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.

On the Twelfth Day

By S. Bharrat

 

I dreamt that the day of revolution would come;

that thousands would storm the city streets

screaming for justice. – Mahadai Dass

 

The day for revolution has come and gone

and I hear your cry echo the wind

that carries nothing but my brother’s silence:

mouth sealed shut by his own mud and water.

One counterfeit general – his wings beating strong;

his brooches of vanity shining

in God’s eye still – is replaced by a puppet

whose strings are imagined

to save us from our worst fear.

And it is the stringless puppet

who holds back the climbing sun in the sky;

who cements our lips with river mud,

lovingly applying the paste with his rakshas self.

His muddy hand touches our eyes; our hearts, our souls

so that he can be savior; the sacrificial lamb

avoiding an atmosphere of confrontation.

It has been twelve days since he saved us

And only another pen’s ink on the

tenth day softened the mud on my lips.

But our words bring no irrevocable flood.

Instead, waters storm the city streets

raising dirt and filth and waste

that will be shoved down our throats;

drowning a lonely call for justice.

And in all of this, I think of you

and your dead dream and I wonder

if maybe, I swallowed some of the river mud

covering my heart and hardening it.

Or is it that his hand reached into my chest

grabbing it, choking it, smearing it with mud

so that god’s eye would linger on it – drying the water from it

like the puppet sucks the life from them –  until it is a rock in my chest?

Until it pulls heavily on the rotten yarn of my life?

Until, like your dream, I am dead?

(November 22, 2014)

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

Dear Nana

This poem was first performed on March 25, 2014 at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport’s World Poetry Day 2014 event – An Evening of International, Regional and Guyanese Poetry. I dedicated the first performance to Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport Dr. Frank Anthony. The poem itself is dedicated to my nana, those Guyanese of Indian heritage who have had their hearts broken, to all Guyanese fighting the blindness and anyone who wishes to see beneath and beyond the mud. Perhaps now, I should replace “Without Wax” with “Without Riva Mud”.

Moonlight bright, bright tonight
Suh bright, riva mud na hide dem rakshas face.
Ah de same moon yuh lef nana.
Same, same moon yuh lef.
Suh how come me ah see and you na bin see?
Ah de same moon yuh lef nana.
Same, same moon yuh lef.
Same moon mek dem same coolie
tun nyam man and nyam woman.
Dem ah nyam everything nana.
Everything dem ah nyam.
Ow nana, dem ah nyam dem mattie
and dem mattie pickanee tuh.
If yuh tink me ah lie,
mus ask Nagamootoo and Ramkarran.
Ask dem when dem come dah side.
Ask dem if na truth me ah talk.
Dem guh tell yuh
dat if dem coolie dah,
if dem same coolie dah
coulda find yuh ash weh e deh
Den dem woulda nyam dah tuh.
Moonlight bright, bright tonight.
E bright, bright tonight nana.
Suh bright, me ah see dem
dutty skin unda dem nice cloth.
Ah de same moon yuh lef nana
Same, same moon yuh lef.
Same moon dat glad, glad yuh done dead
because now, yuh na gah geh moonlight
fuh see dem rakshas face.
Now, yuh guh see wa dem bin ah hide
with all dah riva mud dem bin ah dig fah.
Ah de same, same riva mud dem use, nana
Same, same riva mud dem use
fuh bruk yuh heart.
Bruk yuh heart when yuh done dead nana.
Dem bruk yuh heart, nana. Ow! Dem bruk am!
Dem na know how fuh love ah land
like you bin love am.
Dem na know nothing bout love.
Moonlight bright, bright tonight nana.
E bright, bright, bright nana.
Suh bright riva mud cyan hide nothing nah mo.

(Without Riva Mud. Bharrat 2014)

The Abuse of Guyana – A Culture of Fear and Silence

Not so many years ago, I was an abused woman. Ever since I freed myself, Guyana has not looked the same. I think that once you’ve broken the chains of any type of oppression it sharpens your vision. So now when I look at our country I recognize a certain pattern, a pattern of psychological abuse.

I failed the first time I tried to tell someone about my suffering. Fear strangled me. I could not find the words. And so I suffered in my silence and as my suffering increased I became ashamed that I could not speak because of fear. I lived silently in fear feeling that the only way to live was to endure it alone.

When I finally found the courage to break my silence, I was asked to be quiet, to be quiet for the well being of my family. And so, once again I remained silent. This time I thought silence was my duty; duty to family, duty to protect them.

But to stay silent is a hard, hard thing. One day, you just cannot hide the horrors anymore or endure the pain to protect the people who should have been protecting you. This time I tried to tell someone who was not family and they said that I simply could not be serious.

Having been intimately acquainted with horrors, I know that there are those things which the imagination simply cannot create. There are those things so miserably vile that unless we have experienced them then there simply is no imagining the way they have been or could be.

What makes you so different from me?

The journey of my freedom began when several someones decided that they would not sit and witness my suffering. I will forever be grateful to those who lent me their voices when I could not speak for myself.

It is this same cycle, this same culture, of fear and silence which imprisons the Guyanese psyche. We have all been afraid. Many of us are still afraid. We remain silent because we believe that we are protecting our well being, our family, our children, our means to make a living, our chance at becoming something, anything, in this country we call home. We remain silent because we are convinced that no one else thinks or feels the same way.

And where does the fear come from? It comes from the sinister political machinery. It comes from the powers that be, from the powers that should be protecting us. The truth is that some of us are afraid of our Government. And the rest of us are afraid of the Opposition. We are afraid of them for different reasons. We are afraid of our leaders, our protectors. We are afraid of the powers that we have given them to wield. These are truths we all think but truths we seldom speak.

We have been victims of our political system. We have let it imprison us in a culture of fear and silence. It is not an easy thing to live in fear. What is this if not mass abuse of a nation, of our nation, of you, of our people? What gives them the right to lock us in a prison built of fear? And where are those voices which should rise to defend us?

To sit silently in fear and be victims is not what we will do, not so long as I am. Having found my voice, I will speak for you until you speak for yourself, until you break the chains of your oppression. Silence does not protect anyone. Silence steals our peace and condemns our children to the same fate or perhaps, a worse fate. Silence steals our hope.

These days I write letters and I sign them “Until Death and Without Wax”. It is a declaration that I have conquered fear and that I did it only with truth. I believe that even you can do this, why else would I write these words?

Be a brother to your brother, for you, not him

In memory of Blackie

Tonight I want to shed tears for my villager, my friend, my brother. But the tears will not come. There is that familiar heaviness in my chest. But the pain is not the same. Because I have acknowledged my country man as my own, as my family, as my blood, the pain spreads. And still, I cannot cry for my brother because death is not the worst thing he has met.

Within the last month, I have written of the race based political machinery which plagues Guyana. I have acknowledged its existence, acknowledged that we are not as free as we may like to think. However, sometimes in examining problems some of us may think that this is all there is in our country, that it is a place of no hope. This is not true.

If there was no hope then I would not think in the manner that I do. If there was no hope then I would not write for you, for us, for those to come. If there was no hope then I would not fight the silence and rebel against the silencing. There is hope. There is always hope. But it comes with a price.

The ribbons of hope we have now can only be expanded when we are willing to acknowledge the truth and embrace the pain that comes with it. So for every one of you who is able to look at Guyana, to see it objectively, to understand the ills that plague your country, please, please help someone else to see. In this sight, there is hope.

This morning my brother died a miserable death. He died hungry and alone in an empty house across the street. How will he be remembered? The village will remember him only as Blackie; the bony man with wild locks and no home; the man who roamed Craig Old Road muttering about the lack of goodness in men. How many of us were good to him? I cannot say.

 Maybe he was mad but if he was mad then I will admit right now that the words of a mad man have held more truth and wisdom than the shallow ideals preached by our politicians; preached but never practiced.

How will he be remembered by me? I will remember the man my family taught me was a friend, the man they taught me to care for and respect. I will remember the man who spoke to me as a child when he was unwilling to speak to most adults. I will remember the man from whom I learnt to “hail” a brother with respect.

I will remember a man, a brother, the good things he did for me. In knowing him, in learning to respect him, in remembering him I will never think of him as being different. I learnt this in this same country of ours, the same country that is plagued by the fear generated by racial politics. And if I can learn, if some of us can learn, then there is hope for every man and woman among us.

But what I really wonder, is how many of us will die hungry and alone in some abandoned house; hungry for more than just food and lonely because there are few who know the truth that we do? How many of us will be good to a brother, regardless of his colour or status? How many of us will realize that in being good to our brother we really do service to ourselves? We build a better village, a better town, a better city, a better country by being good to each other.

So in the year to come, when I and those like me are busy acknowledging the problems that plague our country remember that we are only showing you truth. Remember that because you see your country for what it is, you will be better equipped to help in whatever way you can. But most of all, remember to be a brother to your brother, for you, not him.

If you call my brother a slave I shall answer you.

The Guyanese culture is a layered thing with many folds in which to hide weapons. It has become cultural for us to hurt each other. But I’ve found that the weapon which hurts a man the most is a single word carefully aimed at his heart. One word can rob a man of self, reason and hope.

What moves a man or woman among us to hurt his brother in such a manner? I believe the answer is fear. The fear cultivated by the political machinery.

It is this deep rooted fear which no doubt causes an Indian man to call his Black brother a slave. If it is one thing our political culture has programmed us to do, it’s to hurt each other, instinctively, in the worst possible way.

The grassroots politics does not encourage education for us Indians, at least, not the sort of education that enlightens the mind and makes it an independent entity. If it did, no doubt the sort of Indian who calls his brother a slave would understand the magnitude of what he has done. And hopefully, having understood what it is he is doing would desist from hurting his brother in such a way. Miseducation is a terrible, terrible thing. It takes a man down dark paths where he loses himself and his honour.

And of my miseducated Indian brother, I ask only this: hear these words so that you may understand just how unjust you have been to your Black brother. Even now, I do not understand why they insist on calling it the system of slavery. It is more accurate to speak of the enslavement of your brother for that is the truth. He was enslaved; robbed of freedom, home, family, culture, religion and identity, some of the very things you were able to keep. Tell me, why would you want to hurt a brother who has found a home here with you? Who shares a home with you?

So do not call him a slave so that you may establish that false superiority the grassroots machinery has continued to feed you. Do not call him a slave as if it were his choice or as if it were his weakness that caused him to suffer such a terrible, terrible fate. Understand that when you call him a slave, you expose only yourself and the system which has sought to enslave you using some of the very things you were able to keep. This system has made a shroud of culture and religion for your mind.

And know this too, when you call my brother, our brother, a slave then I shall answer you. Because when he answers for himself, you accuse him of being angry and bitter and buried in the past. Of what will you accuse me? Of not having defended the Indian against the equally hurtful “coolie”? There is no need for me to defend the Indian, to defend myself, because I am sure my brother shall answer for me like I answer for him.

Sharing a quick moment with you while I’m on the go.
Sara.