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In observance of Black History Month, Village Voice will publish a series of articles highlighting aspects of Black History). We begin today with a biographical sketch of ASCRIA by Dr. david Hinds, one of Guyana’s leading Black organizations of the 1960s and 1970s
African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA
By Dr. David Hinds
ASCRIA was founded in 1964 by a group of African Guyanese who were concerned with the social, cultural and economic condition of African people living in Guyana. Among its founding members were Claude Denbow, Alvin Holder, Verne Crane, Sybil Sergeant, Tacuma Ogunseye, Sase Omo, Ngozi Moses, and Eusi Kwayana. The Society made an impact immediately in the country, partly because its most prominent member, Eusi Kwayana, then known as Sydney King, was already a national figure. Another reason for ASCRIA’s instant impact was the racial and political climate in the country.
The People’s Progressive Party (PPP) Administration of the day, led by Cheddi Jagan, had been in office since 1957 and, given its overwhelming East Indian base, its programmes and policies were perceived as favouring this group (Despres: 1967). Racial tensions led to general strikes and riots by the mainly African urban workers in 1962 and 1963. By 1964, the tensions had given way to open physical confrontation. Burrowes (1984:230) contends that ASCRIA was formed in response to ‘the long inter-union dispute in 1964 during which Africans living along the East and West Coast of Demerara were beaten, terrorized, chased from their homes in the rural areas, and sometimes killed”.
ASCRIA was an African organization for Africans. According to Eusi Kwayana (1993), the organization was formed to fill a void: ‘There were no African cultural organizations.’ The League of Coloured People (LCP) which operated in the 1940s and 1950s catered mostly to the African middle class. ASCRIA, therefore, was committed to the empowerment of the African masses. ASCRIA’s main aims were: 1) the revival of African culture in Guyana through the teaching of African history, politics and philosophy. This revitalization would stimulate pride among African Guyanese in their Pan-African heritage; 2) to persuade African Guyanese to return to the land through the institutionalization of cooperatives; 3) the establishment of links with Independent African countries and other African organizations.
ASCRIA put much emphasis on wiping out corruption from the country, especially among Africans (ASCRIA Bulletin 19 April 1972). The Society was also anti-imperialist. That position, according to Robert Milne, was influenced by its strong opposition to white culture. Towards this end, ASCRIA campaigned for the Africanization of symbols with slogans such as “give Black dolls to your children” and “’No more snow in December.” Kwayana points out that ASCRIA described itself as African but did not use the term Pan-Africanism, although it had no reservations about its pan-African identity. In a Black Scholar article, Kwayana wrote that ASCRIA “works for the liberation of Black people everywhere in the world” (1973:42).
ASCRIA’s basic group was the ‘Compound’. Compounds were located in many communities with large African communities. Kwesi Sidebe, who served as Organizing Secretary, estimates that, at its peak, ASCRIA had about thirty-two compounds. There may have been more compounds because, according to Kwayana, people formed compounds on their own and notified the organization after the fact. This made it difficult for ASCRIA to keep track of the size of the membership, but Sidebe says, formal membership fluctuated between 1,000 and 3,000 during his tenure. Although ASCRIA attracted people of all ages, most of its membership fell in the 18-40 age-group. While most of membership was working class, members of the middle class also joined the organization. Greene (I 974:45) observed that, in the 1968-69 period, ASCRIA “greatly increased the efficiency in the structure and organization of the movement across the country by its regular recruitment drives and cultural programmes.”
Greene also found that there was considerable overlap between ASCRIA’s membership and that of the Black-led ruling PNC party. In his sample, he found that 58 per cent of PNC members at Abary, and 35 per cent and 29 per cent at New Amsterdam and Suddie, respectively, also belonged to ASCRIA. Sidebe contends that the percentage was much greater in areas closer to Georgetown, the capital city. Robert Milne estimates that at least one-third of the membership of Young Socialist Movement (YSM), the youth arm of the People’s National Congress (PNC), belonged to ASCRIA (p. 35).
There was also great overlap between ASCRIA’s membership and that of Ratoon, the radical university-based group which was led by Dr. Clive Thomas. Greene found that two of Ratoon’s executive members were also leading members of ASCRIA with one of these, Omowale, being Vice-President of ASCRIA. It is fair to conclude, therefore, that ASCRIA might have influenced policy in other African-based organizations through this overlapping. The fact that both Ratoon and the PNC were quite vocal in their support of Black Power and African Liberation lends some credence to this contention.
The highest decision-making body in ASCRIA was the Council of Elders which was elected at the annual Council of Compounds, or the general meeting, which comprised delegates and observers from the compounds. Eusi Kwayana was the Coordinating Elder which, in effect, made him the leader. He was the chief spokesperson of the Society and his own personal and political stature helped to keep ASCRIA in the news. Other officers were the Deputy Coordinating Elder or Vice-President, Secretary, Assistant Secretary, Treasurer, Assistant Treasurer and Organizing Secretary.
The Society’s headquarters or Nyumba was located at 30 Third Street, Alberttown, Georgetown. ‘Third Street’, or ‘ASCRIA Hall’ as it was popularly called, was the center of educational, political and cultural activities. It emerged as a kind of ‘Mecca’ for African Guyanese who sought cultural consciousness. The building housing ASCRIA hall was once the headquarters of the LCF and was handed over by agreement to ASCRIA in 1964