Politics Will Not Decide Who I am

When I was 7 or 8, I lived along Craig Sideline Dam at my grandparents’ farm house. I farmed my own little plot of cash crops to help buy my school books and I spent hours stooping in slushy mud, between pakchoy and lettuce banks, picking snails and weeds from among the healthy, thriving plants. This is something I haven’t very often shared about myself.

I have milked cows, sold fruits and vegetables on the road side and cleaned out chicken pens. During my teenage years, I stood behind the counter of my uncle’s shop in Craig Old Road selling into the night. I fetched cases of rum, bags of sugar and rice and occasionally bunches of plantains from the boat by the Craig trench landing to our house.

Most of my immediate family are traditional PPP supporters. My maternal grandfather was a cane cutter and farmer. His wife, was a seamstress and market vendor. On my father’s side, they were rice farmers from Essequibo and later moved to the East Coast of Demerara. These are things about myself I used to be afraid to share because I was afraid that I would be shamed.

I became politically aware during my early 20s. I realized then that everyone stereotyped me. Because I looked Indian, because I was of Indian ancestry, it was automatically assumed that I was PPP. And guess how we stereotype PPP supporters? PPP supporters are painted as backward cane cutters, as lacking intellectual capacity, as being dishonest, as being evil, as being the people responsible for the state of Guyana.

So when some people look at my face or any face like mine, this is what they think of us. This is the product of identity politics in Guyana. It has robbed us of the right to be and to be proud of who we are and where we came from. It has robbed us of the opportunity to really see our parents and grandparents, to truly value what they have brought to this nation. My grandfather died without me ever recognizing what an extraordinary man he was and how hard he worked for his country. I never got a chance to look him in the eyes and tell him how much he meant to me. You see, before he died I didn’t realize that he was a victim of a system that he couldn’t control.

I do not for a second believe that my experience is unique to me or to young people of Indian ancestry. I believe this is something that is experienced by all of us, no matter what we look like or where we come from. Our political culture has blinded us. We don’t see each other. We see the political stereotypes that have been painted of us for decades.

For a while, I hated looking in the mirror. I hated seeing my own face and what I believed it represented. Since then, I’ve realized that my ancestral history is so much more than the politics that has hijacked it.

And the worst part by far is that I cannot even speak up for my identity without having my voice politicised. If I speak for the Indian identity, for my right to this part of my culture and heritage, then I will be labelled as a pro-PPP racist. Most people don’t care for my independence, they only see what I look like and the stereotype that is attached to my features.

Yes, I am Guyanese and part of what makes any of us Guyanese is our unique sub-cultures and heritage. These differences give the Guyanese identity value. To attempt to take away any one facet of any of our identity, is to rob our country of part of its history and part of what makes it what it is.

We cannot have a Guyana without any of its people. We cannot have a Guyana without PPP supporters and they will never join us unless we stop demonizing them, stop crucifying them for their political beliefs, stop making them afraid to be among us. These people are our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, our friends.

The PPP alone is not responsible for the crisis of identity politics in Guyana. The PNC, now under the unity umbrella of the APNU-AFC Coalition, is equally responsible. I say this not to cast blame on either party, but to acknowledge that identity politics has been a weapon of both our major political factions. And until Guyanese begin to see what identity politics has taken from them, we will always be shamed for being who we are.

For Tribe or Country

“My name is… Bharrat. I am an East Indian Guyanese…” (The beginning of a Primary School composition in the early 90s).

The relative of a high ranking public official engaged me in conversation on January 15, 2014. We spoke briefly about the connotations of a certain word. They believe the word is an insult to Guyana and Indians. “…the beloved country you are fighting for is being insulted by it [the word] including yourself, whom I suspect has some trace of Indian heritage,” they said.

This was not my first experience of being othered. Sadly, many have decided that I simply cannot be only of Indian heritage because the views I have expressed in earlier articles seem to be anti-Indian. Some more creative minds have dubbed me “the anti-coolie coolie woman”. I can explain this reaction in one word: tribalism.

“I am a descendant of Indians. I come from a traditional Hindu, Indian, PPP [People’s Progressive Party] family,” I explained. They said nothing.

On December 19, 1950 the Waddington Commission reported:

“Race is a patent difference and is a powerful slogan ready to the hand of unscrupulous men who can use it as a stepping stone to political power. Race too, is easily identifiable with nationalism which in recent years has been emergent among all colonial peoples…. The Indians, too, derive from an ancient culture of their own, and some among them may be inclined to pay homage to their heritage merely as a cover under which to condone racial attitudes.” (quoted in History of the People’s National Congress, p. 6)

Even a brief examination of Guyana’s political history will reveal that racism has been used to engulf our nation in flames that burn to this very day. In The Ashes of Cheddi and Burnham, I note that these two leaders have become respective icons for Guyanese of Indian and African heritage. As a result, the PPP and the People’s National Congress (PNC) are associated with Indian and African power, respectively. Our political machinery has effectively divided us. We are tribes, armed with the vote, in a power struggle.

Being of Indian heritage and having lived the Indian experience, I can only speak of my own encounters with tribalism. I am not anti-Indian. I am anti-tribalism. I value my heritage. I recognize that it is part of the whole that is Bharrat. But I also know that it does not define me. My ethnicity is not my identity. I am not Indian. I am Guyanese.

The PPP and PNC cannot be blamed for the genesis of this tribal based political system. However, each (whether consciously or unconsciously) has surely played its part in maintaining the tribal mentality. The continued survival of tribal mentality means political power for a selected few. It means that we (the people) do not realize our own power. It means that we give our votes too cheaply.

Language is the most powerful weapon which the politician wields. With language, the politician manipulates our rational and emotional spheres. With language, he plants fear in our minds. He uses fear to maintain the tribal mentality, the tribal system. He teaches us to fear anything that is not of the tribe. He teaches us that he is necessary for the tribe’s survival.

In a recent study (The Undercurrents of Guyanese Political Rhetoric: Linguistic Manipulation and Power), I examined two speeches (one by former president Bharrat Jagdeo and the other by current Speaker of the National Assembly Raphael Trotman) from the 2011 General Elections rallies held at Albion, Berbice. The primary aim was to determine if and how the speakers used language to manipulate listeners in order to gain or maintain political power. Here is an excerpt of the analysis:

“Allusion

I know that many of you are just discovering how wonderful this country is and particularly those who left Guyana when times were hard, they come back and it’s a rediscovery process. (NCNNewsGuyana, “PPPC Rally – Albion”)

Allusion serves as a powerful tool in Jagdeo’s speech to transmit and reinforce political ideology by creating fear of past conditions. This ideology or perceived truth which is accepted as common sense knowledge “legitimize(s) the existing power relation” (Fairclough 1989, 33) between the party and the audience (a section of the electorate).

By alluding to “when times were hard”, Jagdeo is referring to the era under PNC rule when many Guyanese migrated. Further, the fact that he is East Indian and was alive during these “hard times” gives him more authority as a speaker and as a result the listener, whether or not they experienced the “hard times” that is being alluded to, is inclined to accept Jagdeo’s statement as true.

The utterance functions in two ways. First, it appeals to the listener’s logic and sense of reason. It is reasonable to contend that people are only now discovering how wonderful Guyana is because before now times were hard. This sort of linguistic strategy is rational manipulation and seeks to influence the listener’s behaviour (in this case cause them to vote PPP) by affecting the rational sphere. (Asya n.pag.)

Second, the manipulation also takes an emotional form. Guyanese, particularly those of East Indian descent, are fearful of the era to which Jagdeo alludes. The fear stems either from their own experiences during the Burnham period or ideas of these events that would have been transmitted to them by parents or grandparents. As a result, the allusion to the era plays upon this existing fear and creates fear of its repetition.

Hence, by using his ethnicity and experience as points of power, Jagdeo is able transmit his party’s ideology of the Burnham era to the audience. The transmission of this ideology is capable of influencing the listener both rationally and emotionally. If the manipulation is realized then the listener accepts the ideology as truth and concedes their vote.” (Bharrat 2014)

It is sad that the politician so successfully makes a case of our dependence upon him when the opposite is true. The politician is dependent upon us for power. It is time we realized this, time we recognized the power of a single vote. It is because the politician understands the people’s power that he works so hard to manipulate our beliefs, our thinking.

By allowing ourselves to be so manipulated we live in fear and we allow our actions to be controlled. We allow our vote to be talked out of us without ever truly thinking critically and independently for ourselves. We give our power to the politician too cheaply, too easily. This is how we have been handicapped. We have allowed them to convince us that we have chosen them when in truth our right to choose has been deviously taken from us.

The truth is that the politician lives in fear. He lives in fear of the day we learn to think and to separate ourselves from the tribe. He lives in fear of the day we fight for country and not for tribe. He lives in fear of the day we begin to freely choose again and in so doing force him to earn our votes by performing in our best interests. He lives in fear of the day our children will write:

“My name is Bharrat. I am a Guyanese.”
© Sara Bharrat 2014

Amerindians – The “Othered” People of Guyana

Leeland Clarkian is an Amerindian elder native to St. Cuthbert’s Mission. He has done much work in educating Amerindians and creating awareness of their culture. On January 24, 2014 I visited St. Cuthbert’s Mission where I met Clarkian for the first time. We spoke of his life, his decision to return to his village, the fate of the Arawakian language and the “othered” state of the Amerindian people in Guyana. In this article, I discuss the “otheredness”.

What do we see when we look at an Amerindian? Do we see a fellow country man or woman? Do we see an equal? Or do we see a “backward buck”? How funny is the “buck joke”? What does the Amerindian man, the Amerindian woman feel when they hear us tell someone “yuh behaving like a buck”? Do we think of these things?

Beneath the “buck joke” there is a tragic story. It is a tragic story of blindness. It is a story of how an entire nation has overlooked the humanness of an entire people. It is a story about the Amerindian people and their otheredness in a land that is home, that feels like home but that does not treat them as a home treats those who dwell in it.

“What do you think they see when they look at Amerindians?” I asked Leeland Clarkian in January.

“They see us as second class citizens,” he answered. There was no hesitation. His eyes met mine, his voice was steady and I recognized truth along with the pain which accompanies it.

Clarkian believes that the use of “buck”, its meaning and the effect of both these things upon the Amerindian psyche will not die any time soon. “(In such situations), gradually there is a standoff. In any minority group this is what happens,” he explained. He insisted that if Guyanese of Indian or African ancestry exchanged places with the Amerindian then they would suffer the same fate.

Recounting an incident from several decades ago while he was in the army, Clarkian told of how he became aware of his “othered” state while still in his teenage years. “I’ve heard this in the army. They said ‘He can’t be one of us’…Yes, we (Amerindians) have been othered. The Indo and Afro band together and then they other the Amerindian. I’ve seen all of that in the army. I got so angry about these things,” he said. But anger is far from what Clarkian feels now. He recognizes that the only way to “rebuff” such things is by sharing his own experiences.

As Clarkian spoke, I could no longer meet his eyes. His truth was a live thing, a thing so real that I could not hide from it. What could I tell him? Could I tell him I was sorry that I too have been guilty of participating in the othering of him and his people, of our people? Was I to be blamed for the socialization process which taught me to see the Amerindian as alien to Guyana and Guyaneseness? Was I to be blamed for a culture that teaches us to treat our indigenous people as exotic creatures with a vaguely interesting history who are here but who are not really a part of here?

Yes, I could tell Clarkian these things, these truths. I could share these things with him because just as I have come to see his plight, he too is able to see mine. This is how we can help each other and rid ourselves of the things that separate us: by sharing our own truths, our own experiences; by seizing to be afraid of the truth.

Does the story end here? No, this is only one layer of the blindness, of the problem. Another layer is embedded within the Amerindian psyche. It is the Amerindian’s inability to see his or her own self. Clarkian said: “I think Guyanese in general and Amerindians, they don’t know their history. How many Guyanese or Amerindians know about the greatness of their people? How much do they know?”

The history of the Amerindian people, like any other people, is riddled with greatness and inspirational stories. It is history, Clarkian believes, which can teach us all to value the Amerindian. But more so, it is this awareness of history and self which is needed to awaken in the Amerindian the feeling of self worth. Unfortunately, the treatment of history in Guyana is another sad story to be told.

And in all this, do Amerindians have a voice? Is there a clear, strong, ever present voice which speaks for the Amerindian? No, there is none. Clarkian hopes that in speaking openly about these things we Guyanese like to hide beneath jokes, a voice will be awakened. He hopes that young men and women will wake up and care about people and country. He hopes that young Amerindian men and women will recognize their worth, teach their country men and women to see that worth and in so doing learn to own the Guyanese identity which belongs equally to them.

Change is not something which will come or happen easily, Clarkian said. The problem goes “deep down” and the change has to start from within. “Let us get up now, bathe, change and get it done. We have to stop making excuses,” he declared.

Where have Guyanese gone? What has happened to our integrity? What has happened to our morals? What has happened to our values? What has happened to these things? Are we really lost? Are these things irretrievable? These are questions Clarkian advises we all ask ourselves.

“We must not forget our morals, our values, our sense of dignity. We must ensure we don’t become haughty. This is a human problem. It happens within,” he said. “Many of our leaders are educated and yet they do not lead. It is because they suffer from this human thing, this human thing that happens within.”

So what do we do in the absence of steady leadership? What do we do when we find ourselves banding together only to other our brothers? We must first admit that we are guilty of the actions which have resulted in our present state. Taking responsibility for our actions translates to a casting off the fear which stifles us and signals that we have embraced truth. This is what we do. We share our truths, inspire our youths and awaken new voices, new leaders.

The Columbus Myth

If I knew then what I know now I’d have stood up and given my Primary 4 teacher a good lecture. I can’t believe I grew up believing that Christopher Columbus discovered the West Indies and Guyana!

Well, for all of you who still believe that allow me to dispel that myth. Right this moment, you need to get that notion out of your head. For decades now, yes DECADES, historians and other supporting academics have accumulated evidence which proves that thousands of years before Columbus arrived in the “New World” Africans had journeyed to its shores.

In fact, now that I think about it I don’t know why I ever believed the Columbus myth. After all, Columbus wrote in his journals of meeting people wherever he had traveled. How then could he discover a land that was already home to thousands of people?

So by now, I hope I’ve caught your interest and that you’re in the mood to read more about the real story of the West Indies and Guyana. Guyanese Historian Dr. Ian Van Sertima, in his book “They Came Before Columbus”, provides undeniable evidence which completely dispels the notion that Columbus discovered the “New World”. It’s a very enlightening read.

I was shocked when I first discovered just how “miseducated” (a term I first heard from Anthony Browder) we’ve been. It’s time that we all stand up to this “miseducation”. So spread the word and the next time you hear someone saying “Columbus discovered…” don’t even let them finish the sentence. It’s about time that we learn our real history.

 

Born in Misery’s Place

I’ve seen Guyana in a way that I’d rather not have seen her until I was a little more older, a little more mature. I’ve seen miserably blank faces, miserably frustrated souls who gave up on life long before they even learnt of trying. Sadly, even I was once tempted to give up on life and condemn myself to just going through the motion of living.

But what’s the point of living if we can’t grow a little, feel a little, help a little and perhaps begin to understand a little bit, just what it is we mean to this whole, wide universe? What’s the point of just going through a motion if the windows to our souls remain closed forever? Really, I’d like to hear someone’s take on this.

Recently, I made an unplanned visit to Misery’s Place. My adopted sister’s cousin had just given birth to a beautiful baby boy, to a bundle of innocence. I held him, I just couldn’t resist, and I looked down at his tiny pink face ,into those still partially shuttered windows of his soul and I wondered if he’d really ever see.

I looked around the faded, hot interior of Misery’s Place and I wondered if any of us really understand what it means to see. Seeing isn’t just about absorbing the sights of misery and beauty; seeing isn’t just being able to navigate around potholes; it isn’t just having that biological sense. It’s something so much more.

Today, someone questioned whether I knew the meaning of truth. Do any of us? I’d like to think that I understand honesty well but as for truth and what it is or isn’t I really can’t answer that for anyone because I’m not so sure even I have been able to overcome that blindness of which I speak.

I assume that the earth is the only planet in our solar system with life. I assume that the sun is the centre of our solar system as well. These are things that I accept as truth. But then again, a few hundred years ago men and woman not much different from myself really believed that the earth was the centre of our universe. So then, is truth that thing in which we have faith? It really isn’t so easy to determine.

Like my adopted sister’s nephew, I too was born in Misery’s Place and like every one of us I have a choice to overcome the blindness that inflicts us all. While we may all hope to change those blank miserable looks into looks of hope and determination, it isn’t so easy.

The decision to see is an individual and internal one. We can’t help people make those choices but perhaps, just perhaps, we can let them know that being born in Misery’s Place does not mean that we must forever keep misery’s company.

Freddie or Freedom of Expression? To-may-to/To-mah-to?

I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to
say it. (Voltaire)

Controversial columnist and political activist Freddie Kissoon has been attacked yet again. But do we really understand what this means?

Those of us who are able to see the situation for what it really is, will realise that it isn’t Freddie who has been attacked but our freedom of expression. Those who remain ignorant of this fact are thoroughly amused by this latest attack and some even believe that Freddie deserves to be treated in such a manner.

How can we even think that another human being deserves to be attacked? How can we support violence just because we don’t agree with another man’s views? So should it become the norm then for us to deal out beatings to those people who voice opinions with which we disagree? Should I then beat all the people who have voiced a belief that Freddie deserves to be beaten because of the controversial views which he pens? Seriously?

I am not a fan of Freddie’s writings nor is it my agenda to defend the gentleman’s opinions. However, while I may not agree with Freddie’s opinions, I will defend his right to voice them. I will defend his right to freely express his views and I will not tolerate any attack on this basic human right of freedom of expression.

Even if Freddie has used his pen to insult and hurt, it still does not give anyone the right to harm him physically, or in any other manner, simply to limit his right to freely express himself. Violence will not heal the wounds which have been inflicted on those whom Freddie has offended nor will it change the fact that he has a right to freely express himself.

Often Freddie has been dismissed as nothing more than an offensive rambler. So ask yourself this, if such measures are taken to stifle the voice of an alleged rambler then what measures will be taken to silence a voice that speaks truth without frills or fluff?