Radical social change is possible. I saw it unfold as a teenager growing up in Guyana, a former British colony caught in the tight grip of the rich and powerful white sugar plantation owners. Such change demands courage, persistence, and self-determination. It means pushing upstream against the flow, ignoring the voices of naysayers, and not succumbing to discouragement and hopelessness when faced with setbacks and defeats. Winifred Gaskin (1916-1977) was a woman who displayed such traits to the fullest measure.
Winifred was born of humble origins on May 10, 1916, into a world engulfed in the First World War (1914-1918). Born in the village of Buxton on the East Coast of Demerara, eleven miles (18 kilometers) from Georgetown, the capital, Winifred shared the indomitable spirit of her African slave ancestors. Seventy-six years earlier in 1840, a group of 128 ex-slaves had pooled their savings to buy an abandoned 500-acre cotton plantation, New Orange Nassau, for an inflated price of $50,000. They renamed it Buxton in honor of Thomas Fowell Buxton, an English parliamentarian and abolitionist.
I’ve never personally met Queen Elizabeth II. The closest I’ve ever come to Her Majesty was watching her drive by in an open-back vehicle in the company of her husband Prince Philip. That occurred in early February 1966 when she visited then British Guiana for the first time since her coronation in 1953. The two-day royal visit also marked the first visit of any reigning monarch during 152 years of British colonial rule. For the auspicious event, we showcased the best of our city, our culture, and our hospitality.
Following its independence in May 1966, Guyana joined the Commonwealth of Nations, founded in 1949 and headed by the British Monarch. The independent nation remained tethered to Britain with Queen Elizabeth as the Head of State until it became a republic in February 1970.
When I read the online announcement of the Queen’s death on Thursday, September 8, around 11:30 a.m. Pacific Time, I stopped what I was doing and tuned into the BBC TV news channel. My teary-eyed response surprised me. Such is the nature of my love-hate relationship with the British monarchy. Their fairy-tale lives had captured my imagination as a child. Over the years, I’ve soaked up news of their marriages and births, scandals and divorces, and deaths.
December was the most hectic month for my stay-at-home working Mom. As a sought-after dressmaker among middle-class women in the capital, Georgetown, Mom had little time for Christmas shopping, home decoration, and preparation of our traditional Christmas dinner specialties. Guyanese love to party. The Christmas and year-end festivities meant parties galore: office parties, nightclub parties, and house parties. The greatest fete of all was the Old Year’s Night Ball to welcome in the New Year with a bang.
As early as October, to ensure that their dresses were done on time, Mom’s clients who had several functions to attend would start bringing in their dress materials. For the Old Year’s Night Ball, no expense was spared when choosing the best imported fabrics. Clients could select designs from fashion magazines—JC Penney, McCall’s, Sears, and Vogue—Mom made available. A few clients brought clippings of photos from women’s magazines featuring the rich and famous. At the time, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jacqueline Kennedy were the rave. I enjoyed a front seat view of the woman’s world of dolling up for parties and other social events to attract a mate or to hold onto your man or husband.
I was a thirteen-year-old teenager in high school when Mom began sewing for three attractive working-class women of Portuguese descent. All in their twenties, the three friends worked in the office wing of Bookers Guiana General Store. To protect their identity, I’ll call them Catherine, Marcella, and Yvette. Catherine was the most beautiful with hair and features to rival those of the French actress Catherine Deneuve. Yvette had muscular shoulders and arms from playing tennis at a competitive level. Marcella was a dark-haired beauty like the American actress Rita Morena in West Side Story (1961).
Based on what Columbus told Peter Martyr, who recorded his voyages, Martyr wrote: “They seeme to live in that golden worlde of the which olde writers speake so much, wherein menne lived simply and innocently without enforcement of lawes, without quarreling, judges and libelles, content onely to satisfie nature, without further vexation for knowledge of things to come.” [As quoted by Edmund S. Morgan in his article “Columbus’ Confusion About the New World”]
Not until his third voyage (1498-1500) did Columbus sight the coastline of Guiana but made no attempt at landing. The Dutch, the first to settle Guiana, referred to this forbidding region of dense tropical rainforest, stretching between the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers on the South American mainland, as “The Wild Coast.” After two centuries of Dutch rule (1600s to 1803) and another century of British rule, the indigenous peoples of then British Guiana, called Amerindians, had lost sovereignty over their territories. Beginning in 1902, the British forced them into reservations.
My Poetry Corner August 2020 features the poem “The Punt Trench” from the first poetry collection, Unfathomable And Other Poems (2020), by Guyanese-Canadian author Ken Puddicombe. Since retiring from his accounting work, Puddicombe has been pursuing his love of writing. To date, he has published two novels and a short story collection.
His poetry collection is filled with nostalgia of his boyhood days in Guyana. As an immigrant living in Canada since 1971, he writes in “Nostalgic”:
As they grow older, the yearning
For a return to the old country increases.
Memories plague them, of a childhood in a familiar spot.
Any little incident will send their senses reeling and take
them back in time and place.
The punt trench is a recurring memory in Puddicombe’s poems. For readers unfamiliar with Guyana’s coastal lowlands of sugar cane fields crisscrossed by canals or trenches, a legacy of Dutch colonizers (1648-1814), a punt or cane-punt is a flat-bottomed iron barge for transporting harvested canes along the system of canals or punt trenches from field to factory. About 20 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 3 or 4 feet deep, the punt is drawn by a mule (in the early days) or tractor, attached by a long chain, moving along the punt-trench earth dam or unsurfaced road. The punt trench also serves as a drainage canal during low tides and periods of flooding, controlled by kokers or sluices.
Puddicombe’s memories of the punt trench are somber and haunting. The title poem, “Unfathomable,” the longest narrative poem with seventeen stanzas, recounts the tale of the unfathomable death of his playful and daring friend—crushed between two punts moving along in a convoy on their way to the sugar factory.
The punts in the mule-train linked
With short lengths of chain hooked
Into metal clasps welded at the front
And rear of each craft. Six mules up front
Kept the convoy moving, each animal
Bound to a punt by a length of chain.Lincoln was clinging to the connecting
Chain between two punts in the middle
Of the convoy, hanging on for a ride,
When the distance narrowed swiftly
Between the punts.
“Drowning” describes the time the author/poet almost lost his life in the cocoa-brown waters of the punt trench. Though he could not swim like the older boys, he plunged into the deep / Murky, swirling pit of the Punt Trench, made murkier still when his feet stirred up the mud and silt at the bottom of the trench.
On his first return visit to Guyana in 1987 after a sixteen-year absence, Puddicombe questions whether one could ever really go back to a time and place long gone. In his poem, “Middle Road,” the street where he had once lived, he finds The bridge over the Punt Trench where / I fell into the water now collapsed, the Trench / Filled in with debris.
In the featured poem, “The Punt Trench,” he reflects on the changes over time in four stanzas, each beginning with a different theme: Memory,Despair, Change, and Hope. His Memory of the punt trench as Fast moving torrential / Waves flashing through / The Koker to the raging Atlantic is no more. Instead, he feels only despair.
Despair.The Punt Trench is a dumping
Ground filled with debris and
Castoffs. Empty shell of a car.
Rusting frame of a bicycle. Bags of
Garbage piled in mounds. A dog’s bloated
Carcass. Tall paragrass and wild eddo bush
Reaching to the sky.
The punt trench, once a haunting memory of youthful joy and dread, is now a symbol of the decay of a neighborhood and of a nation; of promises not yet realized. It is not the change promised by the founding leaders of the independent nation.
Change.From the Koker in Public Road
All the way to the Backdam
The Punt Trench is now Independence
Boulevard. Every time the breeze zips
Across from the north-east,
It reeks and fills my
Only birdsong brings the poet Hope that Life goes on!
As the author and poet acknowledges in “You Can Never Go Back,” the final poem in the collection, the places of his idyllic youth have changed or no longer exist. People are no longer the same. Yet…some among us grasp a dream of returning to a time we consider our days of glory. Life goes on, for better or for worse, with or without us.
To read the complete featured poem, “The Punt Trench,” and learn more about the work of Ken Puddicombe, go to my Poetry Corner August 2020.
Caribbean immigrants remember loved ones at the 9/11 memorial on September 11, 2018
Photo Credit: News Americas
On September 11, we will remember all those we have lost on that ill-fated day when a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City turned the world-famous landmark into rubble.
I was living in Brazil when the tragedy occurred, sending a tsunami across the world. More than ninety other nations also lost loved ones that day, including three Brazilian-Americans and twenty-six Guyanese-Americans.
In his poem, “Guyanese Roll Call,” Guyanese-Canadian poet Peter Jailall remembers his twenty-six countrymen and women who died on that day. Their American Dream had been suddenly cut short.
Listen to our roll call
Of those who died
On that dreadful September day, Following their American Dream:
Patrick Adams Leslie Arnold Austin Rudy Bacchus Kris Romeo Bishundauth Pamela Boyce Annette Datarom Babita Guman Nizam Hafiz Ricknauth Jhagganauth Charles Gregory Jolin Bowanie Devi Kemraj Sarab Khan Amerdauth Luchman Shevonne Meutis Narendra Nath Marcus Neblett Hardai Parbhu Ameena Rasool Shiv Sankar Sita Sewnarine Karini Singh Rosham Singh Astrid Sohan Joyce Stanton Patricia Staton Vanava Thompson
These are our dedicated, Hard-working country people, Who travelled from South to North To savour just a small bite Of the Big Apple.
We will always remember them.
Source: Poetry Collection, People of Guyana by Ian McDonald and Peter Jailall, MiddleRoad Publishers, Canada, 2018.
While violent anti-immigrant activism spread across America, let us remember that Guyanese and other Caribbean immigrant families also share our nation’s grief for loved ones lost on September 11, 2001.
Peter Jailall is a teacher, poet, and storyteller. He has published five books of poetry. In 2011, he received the Marty’s Award for Established Literary Arts in Mississauga, Ontario, where he lives. Since his retirement, Jailall has conducted workshops on Poetry Writing in schools across Guyana and Canada.
COMMENTARY By Dr. Dhanpaul Narine
The West Indian Magazine, July 27, 2019
Reprinted with permission of the author
Some may think that the idea is outrageous or even downright crazy. But we need to allay the fears of Guyanese, to ease the tension, and show that we can work, sing and pray together. We need a ‘One Guyana Peace Concert and a Day of Prayer’ and we need it before the elections. Both events should be non-political and aim to celebrate Guyana as a peaceful nation.
The daily vitriol on social media, from people that live thousands of miles away from Guyana, is bereft of peace or harmony. The online posts stir up hate and call on people to go to war. But Guyanese know better. They know that at the end of the day the races depend on each other for their survival. They know that we are interlocked by economics and history and we can’t do without each other. Elections bring out the worse in us but isn’t time that we put aside the hate and look at each other as Guyanese first?
Take a walk at the business places. You will see people buying and selling freely without regard to race or ethnicity. In fact, the races will tell you that without each other they can’t do business. Their livelihoods depend on one another. In Vergenoegen, where I was raised, many businesses were owned by Afro and Indo-Guyanese. We supported each other without the slightest regard to race.
When it came to cultural events we joined hands and celebrated. In fact, many Afro-Guyanese knew the rituals of the Hindu wedding ceremony better than Indians in the village. The people took pride in the achievements of the children and we looked out for each other. If only we can get back to the days of mutual cooperation and respect and treat each other as brothers and sisters rather than as enemies.
The politicians would like to see enmity between the races because they become relevant when the society is divided. A divided society preys on differences and hate. After years of dividing the nation, it is time to wake up and tell the politicians to put aside the hate. It is time to call out the politicians and urge them to act in the interests of the people. [Emphasis mine.] Continue reading →
“Send Her Back” – US President’s Campaign Rally – North Carolina/USA – July 17, 2019
Photo Credit: HuffPost, YouTube Video
I know about divisive racist politics. I have experienced it up close in Guyana, the land of my birth—one of the “shithole countries” that our president loves to denigrate. Divisive racist politics has crippled my birthplace over the past fifty-three years since its birth as an independent nation. As a multiracial woman, I know firsthand the ways in which hate, rancor, fear, and distrust can splinter families, communities, and relationships in public spaces, such as our schools and workplaces.
Caught up in what Guyanese call “the racial disturbances”—during the years leading up to independence in May 1966, between the two major population groups of descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured laborers—I became a marginalized citizen. Beginning in adolescence, I learned to navigate the racial minefields, to dodge and take the blows.
In my debut novel, Under the Tamarind Tree, to be released in the coming months, I tackle the roots of Guyana’s divisive racist politics and its impact on the lives of my racially diverse characters. You can learn more about my motivations for setting out on this literary journey in my article “The Making of Under the Tamarind Tree.”
While the chant rose to “send her back,” during a recent presidential campaign rally, America’s transnational corporations are sucking Earth’s natural resources from all those “broken and crime infested places from which they [non-white immigrants] came.”
British soldiers arrive in Georgetown – British Guiana – October 9, 1953
Photo Credit: Stabroek News (Photo British Pathé)
My Poetry Corner July 2019 features the poem “This is the Dark Time My Love” by Guyanese poet Martin Carter (1927-1997) from his poetry collection, Poems of Resistance from British Guiana (London 1954). Following the suspension of the British Guiana Constitution in 1953, the poet-politician composed the poems in this collection during his three-month detention, together with other political leaders, by the British Army.
For readers unfamiliar with Guyana’s history, a former British colony until May 26, 1966, slavery ended in 1834. Indentured laborers began arriving from India in 1838 and continued until 1917. Other immigrant workers came from Portuguese Madeira (1835-1882) and China (1853-1879). The population of the colony in the mid-1950s was about 450,000 people (UN estimate).
Born in 1927 in Georgetown, the capital of then British Guiana, to middle class parents of African, Indian, and European ancestry, the young Martin grows up with an appreciation for literature, poetry, and philosophy. After attending the colony’s prestigious Queen’s College, for boys only, he gains entry to the civil service, working first at the post office, then later as the secretary of the superintendent of prisons.
Aware of the oppression and despair of the sugarcane workers who toil under harsh conditions on the British-owned sugar plantations, Carter joins the political struggle for self-governance. In “Looking at Your Hands” (1), he affirms his solidarity with the plantation workers in their shared struggle under British rule.
I will not still my voice!
too much to claim –
you must know I do not sleep to dream
but dream to change the world.Continue reading →
Aerial view of Paradise off of Clark Road – Camp Fire, Northern California
November 15, 2018
Photo Credit: San Francisco Examiner (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)
As California burns and super-storms ravage our southern and eastern coastal states, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Reverend Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. Today, November 18th, is the fortieth anniversary of the mass murder-suicide of 916 Americans at the People’s Temple Agricultural Project at Jonestown in the northwest forested region of Guyana.