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In recent times, there has been a lot of focus on the state of the African Guyanese community. I am constantly being asked what to do. My first response was that to get to correcting the problem, one has to first get to the underlying causes of the problem. My second response was that, coming up with solutions would require two interrelated approaches. First, there needs to be a broad conversation with the people in the communities about how they want to deal with their problems. Second, the experts—economists, educators, historians, lawyers etc.—need to get together and come up with a plan that takes into consideration the views of the communities. In effect, there is need for a two-way conversation.
This is my take on the matter from the perspective of an activist. A lot of the problems in the African Guyanese communities have to do with the challenges that the African Guyanese economy has faced historically. First, we have to start with the challenges within the context of the Colonial Economy, which saw the African Village economy as a direct affront to the interests of Colonialism. Second, we have to look at it within the context of the ethnic competition, from decolonisation to the present, whereby the ethnic demarcation of the Guyanese Economy, itself a legacy of colonialism, has made economic progress a victim of the larger ethnic politics.
Although the decline in African Guyanese community is not just economic, I think their economic condition has a lot to do with it. Similarly, although the decline started before 1992 when the PPP government came to office, one should not disregard the impact of the loss of government by African Guyanese in our government-centered ethnically divided society. I think there has been a negative impact on the group’s morale and self-confidence and objectively on opportunities for upward mobility.
African Guyanese have traditionally been located in the bauxite Industry, the Public Service, Pork-knocking and the Village economy where farming, small business and vending predominate. Later, they dominated “Trading”—bringing food and clothing for sale from other Caribbean countries. In addition to the above, Education was an area of relief from poverty and social mobility. But over the last couple of decades Bauxite has declined. The Public Service has stalled, thanks mainly to the IMF conditionalities and the ethnic interests of the current government, and wages have not kept up with the cost of living. Education has declined. Agriculture in the villages has declined.
I think the combination of the above is at the heart of the “crisis” in the African Guyanese community. In addition, the over-reliance on an electoral solution and the evolution of a culture of accommodation with” political bribery “has led to a weakening of group solidarity and pride and dignity. Finally, the heavy migration has had a negative impact on the community. One of the devastating consequences has been the loss of role models who live day to day in the communities. One cannot discount the impact of some negative group habits, but these have to be seen within the larger dynamics of post-plantation evolution among the formerly enslaved.
As far as solutions go, Government economic initiatives aimed at creating a more democratic Guyanese economy based on equality of opportunity is essential. Government should invest in a Village Renewal Initiative aimed at creating economic opportunities in the villages. There is need for a big economic venture in the African Guyanese community to produce jobs that pay a living wage and encourage small and medium businesses. . Dr. Jagan in 1988 called for Affirmative Action for African Guyanese. Perhaps the government should revisit that. In addition, Public Service workers should be paid a living wage. They are mostly African Guyanese. If they are paid better, it would lift the collective quality of life among the group. There would be more to spend on education and health care, for example.
There is need to struggle for a more democratic form of government in which all ethnic groups are represented. This is pivotal. Government plays the biggest role in the distribution of resources. The corporate Private sector is small and ethnic based. And governments by nature look after their supporters’ interest first. In ethnically divided societies like Guyana, this takes on an ethnic dynamic. One party-One race government has not proven to be effective in fair distribution of resources. Just look at the recent budget, for example, and see where the bulk of big Government subsidies go. A representative government in which African Guyanese are represented would help to distribute resources more fairly.
Finally, what can African Guyanese do for themselves? Government initiatives take time, but communities can begin to address some problems in real time. Self-Activity is what Walter Rodney called it. The first thing I recommend is a collective acknowledgement of the problems. So, there is need for conversations and discussions in the communities in the towns and in the villages. If we face the problems as communities by talking about them together, we develop a sense of community again and a sense of common ownership of the solution.
Second, communities should create organisations aimed at searching for solutions. Where people are organised in organisations, they develop a consciousness of themselves as agents of change. The experience of working together and doing things and seeing small changes together transforms the individual and the community. So, I encourage people to form organisations
Third, I think education should be singled out for immediate action. I recommend a literacy project aimed at dealing with the functional illiteracy in the community. This is a problem that can be solved by using what we have. Those who can read and write should help to teach those who cannot. This can be done in families, in churches or in community classes or in one-on-one encounters. Communities can also help with homework by setting up Homework Centers where kids can go for help with getting homework done. Often homework assumes the kids have access to the internet when most of them do not. If we can have these centers where the kids can have access to computers and books and where they can be supervised, we would be helping to remedy the situation in some way. We can also have classes to help our students develop better study habits, better appreciation for educational excellence and a broader love of knowledge. These are all things that can be done using resources in our communities
Fourth, I think we can help to lift ourselves economically by returning to the culture of Cooperatives where we raise resources from within our own communities. Some of us have been pushing the idea of raising funds for small micro loans to begin or expand small businesses. The key here is to raise your own resources and to start small; don’t wait on funding agencies. Look around the communities and see the immediate needs of the community and start a small business to satisfy those needs. Fifth, African Guyanese communities need markets. We need to restart markets. These are centers of commerce which ensure that money is circulated in the communities and wealth is accumulated in the communities.
Finally, we need more self-love—a better appreciation of Black and African Guyanese culture and heritage. Black culture must not be confined to Emancipation; it should be permanent. There is need for more classes and discussions and festivals on Black culture and identity. This would help to decrease the growing fear in the community of acknowledging Blackness.