September 30, 2016

Is nativism the new racism?

Is nativism the new face of racism? This particular discrimination is sweeping through Europe and the United States with the Brexit vote and the rise of Trumpism being good examples of the nativist phenomenon, which is defined as discrimination against immigrants.
But this is a narrow or even evasive definition since it is the same mindset of holding one group superior to every other – the textbook definition of racism – that underlies the nativist trend. Many non-whites are unsurprised by the trend and feel that this particular reason for prejudice has only been dormant because it has not had reason to surface before. The Middle Eastern turmoil has, however, resulted in enough refugees and immigrants seeking asylum in Europe to change that.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is losing popularity because of her open-door refugee policy. The Brexit vote was driven by similar sentiments against immigrants and asylum seekers. Even the mild-mannered Danes are now declaring themselves “racist” after more than 36,000 mostly Muslim refugees streamed into their country over the past two years.
The general feeling is that immigrants and refugees not only drain the respective countries’ resources and welfare systems but that they arrive with the intention of preserving their cultural heritage. Nativism both defies and denies ethnic and cultural diversity within a bordered state.
At a national level, Britain and Europe give generous aid to undeveloped countries and, at a personal level, many Britons and Europeans also contribute to charitable organisations such as the Red Cross to help them with their work in war-torn and developing countries.
However, the rise in nativist sentiments does make it appear that their charity has a long arm that is intended to keep the suffering humanity to whom they are so giving away from their own doorstep.
But nativism is not isolated to Britain and Europe. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has tapped into the very same vein in America and his campaign message of making America great again is tied to a policy to keep immigrants – Mexicans and Muslims among others – out.
The irony is not lost on anyone that America and its greatness have been built by immigrant communities, and the nativism phenomenon does beg several questions including the one that asks: how many years or generations does it take to belong anywhere?
The answer would have resonance for us in Guyana where the Indian population – even 100 years after the arrival of the last ship from India bearing indentured labourers – is still viewed by some as “latecomers”, “outsiders” and even “aliens”. From among the African-Guyanese leadership there is the view that the Africans’ earlier arrival gives them certain rights and entitlements.
Indians, having arrived into a supposedly “formed” society, are subjected to the very discriminations being suffered by asylum seekers in Europe. In our case, the fact that we are English speaking and generally conform to Western dress and mannerisms, and to the laws that govern our Western society has not been enough.
The contentious issue is most likely that the Indian “immigrant” population grew to become the largest minority and, given Guyana’s ethnic politics, that the country’s political power resides with the “newcomers” and overrides the perceived entitlements of the African population who came earlier.
This fear of being swamped and overtaken by immigrant communities could be one of the reasons for the rise in nativism which seeks to keep groups of newcomers from even entering another’s territory.
There are Caribbean countries actually facing just such nativist issues. Several Guyanese, Jamaican and small-island Caribbean citizens have complained about the demeaning treatment they receive from immigration officials at airports in Trinidad and Barbados. They are sometimes treated in the most inhumane manner and denied entry.
The Governments of Trinidad and Barbados feel, perhaps, that they are defending their respective territory from regional “visitors” who are often accused of gaining entry then working illegally. Their nativism is forwarded as a defence of their laws and their borders.
The concern for border security and preserving the national status quo has overtaken that of welcoming refugees and respecting diversity, and the rise of nativism could be an immediate and defensive reaction to a newly emergent world with its movement of large groups of people seeking security and a better life outside their homeland either as refugees or as economic migrants.
Nativism challenges our very humanity and our ideas of ourselves both at an individual and national level. Will that common humanity which respects ethnic and cultural diversity and has compassion for human suffering eventually triumph over nativist fears?

Guyana’s real “third force”

 

By Ryhaan Shah

The idea of a “third force” that would act as a balance of power between the two major political parties, the PPP and PNC, is still being floated as the best way to help us transcend ethnic politics and graduate to a national issue-based agenda. The feeling is that this would introduce the kind of political maturity needed for progress.

However, despite the appearance of several new political parties over the years and the emergence of two coalition governments formed by the PNC with one respective “third force”, the UF and now the AFC, the “third force” idea has failed to deliver.

The Burnham Government’s coalition with the UF lasted little over two years and, despite all the protestations from the AFC leadership, it is evident that the current coalition is in tatters. In both instances, it appears that the PNC simply used the “third force” to leverage itself into power.

The emergence of the WPA under the leadership of Dr Walter Rodney did present a formidable third force alternative to the Burnham dictatorship and what was seen as an ineffectual PPP opposition and we all know how tragically that story ended.

The unresolved issues arising from Guyana’s recent political history continue to paralyse the electorate into the tried and true patterns of ethnic voting, so, while third force parties come and go, the two behemoths are still standing.

Notwithstanding the continued efforts to break this mould, there has always been a third force at work in Guyana’s politics. We know them as the ABC countries: America, Britain and Canada.

Canada might not have much standing as a world power but they have a keen interest in Guyana’s domestic affairs since they provide much aid to the country and continue to welcome Guyanese immigrants to their shores.

More than any political group, it is this third force that continues to determine Guyana’s political fate. In every sense, colonialism never ended; it just changed colours to suit our supposedly independent status. Our dependence on aid and the goodwill of the world powers make us vulnerable to their interests. We are hardly in charge of our destiny.

The story of how Premier Cheddi Jagan was ousted from office in the 1960s through CIA-funded violence is well documented as is the resultant destruction from near three decades of a PNC dictatorship. But that was just so much collateral damage in the West’s Cold War with Russia.

The US did invest much in restoring democracy to Guyana in 1992 after the Cold War ended and we must hope that America and its allies would not want to squander that investment and the gains made by having Guyana slide back into economic stagnation and even more political turmoil.

It is no secret that the US and its allies helped forge the current alliance between the PNC and AFC. That they worked to create the partnership certainly gave them a vested interest in the Coalition’s success at the polls and many still hold the results of the last general elections suspect.

However, the diplomatic community must be disappointed, as is every single Guyanese, with the conduct of the Coalition Government as we all watch the serial corruptions unfold and the economy grind to a halt. They cannot be at all happy with this outcome.

The PPP/C in its 23-year reign did, however, give everyone good reason to want change. They had become arrogant and were seen as corrupt, and it was probably out of a bloated sense of inviolability that they felt untouchable. Their infamous “feral blast” probably sealed their fate.

For the sake of their future success, the PPP/C must throw off the gauche and even uncouth behaviour that marred their past efforts at diplomacy and seek some guidance in gaining good diplomatic skills.

Practising the art of diplomacy is not weakness and any good government must be able to walk the fine line between honouring Guyana’s sovereignty and being cognizant of the interests of the diplomatic community especially if Guyana is to benefit from both Western and Asian investments.

In Guyana’s racially divided state, it is probably good to have a third force in effect that would help check the excesses of power of any one side.

Whereas the ABC countries were openly critical of the PPP/C Administration, the Granger Government’s continued bumbling incompetence and wanton wastage of state funds have drawn no fire although any assurances of their continuance in government would surely have been reassessed by now.

Given this scenario, the PPP/C must be aware that their diplomatic skills – or lack thereof – could well determine their future.

 

Living with high anxiety

By Ryhaan Shah

We have been living in a state of high anxiety in Guyana since the 1960s. The main stressor is the racial/political divide which has kept everyone in a state of uncertainty and living with an overwhelming dread that we are not in control of anything, not our past, present or future.
One of the main national untruths that contributes to our high anxiety headlined the recent PNC Congress where the membership continued their attempts to rehabilitate the image of Burnham into that of a visionary when historical facts show him to be a corrupt and racist dictator who was propped up by the US Government and its allies for Cold War gains.
We, the people, have little control even of factual evidence when such distortions of history keep coming from the ruling PNC party and its leadership,
Many wanted the PPP/C Administration booted from office because of their alleged corruptions and arrogant behaviour. However, the Coalition Government’s promised change is yet to materialise and in just over a year, we have witnessed blatant corruptions for which no one is held accountable. President David Granger seems satisfied with his rogue bunch of Ministers and Advisors who are riding rough shod over the nation.
An apology for the “pharmagate” scandal is not enough. Health Minister George Norton should have resigned and displayed a modicum of personal integrity, or should have been sacked immediately. And all the cushy public service positions being held by family members and PNC cronies – and so many are already mired in corruption – should be rescinded and given to qualified professionals.
But since the 1960s, this has been the face of Government in Guyana. Public service is about rewards for party loyalty – or paramountcy as in Burnham’s time – and never about serving the country. Fifty and more years of corruption has created a national cancer that sickens everyone.
Vigilante justice, drunk driving, suicide, murder, hospital negligence, rape, banditry – Guyana has it all and at a level that is much too high for our small population. People are living on the edge which makes them trigger happy and unconcerned. If you are jobless and have no chance of gainful employment, the future is a zero sum total anyway so what does it matter if you rape, shoot, kill?
In undeveloped countries like Guyana, people rarely talk of future plans but are more focused on just making it through the day. The future lies elsewhere. It lies in migrating to New York or Toronto where government is held accountable. That is where progress starts: with good and just governance.
But the political upheavals and racial violence of the 1960s have simply continued and no government has yet had the vision or courage to lift us out of that state of uncertainty and dread that was experienced then and which threatens again with the planned rehabilitation of Burnhamist policies and ideology.
The oil find only increases the level of anxiety. The US and its allies kept the PNC in power to further their own political interests for three decades. Is controlling our oil reserves the reason to keep them there again? Is Guyana to be further destroyed to secure American economic interests?
None of that oil will be coming ashore here. It will be shipped off to Trinidad to be refined and given the corrupt state of our public officials no one believes that any of the earnings will be spent on development. They will most likely end up in the pockets of the corrupt and corruptible.
And to hear our politicians talk you would think that we should be proud of our continuing underdevelopment – so many billions to be “won” in loans!
It does appear that Government’s raison d’être is to rebuild the image of a failed dictator, their founder/leader Burnham, and going backward 50 years to revive failed economic policies is to be the forward thrust of the Granger Administration.
This as the rest of the world advances into a new century with technological breakthroughs and new ideas on conducting global business offering up opportunities for countries with progressive and, yes, visionary leadership.
However, the Coalition elections campaign succeeded with its propaganda to “forget the past” and Guyana voted for an amnesiac state of being. National Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan – a most vociferous supporter of all that forgetting – must be looking forward to all the “newness” of the PNC’s agenda. That as everyone else recognises it as a rehashing of the worst failures in Guyana’s contemporary political and economic history.
The high anxiety continues.

Museums foster development

“Education is critical for development. Education that is devoid of the cultures of the people in the society is empty and incomplete. One of the fundamental objectives of the museum is to educate, and it is only the museum that has the capacity and the ability to impart cultural education effectively as it houses the tools and materials for doing so in its collections. In modern society, the museums enrich the educational process by exposing children and indeed the public to their history in a positive way; they assist our future generations to understand and appreciate their history and culture and take pride in the achievements of their forbears.”
These words were spoken by Emmanuel N Arinze, President of the Commonwealth Association of Museums, at a public lecture at the National Museum here in Georgetown in May 1999.
Arinze makes the point that museums are not “dead” spaces, meant only for the repose of artefacts and records but are living, breathing institutions that are essential for the development of a nation. In a place like Guyana with its racial divisions, museums are central to creating a more understanding and respectful environment.
President David Granger’s plans to have the artefacts and records housed at the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology hoisted off to some other space – and this without any prior consultation, as is usual with him – brings the role of our museums into sharp focus.
That Granger is often touted as a “historian” adds another level of grievance to his plan since their interest in the past should make any historian particularly sensitive about preserving anthropological and archaeological materials.
The Walter Roth Museum’s artefacts and records are not only substantive to Guyana’s history but to the history of the world and Government must be aware that moving any of the collection’s pieces, some of which are prehistoric, would require the expertise of trained preservationists.
Granger was, however, also the leader of an elections campaign that exhorted Guyana to “forget the past”. The irony of a “historian” having such utter disregard for history was never lost on a good section of the electorate.
The Walter Roth Museum is home to historical materials of Guyana’s indigenous peoples and the Museum of African Heritage houses a collection of art, artefacts and records that are important to the history of African Guyanese.
Castellani House is both an art gallery and museum that allows students and art historians to trace the development of local art themes, styles and techniques. By acquiring pieces from Guyana’s major artists for the National Collection, the gallery provides recognition for the artists and their work, and international status and exposure for the country’s art.
The National Archives and National Museum round off the list of state funded institutions that preserve past records and allow for research and analytical study by students and academics.
At Meten-Meer-Zorg, WCD, the private Heritage Museum, curated and managed by Gary Serrao, is an eclectic collection of maps, pamphlets, books, and an array of artefacts that also tell the Guyana story.
Absent from the above list is any museum dedicated to the history of the Indian-Guyanese people. Premier Cheddi Jagan was urged by Indian leaders in the early 1960s to use the monies remaining in the Indentureship Fund to build Indian cultural and research centres in the three main regions. He refused.
When Forbes Burnham came to power, he used those very funds – earmarked for the return passage of Indian labourers to India – to help finance the construction of the National Cultural Centre.
A good friend of mine approached a PPP parliamentarian at the turn of the century with a query about the PPP/C Government establishing an Indian Museum and Research Centre. He was rebuffed by the curt response: “If you-all want a museum, you’ll have to build it yourself!”
One hundred years after the end of Indentureship, there is, as yet, no national repository of Indian Guyanese artefacts and records and it is unlikely that any of the Granger Government’s cultural policies will note the lack and make the establishment of an Indian Museum and Research Centre a national priority.
It does appear that any such an institution will have to be built through private efforts and from funding from the Indian-Guyanese community since governments here are yet to acknowledge the essential role of museums in fostering national development.
The Granger Government’s shoddy behaviour over plans to move the Walter Roth Museum proves it as does the absence of any state funded museum dedicated to the history and heritage of the Indian-Guyanese people.

Celebrating exam successes

By Ryhaan Shah

It has become an annual rite to celebrate the achievements of the students who have excelled at the CSEC and CAPE examinations. We heap praise on them and share in the joy because this is the one measure of true merit and excellence that all Guyana can trust.
Because the exams are marked abroad, they have the cloak of secrecy and anonymity and we therefore feel assured that they have not been corrupted or tampered with at any level.
The top performers who excel have become the standard bearers each year of the excellence that is still possible.
This in a society that has become jaded and cynical about every reward, award, prize, title and position because they are almost always infected by one or more of the corruptions of cronyism, nepotism, racism and partisan politics.
It is always a case of who you know, who knows you, or what you are willing to pay to gain an advantage or a win. In this environment, we can hardly be criticised for celebrating the only standard of meritorious achievement that is left to us.
My congratulations go out to all the top performers and to every student who worked hard and gained those valuable passes at the CSEC or CAPE which they need to fulfil their dreams and ambitions.
This year, as in recent years, regional schools took many of the top spots at CSEC. It is a remarkable feat since most of the student intake at these schools are not usually the top performers at the NGSA (National Grade Six Assessment) exams.
Those top performers are placed at leading city schools like Queen’s College and Bishops’ High School and they are almost always expected to dominate the winning positions in the CSEC exam results.
Last year, however, Saraswati Vidya Niketan (SVN), located at Cornelia Ida, had the best CSEC performer. This year, SVN took four of the top 10 CSEC spots and two others were won by students of Skeldon Line Path School and Anna Regina Secondary. Three went to Queen’s College and the topmost performer attended St Roses High School.
With six of the 10 top performers coming from regional schools with students who were not, according to the NGSA results, academic high fliers, questions could be raised about the methodology used or the placements that result from the NGSA assessments which are done locally.
Or, perhaps, it is the academic programmes of the regional schools that have created top performers from average students that should be studied with an eye to establishing their academic programmes in other schools.
SVN, in particular, has seen its performance rate rise steadily since the school was established. With its winning performance last year – and again, this year – anyone would expect the Ministry of Education to make an effort to meet with the school’s principal and staff to look at the policies and programmes that have created such success.
To date, no such consultation has happened. Perhaps, it is because of SVN Principal Swami Aksharananda’s active participation in public discussions on various subjects, his ideas and arguments being geared to encouraging critical thinking and spirited discussions on important national issues.
In Guyana, however, critical minds are ignored and sidelined. It is sycophants who are rewarded. In fact, critics and criticism are not welcomed. They are viewed as being contrary to national development and even unpatriotic, and Swamiji has suffered such public abuse on occasion.
Because this particular corruption infects every level of government and society, information and advice that could help improve our education system and give more of our children a better chance at academic success are sacrificed for petty political expediency. Our young people show how much is possible with their winning results then often watch their prospects dwindle as the reality of Guyana’s corruptions sets in. Then they leave for countries where it is merit that matters. And who can blame them?
The brain drain of our best and brightest have continued for 50 years and counting and no government has moved to root out the culture of corruption. Creating a fair and just society remains a pipe dream.
This does make our annual celebration of all that is possible ring hollow. But we do it, perhaps, with every hope that this time, this year, we will work to make it right for our children and their future. They are our pride and hope. When will we fulfil our end of the bargain and start the process of changing Guyana for the better?
When will we stop failing our children?

Guyana will not forget

 

By Ryhaan Shah

After all the accusations levelled at the PPP/C Administration about its alleged corruptions, the David Granger Government has, in no more than a year, racked up an impressive number of shady deals, financial wastage and displays of arrogance.

The National Assembly sitting this past week uncovered a few more. We learned that Government wasted over $406 million from the Contingency Fund on one of President David Granger’s pet projects for which there was no public consultation, namely the D’Urban Park Development Project. This was the centrepiece for what turned out to be a PNC/Afro-Guyanese Golden Jubilee celebration which was completely forgettable for its mediocrity, confusion, and its less-than-gala dinner.

But it was the line item of $25 million also spent from the Contingency Fund in July for a security deposit on a building that caught the Opposition’s eye and started a line of questioning that unravelled a scandalous corruption with Health Minister George Norton at its centre.

It appeared that way until it was disclosed Norton was simply following directives from Cabinet. This only heightens the fiasco and places Government itself at the centre of the sole-sourcing and financial corruptions involving the deal that was made with a company named Linden Holding Inc, a bottom-house outfit in Sussex Street, Charlestown, which is undergoing renovations to make it suitable as a drugs storage unit.

For this unfinished facility, Government is already paying out more than a $1000 per square foot rental which is over three times the New GPC’s rates for its state-of-the-art and fully certified drugs storage facility. Government’s decision to forgo the arrangement with the New GPC appears to be driven more by a refusal to work with anyone affiliated with the previous Administration than by good business sense and a concern for the nation’s welfare, especially since it is essential that medical drugs and supplies are always stored in well monitored and secured facilities.

Also dogging Norton’s heels is his interference in the management of the Georgetown Public Hospital where the board has reinstated CEO Michael Khan after a government audit cleared him of any wrongdoing.

In overturning the board’s decision, Norton contravenes the Public Corporation Act which places the responsibility for the appointment of the hospital’s CEO within the board’s remit.

Staffing and other issues at the GPHC continue to make headlines and, for the sake of the nation’s health, the CEO is needed back at his desk where he will remain with the board’s support. On this issue, Government seems more interested in saving face than in doing what is right and just.

Amidst all the reports of corruption over the past week, the most worrying of all was the ongoing attempt by government’s main coalition partner, the PNC, to rewrite Guyana’s history according to their playbook. Letters writers to the press have started to correct the untruths being peddled about Burnham and show him for the brutal, corrupt and racist dictator that he was.

No progressive nation is ever built on a body of lies and Granger and the PNC should be embarrassed by their revisionist statements about their party’s past. Except that they are not. Their arrogance is well learned from their founder/leader Burnham.

Social cohesion – of which Burnham is now hailed as the author – is being pushed down the public’s throat even as the Granger Government engages in some of the most blatant acts of prejudice. It’s Burnham’s way, that kind of haughtiness.

Those who ignored the clear warning issued by the coalition during its elections campaign to forget the past are beginning to understand why the past matters. It matters because those who forget are bound to repeat it.

Thus far, there seems no danger that Guyana will forget.

Whereas Burnham muzzled the press and dictated everything that was disseminated by his state media, Guyana still has a free press and this past week even the usual sycophants reported fully on Government’s latest crop of corruptions.

One such report was that the project to widen Carifesta Avenue has been abandoned. Granger, in true Burnham style, held no public consultation on fashioning his vision of a widened avenue with a median lined with light poles that were to be hung with the flags of the Caricom nations.

The vision, costing 180 million taxpayers’ dollars, was to be his showpiece for the Caricom Heads of Government conference last month. Well, the project has been abandoned and the renaming of Carifesta Avenue to the grander Avenue of the Caribbean has been abandoned along with it. Abandoned like so many of Burnham’s visions.

 

Full STEAM Ahead!

By Ryhaan Shah

A great deal of emphasis is being placed on STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – in our schools today and with good reason. It’s the future. The way we live and communicate are changing fast because of technological breakthroughs and the possibilities seem endless as to what is yet to be discovered that will make our lives better in every field whether it is medicine, space exploration or our environment.
There is a need for the innovators of tomorrow to be able to solve tough problems, to gather and evaluate evidence and to simply make sense of information. These are the types of skills that students learn by studying STEM subjects and Guyana should not be left behind even though to speak of such innovation seems purely academic since many of our schools have no computers or even a steady power supply. But everyone tries to do as much as possible with limited resources.
There is a case to be made, however, for a STEAM education instead of a purely STEM one, the “A” in the acronym representing the Arts of literature, music, dance, film and drama, the visual arts, and every kind of creativity and craftsmanship.
I ran into dramatist Francis Quamina Farrier recently and we had a spirited discussion on the subject of having an Arts curriculum at primary and secondary levels and he said that he does whatever he can to promote reading, poetry and drama in schools.
We agreed that an education in the Arts is integral to every child’s development. The earliest cave paintings and shards of pottery show clearly that creative expression is part of being human and more than anything else makes us emotionally and spiritually complete.
Studies have shown that an Arts education actually enhances the learning process. The systems they nourish include our integrated sensory, cognitive, emotional, and motor capacities, and these are the driving force behind all learning.
A strong Arts education sharpens children’s critical thinking and cognitive skills and gives them a chance to be creative by using their own imagination and drawing on their own perceptions of the world around them.
The Arts also provide students with non-academic benefits such as promoting self-esteem, aesthetic and cultural awareness, emotional expression, as well as social skills and an appreciation for diversity at the individual, community and national levels.
Not every child will become a painter or a poet but they should have an education that provides them with an appreciation of reading and writing that goes beyond the practical necessity of simply being literate. The same goes for appreciating film, drama, dance, the visual arts and music, and having them leave school with a knowledge that can speak to everything from Plato to Picasso and to our own poets and artists.
In a country as diverse as ours, artistic expression can bridge cultural differences and become the shared link, the glue that shapes our understanding of how we see ourselves and each other.
An Arts education still provides the greatest sense of wonder about our world and showcases what the human mind, spirit and imagination can create. These go beyond what is possible within laboratories and the constraints of mathematical equations.
At a recent literary event, someone asked of a local poet why there are no poems written about science and technology. It’s a good question. However, while no one has yet written an ode to a computer, you only have to read the great poets or pick up the Bible, Bhagavad Gita or Quran to discover the wonder and eternalness of the heavens that scientists are still trying to explain.
In fact, as the world becomes more reliant on computers for information, there might well be more value placed on the one human ability that cannot yet be automated: our emotions.
While information gathering and problem solving are essential workplace demands, the values that often matter most in our lives are integrity, honesty, flexibility, dignity, cooperation and creativity, and these are best learned from the words and works of the poets, philosophers and artists of every generation.
An effective Arts education allows students to stretch themselves beyond the material and tactile world into that of the imagination. This is where innovation happens because there the mind is free from rigid certainty and is open to new discoveries.
The universal need for stories, poems, music, dance, and visual art expresses an innate urging of the human spirit and corporate entities do recognise that the human intellect draws inspiration from many sources.
An Arts education is the gateway to the greatest source of all.

Those infernal dress codes!

By Ryhaan Shah

I had occasion to write before about those infernal dress codes that seem to multiply just to harass and aggravate the general public. The codes do not just emblazon our public service offices – try taking a passport picture in sleeveless attire. No matter once the photograph is cropped just your neck and a bit of your shoulders are showing but the photographers enforce the “law of sleeved dress” as if our lives depended on it.
Who made these rules that our arms, legs and toes are either highly erogenous zones or such horrors to public servants’ eyes that they must be covered up when we stand before them to transact our – the people’s – business? Why do we taxpayers allow ourselves to be bullied in this purely nonsensical manner?
I first wrote about my run-in with these dress codes in a letter to the press years ago. I had gone to the National Public Library to donate some books only to be refused entry by a burly female guard with gaping buttons that exposed her undergarments. But I was the one that was badly dressed because my floral, tropical frock had “fine straps” and these were taboo according to the code. I have never set foot in the library again.
I will use that example as a comparison to my experiences in civilized countries. I had worn that same dress just weeks before to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan and had stood in awe before the original “Water Lilies” by Monet. That moment was much more sacrosanct than entering our public library and no one cared about my dress because the museum has no such silliness as dress codes.
I have had occasion to go to public libraries in Florida where everyone in those cool, air conditioned spaces are always in breezy tropical wear: flip-flops, shorts, strapless frocks, and even bikini tops. No one bats an eyelid. There, officials are more concerned that the public – however dressed or undressed –borrow books and read than they are about pronouncing on the length of their skirt.
If you feel that the security guards at our gates have no discretionary powers and are forced to follow the rules, think again. Here’s another gem on our dress codes. When I was the GTV Manager, the station was visited by officials from the South African Broadcasting Corp, one of whom was a white South African woman. We were scheduled to pay a courtesy call on President Janet Jagan and the lady turned up in a pretty sleeveless frock for the occasion. I said nothing.
It would have been embarrassing to have tried to explain Guyana’s backwardness to her and, anyway, I was curious as to what would happen because just weeks before I had turned up for a meeting in just such a frock and was told in no uncertain terms that I could not enter the compound because my dress had no sleeves.
The male official I was scheduled to meet sent me his jacket to wear. I wore the jacket in the guard hut then took it off as soon as I exited the hut. That such silliness satisfies the dress code proves its silliness.
But what did the guard do about the lady visitor in her sleeveless frock? Nothing! He smiled and waved her though with nary a word. They save their sadism entirely for us locals who they push around with much officious authority because they have been given such unlimited powers – by whom?
But sanity prevails amidst the madness and Commissioner Trevor Benn of the Lands & Surveys Commission must be commended for his commonsense approach to the dress codes. He has stated that to turn people away from paying their bills to the cash-strapped agency because they are wearing slippers or sleeveless shirts would be “foolish”.
Now that the GRA has also removed the dress code, other Ministers, Commissioners, and Department heads should follow suit.
There are situations, occasions, and events that do require socially accepted and appropriate attire – weddings, funerals, parties – but for Government to demand that the public must have a wardrobe change from their regular, everyday clothes just to pick up a library book, or to look after business at government offices is simply ridiculous.
I do not know who has been appointed Guyana’s “fashion police” but I am appealing to First Lady Sandra Granger, who wears sleeveless dresses to many official functions, to use her influence to rid the country of this nonsensical aggravation.
Please have those dress codes removed.

Practising social cohesion

“Social cohesion” is all the rage these days. In Europe, such plans are crafted for homogenous populations dealing with new immigrant minorities. This is hardly the situation in Guyana where the racial/political divide goes back to the arrival of Indian indentured labourers 178 years ago, to our divisive colonial politics, and to the ensuing race politics that started in the 1950s, and exploded into violence in the 1960s, a violence that still threatens because the social, cultural and political causes are yet to be dealt with. Hence, the lack of social cohesion.
In a previous column, I explored the lack of political will on either side of the divide to change anything for the better, and stated that Guyana is saddled with lazy, short-sighted politicians who are deathly afraid of a nation of peoples who will actually be united enough to see past race and vote intelligently on issues. Should this ever happen, they will all be summarily rejected. They need the divide.
A cohesive society is built on several basic elements, these being primarily trust, respect, transparency and accountability, justice, economic progress, and national security. To get there, Guyana simply has to enforce current laws, conventions and recommendations, and practise a healthy measure of fair-mindedness in our governance.
This is yet to happen and the David Granger Government in one year has managed to create deeper and wider racial divisions in Guyana than has happened in over 20 years. Everywhere, everybody is vexed: the business community, the labour sector, the young unemployed, fired public servants, Georgetown’s citizens, metal recyclers, street vendors, and the public at large.
If this Government is serious about building social cohesion, it must start with President David Granger himself who must forgo his hauteur and unilateral decision-making for democratic processes that are fair, transparent and consultative of the people.
A vibrant economy is fundamental for job creation, job security and national progress, and since Government is bereft of ideas of how to proceed with economic development – both public and private – there is urgent need to establish an Economic Advisory Committee that will comprise our successful business and manufacturing leaders.
All Guyanese businesses, no matter their political persuasions, must be represented. Government’s overt partisanship of “jobs for the boys” as is evident in its public service is non-cohesive, non-representative, and contrary to national interests.
The recent Golden Jubilee celebration was another such overt racial/partisan exercise where the favoured African-Guyanese population were the main participants. Such government actions make its talk about social cohesion purely hypocritical.
Social cohesion means putting into practice the tenets of the Guyana Constitution and the UN Human Rights Charter where all Guyanese share a common belonging to country, and have an inclusive sense of their Guyanese citizenship which acknowledges and guarantees their identities of religion, culture, ethnicity, gender, etc.
Given that these are guaranteed constitutional and human rights, it is abhorrent that Indian-Guyanese in particular have to continue to explain and justify our presence as if we are indeed outsiders whose ethnicity and cultural values are somehow contrary to national interests.
Mutual respect for all of Guyana’s peoples must start in schools and communities with lessons in well-researched social and political history which highlight the contributions that each group has made to the country’s development.
The media has an important role to play in this regard especially in instances where “unity” and “racial harmony” are presented by certain sections as racial intermarriage and miscegenation, and as the solution to the country’s racial divide.
Granger himself never addresses this single most pressing issue in any of his statements on social cohesion and has been heard to infer publicly that the solution to the divide is the “mixing” of the races.
Marriage must remain a sacred personal choice and not ever become a Government policy that pushes a “race mingling” agenda as was attempted under the Burnham dictatorship.
On the vital issue of national security, there are two reports that are languishing and gathering dust: The International Council of Jurists and Disciplined Forces Commission both recommended that Guyana’s armed forces must reflect the country’s diversity if there is to be security from all threats, including internal political violence, but no government has yet moved to correct the blatant racial imbalance in our army and police.
The overarching document that will craft the way forward for a Guyana of inclusive and fully participatory government of, for and by its peoples is the much-needed reformed constitution.
This is where real social cohesion will begin. The APNU/AFC Coalition did promise such reform. We must hold them to their promise.

The Brexit from diversity

The Brexit vote in Britain to cut ties with the European Union is part of an emerging trend that has also gained ground in the United Stated via “Trumpism”. The results of the referendum in the UK came as a surprise to many and there is already some buyers’ remorse as the consequences for Britain in its future relations with Europe sink in.
Whereas those who supported the UK remaining in the EU campaigned strongly on the negative economic impact an exit vote would mean, the leavers pushed home the point that the country would regain its authority over its borders and on immigration issues if it leaves the EU. This was the issue that won the referendum.
The idea of prosperity and progress on continued favourable trade deals with their European neighbours meant less to the majority of voters than their ability to decide on immigration, ie, who is allowed to live and work in Britain. Following the success of the Brexit vote, there was an immediate rise in racist attacks on British Asians and on the large Polish immigrant population in Britain.
The presumptive Republican nominee for the US presidency, Donald Trump, is enjoying a similar success in America based on a similar trend. There, too, it is less about the economy and more about building a wall to keep out Mexicans, and banning all Muslims from entering the US that have made Trump a populist leader.
In both instances, statistics show that the followers of Brexit and Trump are less college educated than those who voted to stay in the EU and who are not backing Trump, respectively.
Britain and the US are divided nations and the division is spurred by a rise in anti-immigrant prejudices and nativism. This translates into intolerance and race hate as the national conversation becomes less about jobs and the economy and becomes more existential with the primary concern being a move to consolidate nationalist sentiments and what is perceived as the “native” status quo.
It does appear to be a rejection of diversity and of the social cohesion that is championed by European nations even though some view Brexit as a refusal by the British to transform their country into a homogeny as dictated by the EU.
Guyana too is a divided nation where Indians are still trying to gain an equal footing in cultural and political spaces within the context of the majority African Caribbean population.
Oddly enough, it is the struggle for human and cultural rights by Indian Guyanese that is condemned as racist rather than the dominance of Euro/Afrocentrism which pushes for a physical and cultural assimilation that would translate into ethnic and cultural loss for Indians. It’s a loss that no human rights convention encourages or supports.
The Brexit trend is not an unknown in the wider Caribbean where Jamaicans, Guyanese and many small islanders face immigration issues in places like Trinidad and Barbados despite Caribbean single market agreements which are intended to foster trade and allow the free movement of people within the region. It is a rejection of “others” just as in Britain and the US and, just as in those countries, immigrants are seen as threats to job security and nationalist interests.
Whereas respect for diversity is trumpeted as a good thing, it goes against the grain of globalisation which does not only involve globalised trade but fosters the idea of a one-world culture. Hollywood movie franchises, Starbucks and McDonalds are all part and parcel of a globalised culture and the internet and social media are vital links in helping to shape that one-world.
Whether diversity will triumph over this new trend is yet to be seen but human cultures have been built up over centuries and not many are willing to forgo their uniqueness for a globalised identity when there is still a primal human need for cultural rituals and values, and for a unique identity among most of the world’s peoples.
In Europe, for instance, despite being suppressed for decades, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and Dagestan all reappeared almost overnight. They are all differentiated by culture, ethnicity, and language.
While the success of such diversity depends on respect for differences, taken to its extreme, securing one’s identity over others can become xenophobic and can fuel race hate, violence and extremism.
As Great Britain grapples with the fallout of Brexit and the US with the rise of “Trumpism”, Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean should take note and reject any trend that fosters intolerance and hate.