very early for me, following my return to live in Guyana with this pre-conceived notion that “I knew the place”, and it didn’t take me long to disabuse myself of that notion. It happened, literally, within a few weeks, in the area where I live in Oleander Gardens. About one hundred yards from my front door, on the street where I live, there was an empty 20-foot metal container parked on the parapet. I noticed it immediately as something one does not ordinarily see in a residential area, and I assumed it would soon be gone, but weeks went by and it remained. It stayed there for months. Grass started growing up around it; rust began to appear. In fact, the obstacle remained there for close to a year untouched. Several times during that container-on-parapet situation I’m referring to, it occurred to me that the systems in other countries that would attend to that dumping didn’t seem to be operating here, and at one point I phoned a government agency and asked about it, but I was told “that’s not our department”. In fact, the unsightly, rusted metal box stayed there until a developer, putting up an apartment on the adjacent land, used the container for a few days to hold construction material, and later moved it when his job was completed. The experience told me clearly that the apparatus behind my expectations were not in place in Guyana, and I was to see the same lack of attention, caused by absent symptoms, in the dead animals by the roadside on the Seawall Road, and in the array of potholes on the sub-division roads, and the burnt-out street lights on the Embankment Road nearby.
I was to see aspects of this same condition in other areas of my life here. It was bemoaned frequently, both in the public press and in private social conversations. I saw clear instances of it in my professional capacity as a musician and record producer, in the absence of enforcement on CD pirates operating here and providing reputable record stores in Georgetown, as well as various push-cart CD vendors with the product. I raised the matter with government officials here, as I had done previously with them during my earlier Tradewinds visits, and was assured in both cases (different governments) that the matter was being addressed. In fact, one official, being told I was planning to return to Guyana, told me, “When you come back, it would be good to have you help solve this problem.” (As an aside I did make such an offer when I did relocate, but nothing came of it.)
I’m not about to engage in any long diatribe here. I am simply taking this space to echo the sentiments, expressed above, that we should be seeing this “new government” development as an opportunity, well expressed in recent days, to put things right in Guyana. That Guyanese opinion “everything happens for the best”, often expressed by my mother Zepherina, takes a positive stand, and I am heartened to hear many of our communicators sharing that view. And I am heartened, in parallel, to see others – Vice Chancellor Ivelaw Griffith of UG, for example – emphasising the position of “raising standards” in our country, particularly with the possibility of an economic boom being forecast for us.
Other voices are similarly being raised, and I end this with a summary of a recent column in Kaieteur News by a young journalist Kemol King: He wrote: “For the past three weeks, I have been assigned to report on matters occurring in the National Assembly, due to the proposal of Budget 2019 by the Minister of Finance on November 26. I’m 22, and only a few months into journalism.
“As a young journalist, I had expected that certain mores would be observed and upheld by the representatives of the highest legislative body in the nation. However, in a few weeks, I have seen members of Parliament from both the government and the opposition acting in contempt of each other and going on at a rate that is reflective of the deep-seated division in this country. Growing up reading the news, all I had was stories to tell me that every convention of the national assembly was noisy and chaotic. Experiencing it up close was eye-opening.
“The Speaker of the House had cause to, on multiple occasions, reprimand MPs from both sides on their conduct, which constitutes hurling objects and insults at each other from across the table, mocking speeches with obnoxious laughter, and scrolling through social media or online shopping sites while speeches are being delivered.
“One would think that, being aware of Guyana’s history of racial and socioeconomic struggle, our political leaders would conduct themselves in a manner that is befitting of the positive change they all claim to fight for.
“On the contrary, arguments across the table seemed more inclined to put down the other side because they are on the other side. When the leader of the opposition stood to deliver his general address on the budget, all government MPs stood up and walked out. Even then, he delivered an address laden with resurrections of past political grievances that had nothing to do with budget 2019.
“I remember the opposition giving scorching speeches about how tone-deaf and insensitive they think the budget is. However, when it came to actually fighting for the reform of the budgetary propositions and policies, they, either, put up weak protests or walked out of the chamber. It begs the question: What was the usefulness of the opposition?
“For a very long time, the veteran political parties of the PPP/C and the PNC(R) were thought to be the political embodiments of the two major ethnic groups. Knowing this, both groups have attempted to capitalise, irresponsibly, on the loyalism that comes with those reputations.
“They have also, for a very long time, known that politics doesn’t just bring out the racism in this country, but that it breeds it. Knowing this, how could these ‘leaders’ expect the rest of the country to progress through its racial strife when they continuously wield the loyalism of their supporters like weapons against each other?”