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For the last few months, the International Decade for People of African Descent Assembly-Guyana (IDPADA-G) and things African Guyanese have been in the headlines. Unfortunately, not apparent in most of this is a real articulation about, and understanding of, the lived experience of African Guyanese. In instances, where attempts have been made to address those realities, they have been greeted by the denial of antagonists. Some of those antagonists are kin but not kit and others neither kit nor kin.
In this circumstance, it would be remiss of me, as the Chairperson of IDPADA-G, not to share my perspective and shed light on the state of African Guyanese and the location of IDPADA-G on that landscape.
The world community, to wit the United Nations` (UN) fora, over a period of time and after much discussion and critical analysis has concluded that the state of the people of African descent, world-wide, requires a period of attention, hence the declaration of the International Decade for the Peoples` of African Descent, 2015-2024, and action aimed at addressing the issues of Recognition, Justice and Development for the people of African descent.
This globally agreed effort is in itself an acknowledgment of the fact that the people of African descent have been dealt with unjustly, have not been duly recognised, or allowed equal opportunities for development. That is to say that we have been the victims of disrespect, unfair treatment and not acknowledged for our current contributions nor that of our ancestors to human development. We are also not treated fairly, based on the view that we are not equal to others or entitled like others. Consequentially, we were and continue to be deprived of the means and resources required for our spiritual and material growth.
The plantation, colonial and neo-colonial states epitomize all of the above, generally, since they were built, and operated, on the premise of inequality, subjugation and exploitation. For the realization of that form of society and to maintain the plantation, colonial and neocolonial status quo, institutional arrangements as the basis of interpersonal and inter-community relations and a complimentary psycho-social outlook were articulated and enforced.
The aforementioned, generally characterised what befell both our Ancestors, who were enslaved, and those of us who live in the post-slavery, colonial and neocolonial state.
Given that my first objective is to examine the lived experience of Guyanese of African descent, the question which arises is whether the construct outlined above characterizes the present state of African Guyanese?
It is undoubtedly true that enslavement of Africans in Guyana and subsequent generations (people of African descent) was done in a manner reflective of the aforementioned construct. The institutionalized economic relations reduced the Africans to the status of property and all of the inferiority associated with Master and Slave relations. The imposed belief system ingrained an inferiority complex, and the social relations were premised on the inferiority of the enslaved. The institutions of the state maintained the status quo through coercion and force and all of the tangible institutional arrangements, such as those providing economic and social services and the intangible ones, such as spirituality, all, either reflected and or enforced the fundamentally exploitative relations.
What happened after the abolition of enslavement was that the form of things changed but the more things changed, the more they remained the same. Exploitation merely continued in different forms. Things may have changed quantitatively but remained the same qualitatively.
Labour was still exploited in the interest of the planter class. Education was skewed to prepare the ex-enslaved for jobs at the lower levels and only where the system needed their services at higher levels were they allowed. Financial institutions were not at their disposal, especially for the granting of seed money for entrepreneurial activities. Their indigenous religious and other practices were outlawed. The justice system defined much of their behaviour as deviant; targeted it and protected the upper class. Negative stereotypes, and prejudices were peddled about them in such a manner as to stigmatize them. Services were denied, such as proper irrigation for their agricultural undertakings. Burdensome taxes were imposed on them. The oppressive, exploitative and degrading measures against them were endless. The impact was economic and social degradation and subservience.
With the attainment of independence, some of the obstacles were removed, others remained in place, while equal opportunities were introduced in some spheres and equitable policies in others. However, the stark reality is that equality of opportunities could be quite inequitable if the competing forces are not starting from the same base and even in instances where the material base is equalized, the induced psycho-social state may still pose difficulties as far as actually equalizing the base is concerned. It is in this context that the International Decade for the People of African Descent was envisaged and declared.
The situation in Guyana today is even starker and begs for redress. While historical wrongs have to be righted, the multi-ethnic nature of the society and the uneven competition that was fostered, even as the African Guyanese faced the realities of post enslavement, created a basket case of the African Guyanese. The presence of race politics and ethnic dominance and a lack of empathy for the state of Guyanese of African descent have exacerbated their plight and calls for special attention.
Much of what confronts Guyanese of African descent is as a consequence of deliberate acts of the state, both pre and post-independence. The successor state therefore has a responsibility to treat with the Guyanese of African descent in a manner, in principle, similar to the attention being given to the Indigenous tribes. Platitudes of equal opportunity and one Guyana cannot work. We are better described as Different Peoples, One State, One Destiny. That one destiny can only be realised if each people at their level of separateness and peculiar circumstance is given the necessary and requisite treatment.
IDAPADA-G came into existence as a protagonist rather than an antagonist. It established a programme of work aimed at empowering the African Guyanese, hence it embarked upon efforts to resource African Guyanese by providing them with skills and knowledge that would equip them to create pathways to opportunities and development. Mega empowerment conferences across the country, skills training, youth entrepreneurial development, promotion of entrepreneurial activities, cultural engagements and organizational development are some of the areas addressed by IDPADA-G’s work programme, 2018 to present. None of these were antagonistic, in their orientation. IDPADA-G, in recognition of the fact that in the absence of policy shifts and institutional realignment in areas like the ones identified above, also embarked on an advocacy and communication programme and in that regard reached out to Government in relation to the teaching of Guyanese History in our school system; the decriminalization of ganja; and the reintroduction of village councils, in the local government system.
All of these initiatives received lukewarm responses across the political regimes and may have ruffled the feathers of some of the current regime, who commenced a campaign of besmirching the name of the organization and its leaders by insinuating, in public fora, that the subvention that was being provided was being misused, skimmed off, and that the community was none the better off for all that was intended to be of benefit to it. This seemed like the emergence of an antagonist, intent on bringing the efforts of the organization to its knees even as the President paid tribute to the people of African descent on occasions such as the Emancipation celebrations. However, paying tribute does not necessarily mean an understanding of the current plight and a commitment to its resolution.
In its protagonist mode, IDPADA-G sought audience with the President; and received commitments, which have never been honoured, while agents of his Government have terminated the subvention without notice or explanation. The non-attendance by the Government of Guyana at the 1st Forum of the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, recently convened in Geneva, may will be indicative of the Government`s true disposition to the protagonism of IDPADA-G and ultimately the African Guyanese community.
IDPADA-G is committed to a protagonist mode of operation, in pursuit of the goals of the Decade: Recognition, Justice and Development and calls upon the Government to demonstrate its commitment to the UN Resolution of 2013, which it supported, and to treat transparently with IDPADA-G, which has brought together 65 African Guyanese organisations; crafted a programme of action, based on community consultations; conducts its affairs in keeping with the principles of Good Governance and corporate responsibility; and been accountable to its stakeholders, including the Government for the conduct of its affairs.
While experiences of individual African Guyanese are acknowledged and respected, none of those should be supplanted as the experience of the community of African Guyanese. The world at large has recognised the dilemma of the Peoples of African Descent. The case of African Guyanese, generally, is irrefutable and must be addressed by the state which has inherited, and in many instances perpetuated, the situation, even as the African Guyanese community seeks to overcome the challenges, which are mainly grounded in impositions and systemic constructs.